Author and Scriptwriter

'Among the most important writers of contemporary British horror.' -Ramsey Campbell

Friday, 10 June 2011


Apropos of nothing, I love airships.

They just have a grace and beauty that aeroplanes, for me, simply lack. And, I suppose, a certain kind of old-world charm.

Britain's airship industry ended with the crash of the R101 at Beauvais, France. R101 was a magnificent sight but a sadly flawed design. According to one anecdote, the crew spent the night before the final flight saying goodbye to their friends and telling their sons to look after their families, because they knew the R101 was too flawed to reach its intended destination of Karachi.

R101 was one of two competing airship designs- the other being the R100, built by the Vickers corporation and designed by Sir Barnes Wallis. The engineering team also included Nevil Shute Norway, better known as the novelist Nevil Shute. R101 was built by the Air Ministry at Cardington, Bedford. This was at the time of Ramsay MacDonald's second Labour government, and so it became a political issue- state enterprise versus private.

Shute was very critical of the R101 and its designers, but later admitted many of his criticisms were unfair: the R100 was planned as a safe, conservative design, while the R101's brief was to push the limits of the existing technology. But the ship's designers were working effectively in a goldfish bowl, which created its own pressures- when the R100 team discovered that petrol engines would be more effective than diesel (less power, but also less weight) they were quietly replaced. The R101 team couldn't because of the outcry over wasting public money.

Political pressures meant the flight to Karachi had to go ahead, come what may. The R101 was granted a Certificate of Airworthiness despite the Inspector's misgivings, and the final flight took place. The R101 left Cardington at 6.24pm on 4th October, 1930, but struggled to maintain altitude throughout the flight. Just past Beauvais the airship went into a dive, briefly recovered, then dived again, crashing headlong into a hillside at Allonne on the morning of 5th October.

The flammable hydrogen gas used for buoyancy ignited, and of the R101's 55 passengers and crew only seven men escaped: Engineer Arthur Bell, Engineer Joseph Binks, Engineer Alf Cook, Wireless Operator Arthur Disley, Foreman Engineer Harry Leech, Engineer Victor Savory and Rigger Samuel Church. Sadly Samuel Church later died in hospital from his injuries, only hours before the arrival of his parents and fiancee.

Britain cancelled its airship programme shortly thereafter, with the R100 eventually broken up for scrap.

Maybe airships will make a comeback. They're still around in one form or another, and the emergence of the new hybrid air vehicles are a blend of airship, plane and hovercraft. You never know.

Anyway, here's the R101 on its final flight. The music is called 'Final Flight', by Ian Hubball, aka Marbury. If anyone knows where the track can be downloaded, please let me know because I love it!

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