THE RIGID AIRSHIPS R-100 and R-101.  

In 1971, I was fortunate enough to visit this RAF base.

There are 2 gigantic sheds dominating the small town of Cardington in Bedfordshire. and the sheds themselves have an intriguing history.

They were once the home for two giant rigid airships, the R.100 and  R.101.

In 1924, the British Air Ministry decided to build two airships, each with a volume of five million cubic feet. This was to be the start of a world wide airship service.
The ships should be capable of lifting 60 tons for 100 passengers, the crew, fuel etc.
It was also to be a contest between government and commercial ventures. The government was determined to win.


  A rear view of the two sheds in 2001 .The British governments "R.101" was constructed in the green shed.

Originally they were both 700 ft long, 180 ft wide and 110 ft high.

  Cardington manufactured its own hydrogen in a gas factory behind the sheds. This was for both airships. Sulphuric acid was poured onto iron in containers producing hydrogen gas. Acid then had to be filtered out of the hydrogen.

The first the R.100 (left),was the commercial venture, backed by Vickers, and mainly designed by Barnes Wallis the man who later developed the damn buster bouncing bomb and the Wellington bomber. With him as Chief Calculator (Stress Engineer), was Nevil Schute Norway. Later he became known as the novelist, Nevil Shute.

Together, they were to build the R100 under contract and for a fixed price.

It was Barnes Wallis who developed "Geodetic Structure", a construction technique visible on the ribs of the R.100. This resulted in a stronger, yet lighter framework. Workers can be seen at the top.




The British Government's Air Ministry, would build the R101. On the right we see the frame under construction.  
The dining room on the R100. Neville Shute stands on the steps.   The dining room on the government ship, the R101.
See the Website.    

The R-100 was 709 ft long with a diameter of 131 feet.

It had six Rolls-Royce petrol engines fitted into three cars.

On its first flight in 1929 it was found to have 57 tons of useful lift, 3 tons less than the specifications. Although built at Howden near the East coast, it spent most of its life housed in one of the two giant sheds at Cardington.


R.101 had 5 diesel engines, two on each flank, the fifth centered at the rear.

They were equipped with reversing propellors, however the mechanism was a failure, so while four engines only drove forward, the fifth could only drive the ship astern. Weighing three tons, it was mainly dead weight, only used for a few minutes during landings and take-offs .

The useful lift was only 35 tons, far below the 60 tons planned for. The ship was difficult to control, the gas bags and valves leaked and it was estimated that every hour the ship lost one ton of lift.



I believe this is the control car of the R-101

The control car of the R-100.    
R-100...............   R-101




A typical gas bag. This one fitted into the R-101.

Although constant experimental work had been carried out in the hope of finding a satisfactory substitute,cotton combined with gold beater's skin was the best material for rendering fabric bags gas tight. There were no plastics at that time.




Gold beater's skin is the fine tissue forming the outer coat of a cow's intestine, (the caecum). Strips of about 30 inches are cut, and the fat removed by washing in warm water and scraping with a blunt knife.

Early manuscripts were covered in velum - the same material.

The skins are assembled to form large continuous sheets then attached to cotton fabric. The 2 components are then united by a special kind of glue.

To improve its waterproof qualities the bag was coated with varnish.



The bag is then inflated with air and checked for leaks.

The R-101 was not given a certificate of airworthiness. There was great political pressure on the project and Lord Thomson the Secretary of State for Air was determined to make the prestigious flight to India as the start of a regular colonial airship service.

 As a result, the R.101 had to be extended in length. But first, the shed had to be lengthened to almost 800 ft.   It contains about 7,000 tons of steel

The R.101 was finally completed in late 1929 at Cardington, after a construction time of two years.
  (It was pointed out that at the peak of WW I, Germany was building large Zeppelins at the rate of one every 22 days.)

Despite the modifications, its flying qualities and reliability improved very little, and it was still refused an airworthiness certificate.

More flight trials began and under pressure a certificate was issued.



On the evening of 4th October the R101 left Cardington. She carried 42 crew, 6 officials and 6 passengers. A crowd of over 3,000 came to watch the departure.

There was heavy rain and the ship had trouble maintaining its height of 1,000 ft. It crossed the English Channel and ballast had to be dumped to compensate for over loading. Strong winds were encountered and the aft engines broke down.

At approximately 2 am the R101 passed over Beauvais, a French city to the north-west of Paris. Already flying at very low altitude she went into a dive and despite all the efforts of the crew she crashed into hills south of the city. The airship ran along the ground for some distance before being engulfed by flames.

Forty eight people died in the tragedy. Great national feeling surrounding the disaster and the funeral procession through London was watched by thousands.

There were six survivors from the 53 people on board. 

..........   ...........

As for R-100. The ship flew well, however flapping fabric and rips in the outer cover were a recurring problem. Ripples can be seen here.




After several trials, it flew across the North Atlantic to Montreal in Canada in 78 hours. We see it here at the mast in Montreal.

There the crew were met by cheering crowds. The ship had its problems on that flight and spent three days under repair before it could fly again.

The return to Cardington took only 58 hours, however there were no cheering crowds awaiting.

The historical flight was to be her last.


Airships were discontinued in Britain, and the rival R.100 airship, although quite successful, embarrassed the government.

It's response was to sell it as scrap for 50 pounds. Only the sheds remain.
There is a fascinating website devoted to Neville Shute , the author of "A Town Like Alice", "On the Beach" and other novels.
He worked with Barnes Wallis (Dam buster bomb),on the design and construction team for the R100.
It details his amazing life, as well as giving a personal account of the trial flights, and the Atlantic crossing of the R101.


If you type Latitude + Longitude into GoogleEarth,you can find:- Cardington Hangars........Lat.52.6.30.N,Long.0.25.25.W
Friedrichshaven (Zeppelin Hangars).............. Lat.47.40.N, Long.9.30.E
Lakehurst,New Jersey (Hindenberg crash site).......... Lat.40.02.N, Long.74.19.W