UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


British Rigid Airships

R 1

British Rigid Airship No. 1 was started in 1909. During the construction great consideration was given to the various auxiliary gear required by the ship and to the problems included in the handling and mooring as well as the actual flying of the ship. The thoroughness and accuracy with which this auxiliary work was developed is most remarkable in the light of later experience. Before the first flight was made the ship was moored by the bow to a mast with her cars resting on the water. The ship was broken amidships in Sept. ign as the result of a mistake in handling while she was being returned to her shed after one of the trials of-handling before flight. Comparison of the details and estimated performance of this ship with the contemporary Zeppelins shows that she was a remarkably good first design and that had it not been decided to abandon rigid-airship construction the British development of these ships would almost certainly have become at least equal to that of Germany.

R 9

In the matter of rigid design it was not until 1913 that the British Admiralty got over the fact that the 'Mayfly' would not, and decided on a further attempt at the construction of a rigid dirigible. The contract for this was signed in March of 1914; work was suspended in the following February and begun again in July, 1915, but it was not until January of 1917 that the ship was finished, while her trails were not completed until March of 1917, when she was taken over by the Admiralty.

British Rigid Airship R9, by Vickers, stopped at the beginning of the World War, was restarted in July 1915 and made her first flight in Nov. 1916. She made a rather remarkable passage to Howden through a snowstorm over the Pennine range. Being somewhat inadequate in buoyancy, she was used for instruction and ultimately for mooring experiments.

The details of the construction and trial of this vessel, known as ' No. 9,' go to show that she did not quite fill the contract requirements in respect of disposable lift until a number of alterations had been made. The contract specified that a speed of at least 45 miles per hour was to be attained at full engine power, while a minimum disposable lift of 5 tons was to be available for movable weights, and the airship was to be capable of rising to a height of 2,000 feet. Driven by four Wolseley Maybach engines of 180 horse-power each, the lift of the vessel was not sufficient, so it was decided to remove the two engines in the after car and replace them by a single engine of 250 horsepower. With this the vessel reached the contract speed of 45 miles per hour with a cruising radius of 18 hours, equivalent to 800 miles when the engines were running at full speed. The vessel served admirably as a training airship, for, by the time she was completed, the No. 23 class of rigid airship had come to being, and thus No. 9 was already out of date.

R 23

The R9 was followed by four ships of R23 class, built by Vickers, Beardmore and Armstrong, and again by R27 and R2Q, which were remarkable for the absence of the keel which had existed in all previous rigid airships and had been looked upon as constituting the real strength of the ship to resist bending and shearing forces. This keel subsequently reappeared in German Zeppelins and in the ships built in England, but then merely as a means of distributing to the main frames the weights of petrol tanks, etc., arranged along it.

Three of the 23 class were completed by the end of 1917; it was stipulated that they should be built with a speed of at least 55 miles per hour, a minimum disposable lift of 8 tons, and a capability of rising at an average rate of not less than 1,000 feet per minute to a height of 3,000 feet. The motive power consisted of four 250 horse-power Rolls-Royce engines, one in each of the forward and after cars and two in a centre car. Four-bladed propellers were used throughout the ship.

A 23X type followed on the 23 class, but by the time two ships had been completed, this was practically obsolete.

R 31

Two wooden ships, R31 and R32, were built by Short to a design closely similar to that of the Schiitte-Lanz type. They were considerably faster than contemporary ships.

The No. 31 class followed the 23X; it was built on Schutte-Lanz lines, 615 feet in length, 66 feet diameter, and a million and a half cubic feet capacity. The hull was similar to the later types of Zeppelin in shape, with a tapering stern and a bluff, rounded bow. Five cars each carrying a 250 horse-power Rolls-Royce engine, driving a single fixed propeller, were fitted, and on her trials R.31 performed well, especially in the matter of speed. But the experiment of constructing in wood in the Schutte-Lanz way adopted with this vessel resulted in failure eventually, and the type was abandoned.


Subsequent to the R33 class the British R36 and R37 were constructed to a generally similar design, of somewhat greater capacity and much improved detail. R80, designed and constructed by Vickers, embodied several entirely new features, but her size was so restricted by the dimensions of the construction shed that her performance was seriously handicapped.


Toward the end of World War I, the British began focusing on rigid airships and built the R34 and R38. R38 made radical changes in features of design, and a clear and definite departure from German methods. The R38, started in 1918, was a bold extrapolation from Zeppelin designs. When completed in 1921 she was the largest airship in the world (699 feet long, with a 2.7 million-cubic-foot capacity). The United States had contracted for its purchase. It was to be used, as it was generally understood, for an experimental service from New York to San Francisco and for that purpose masts and intermediate stations were being prepared.

The R-38, built about the same time and some 25 percent larger than the R34, was also wrecked in 1921 when its frame snapped and the hydrogen gas ignited. R38, while on the final test flight before delivery on 24 August 1921, caught fire and fell owing to structural weakness, and many lives were lost. Forty-four of the 49 crewmembers perished. It was the worst aerial disaster to date.

Considerable surprise was expressed that so few of the R.38 crew escaped by parachute, and the question was raised whether they were wearing their harnesses. It should be remembered, however, that when the ship broke the two portions may have taken up such an angle that it was impossible for the majority of the crew to reach their parachute stations. As the airship fell into the water it sent out a flame of blazing petrol, which spread over a considerable stretch of water and formed what might almost be described as a barrage of fire, greatly interfering with any attempts at rescue of the unfortunate members of the crew.

One extremely plucky attempt deserves to be mentioned. Charles Harrison Brown, of the U.S. Air Service, who was on holiday at Hull, put off to the wreckage in a tug. He jumped into the water, and, diving under the surface to avoid the flames, swam to the aft cockpit and around the fins, and found one body, which he got into a small boat.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 07-07-2012 19:26:31 ZULU