Michael Moorcock

The hubris of the great airship designers

Rushing to build the world’s largest flying machine was perhaps Britain’s greatest imperial folly, with a disregard for safety measures dooming the R101 to disaster

The R101 was supposed to head a fleet of airships capable of carrying troops and goods to any part of the British Empire [Alamy]

Tribal rivalries have existed from humanity’s beginning and have fuelled the creation of every prestigious monument ever built. By the Age of Science we were building not pyramids but ironclads and submarines fighting for ascendancy at sea, expanding our empires in spite of an ever-growing movement for colonial independence. The Spanish-American war of 1898 added the United States to the list of great nations believing it to be their destiny, even duty, to bring their kind of progress to the world.

Many understood that achieving overwhelming technological power as a nation guaranteed that no antagonist would dare attack. Limited by agreements made after the first world war, Britain no longer ruled the waves. Like France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the USA, we saw aerial supremacy as our best means of extending and consolidating national influence. Britain’s empire had actually grown larger and more difficult to run. There were weaknesses everywhere.  Transport and communications were paramount concerns of trade, administration, the military and national prestige.  

Safety warnings were overriden, tests were cut short and weaknesses were actually patched over

The airship race of the 1920s and 1930s carried that familiar mixture of visionary idealism, populist politics and wishful thinking which so often ended in tragedy. The explosion of the swastika-emblazoned Hindenburg in 1937 is the best known, but the years before the second world war, as countries rushed to launch successful lighter-than-air ships, saw many other disasters. Very few crashed without loss of life. Most took a substantial number of crew and passengers with them as they split in two, turned end-up, went down in flames or disappeared into the wastes of the polar ice. The only large ships to survive were withdrawn from service after dramatic test failures or the loss of sister ships. As S.C. Gwynne points out in this excellent account of perhaps Britain’s greatest imperial folly, not a single ship could pass an airworthiness test, and even ‘safe’ ships such as the Graf Zeppelin or Vickers’s ‘private’ R100 barely escaped disaster on many occasions.

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