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Widecombe History Group Talk
The Reverend Nicholas Pearkes gave a talk on the R100 and R101 Britain’s last great airships, which he called “The Battle of the Giants”.
He began his talk in the style of presentation as if he was one of those on board an airship and immediately showed a photograph of a Lady’s Shoe, to which he added a big question mark. What has this to do with these ‘giants’? We did not get to the answer of this until the end off his interesting talk.
We tend to think of the German Zeppelins when we think of airships, but Britain certainly had its share of these ‘gas filled superstructures’. There was a very early ’balloon’ similar to the present ’hot air balloons’ that we see in our skies on pleasure trips today. That was the forerunner of aerial flight. However these ’airships’ were made with the intention of being able to fly virtually anywhere in the world. They were designed to be steered, carry passengers and freight but they had severe limitations on the weight that could be carried. Part of this was due to the weight of its own structure and this was explained by Nicholas during his talk. In c1901 a Brazilian flew a prototype around the Eiffel Tower and a Count Zeppelin about 100 years ago flew one to Britain, various places around Europe and even as far as Africa. During WW1 they were very successful in tracking submarines as they could look down onto the surface of the sea and notice submarines under the water. Drop bombs onto them with great success. There were up to 600 of them. An early R34 was about the size of a football pitch and made from aluminium but the main concern was the vast amount of Hydrogen Gas needed to lift it. The fear of igniting the gas led to strict rules, no matches, rubber soled shoes to avoid ‘sparks’ etc. Each carried spare patches and glue and some men were employed all the time to cover holes that appeared in the covering. A narrow passageway/gangway ran the full length just 18 inches wide. An airship flew to USA and they found a stowaway on board named Valentine and he had with him a cat named ‘Whoopee’ - this extra weight had an effect on the ship’s loading. A name synonymous with aircraft Barnes Wallace(BW) then appeared on the scene. He designed the R80. A faster and lighter model which had a bigger payload. The R38 was bought by USA however, the pilot tried to make it do sharp turns which were too much for it, it broke in half and the pilot and those on board all died. The Imperial Airship Scheme of 1930-1935 was created but it was Barnes Wallace who was ahead of them all.
He worked in conjunction with ‘Vickers’ and together they produced the R100. It had long fins to aid its steering, 6 engines, each with gearboxes so that they could be reversed and most importantly it was built with aluminium very strong and far lighter than its opposition the R101. The R101 was designed and built by a ‘committee’ using stainless steel, four forward engines and one reversing. It also had ‘wings’ which proved unsuccessful and they tended to flap and were nowhere near as successful as BW’s design. The R100 weighed 9ton against the 16ton of the R101. These airships had promenades around the top deck, dining rooms, guests cabins and the lower floor/deck for the staff and crew. The R101 had a smoking room, remember the hydrogen, not a good idea ! The R101 cost £1million while the R100 cost £500,000 just half the cost, and while the R101 could reach 52 mph the R100 was designed to reach 70 mph and did reach 80 mph at times. There was a great deal of friction between the different designers and Lord Thompson who favoured the R101 was on board when eventually it crashed in France when all on board except 6 perished. The bodies of the 46 who died were brought back to England and buried in a mass grave. Little survived from that crash but there was a suitcase belonging to Lord Thompson and in it was this lady’s shoe. It appears that he had an association with a titled lady years before and on one occasion they were hurrying from a meeting when she lost one of her shoes and this was the one that she saved. The story was picked up by the Daily Express and became a news item we are led to believe. It was not long after that the early planes overtook the clumsy airship and that was the demise of the commercial airship. They had become obsolete and there we rest ‘The Battle of the Giants’.
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