They might not have been the first to cross the Atlantic ocean, but without a shadow of a doubt the crew of the R34 were the first to fly East to West, then West to East. With this feat of human spirit, the airship R34 was firmly cemented in the annals of history.
Remnants of the war
The war had ended and with it the conclusion of one of the deadliest conflicts in military history. A new world emerged battered, bruised and downbeat. Peacetime was a novel concept to the war-worn population. Thoughts turned to recovery and embracing the legacy of what the war had cost. Questions were asked of what to do with the remnants of the military projects commissioned towards the tail-end of the fight, much like the R34 airship, which was ready to launch just as the whistle was blown.
Airships had been prominent figures in the war and their capabilities went from inflated bubble low-level reconnaissance to world-conquering behemoths. The increase in size due to the lift/size equation (the lift capability of an airship is increased 8-fold for just a 2-fold increase in size) meant that more could be done with these giants of the skies, and as the size and payload capabilities increased, so too did the distance which they could travel. With the downing of the L27 Zeppelin during the war and the redesign of the R33 class British airship, there was suddenly the ability for Britain to utilise these modes of airborne transport in a new way.
At the end of 1918, the weather had proven so dreich at Inchinnan Airship Station just outside Glasgow, the R34 hadn’t left its hangar after completion. It was suggested that due to this newness, compared to her sister R33 airship which had been flying for a while already, the R34 should be the airship to be deployed for long-distance tests. This was a way to prove the concept of a new British Empire commercial flight network, called the Imperial Airship Scheme (IAS). What better way to test the abilities of their newest airship, and therefore their new IAS proposal, than have it fly across the most formidable stretch of water known to man - the Atlantic Ocean. First though, the R34 needed to be tested to make sure that it was worthy for flying at all. An initial test flight around Inchinnan lasted just 5 hours. Everything went to plan. A second, longer test flight took the R34 down the Clyde, over north England, across to the Irish Sea and then back to Inchinnan via the Isle of Man. During this longer flight one of the control surfaces had jammed, pointing the R34’s nose skyward. This was rectified in-flight, but upon arriving back at base the airship was mishandled by the ground crew and some extensive damage ensued - a control car bursting through the skin of the R34, coming to rest within its envelope. It was this small mishap that cost the R34 the title of being the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic.
During the repair works and at the behest of the Daily Mail (the 1918 version of the newspaper which didn’t partake in exploitation), the challenge was announced to cross the Atlantic, offering £10,000 to any crew who could fly from any point in the US, Canada or Newfoundland, to any point in the UK or Ireland, in 72 hours or less. At the time the Daily Mail offered a number of prizes for various aviation feats. It was the crew of Alcock and Brown, flying in a Vickers Vimy, who successfully completed the 3,040km journey across the vast Atlantic ocean, departing from St. Johns in Newfoundland on 14th June 1919, and arriving at Clifden in Ireland 15 hours and 57 minutes later. The Vimy was a modified bi-plane bomber used in WWI, with additional fuel tanks and revised undercarriage to assist in the long-distance nature of the flight.
In completing this historical feat of man and machine, Alcock and Brown were quickly celebrated as aviation pioneers, although Alcock’s celebrity was tragically short-lived. In December of that very same year, whilst delivering to the Paris Airshow the new Vickers Viking, an innovative amphibious design that allowed the aircraft to take off from water, Alcock crashed near Rouen in dense fog.
News of the Atlantic crossing travelled quickly to the R34 crew, but despite losing out on being the first to cross the Atlantic by air, the tests were still deemed necessary for the IAS project and thus the R34 was readied for deployment. The guns and armaments fitted to the R34 were removed and, along with some hapdash crew sleeping quarters and a metal plate welded to the exhaust of an engine for cooking upon, the airship made its way to the airfield known as RAF East Fortune. It was from this base, on the 2nd July 1919, that the R34 was released by the ground handlers and rose up into the sky above Scotland, to cross one of the most formidable oceans in the world.
Made it and no more.
