R101: Gas bags, an overweight dirigible, and politics

Germany started flying rigid airships when they launched the Zeppelin line in 1910 and successfully carried passengers globally for thousands of flights. This form of civilian air travel was interrupted by WWI but resumed after the war.

In 1928 the Graf Zeppelin took passengers on a 112-hour non-stop flight from Germany to New Jersey. Over the next nine years it flew over a million miles, on 590 flights, carrying freight, mail, and thousands of passengers around the world. Safe and reliable.

So why did England decide to design their own airship rather than copy the airframe of the Germans? Pride? Anti-Germany sentiment? Not sure.


In 1924, the British government launched competitive efforts for a new airship, pitting the government against a private contractor. The result was two airships, the R100 and R101.

The government R101 ended up twenty-three tons over design weight and was then lengthened for additional gas bags to improve lift. It was ready for air-worthiness testing in October, 1930. And here is where politics played a deadly hand.

Lord Thompson, the royal Air Minister, demanded the R101 to be shown at an air show in London on October 20, 1930. However, he also had planned a round trip to India to “show the flag” over a major part of the British Empire. So, with a total of seventeen hours of flight test after the retrofit, the R101 launched for the first leg to India during the night of October 4th, the latest opportunity to meet both schedules.

It gently crashed a few hours later against a high French hill. But because hydrogen was used for the gas bags, forty-six of the 54 aboard were killed in the ensuing fire.

The official board of inquiry found that it was “impossible to avoid the conclusion that the R101 would not have started for India on the evening of October 4th if it had not been that matters of public policy were considered as making it highly desirable that she should do so.”


Political pressure and operating decisions are a deadly combination. Beware.

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