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Which was the better design of Airship: R100 or the R101?

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Greensands09/06/2021 20:08:07
329 forum posts
69 photos

I have become absorbed in my latest Oxfam book "To Ride the Storm" by Sir Peter Masefield (Pub 1982), giving a detailed and very readable account of the R101 airship and her companion, the Vickers built R100. Many years ago I read Nevil Shute's book "Slide Rule" again a very readable book but with a distinct bias in favour of the R100 and highly critical of the failings of the R101 despite the fact that they both shared many weak design features such as inadequate lift and totally inadequate design and manufacture of gasbags and outer covering. From my reading I have come to the opinion that despite her fatal maiden voyage the R101 was the better ship. I wonder if others might share this opinion.

Martin Kyte09/06/2021 20:22:23
2725 forum posts
48 photos

Well just on the basis of select on test the R100.


Neil Wyatt09/06/2021 20:33:23
18990 forum posts
734 photos
80 articles

Isn't a better question 'which was the least bad'?


Bob Stevenson09/06/2021 20:38:51
579 forum posts
7 photos

One factor in the various opinions is the great ill feeling and sense of injustice felt by the Vickers team, which included Barnes Wallace... If i have accuratelt grasped the fact, the Vickers team were forced by the government of the day to abort their successful activities (R100) when the Gov's design (R101) crashed and the Gov. was very keen not to be beaten by Vickers.

My mother saw the R101 pass overhead on it's way to it's destruction and told me that all the men in the family remarked on it's poor tracking as it appeared to be flying sideways.

Speedy Builder509/06/2021 20:59:03
2592 forum posts
207 photos

I believe the Vickers Armstrongs Aircraft (Later British aircraft corp.) site at Weybridge used the steel framework of one the R100 sheds. The structure housed the mold loft upstairs and the production control department and jig and tool drawing offices on the ground floor.

Its interesting what governments do. When the TSR2 was cancelled, the jigs and part finished airframes were flame cut up and destroyed forever within a couple of weeks of the decision.


pgk pgk09/06/2021 21:17:06
2552 forum posts
293 photos

My Dad was stationed at RAF Cardington and I think i was about 8 or 9 yrs old when introduced to one of the R101 survivors - too long ago to remember the chap's name but he was a keen gardener.
As kids we used to like staring out of the windows during thunderstorms to see if any balloon got struck. We got lucky 2 or 3 times over the years.


SillyOldDuffer09/06/2021 22:07:14
8491 forum posts
1891 photos

I'm with Neil: all lighter than air airships are bad. Slow, expensive to run, massive size relative to lifting capacity, full of explosive gas, (unless Helium is used, which costs a fortune and reduces cargo capacity by 12%), leaky, difficult to handle and needing special facilities on the ground, vulnerable to bad weather, and sunshine, static electricity and a host of other tricky technical problems.

This website discusses one of them: hydrogen production. Filling the R100 with Hydrogen 'consumed 432 tons of reactants and produced 929 tons of sludge.'

Only opening the archives would reveal why the government of the day decided to can the project, but I think they were absolutely right. Plenty of evidence before 1928 that airships had serious problems. Zeppelins failed miserably as bombers during WW1 and a succession of civilian and military models developed around the world suffered an unacceptably high accident rate. The Hindenberg disaster in 1937 was the last straw.


Edited By SillyOldDuffer on 09/06/2021 22:09:09

Bill Pudney09/06/2021 23:27:08
606 forum posts
24 photos

SoD... Hindsight is a wonderful thing!! In retrospect clearly lighter than air airships were a fundamentally flawed concept. However at the time the concept probably seemed viable. Obviously using helium would have been safer, but if the only source of it will not sell it to foreigners what can you do??

My Dad and his brother were in Paris when the R101 crashed. He and his brother cycled to the crash site within hours of the crash.

I read a biography of Neville Shute which was extremely critical of the detail design of the R101

SpeedyBuilder5...When TSR2 was cancelled, it was announced in Parliament late in the day I believe. The scrappers were in and hard at work THE NEXT DAY, when we got to work, at Saunders Roe on the Isle of Wight. There's no doubt that TSR2 was grossly over budget, with many technical issues still to be overcome, but the whole messy project doesn't reflect well on anyone involved, managers, politicians, foreign governments.