The R34 was crewed by 30 men and captained by Major George “Lucky Breeze” Scott. On board were two notable senior officers; Brigadier-General Maitland, a pioneering balloon expert, and Lieutenant Commander Zachary Lansdowne representing the US Navy, in a courtesy to their joint efforts in bringing the R34 from Britain to the USA. Maitland, who was also Britain’s most senior airship officer, was an early adopter of parachutes as safety devices - such was the reluctance to adopt this new-age life saving device that he vowed never to leave an airship without one - soon enough his point was made and parachutes were standard issue for all crew.
In an effort to save as much weight as possible and allow a few “more important” people to board, three of the original crew were told to stand down. Despite this crushing blow, one of the dismissed crew, William Ballantyne, took it upon himself to sneak into the R34 anyway, along with their mascot tabby cat called Wopsie. Once firmly above the Atlantic he outed himself to the officers; positioned above the gasbags between girders - he had intended to wait it out till America but, owing to the horrible cold and damp, plus being squished by the expanding airbags as they heated up, he couldn’t stick it out. He also happened to be breathing in the escaping hydrogen from the emergency release valves, making him violently sick. He hoped that the officers wouldn’t throw him overboard, which in the moments after his discovery, were discussed and considered seriously! General Maitland noted that, had he appeared earlier, he would have sent him over the side with a parachute to the land below, but the time for that action had passed. He was allowed to stay and put to work as the cook or to pump petrol into the engines.
After leaving East Fortune the R34 took a route down the Firth of Clyde and up over the coast of Northern Ireland, before heading west towards the open ocean. Radio technology for airships at that time were sketchy and the RAF had set communication boats along the route of the R34 to relay any messages or weather warnings to the airship. The airship was steered and trimmed by two coxswains on separate wheels, and the man in charge of the elevators, Warrant Officer Walter Mayes, controlled the altitude and attitude of the airship - the see-saw of the airship from nose down to nose up. He was an incredibly skilled coxswain, often relying on his feet to know when the ship was not on an even keel. It was said that the crew could identify when he was in charge of the trimming at any point for his smoothness and deft touch were unparalleled.
One of the problems with airships, especially one stuffed full of hydrogen and equipment like the R34, is of superheating. This is when the heat of the sun expands the gas within the flexible bags inside the R34’s canvas envelope. To prevent the gas from rupturing the bags there are emergency release valves that let the hydrogen out. This is a problem, for if the gas is released when expanded, it reduces the amount of gas in the bags for lift when the airship cools. For an airship as heavy as the R34, with its 18 tonnes of fuel amongst other heavy items like engines and crew, it posed a real problem, exacerbated with rain or moisture on the envelope, making the R34 even heavier. But with dense clouds comes a saviour - by positioning the airship inside these clouds, not only does it prevent superheating, but it keeps the gas inside the bags. When ordered to set the R34 precisely inside the clouds for just such an occurrence, Officer Mayes positioned the airship with such accuracy that, upon climbing the observation ladders to take a reading, Major Scott stood in the odd position of having his shoulders and head above the cloud, with the rest of his body, and the entire R34, below it.
As the R34 continued along, the petrol was depleted and the problem of lift and sink were equalized. Captain Scott brought the airship above the storm clouds they were trudging through and, with calm air and engines humming, settled into a long night of weary progress. It remained so until dawn where, owing to a break in the clouds, the crew could watch the icebergs drift past below them. The radio operator was now receiving messages, mostly from America and premature congratulations on the success of the R34. Major Scott wasn’t in such a jubilant mood for he knew that the engines had been using a lot more fuel than they expected and the reserves were getting concerningly low.
At 16:30 on June 4th the R34 reached Newfoundland, 60 hours after leaving the coast of Ireland. It was becoming increasingly difficult to charge against the headwinds and, with 500 gallons remaining in her tanks, the R34 was still a long way from Minneola - her eventual destination. After much battling with winds, gusts and the occasional emergency, the R34 continued towards New York, although one storm close to their destination was so fierce that it sent the airship into a tremendous dive, followed by an even more tremendous rise, cutting out the engines and throwing crew members around the cabin. Fuel was at an all-time desperate level and upon the R34 arriving at Minneola at 9:54am local time, she held just 140 gallons of fuel - enough for around 2-hours of flying time on reduced power.
