To Captain a new airship across the Atlantic and back surely demands some fundamental understanding of airmanship? What made Major George Herbert Scott the right man for the job?
Major George Herbert “Lucky Breeze” Scott, CBE, AFC - who we shall henceforth fondly refer to as George, to save a bit of time - is best known as a British airship pilot and engineer, and perhaps most notably of all, as the pilot of the airship R34 which completed the first return Atlantic crossing in 1919. Engineering was in George’s blood - the son of a civil engineer, he grew up between Plymouth and Yorkshire before attending the Royal Naval Engineering College, then went on to work on the construction of naval vessels in Ferrol, Spain, until the looming threat of World War I became a reality.
George was quick to join the Royal Naval Air Service as a Flight Sub-Lieutenant, keen to realise his dream of working with aircraft. His first command was No. 4, a non-rigid airship designed by August von Parseval; sparking the beginning of a career working with these enormous, unusual crafts. Shortly after taking command of No. 4, George was involved in the first of a string of accidents; the airship struck a shed in foggy conditions and was damaged. A few witnesses came to George’s defence - apparently he had been trying to avoid an enormous bonfire, which had misguidedly been lit in an attempt to guide the crew back to the shed - but it was, nevertheless, the first in a series of incidents which put somewhat of a mark against his name. Despite this incident with No. 4, George had well and truly caught the airship bug, and was becoming known as a passionately involved, highly skilled and enthusiastic character.
In April 1917, he was posted to RNAS Howden, as captain of HM Airship No. 9r, the first British rigid airship to fly. He went on to command the same ship in a variety of locations, without incident, throughout the remainder of the war before being gazetted into the rank of Major.
William Beardmore and Company, of Renfrewshire, Scotland, had been busy during this period building the R34; an airship which you may well be familiar with by now. Completed in 1919, it was the pinnacle of airship engineering at that time, and George was - to his delight - ordered to ‘prepare for a voyage to the United States of America’. Unfortunately, damage to the airship during a trial flight forced a delay in departure, meaning that a pair of British aviators named Alcock and Brown beat the R34 to the distinction of making the first non-stop transatlantic flight.
Unbowed, the R34 and its crew eventually set out from its base at East Fortune, Scotland, in the early hours of 2nd July 1919. The crew now had one aim; to be the first aircraft to make the return journey across the Atlantic. And they did; George was awarded the CBE in honour of his role in the successful flight. With the airship’s status within Great British aviation cemented, George’s exploration began in earnest into how these craft could best be used in life after the war. George retired from the RAF shortly after, in October 1919, subsequently joining the technical staff of the Royal Airship Works.
He had a fascination with airships, despite development of these magnificent crafts languishing during peacetime, and George was somewhat of a nucleus at the centre of the skeleton staff retained until development of airships was resumed in 1924. At the RAW he researched, designed and patented a new “high mast” that would allow the airships to dock safely, and reduce the amount of manpower required to land an airship. Before masts were adopted, ropes were lowered to the ground to which people would dangle from to bring the airship to a slow and loosely controlled stop. The airship would then be tethered to the earth using guy lines which pinned the ship in place. This caused a multitude of issues, primarily that an airship naturally wants to head into the wind, and the tethers wouldn’t let it. This new mast attachment would allow the airship to swing with the wind and remove the necessity for human tethering. The new masts were quite effective and the US Navy adopted the design for their own use, including fitting one to a ship, to allow docking at sea.
In 1921, George trialled a new passenger airship - the R36. During one demonstration flight the R36 suffered a failure of the top rudder and starboard elevator and plummeted rapidly for around 3,000 feet, nose-diving towards the ground. Thankfully, Scott had decided beforehand to conduct the test at a higher altitude than was normal to allow for any such incident, and he was somehow - in the heat of the moment - able to move crew members about within the hull to rebalance the airship and bring her safely to earth. This quick thinking and in-depth understanding of the anatomy and behaviour of the R36 no doubt saved both his own life and the lives of the crew, as well as the airship herself.
