The following is an extract from “I never knew that about England” by Christopher Winn. Some of you will know this story well; for others it will be your first acquaintance.
“Two vast green sheds, looming over the fields of Cardington Village, stand today as an eerie memorial to the World’s first air disaster. From this spot, the mighty R101 departed, on a blustery October morning in 1930, to meet a fiery end on a hillside in France.
In the 1920s, airships were considered to be the transport of the future. Comfortable, safe and twice as fast as steamships, they appeared to offer a new and efficient way of linking the Mother Country to her far-flung Empire – India in six days, Canada in three, Australia in ten. The technology was still experimental, but the project was rushed along. Lord Thomson, the Air Minister, was keen to make a grand arrival on the R101 at the first Imperial Conference, to be held in India in October 1930.
At 6.30am on 4th October 1930, the R101 slipped her moorings and set off for India. Three thousand people watched her leave from Cardington, with thousands more waving their encouragement as she passed over southern England. On board there were 54 passengers, including Lord Thomson. At 1.45am the next day, from just north of Beauvais, and with the weather suddenly deteriorating, she sent out a call enquiring as to her whereabouts – the last thing ever heard from the doomed ship. The storm brought her down and she hit the hillside in a sheet of flame. There were only eight survivors, two of whom died shortly afterwards.
No one really knows why the R101 crashed. The weather became far worse than expected, the payload was heavier than recommended, and neither the crew nor the ship had been tested in adverse conditions. Somehow, the pride of the Empire had ended up as a pile of twisted and scorched girders in a French Field. The country was stunned. The 48 dead lay in state at Westminster Hall and there was a memorial service held in St Paul’s Cathedral attended by the Prince of Wales. All the victims were buried together in one grave, beneath a fine monument in the churchyard across the road from St Mary’s Church. In the church hangs the flag that flew proudly from the R101 and was recovered from the flames.”
There are three reasons why I think that this story might be of interest. Firstly of course it is extremely local: the air ship in fact set out over Bedford before turning south to the south coast. It took three hours to get to Hastings, which itself is fairly amazing given that one could probably drive there in the same amount of time on a good day from Bedford.
The second piece of interest for me comes with Lord Thomson. He had just taken over as the new Air Minister in McDonald’s Labour government after the election of 1923. It seems that he was trying to put his mark on the job, by formulating the Imperial airship scheme, the scheme which built two experimental airships, one of which he himself (along with 47 others) died. It is said that Roman engineers were forced to stand under the bridges that they built whilst a Roman Legion marched across the top of them, in order to test their safety. If they were unsafe, the engineer could pay with his life. Lord Thomson’s end was the same, but his folly was different. He had acted purely out of self-interest and arrogance, by designing too hastily an aircraft to take him in the grandest manner possible across the world. One could argue that he got his comeuppance; it is the very Greek notion of hubris – showing off does not always go down well with the Gods.
The third point of interest about this accident is its aftermath. An enquiry was set up which lasted the best part of six months. It concluded in the end that a tear had developed in the forward cover of the ship which had caused one or two of the gas bags to fail. The airship had become nose-heavy and dived to the ground. Matthew Syed, the sports journalist in the Times, is the best speaker I have ever heard. He also wrote a book called “Black Box Thinking”. In its first chapter, he compares the failures of doctors with the failures of airlines. He quickly concludes that the doctors rarely admit to their mistakes, where the airline industry is set up to learn all they can from them. Aircraft these days, of course, carry with them a black box which detects everything that went wrong with an aircraft in the minutes before crashing. Perhaps more interestingly, when pilots experience a near miss with another aircraft, they file a report. Provided that it is submitted within 10 days, pilots enjoy immunity, meaning that they cannot get in trouble for causing that near miss. This built-in security to the whole airline industry creates a culture of learning from failures.
Really, this is just a little bit of local history. However, it is also a great story of failure from which humans sometimes learn to improve, and at other times keep repeating the same mistakes.