R101 airship disaster

Extract from the Report of the R.101 Inquiry, March 1931 (AIR 5/920)

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84. While the Captain of the R.101 would not be likely to use his wireless communication to report unimportant or temporary difficulties (no report was made of the trouble with the after engine) it seems impossible to suppose that any serious mishap could have occurred until after the watch was changed at 2 a.m., and this inference is greatly strengthened by the fact that the watch was changed in the ordinary course. For if the Captain had been conscious at that moment of any serious trouble he would certainly not have allowed the men who were going off duty to turn in, but would have ordered them to stand by. The evidence of the survivors, and in particular of the surviving engineers, is conclusive on this point, for had any such order been given the men going on duty would have heard of it.

Two other pieces of evidence relating to the period before 2a.m remain to be recounted. Mr. Leech told the Court that about 1a.m Flight Lieutenant Irwin came into the smoke-room and spoke to him and the Chief Engineer, Mr. Gent. The Captain made no remark about the behaviour of the ship except that the after-engine was continuing to run satisfactorily, and when the Captain left the smoke room Mr. Gent turned in and Mr. Leech again went round all the engine-cars. He found that all engines were running well and came back to the smoke-room where he was sitting alone when the disaster occurred. His evidence as to the movement of the ship in the last few minutes, which will be recounted in the following paragraphs, is of the greatest importance.

The other piece of evidence which falls within the period 2.a.m. is the observation of M. Maillet at the Poix aerodrome. Poix is half-way between Abbeville and Beauvais, and the R.101. passed this point at about one o’clock. M. Maillet told the court that the airship passed to the West of the aerodrome; he saw white lights in a line, but it was too dark or cloudy to see the outline of her shape. This witness gave an estimate of her distance from the aerodrome and of her height in the sky but since it was too far off for him to see her red side-light, and since so enormous an object might well appear nearer that she really was, it would be dangerous to rely on this. M. Maillet said that he had an impression that she was struggling very hard against the wind.

The last incidents of the flight

85. The ship reached Beauvais at about 2.a.m. and passed somewhat to the East of the town. A number of Beauvais citizens gave evidence at the Inquiry and recounted what they observed. In most cases they had been woken out their sleep by the noise from the approaching engines and went out-of-doors to see the sight. Estimates of the height of the vessel in the air, made in the circumstances, are necessarily unreliable, but there is no doubt that it was the impression of these witnesses that the R.101 was labouring heaving in very gusty weather. There was a storm of rain and wind at the time. A curious feature of the testimony of more than one of the Beauvais witnesses is that the row of lights along the side of the ship became temporarily obscured; no amount of rolling would explain this and it seems probable that the explanation is to be found in an intervening cloud.

86. For the events which happened on the R.101 after 2 a.m. the Court has to rely on the evidence of six witnesses who survived – four of them engineers responsible for working the after-engine (Binks and Bell), and the starboard midship engine (Savory), and the port midship engine (Cook). One of the remaining witnesses was the electrician (Disley), and the other a foreman engineer on the staff at Cardington (Leech). There is also a significant statement on one point taken from a rigger named Church before he died from his injuries.

These witnesses give a remarkably clear and consistent account of what occurred. Before summarising the evidence of each of them more in detail, it is desirable to state the general effect of their testimony, which the Court unhesitatingly accepts.

At a few minutes after two the vessel got into a long and rather steep dive – sufficiently steep to throw the engineers attending to the engines off their balance, and to cause furniture in the smoke-room to slide down the forward bulkhead. This first dive may have lasted for half-a-minute, and would bring the ship many hundreds of feet nearer the earth. At length the ship was brought out of this first dive (doubtless by the height-coxswain putting his elevator hard up) and she returned for a very short time to an approximately even keel. But this was immediately followed by a second dive of shorter duration which brought her, nose first, to the ground, when she immediately burst into flames. It is clearly established that, before she crashed, orders were given from the control car by the engine-room telegraph to reduce the speed of the engines, if not to stop them. Orders to this effect would take some seconds to transmit, since each engine car has a separate telegraph, but the significant thing is that the bells were heard ringing and, (in any rate one case), the orders were received and acted upon before the vessel passed into her second dive. At about the same time the bells were heard ringing, Chief Coxswain Hunt passed aft from the control car to the quarters where Mr. Disley the electrician, and the crew, were sleeping, and warned them, saying “We are down, lads.” The inference, therefore, that those responsible at the moment for navigating the vessel realised that she was bound to come to earth, and were making preparations for it, is overwhelming. The blow with which the nose of the ship struck the ground seems to have been less severe than might have been expected. One witness described it as a “crunch”. After striking the earth, the wrecked ship moved forward about another 60 feet before finally coming to rest.

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