As the airship circled the airfield at Minneola, Major J.E.M. Pritchard jumped from the control car and, with his parachute deploying neatly, drifted slowly to earth to become the first man to reach the United States of America from Britain by air. He hurriedly spoke with journalists and photographers who descended upon him as he removed his parachute, before riding pillion on a motorcycle and liaising with the American ground-crew who had been preparing for the airship’s arrival. Soon thereafter Major Scott brough the R34 down, releasing the final gas and ballast to lower the tail enough to get the ropes within the grasp of the ground crew. The R34 was wrestled down and the band struck up, playing “God Save the King” as the crew alighted to raucous cheers and adulation.
Living it up in America.
The crew, upon arriving in America, were given the most adulating and celebratory welcome for days on end. Once cleaned up at the airfield showers, constructed specifically for their visit, they headed off to several official engagements and meetings before journeying into New York City in a blaze of hedonism. Everywhere they went they were greeted with cheers and gifts, food and drink - when they entered a room they were met with standing applause and shouts of congratulations. Photographers and journalists followed them wherever they went, including an opportunistic bedroom foray from a particularly resourceful photographer.
Soon though it was time to head home and, with the officers concluding official business and soaking up the last of the champagne, the lower ranks headed back to the airship to prepare her for the long journey ahead. It didn’t take too long, for the R34 was in great condition. With propellers degreased by a local company for free, the various holes patched up in the envelope, fuel and oil tanks refilled, the airship was ready to go. A slight mishap before Major Scott returned to the airfield caused a little damage to the nose of the airship and, seeing how easily their potential for repeat success could be ripped from their hands, the crew set about getting the R34 aloft posthaste.
Few remaining items were loaded, such as letters and secretly delivered alcohol (due to prohibition, of course), and with the last of the tourists looking around the cabins, Major Scott rushed to finish his last highfalutin dinner in the city owing to the high-winds approaching - the R34 set its compass for Britain. Two of the crew were replaced due to the lessons learned on the inward journey, one of which was stowaway William Ballantyne, who would return by sea. At 6 minutes to midnight on 9th July 1919, the R34 was released from its ground-crew and rose majestically into the night sky. Major Scott and his crew had succeeded in crossing the Atlantic East to West - the challenge was now to successfully deliver her West to East.
Despite some engine funny business and windage issues, the R34 crossed from West to East in just over 75 hours - or in a somewhat sensational show of expertise from Major Scott, exactly three days, three hours and three minutes. As the R34 came into rest at Pulham Airfield in Norfolk to cheering crowds, the home band struck up the tune “See The Conquering Hero Comes” just as Major Scott released the final ballast from its tail. The unfortunate positioning of said band meant they also received an impromptu overhead dousing.
The British welcoming party was a little less flamboyant than their American counterparts, for official reports were required to be written and feedback from the Admiralty was demanded. In place of the flowing champagne and fabulous finger foods came a resultant downcast mood as criticisms of the R34 and her performance were gathered. The following morning the three main officers of the R34 headed into London on the train to be met with little fanfare. Stepping off the train they were greeted with typical British stoicism of handshakes and “well done old boy” congratulations, before moving onto business.
The success of the R34 laid the foundations for the Imperial Airship Scheme to launch in 1921. This would potentially become a feather in the British Empire’s cap; a way to transport people and goods around the world in style. Sure enough, after much back and forth debate, punctuated by a general election, the new government established the Imperial Airship Scheme (IAS) and commissioned two brand new airships specifically for this project; the R100 and R101 were constructed. The R100 was to be the workhorse airship, with the R101 following a more test-bed oriented development programme. Interestingly, the R100’s design team was led by Barnes Wallis, who would later invent the famous bouncing bomb used by RAF 617 Squadron during Operation Chastise, later made into the popular film The Dam Busters.