DC31k10/06/2021 08:07:00
657 forum posts
2 photos

It's not relating to the ones under discussion above, but there is a good selection of material on airships here:

martin perman10/06/2021 08:34:32
2042 forum posts
86 photos

Regardless of which one was best I get to look daily at two of the greatest structures in this country.

Martin P

Lee Rogers10/06/2021 09:37:38
166 forum posts
Posted by SillyOldDuffer on 09/06/2021 22:07:14:

I'm with Neil: all lighter than air airships are bad. Slow, expensive to run, massive size relative to lifting capacity, full of explosive gas, (unless Helium is used, which costs a fortune and reduces cargo capacity by 12%), leaky, difficult to handle and needing special facilities on the ground, vulnerable to bad weather, and sunshine, static electricity and a host of other tricky technical problems.

Sometime in the late 80s a pilot who was involved in the Airship Industries project told me of an incident in (if memory is correct) Chicago.

They were landing at the docks and the stevedors were all keen to be involved in the unique event , one ran forward and grabbed the dangling bowline before it had earthed. The static shock knocked the 20 stone man off his feet and laid him out cold.


Edited By SillyOldDuffer on 09/06/2021 22:09:09

Samsaranda10/06/2021 09:53:19
1400 forum posts
5 photos

It’s not only Airships that can give you a hefty static shock, helicopters are renowned for it too, when you see videos of helicopter rescues the static earthing line is always dangling below the crewman on the end of the winch line. When we worked with helicopters we always wore heavy rubber gloves if we were reaching for a dangling hook or static line under an airborne chopper. Dave W

Cornish Jack10/06/2021 10:11:04
1219 forum posts
171 photos

Lee Rogers - same problem with helicopters.

All aircraft 'collect' static charge while airborne - static wicks dump the lightning variety and the rest goes through the tyres on touchdown. Helos need to be discharged with an earthing pole for slung loads or through the winchman's body when winching,

We did some trials with the Farnborough 'boffins' measuring the charges accumulated - they recorded values of 175, 000 volts !! During a very strenuous training sortie in Holyhead harbour, I touched down on the Marine craft pinnace with my hand on the cable and mouth open. - amalgam fillings make a good earthing path and the taste of electrical burning lasts a long time !



SillyOldDuffer10/06/2021 11:01:02
8491 forum posts
1891 photos
Posted by Bill Pudney on 09/06/2021 23:27:08:

SoD... Hindsight is a wonderful thing!! In retrospect clearly lighter than air airships were a fundamentally flawed concept. However at the time the concept probably seemed viable. ...


Very true, but my point is there was plenty of experience of airships by 1928. Many disadvantages had appeared, like what to do with 928 tons of sludge! Although lighter than air seems simple and obvious, the long list of awkward problems have thwarted attempts to produce a large commercially successful airship to this day.

Other governments abandoned rigid airships in the same time-frame:

  • France - 1919
  • UK and Italy - 1928
  • USA - 1933
  • Germany - 1937
  • USSR - 1938

Dirigibles and blimps are useful. Small airships are handy when an aircraft has stay up for a long time in much the same area. Surveillance of the US/Mexico border and Caribbean drug smuggling routes, supporting the antenna used to broadcast TV into communist Cuba, and non-intrusive filming of sports come to mind. They're popular for tourists too. These are all niche requirements, otherwise airships don't compete well with alternatives like helicopters, satellites, drones, and slow flying fixed wing aircraft. Maybe the future will tip the balance back in favour of general-purpose rigid airships, but I doubt it.

Neville Shute's views on the R100 / R101 debacle have to be taken with a pinch of salt. He was emotionally involved. Proud of his achievements, and utterly convinced the Vickers design deserved to win, I think he lost sight of the real problem, which was no airship could deliver what the customer wanted. It didn't matter how well-made the R100 was. Engineers suffer from a lack of perspective, often thinking that technical excellence is enough. Nope! technical excellence is only part of the story. More important that products are fit for purpose, affordable and customers want them.

