His Majesty’s Airship: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying Machine by S.C. Gwynne

Word association with “airship” probably yields responses ranging from “Goodyear Blimp” to “Hindenburg.” Perhaps there’s also a vague sense that airships had their greatest run in popularity during the early 20th century, transatlantic crossings and all. In His Majesty’s Airship: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying Machine, S.C. Gwynne unfurls this period with a white-knuckled briskness. Entertaining as it is edifying, it recounts many moments that left me in near disbelief.

An early chapter entitled “Brief History of a Bad Idea” pretty much sums up airships in the main. First, they were filled with an explosive gas: hydrogen. Helium was a known alternative, but its extraction was in the nascent stages. Case in point, in 1905 the “world’s supply of helium…remained on a shelf at the University of Kansas in three small flasks.” Second, airships were notoriously difficult to fly. Wind speeds, along with constant gas expansions and contractions, required constant ballast and lift adjustments.

Even with these substantial detriments, Gwynne notes that lighter-than-air travel was still seen as a viable consideration, especially since heavier-than-air travel (the airplane) was literally just getting off the ground. In the early 1900s, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin ushered in the era of rigid airships (dirigibles, or “big rigids”), eventually captivating the German public. His Zeppelins must have been a grand sight, all eyes on the cigar-shaped airships floating overhead, each over 400 hundred feet in length.

Gwynne says that Count Zeppelin’s worldview was “more feudal kingdom than Europe of La Belle Époque.” This is telling in that World War I looms, with Germany growing increasingly militaristic. These new airships were seen less as travel vessels and more as a means to drop munitions in times of war. In fact, German schoolchildren were taught a song that included the verse “Fly, Zeppelin! Fly to England! England shall be destroyed by fire!”

Still, Zeppelin’s company wanted to showcase its airships’ travel capabilities. In 1910, a handful of passengers embarked on what was supposed to be a three-hour luxury flight. What the flight actually did was underscore the unavoidable problem with airships: navigating through storms is harrowing, if not impossible. A storm tripled the flight’s duration, often sending it flying backward, with the crew finally admitting to passengers that they had no idea what to do.

German airships decidedly did not destroy England by fire during World War I. Quite the opposite. They were easily shot down. Given this, it’s somewhat puzzling that Great Britain would vigorously pursue its own airship program. Yet it didn’t take long before its own airship program would astound, for in 1919 a British airship crossed the Atlantic Ocean (twice). To add perspective, Lindbergh made his famous solo flight in 1927.

Gwynne provides many tales of derring-do associated with these airship flights, all with the backdrop that a mere spark from static electricity could send the ship ablaze. The flights included wild altitude spikes that left most crew members scrambling for footing, let alone controlling the ship. Given the vast catalog of mechanical errors, it’s amazing that the ocean’s vastness was traversed at all. Regardless, to many a Brit, the successful to and fro flights were evidence of English pluck and resourcefulness.

Ten years later, Lord Christopher Thomson, holding the fantastic title of Secretary of State for Air, sought to navigate Britain’s immense imperial skies via airship. In Cardington, England, he spearheaded the building of the R101. At 777 feet it was the world’s longest airship to date. Millions of cubic feet of hydrogen were held within gasbags made of cattle intestines. Riggers working within the cavernous hangar would either sing or hum as a safety precaution. If workers on the ground noticed that the riggers above were carrying on with high-pitched voices, they knew to alert them that they were slowly being asphyxiated by an odorless gas leak.

The whole enterprise was a boozy affair. Workers of all stripes consumed vast amounts of spirits throughout the building process. When R101 was brought out for test flights, it was docked atop a mooring mast, over one hundred feet high. One night, selected guests were invited aboard for drinks and a tour of the ship. As the drinks flowed, winds tussled the moored ship. At the end of the night, some of the more intoxicated guests believed that they had actually flown.

Thomson, a Savile Row-clad chap, pushed R101’s designers and builders to be ready for a 1930 flight to India. As the date neared, both engineers and crew alike knew the ship was not ready. It was too heavy to sustain lift for such a long flight. There were precious few mooring masts between England and India, so it had to stay aloft. Thomson pushed ahead anyway. He had a schedule to keep. A state dinner in India was timed in conjunction with his landing in India, plus one in London upon his return.

It’s unclear why he forged ahead in the face of these concerns. Thomson had spent so much of his career striving. Would a successful flight lead to his becoming viceroy of India? He had also spent so much of his adult life trying to impress a Romanian princess: Marthe Bebesco. Would a post in India bring them closer? Even Thomson’s best friend, Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald, was confused as to why the flight went forth.

In 1930, Thomson and 47 others perished aboard R101 en route to India. They didn’t even make it to Paris. The growing popularity of radio made the fiery crash a world-wide mass media event. Gwynne provides a thorough investigation of the R101 crash, piecing together what little is known and making a convincing case as to why it crashed then and there. What was known at the time of the crash: no amount of future swashbuckling was in store for the British airship program.

Upon seeing R101 just outside its hangar, Gwynne notes that one British observer stated that it looked like an “ambitious toy.” I thought something similar years ago when I saw the Goodyear Blimp, remarking that it looked like an overgrown party favor. But it’s also a reminder that history is full of ambition and folly. Thomson’s predecessor remarked that Thomson possessed the “sin of impatience.” Hard to argue against that. He will be forever tied to the R101 disaster. Yet we also learn in Gwynne’s fine book that Thomson was also instrumental in bolstering the Royal Air Force, an entity that would prove essential in thwarting Nazi attempts to destroy England by fire.

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Review by Jason Sullivan