The story of R101 is one of the great disasters in British aviation history. A flagship for Britain’s airship programme, intended to make the Empire more accessible, the ship met an untimely end when on 5th October 1930 it crashed, killing 48 of the 54 people on board. This brought to an end the British Airship Programme, as the more conservatively designed R100 was grounded and scrapped also.
The Rugby Advertiser of October 18th 1929 reported how R101 passed over Rugby at 10am that morning. This was only the second trial flight of the great ship, upon which it covered 210 miles in total. The subsequent newspaper of October 25th carried a more detailed report. Comparing the airship to ‘a great silvery fish’ the paper possibly exaggerated when it claimed that virtually the whole population of Rugby had come out to view the airship, but there is little doubt that the sight must have been astonishing, especially as it passed so low overhead at Hillmorton.
The ship passed so low, indeed, that onlookers could read the writing on its side and hear the thrum of its engines. After being notified of its arrival in the area, schools such as Rugby School, the High School, and more besides were allowed to watch. The …Advertiser reports how the schoolboys of Rugby ‘were obviously quite thrilled at the sight of the monster’.
‘Almost terrifying’ in appearance, the airship then headed for Bilton, but it wasn’t just around the town itself that the airship was seen. Years after the event, a child of John and Christina Rankin remembered the blacksmith rushing into the school at Wolston to get the children out to look at the airship as it passed overhead1.
The enthusiasm with which people greeted the airship shows, in many ways, why its later crash was such a tragedy. In the people coming out to view the great ship, we see the hopes and aspirations for Britain’s future. R101 showed Britain could move ahead, its technology was superior to its rival nations, and the sheer size and magnitude of the beast was a physical signifier of Britain’s power. For that to come crashing down, literally as well as metaphorically, must have been something of a shock. Lord Thomson, Air Minister and later to die in the crash, reported that a fox hunt could be seen from the ship itself, including even the fox.
The cultural resonance of R101’s demise lives on in sometimes surprising areas. Iron Maiden’s latest album The Book of Souls, for one, offers an 18 minute tribute to the ship, entitled ‘Empire of the Clouds’.
1 Warwickshire County Record Office reference PH1213
R101 did travel past Rugby again later that year (reported in the Rugby Advertiser of 22/11/1929), but this time the weather was foggy and although the ship could see Rugby Radio Station‘s masts, the ship was not able to be viewed from the ground.