The IAS programme suffered a catastrophic end when, on 5th October 1930, on its maiden flight to India, the R101 crashed over France leading to the deaths of not only the man responsible for the IAS, Lord Thomson, but also senior government officials and the entire Royal Airship Works design team. The man at the helm of the R101 was no other than Major Scott. Quickly after the catastrophe, the IAS shut down and the entire British airship endeavour ceased to exist. The excitement, at one point fever pitch, about flying in the glorious lumbering giants, turned into abject denial that it was a safe, reputable mode of transport. A crushing blow to the airship industry, but not the end.
Seven years later during docking procedures at Naval Airstation Lakehurst, the LZ129 Hindenburg caught fire and burned to the ground in what has become an iconic moment in the history of the airship. The ensuing inferno was spectacularly captured in silent black and white film and, when later added together with the frightening live radio broadcast by Herbert Oglevee “Herb” Morrison, signalled the end. Never before had such a disaster been so poetically or devastatingly encapsulated in one live-broadcasted stream of consciousness. With the news-reel playing around the world, the international airship endeavour came to a bitter close.
As for Inchinnan Airship Station, it should be noted that not only did this facility manufacture airships, but it also acted as an “Aircraft Acceptance Park” too. This was a place for aircraft manufacturers to send completed planes to be tested and checked before deployment in the field. On site was a vast hanger, built in 1916 by the Arrol Company and measured an impressive 213m long, by 46m wide, by 30m tall. At each end of the hanger sat two equally humongous concrete wings that prevented the freshly made, emerging airships from being buffeted by side-winds. Buildings for the near 400 strong construction workers and families were built as well as a number of ancillary buildings to support the site. Another shed for the completion of Handley Page bombers was erected before Airship construction at Inchinnan ceased in 1921. A tyre company called the India Tyre Company was established at the Airship Station and, after the site was destroyed by the German bombers in WW2, the tyre company remained intact and remains so to this day, along with some of the worker’s accommodation.
The rise of the Airship was made possible by the development of iron and with it the development of alloys such as steel, which itself was a product of the Industrial Revolution. The fall of the Airship was made possible by a simple choice to use hydrogen over the inert, non-flammable helium. A discovery in 1903 in the United States of America, during a routine drilling operation in Dexter, Kansas, brought about the prolific use of helium in lighter-than-air applications, most commonly in balloons and airships of the US Navy. It was such a scarce commodity that the USA protected it under the National Helium Reserve and as such wouldn’t allow the exporting of helium outside of the USA. Thus, despite designing the LZ129 to make use of this rare yet safe helium, the Hindenburg design team were forced to revert to the far more dangerous hydrogen for their new airship. With that one decision and subsequent consequence, the airship industry would not survive past the 1937 disaster.
Before I started researching this article, I was already familiar with the name Inchinnan. Pre-MWC I was working for a heating and ventilation company as a draughtsman - I would design services on the computer in 3D, plotting the placement and layout of the various heating and cooling systems in any given building in order to make on-site installation quicker. This was a new-age way to get the systems designed properly and resolved before heading to site, fitting these costly systems in place. During the course of 2014 I worked on a particularly complex facility called the AFRC building, situated in Inchinnan. This building, the Advanced Forming Research Centre, is a University of Strathclyde facility that researches innovative ways to form and forge metals and develop innovative manufacturing technologies. It wasn’t until I was halfway through the research for this article that I realised, to my amazement, that the AFRC building rests on the Beardmore Airship Station site, along with various other companies like Rolls Royce. There’s even a cafe on site called the “R34 Cafe”. Little did I know then that I was walking on the same ground that was once used to construct an airship that would travel across the Atlantic, and back again, capturing imaginations, celebrating new achievements and clinching records in the process, and for me, inspiring the design of a watch for a company I hadn’t yet established.
It’s poignant in many ways that I have both unbeknownst to me visited the very place that created something that has captured my imagination so firmly, the R34, whilst similarly working to construct a place that, much like William Beardmore and Company, finds new and innovative ways to manufacture things from metal that can be used to further knowledge in what is tangible on this earth. Isn’t life funny?