Article: Spectators by the Thousands Stood Underneath the Only Trans-Atlantic Airship to Visit Canada
Summer, 2012, Altitude
R-100 flew safely to Montreal, but the dream of trans-Atlantic airship travel died with the disastrous crash of its sister ship, R-101, weeks later
While it is true that Canadian exhibitions and experiments involving airships largely ended after 1910, there was one significant airship event that made the news and attracted thousands of sightseers – that was the 13-day visit to Canada of the English-built R-100 in 1930.
Photo credit (above): There is one stellar example of a trans-Atlantic airship in Canada and that was the visit to Montreal of the British-built R-100 in August, 1930. Shortly after its arrival, R-100 made a two-day voyage over Ottawa and Toronto via Niagara Falls and then spent the remainder of its sojourn tethered to the mast especially built for it at St. Hubert, a community about nine miles from downtown Montreal. This photo is from Canada’s Flying Heritage, by Frank Ellis.
Airship R-100 departed Cardington, England, July 29, 1930, and arrived in St. Hubert, Quebec, about nine miles from downtown Montreal, after an almost 79-hour flight across the Atlantic.
R-100 was a huge visitor magnet. According to some estimates, more than a million people travelled to see the 709-foot long behemoth moored to a mast built especially for its visit. Some sightseers even chartered aircraft for an aerial view.
On August 10, filled with 18 “very important persons” from government, the military, industry and one journalist, R-100 embarked on an evening flight to Ottawa, where it hung out over the Parliament buildings illuminated by searchlights. Overnight it flew to Niagara Falls, arriving around 6 am. By 9 am R-100 was over Toronto, where it brought traffic to a standstill and sent spectators to the rooftops. The airship was back in St. Hubert later that afternoon after about 26 hours aloft.
During its sojourn at St. Hubert, around 3,000 people were allowed to board the R-100, a privilege that was not for those afraid of heights – there was an 18-inch gap between the airship and the tower platform, which was more than 200 feet above ground. Once aboard, some visitors helped themselves to souvenirs.
On August 13, R-100 returned to England. Although the visit was to be a harbinger of scheduled airship travel, the departure of R-100 brought to a successful end the one and only visit to Canada of a trans-Atlantic airship.
The R-100 story is, however, fatefully linked to the story of R-101, a sister ship that crashed seven weeks later in northern France with the death of 48 of the 54 people on board.
The R-100/101 saga begins with a 1924 British government decision to use airships to provide an air link to the furthest reaches of its Empire. At the time, dirigibles were believed to be the only aircraft capable of covering the long distances involved.
Two airships were ordered. One, the R-100, was a project of private enterprise, the Airship Guarantee Company, a subsidiary of Vickers Limited. The other, the R-101, was a project of the government-owned Royal Airship Works.
England’s governing Labour Party was biased in favour of R-101 and there was accordingly considerable pressure on Royal Airship to deliver. R-101 was first out of the hangar in mid-October of 1929, while R-100 emerged in December. Both airships had a capacity of five million cubic feet of hydrogen.
The R-100 combined innovation with economy – it had only 100 parts and 15 joints, and was powered by second-hand reconditioned gasoline engines.
The R-101 builders announced every design feature with great publicity and in the process greatly inflated expectations. For example, it was held that diesel engines, using less-flammable fuel, were the only engines suitable for tropical flights – the problem was that the only diesel engines available were not designed for aircraft. The government rebuffed suggestions to use gasoline engines instead.
Where the R-100 appears to have been properly fitted with gasoline engines generating a total of 3,600 horsepower, the R-101 was equipped with diesel engines delivering 2,350 horsepower, much less than the 3,250 called for in the design plan. R-101 was also overweight. The end result was that R-101 had only 35 tons of useful lift, not the 60 tons that was desired. Furthermore, it leaked.
While the R-100 exceeded its design specifications in terms of speed and lift, the R-101 was heavy, underpowered, unstable and leaky.