George continued to champion the airship, keen to promote its suitability both as a passenger carrier and as a useful tool for the British people. He flew the R36 over the Ascot races later that year, with numerous journalists and representatives from the Metropolitan Police aboard, hoping to show the airship’s potential in road-traffic control. However, just one week after the successful Ascot showcase, the R36’s career was ended when it was severely damaged during a landing accident. George was blamed for this; he had taken over command from the ship’s captain, and witnesses reported that he conducted an excessively rapid approach to the mast. Once again, exacerbated by his growing penchant for alcohol and the subsequent doubt upon his physical capability, George’s judgement as a pilot was brought into question. A growing unease took hold; George remained at the forefront of the airship world despite this. Any doubt that people around him were feeling was overcome by his undeniable knowledge, ability and experience with airships and their development. In 1924, George assumed the position of Officer in Charge of Flying and Training in the Air Ministry’s Airship Directorate, before going on to become Assistant Director of Airship Development. At this point, there was a particular push to use airships to connect Britain’s worldwide colonies and dominions, but political and economic difficulties slowed progress - George nevertheless continued to push the design of two new airships, the R100 and R101, with this purpose in mind, and displayed unwavering determination to keep up what little momentum there was.
The airships R100 and R101 were finally launched in 1929 alongside the Imperial Airship Scheme. While George himself didn’t command either airship - the R100 being commanded by Wing Commander Booth, and the R101 by Flight Lieutenant Irwin - he took an active part in both ships’ test flights, and period accounts seem to suggest that he may have struggled a little in finding his place within the running of both ships. Shortly before the R100 left for Canada in July 1930, the potential difficulties that may have arisen between George and the ship’s captain were raised at an Air Ministry committee. The ruling was that the captain should have complete responsibility and that George, an observer by any other name, would give no orders to any crew member.
George nevertheless told Flight magazine that he was ‘officer in command of the flight’ and ‘decided all such points as when the ship would sail, her course, her speed, her altitude’ while the captain was responsible purely for crew discipline. His passion for airships often seemed to overflow and present as well-meaning yet overly dominant assertion; something which, when all went smoothly, he was lauded for. Such was the case with the flight of the R100; despite some encounters with stormy conditions which caused some damage to the ship, it successfully flew from Cardington to Montreal and back, making excellent time. This was George’s second Atlantic crossing; his third attempt at a long-distance flight was tragically to be his last.
After the R100’s successful trip to Canada, attention turned to similar plans for a flight to India by the R101, in which Lord Thomson, who was then Secretary of State for Air, and other dignitaries would take part. Only one test flight was conducted before departing for India - it was intended to be a 24-hour flight, but it was cut short as George was content that the ship was behaving well, and the stage was set. It has been noted by several sources, including one of the main structural designers of the R100, that the R101 was in no fit state to fly anywhere.
It was heavier than anticipated and half as powerful as expected. The sheathed wiring system that had previously been between the gasbags and metal frame was removed to save weight, but with this omission the bags would now rub against this frame and have the potential to rupture. Which is exactly what happened, causing a slow release of hydrogen, and with the gas escaping the airship sunk lower and lower. To try and counter this drop in buoyancy the R101 released almost all of its emergency ballast on launch. This ballast would have given them a quick jump in height should anything untoward happen but now, with no such protection, the R101 was left handicapped and, as fate would have it, be the one thing that could have saved the airship. Despite being already overweight, the R101 was also lumbered with Lord Thomson’s personal effects, including a bulk of silverware, crates of Champagne, a carpet - not sure why he wanted to bring a carpet - and his young servant. All that additional weight, coupled with the deterioration of the R101’s outer skin, meant that as the R101 drifted along, the bad weather ripped the front of the sinking ship to ribbons. In reapplying the skin during refurbishment it was deemed to be a good idea to apply a belt-and-braces approach to the skin’s strength. Additional tape was added to the inside of the skin, but in using a rubber glue, they inadvertently caused a chemical reaction with the dope that saturated the skin, disintegrating the envelope rather than strengthening it. And so it was; the R101 left Cardington far too heavy, far too underpowered, untested, unproven and sinking constantly. Oh, and it was filled with the extremely explosive hydrogen gas, too.
