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The Great Airship Race

Frank Laffitte is a freelance writer in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Today as we face the consequences of de facto socialism in much of our transportation, it is poignant to think that we might have avoided our problems if the results of an experiment in the 1920s had been heeded. That experiment, perhaps the most dramatic head-to-head competition between capitalism and socialism, was the brainchild of the first Labor government of England.

In 1924 the government of Ramsay MacDonald decided to establish air service between England and India. In those days, three years before Lindbergh’s flight, it was believed that airplanes would never be capable of useful transoceanic flight. A German airship (dirigible) was already carrying passengers and freight on an established route to and from South America. Consequently, the British government sponsored a contest for an airship. One ship was to be developed by the Air Ministry, another by private enterprise. The winner would be awarded the air route.

The “capitalist” ship, the R.100, was designed by Bames Wallis, working for Vickers, Ltd. In those days before computers, calculations for such a project were done by a team of calculators working for months with slide rules. The chief calculator for R.100, who rose to be chief engineer, was a man named Norway, who had a second career as a writer. He wrote under his first two names, Nevil Shute. In his autobiography, Slide Rule, Shute described how, from the beginning, the cards were stacked against the capitalists.

The Air Ministry staff at Cardington believed they were engaged in “a great experiment of national importance, too great to be entrusted to commercial interests.” Backed by all the resources of government, they considered themselves pre-eminent in the domain of airship engineering and considered the Vickers effort a sop to the capitalists for the sake of appearances.

While the Air Ministry ship had the benefit of state-of-the-art facilities and unlimited funding, the capitalist effort was relegated to a derelict airship shed at Howden. A fox lived in the concrete trench beneath the hangar floor, and in the wreckage of other hangars lived partridges, hares, and ducks. “The rough shooting was quite good,” according to Shute. Water, sewage, and power supply had to be addressed before work could begin on the airship. Economy was the rule.

It was difficult to attract workers to this aerodrome in the middle of nowhere. Accommodations were Spartan. Fourteen of the workers slept in the local pub. Shute lived in the home of a garage owner. Austerity demanded the design of the ship be based on good theoretical calculation rather than on experimentation. Wallis’s genius was evident. In the structure of R.100, which was the size of an ocean liner, there were only 15 different joints. The ship was outfitted with reconditioned aircraft engines. A joke went round at Cardington, where a single experiment cost 40,000 pounds, that the R.100 was coming along better now that one of the engineers had bought a car and loaned the tool kit to the workers.

Throughout the building of the two ships, the officials at Cardington knew all about the R.100, but the Vickers team knew only as much about the Air Ministry ship as they read in the popular press. The R.100 engine trials stipulated by the airworthiness authorities were carried out in dangerous circumstances inside the hangar, the huge propellers straining only 15 inches from the floor, below five million cubic feet of hydrogen. The crew for the flight trials was supplied by the Air Ministry, “employed by the men at Cardington who were both our judges and our competitors,” wrote Shute. It was decided that while the Air Ministry ship, the R.101, which had diesel engines, would make the test flight to India as planned, the capitalist ship would make a test flight to Canada. Gasoline engines were thought to be unsafe in the tropics. The days of cheap diesel engines for aircraft were thought to be just around the corner.

Capitalist Ship Faster

Despite the handicaps, the R.100 performed well. It was at least ten miles an hour faster than the R.101. Shute said he felt “as safe through all the flights that R.100 made as on a large ship.” During the final acceptance flight, although the weather was atrocious, the ship handled like a dream. One man, taking a stroll on top of the ship, lost his wristwatch one night. It was found the next day by one of the riggers. The flight to and from Canada was successful, and the government took delivery of the capitalist ship without a hitch.

The R.101, meanwhile, was built under no economic strictures. Any amount of experimentation and research was funded. But while the Air Ministry officials made the rules and kept the score, they were, as Shute put it, “hemmed in behind a palisade of their own public statements.” The design of the ship was unbelievably complex, and once committed to a design innovation, the Air Ministry staff were unable to change their minds. The ship’s diesel engines and unnecessary servo motors added weight, and while the R.100 had two engines that could run forward or reverse, the R.101 carried an extra three-ton reverse engine that rode as a passenger. The gas valves of the R.101 were oversensitive. The outer cover was friable, and had to be replaced. The R.101′s payload lift was only 35 tons, as opposed to 54 tons for the R.100. To gain more lift, the gas-bag anchors were loosened, and the ship was sliced in half and a new bay inserted.

At the very beginning of his job, in order to learn all he could about airships, Shute had read all the records of airships of the past and had come across a report of the R.38 disaster. The R.38 was an earlier government?built airship, which had broken in two during flight. Shute was appalled to learn that the ship had been built without any attempt by the engineers to calculate the aerodynamic forces that would be acting on her. “I had come from the hard commercial school of de Havillands,” Shute wrote, “where competence was the key to survival and a disaster might have meant the end of the company and unemployment for everyone concerned with it.” Even more stunning than the cavalier incompetence of R.38′s designers was the fact that none of them had lost their jobs. Indeed, all but one of them, who had been killed in the wreck, were working on the R.101.

Engine Failure

Speed trials for the R.101 could not be done because one engine failed. An airworthiness certificate was issued, nevertheless, with a verbal provision that the speed trials would be undertaken during the flight to India. Lord Thomson, Labor minister for air, was rumored to have his eye on the post of viceroy of India and was eager to have a successful flight to and from India and be back in London in time for the Imperial Conference in mid-October.

On the evening of October 4 the R.101 lifted off in bad weather, which soon became worse. Battling a headwind, she wallowed for seven-and-a-half hours and flew 220 miles. She was over Beauvais, France, when she took her first steep dive. The officer on watch managed to bring her up, but a moment later she dived again, hit the ground, bounced, hit again, and broke where the new airbag had been inserted. The hydrogen was ignited, probably by a spark from a broken electrical circuit. Of the 54 people on board, six survived.

The end of the story is both sad and predictable. The Air Ministry abandoned the airship program and ordered the R.100 broken up and sold for scrap.

Shute’s insight into the R.101 disaster extended beyond the immediate issue. He showed how confiscatory estate taxes, by reducing the number of officers of private means, had robbed the Air Ministry of its most able decision?makers, the ones who would have resigned rather than take part in an endeavor gone wrong. He pointed out that the slowness of airships was a virtue, saving one from the necessity of quick decisions. Slowness was also a virtue of early airplanes. Slow, cheap planes were practical, until metal came into use, whereupon the planes became so expensive they had to go fast to earn back their investment.

Slide Rule is more than a textbook analysis of bureaucratic folly. It’s an adventure story, an autobiography of an interesting life (Shute’s father took the family to Rome and Naples on vacation during the first world war), an informal annotation on Shute’s novels (such as the source of the barnstorming outfit he wrote of in Round the Bend), and a mine of philosophical insight.

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