The showcase flight for the R-100 was the August 1930, trans-Atlantic voyage to Canada, while the R-101’s demonstration flight would take it to India in October. In fact, Lord Thomson of Cardington, secretary of state for air, was determined to complete R-101’s India trip by mid-October because he wanted to show-off the technology at an Imperial conference and because he wanted to enhance his chances of becoming viceroy of India, a prized Empire diplomatic post.
Royal Airship Works, under pressure to make R-101 airworthy, lengthened it by 45 feet to accommodate an additional gas cell. Other modifications reduced weight and fixed leaks. The engines, however, were not upgraded. Lord Thomson brushed aside warnings that R-101 was not airworthy, saying there was only a millionth chance of disaster – a comment eerily similar to one made about the Titanic, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1912.
Nevertheless, R-101 prepared for its departure by October 4. Those responsible for these last-minute preparations appeared totally unaware that they were overloading the airship. For example, carpet was installed in the 600-foot corridor and the tennis court-size passenger lounge. Further, Lord Thomson’s own baggage was estimated to weigh more than a ton.
R-101 cast off around 6:00 pm on October 4 in deteriorating weather. The airship was so heavy its bow dropped after leaving the mooring mast and water ballast was released to regain lift and balance. The airship set a course over the English Channel into forecasts of rain and strong headwinds.
Accounts of R-101’s flight indicate that it never achieved proper cruising airspeed or altitude. At 1:55 am, the airship, its ground speed reduced to five miles per hour by headwinds and unable to overcome the added weight of the rain on its huge surface, crashed near Beauvais, France. The dead, including Lord Thomson, were returned to England and buried at Cardington within sight of the hangars where both R-100 and R-101 were built.
The fallout from the R-101 tragedy ended the British airship program. The surviving R-100, built at a cost of $2.2 million, was broken up on government orders in 1932 and the pieces crushed with a steamroller; the scrap metal was sold for about $2,000.
Following American airship disasters in 1933 and 1935, any hope that airships would become a viable transportation mode came to a final and fiery end with the crash of the Von Hindenburg at Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937.
The St. Hubert mooring mast was a Montreal area landmark until its demolition in 1938. Financed by the British government, it was completed in the spring of 1929 after more than a year of construction. The “mast” was a substantial structure consisting of a 207-foot tower with a 38-foot diameter passenger platform at the top. The facility also included a hydrogen gas generating plant. As the St. Hubert airport expanded, the tower became a flight hazard and was demolished, thus erasing Canada’s only visible link with the airship era. However, the National Aviation Museum, Ottawa, has possession of one of the control wheels and a berth from the R-100 among its artifacts.
Karachi, now part of Pakistan, was to be the terminus of the ill-fated R-101 flight. A huge hangar was built that dominated the landscape until 1960 when it was demolished and the steel sold or used in civil engineering projects across the country.
The two airship hangars at Cardington, England, still stand. One is being used in movie production (for example, Harry Potter scenes were shot there), while the other hangar is where an English company, Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd. is developing viable and safer airships.
Photo credit (above): The museum’s photo archives yielded this aging photo of R-100 tethered to the mast at St. Hubert, a community that in 1930 was about nine miles from downtown Montreal. The 709-foot length of the R-100 completely dominates the spectators shown below. In addition to the thousands who came to stand underneath it during its two-week stay, about 3,000 people were allowed to go up the mast and into the airship. This visit was not for the faint-hearted – there was an 18-inch gap between the airship and the tower platform, which was more than 200 feet above ground.
Elllis, Frank H., Canada’s Flying Heritage; University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1954
Cooke, David, Dirigibles that Made History; Longman’s Canada, Toronto, 1962
Botting, Douglas, The Giant Airships, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia, 1981
Fortier, Rénald, The R-100 in Canada, photo essay collection National Aviation Museum, Ottawa, 1999
Deighton, Len, and Schwartzman, Arnold, Airshipwreck, Jonathan Cape Ltd., London, 1978
This article originally appeared in the Summer, 2012 edition of Altitude magazine.