Wednesday 7 October 2020

R101 airship crash: 'Hope and sadness' on 90th anniversary

R101 airship crash: 'Hope and sadness' on 90th anniversary

More from the excellent Airship Dreams project now, which first featured on this blog back in July and which celebrates the amazing vehicle that is the airship - in particular the ill-fated R.101 and its links to the town of Bedford close to where it was built.

With this week having seen the 90th anniversary (on Monday) of its unfortunate demise over the hills of Beauvais, France, in the early hours of the 5th October 1930, those involved in the Airship Dreams exhibition have rightly taken the opportunity to remember all aspects of the disaster while at the same time looking forward to the hopefully bright future that lighter-than-air travel may still enjoy.

Once again I am thoroughly impressed with the approach taken by this project and the positivity and approbation of those involved - the passion for airships and their firm place in Bedford's history is clearly palpable amongst all those involved (and rightly so).  It is wonderful to hear the thoughts of surviving family members of those involved in the R.101's development - an incredibly valuable resource that I'm sure the curators appreciate and which no doubt forms a cornerstone of the exhibition - as well as the views of the artists and exhibitors in expressing both their hopes for the future of airships and in remembrance of those who sadly perished in both this and other airship crashes.

Indeed the wishful attitudes conveyed by those involved in the project gives one to contemplate what might have been for British airships had not the R.101 not met its untimely end 90 years ago.  Would a successful flight to India have galvanised the industry and resulted in a new age of lighter-than-air travel across the British Empire, or would the decade's later events of the Hindenberg disaster and the Second World War have put paid to any thought of rigid airship progress?  Having read into the subject somewhat, the production of airships at the time was a rather fragmented affair with R.101 being a government-backed concern built by the Royal Airship Works at Cardington while its sister ship the R.100 was a private venture built by the Airship Guarantee Company (under the auspices of aircraft and armaments company Vickers-Armstrong) in Howden, Yorkshire.  R.101 was subject to much government interference (the insistence of Minister for Aviation Lord Thomson of Cardington that it should be ready for its maiden flight to India in time for him an Imperial Conference, which it was hoped would lead to his being offered the post of Viceroy of India, is usually cited as a primary factor in its lack of testing and the subsequent crash), was constantly being redesigned (at one point literally being cut in half to have extra gasbags inserted into its structure to improve lift) and was generally regarded as over-engineered, featuring many untried and dubious technologies.  R.100, on the other hand, was designed by Barnes Wallis (of later Dambusters fame) to a simple and well-established layout but suffered from the lack of government support - essentially the two projects were set up in competition to one another, so jeopardising the success of both.  Each ship had more than its fair share of teething troubles but R.100 was at least able to make a successful maiden flight to Canada in July 1930 before the R.101 calamity a mere 3 months later led to the curtailing of British airship development.

While we are now perhaps seeing the beginnings of an airship renaissance with the likes of the Airlander craft (also coming out of Cardington) and others of similar ilk, one has to ask where we might have been now had airships continued to progress throughout the 1930s and beyond.  It is an interesting exercise in "what if?" theorising if nothing else and a fascinating rabbit hole to travel down.  Would we have seen the further development of the aerial aircraft carrier?  Would those of us lucky enough to be able to afford it be cruising around the world in luxurious zeppelins in much the same way as today's well-heeled travel on ocean liners across the Atlantic?  Would the "space airships" that are only now just being mooted have been deployed to the upper atmosphere and even to other planets?  We can only look back and wonder.  

Returning to the real world and Airship Dreams I'm also delighted to see that coronavirus has not seriously impacted the putting on of this exhibition, with a physical display set to be unveiled at The Higgins Bedford museum in April 2021.  Previously the project was looking to be an online-only affair thanks to the lock-down restrictions in place at the time and although - as I mentioned in the original post - that would at least allow it to reach a wider audience and provide the opportunity to create some fascinating interactive displays, the equal benefits of having a tangible display that the people of Bedford can enjoy first-hand cannot be denied so I am pleased to see that the museum is open and the exhibit is going ahead early next year.

All-in-all then this is very welcome news of a well put-together exhibit on a fascinating subject that I am certain will be of interest to airship enthusiasts, historians and Bedfordians alike.  I wish the Airship Dreams project every success, as I'm sure it will, and I for one look forward to immersing myself in its ongoing exposition in lieu of actually being able to go to Bedford in person - perhaps one day when all this Covid malarkey is over!

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