This week’s entry: The Imperial Airship Scheme
What it’s about: By the 1922, the British Empire ruled over one-fifth of the world’s population and nearly a quarter of the world’s land. While Britain’s naval superiority allowed for trade and transportation across the globe-spanning empire, travel by sea was still slow, and the British were looking for a faster way to move people and goods around an empire upon which the sun never set. Britain thought it had hit on a solution in airships, or dirigibles, hydrogen-filled marvels that could float the friendly skies and unite the empire.
Strangest fact: Britain’s first rigid airship never actually flew. In 1911, the Royal Navy commissioned His Majesty’s Airship No. 1, nicknamed “Mayfly” by her crew and officially named HMA Hermione, for the naval ship she was moored to. The airship was to be a scout, as Germany had already had success with Zeppelin-based reconnaissance. However, Mayfly’s first flight went slightly wrong when high winds broke it in two before it could take off. The failed launch wasn’t a complete debacle, however, as airship designers learned from their mistakes. And while Mayfly’s overall design didn’t work, the ship still advanced the field of aeronautics, being the first to moor to a mast, which became the standard, and the first to hold its mooring equipment in its nose.
Biggest controversy: Naturally, politics played a role in getting the Airship Scheme—wait for it—off the ground. British aerospace business Vickers proposed the construction of six different airships, financed by bond, and favored by members of the Conservative administration. It was called the Burney Scheme after its creator Dennistoun Burney. But when Labour took over in 1924, they scrapped the plan, pointing out that it was state subsidised but not under the government’s control, as Vickers would have a monopoly over the skies. Instead, the new government proposed a different plan, the Imperial Airship Scheme, which involved one airship, the R100, designed by Vickers, and another, the R101, built by the Royal Airship Works.
Thing we were happiest to learn: The R100 was initially a success. After Vickers had trouble developing an engine that was light and powerful enough to meet the airship’s needs, R100’s initial destination was scaled back from India to Canada, and in 1930, a transatlantic flight was made, with stops in Quebec, Montreal, and Toronto. However, it was one of the only things that went right for the Airship Scheme, as neither model could carry as much weight as planned, and both were developed behind schedule and over budget.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: It only took one crash to unravel the Imperial Airship Scheme. After a few successful test flights, the R101 team planned a flight to India to prove the airship’s viability. Continued funding for the Scheme was in question, as both models wound up being overweight and couldn’t carry as much cargo as originally advertised. Eager to quiet critics, the R101 rushed to launch, taking off in unfavorable weather conditions. The airship crashed in northern France, killing 48 of the 54 aboard. Historians debate exactly what caused the crash, but most agree there were multiple causes that, taken together, led to disaster, and that the crash would have been avoided with a more cautious launch. Just as the Hindenburg disaster marked the end of Germany’s airship era, the R101’s crash ended any enthusiasm for continuing the Scheme, and airplanes soon replaced lighter-than-air craft as the flying machine of choice.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Another factor in the Airship Scheme’s collapse was the Great Depression, a worldwide economic collapse which affected Britain just as severely as the United States. With unemployment reaching 20 percent and hunger marches protesting outside Parliament, giant, potentially deadly airships suddenly became a luxury Britain could no longer afford.
Further down the wormhole: The craft that immediately succeeded airships in Britain wasn’t the traditional airplane, but the flying boat, a type of seaplane with a hull that allowed the plane to fly, but no landing gear for a destination on solid ground. The first such plane to make a transatlantic flight was the America, which took off on August 5, 1914, because of the additional visibility provided by a full moon. While the moon looms large in astronomy, the full moon in particular is also associated with insanity, insomnia, and lycanthropy—the mythical disease that turns humans into werewolves. We’ll see if we’ve grown any unexpected hair and fangs next week.