This is where accounts of George’s mindset ahead of the flight begin to differ, and where the controversy surrounding his capabilities comes to a head. According to what can be found in researching this man, there are two distinct camps; one that attributes George’s apparent penchant for pig-headed progress to the mentality of all pilots of that era - brave, stoic and above all proud, and another which documents accounts of George enjoying some lunchtime dutch courage, and as such his conduct could become erratic, strange and often downright dangerous. That he had captained the record-breaking R34, invented a new mast docking system, investigated multiple airship accidents and designed and flown airships around the world, was never questioned. That he was the same man who delivered such triumphs, was pondered. The R101 took to the skies with George and 53 other people aboard on 4 October 1930. They were bound for Karachi, with a stop planned in Egypt.
Almost immediately the weather was rough. Fine rain fell on the envelope making the R101 even heavier and the second engine presented oil issues. Despite having the clear option of aborting, George did not heed advice to call the game a bogey and return to base to await fairer weather. He deferred to his now trademark bluster and reinforced his opinion that they should just get on with it. There were a lot of pressures, political and personal, that prevented anything but forward motion. The engine was deemed fine, a failing oil gauge being the culprit, which was replaced. By the time they had fixed all this, the R101 was limping on one engine at 4mph over the English Channel - walking pace. Speed picked up with the second engine back in service, but weather continued to deteriorate. Just a few hours into the flight in the darkness of early morning over Northern France, the R101 flew into stormy conditions. Realising they had both drifted wildly off course and that they were perilously low, the R101 had to rely on “dynamic lift” - using the forward momentum and subsequent airflow to push the airship up into the air - to maintain their altitude. With a recognisable hill ahead and with little warning, the R101’s forward gas bags, which had been pummelled by the wind and rain due to the skin deterioration, and the chafing due to the removal of the wiring encasements, burst open releasing all the bow gas. Without that crucial nose lift, the R101 pitched into an uncommanded dive. Men were thrown from chairs and aroused from slumber. The command crew wrestled with the controls. The airship managed to recover momentarily but then quickly entered a second dive. Orders were immediately issued to slow the airship but, with height and time in short supply, it was at a sprightly 13mph that the nose struck the ground. What would have been an easily survivable shunt became an immediate inferno, courtesy of the hydrogen gas filling the R101. George and 45 others were killed in the blaze, and two more individuals died of their injuries shortly thereafter; there were only 6 survivors.
While a subsequent investigation blamed a ‘substantial loss of gas’ for the accident, there’s little understanding of exactly what happened on board that night. George had seen stormy conditions many times before and prided himself on his ability to maneuver around such obstacles; for such a high profile flight to have gone so drastically wrong purely because of a technical or navigational error seems very strange. Some have speculated that George’s determination to prove the capability of airships in front of such esteemed passengers could have led to an error of judgement; perhaps he pushed the airship through the storm when he should have abandoned the flight. The fact that the R101 was in such a poor state to fly, coupled with the less than ideal weather conditions and the R101 flying heavy, it seems that George and the rest of the crew were but passengers, awaiting their fateful, horrible end.
George’s body was never identified; all of the victims of the accident were returned to London via special trains and warships to lie in state in Westminster Hall, prior to a memorial service in St Paul’s Cathedral and a common grave burial in the cemetery of St Mary the Virgin. George was survived by his wife, his son, and his three daughters.
It’s a tragic end to the life of a man who dedicated his career, his heart and his soul to championing the airship. While his abilities were sometimes called into question, his passion and skill speak for itself; George Scott was truly at the centre of Great British airships and air travel within his generation, and his technical contributions are numerous and far-reaching. His work on airship mooring and the design of airship masts, leading to systems which were adopted by the US Navy, remained pioneering. He contributed to the design of airships themselves, being awarded patents for frame designs, gas valves, and passenger accommodation. George touched every single facet of airships and his legacy has never been in doubt.
Many years after George’s death, in April 1972, the Goodyear blimp Europa - a descendent of the airships which George had honed, captained and loved for so long - broke away from its mooring and came to rest, deflated, in a tree in the grounds of George’s former home; a poignant coincidence, but one he would have undoubtedly revelled in.