It's often difficult to judge whether decisions involving complex projects are right or wrong. Although I'm confident airships were a dead end, I'm not so sure about TSR-2. Although horribly late and over budget, it was cancelled in favour of aircraft that didn't meet the requirement, that in turn also suffered long delays and cost-overruns. It was a mess and the RAF had to wait for the Tornado before getting an aircraft that did the job in full.

Unfortunately, paying for the TSR-2 assumed it would be sold abroad, so when Britain's allies got fed up waiting and bought F-111's instead, the project became unaffordable. On top of that, although the airframe was well developed, the electronics and weapons systems weren't. Faced with not knowing how long the project would take or how much it would cost, it's not surprising the customer pulled the plug. But cancellation might well have been a mistake. We shall never know.


Ady110/06/2021 11:42:21
5066 forum posts
734 photos

Even nowadays they struggle with the technology

Howard Lewis10/06/2021 13:36:56
6021 forum posts
14 photos

I thought that R100, at Howden used Helium as the lifting medium, because it was non inflammable

R101 and the Hindenberg sounded the death knell for passenger carrying air ships, because of their ability to catch fire..

According to what I recall of the Meccano Magazine, in the 50s, USA was still using Good Year blimps for marine patrols.


Greensands10/06/2021 13:53:10
329 forum posts
69 photos

No, both ships were filled with hydrogen but R101 was powered by compression/ignition oil engines (diesel) to minimise the flammability risks when travelling to India. R100 was powered by RR Condor petrol engines and for that reason was destined for the North Atlantic route as opposed to the India and beyond. Long term plans included running R100 on a diesel version of the RR Condor engines

duncan webster10/06/2021 21:25:24
3927 forum posts
61 photos

If you read Hooker's biography (not much of an engineer) he waxes lyrical about government stupidity over TSR2, in brief they kept upping the spec to what was just beyond the current technology, and then were surprised it was late and over budget. This seems like an ongoing issue, government and Whitehall can't accept that once you've agreed a specification, changing it is a sure fire recipe for cost and delay. First rule of project management 'don't change your mind'. A good project manager will always try to use known technology, if it worked today it will work tomorrow. R&D programmes are for innovation, once it's proven in a one off, you can make lots.

This also affected Cross Rail, some contractors referred to it as the Hokey Cokey line as they would put a bit in, then take it out, then put it back and so on, and waiting till the eleventh hour to try to integrate 3 different signalling systems was asking for trouble

Nick Clarke 311/06/2021 14:40:09
1394 forum posts
61 photos
Posted by Bill Pudney on 09/06/2021 23:27:08:

I read a biography of Neville Shute which was extremely critical of the detail design of the R101



Neville Shute (an aeronautical engineer and keen model engineer as well as a novelist) described his time as Chief Calculator for R100, no 2 to Barnes Wallis, in his autobiography 'Slide Rule' which also includes comments on the R101

Edited By Nick Clarke 3 on 11/06/2021 14:41:03

Redsetter11/06/2021 16:37:42
203 forum posts
3 photos

Any bias which Nevil Shute showed in his account of the R101 is understandable on a personal level, as many of his friends and colleagues were killed in the crash, but his comments on the technical aspects are quite even-handed and accurate. Unlike many historians he was an engineer, he was also a pilot, and knew what he was dealing with. Hence his account is a valuable resource, and also very readable.

There is no doubt that the R101 was underpowered and overweight, and may have been overloaded on its last flight though this is open to debate. It was certainly not fit for passenger-carrying. R100 was better, but not a whole lot better. The greatest weakness of both airships was the outer cover. This failed with fatal results on R101, but there were problems with the outer cover on R100 during the flight to Canada, fortunately in non-critical areas.

Shute suggests that had Vickers realised just how bad the R101 was, they might not have undertaken the flight to Canada, as having successfully completed this, the R101 team were forced to attempt the flight to India or admit defeat.

As ever there were commercial and political pressures at work. It all makes interesting reading, though we will probably never know all the answers.

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