R38-class airship

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R38 class (A class) airship
The R38/ZR-2 making its first flight trial on 23 June 1921
Role Patrol airship
National origin United Kingdom
Manufacturer Short Brothers
First flight 23 June 1921
Primary user United States Navy
Number built 1 (orders for 3 others cancelled)

The R38 class (also known as the A class) of rigid airships was designed for Britain's Royal Navy during the final months of the First World War, intended for long-range patrol duties over the North Sea. Four similar airships were originally ordered by the Admiralty, but orders for three of these (R39, R40 and R41) were cancelled after the armistice with Germany and R.38, the lead ship of the class, was sold to the United States Navy in October 1919 before completion. On 24 August 1921, R-38 was destroyed by a structural failure while in flight over the city of Hull. It crashed into the Humber Estuary, killing 44 out of the 49 crew aboard.[1][2] At the time of its first flight it was the world's largest airship.[3] Its destruction was the first of the great airship disasters, followed by the Italian-built US semi-rigid airship Roma in 1922 (34 dead), the French Dixmude in 1923 (52 dead), the British R101 in 1930 (48 dead), the USS Akron in 1933 (73 dead), and the German Hindenburg in 1937 (36 dead).

Design and development[edit]

The R38 class was designed to meet an Admiralty requirement of June 1918 for an airship capable of patrolling for six days at ranges of up to 300 miles from home base and altitudes of up to 22,000 ft (6,700 m).[3] A heavy load of armaments was specified, to allow the airship to be used to escort surface vessels. Design work was carried out by an Admiralty team led by Constructor-Commander C. I. R. Campbell, of the Royal Corps of Navy Constructors.[4] The construction contract was awarded to Short Brothers in September 1918 but cancelled on 31 January 1919 before work had been started. It was then re-ordered on 17 February: on the same day, Oswald Short was informed that the Cardington, Bedfordshire works, recently built as a specialised airship production facility, was to be nationalised.[5] Construction of R38 started at Cardington in February 1919. It was intended to follow R.38 with orders for three airships of the same class: R39, identical to R38, to be built by Armstrong-Whitworth, and two others, R40 and R41, of a design variant with the length reduced to 690 ft (210.31 m) due to the limited size of existing manufacturing sheds.[6]

Later in 1919, several airship orders were cancelled as a peacetime economy measure, including the three planned R38 class ships.[3] In a further round of cutbacks, the cancellation of the unfinished R38 also appeared imminent, but, before this actually happened, the project was offered to the United States.

The hull contained 14 hydrogen-filled gasbags. The 13-sided mainframes were 49 ft (15 m) apart, and were made up of diamond-shaped trusses connected by 13 main and 12 secondary longitudinal girders and a trapezoidal keel. There were two secondary ring frames between each pair of mainframes. The forward-mounted control car was directly attached to the hull. The cruciform tail surfaces were unbraced cantilevers and carried aerodynamically balanced elevators and rudders. The six Sunbeam Cossack engines, each driving a two-bladed pusher propeller, were housed in individual cars arranged as three pairs: one pair aft of the control car, one pair amidships, and the third pair aft.[7]

Sale to United States[edit]

The United States Navy had decided that it wanted to add rigid airships to its fleet and originally hoped to get two Zeppelins as part of war reparations, but these had been deliberately destroyed by their crews in 1919[8] in actions connected with the scuttling of the German fleet in Scapa Flow. An order was placed with the Zeppelin company for a new craft, to be paid for by the Germans (which became USS Los Angeles), and, to go with it, they also planned to build one in the United States (which became USS Shenandoah). With the news of the impending termination of R38's construction, the possibility of taking over the project was investigated. An agreement was reached in October 1919 for its purchase for £300,000,[9] and work on the airship was resumed.

Operational history[edit]

The R38/ZR-2 leaving its hangar for trials, showing the top gun platform.

The airship was to be given a curtailed series of tests before being handed over to the U.S. Navy, who would fly it across the Atlantic. J. E. M. Pritchard, the officer in charge of flight testing, proposed to carry out 100 hours of flight testing, including flights in rough weather, followed by 50 more flown by an American crew before crossing the Atlantic. The Air Ministry ruled that 50 hours would be sufficient.[10]

The R38 made its first flight on 23–24 June 1921, when it flew registered as R-38 but bearing the US serial number ZR-2;[11] the seven-hour flight revealed problems with over-balance of the control surfaces. With the balance area of the top rudder reduced, a second test flight was carried out on 17–18 July. The control balance problem remained, and, on return to Cardington, all the control surfaces were reduced in area. On 17–18 July, a third flight was made, during which the airship was flown from Cardington to Howden and then out over the North Sea, where the speed was increased to 58 mph (93 km/h), causing the ship to begin hunting over a range of around 500 ft (150 m). The highly experienced Pritchard took over the controls from the American coxswain and reduced the oscillation, but several girders in the vicinity of the midship engine cars had already failed. R.38 returned to Howden at reduced speed,[12] and work on reinforcing these girders was carried out and completed by 30 July at Howden.[13] There were increasing doubts being expressed about the design, including some made by Air Commodore E. M. Maitland, the very experienced commander of the Howden base.

Following a spell of bad weather, the airship was walked out on 23 August, and, in the early morning, took off for its fourth flight,[14] which had an intended destination of RNAS Pulham in Norfolk, where it could be moored to a mast (a facility unavailable at Howden). In the event, mooring proved impossible because of low cloud, and, so, the airship returned to sea for the night. The next day, after a brief speed trial (during which a speed of 71.9 mph (115.7 km/h) was reached), a series of turning trials was started at a speed of 62.7 mph (100.9 km/h) and an altitude of 2,500 ft (760 m).[15] At 17:37, while close offshore near Hull and watched by thousands of spectators, the structure failed amidships. Eyewitnesses reported seeing creases down the envelope before both ends drooped. This was followed by a fire in the front section, and then by an explosion which broke windows over a large area. The remains fell into the shallow waters of the Humber Estuary. Sixteen[16] of the 17 Americans, and 28 of the 32 Britons, in the crew were killed, including both Maitland and Pritchard.[17] The only American to survive was Rigger Norman C. Walker.[18] The five who survived were all in the tail section.[3] A memorial was erected at Hull.[3]

Rescuers scramble across the wreckage of British R-38/USN ZR-2, 24 August 1921.

There were three official enquiries into the disaster. The first, chaired by Air Vice-Marshal Sir John Salmond and composed mainly of RAF personnel, was convened on 27 August. Its remit was to consider the general circumstances of the accident, and, although it came to the conclusion that the structure had failed while extreme control forces were being exerted, it was considered necessary to carry out a more detailed technical inquiry into the airship's design. The report also criticized the system by which a single authority was responsible both for the airship's construction and for inspection of the work, and, given the great differences between R38 and previous British designs, held that the design should have been subjected to a more thorough scrutiny.[19]

The Admiralty held a second inquiry into the history of the design of the airship, and into its construction up to the point where it was taken over from the Admiralty by the Air Ministry. In contrast to the previous inquiry, this one concluded that the design did not incorporate any new features which affected the airship's strength, and further maintained that "there was at the time no body in existence which could have been called in to advise on the structural strength of R. 38."[20]

The technical Committee of Enquiry, chaired by Mervyn O'Gorman, concluded that no allowance had been made for aerodynamic stresses in the design, and that while no loads had been placed on the structure during testing that would not have been met in normal use, the effects of the manoeuvres made had weakened the hull. No blame was attached to anyone, as this was not part of the committee's remit.[21]

R38 memorial, Western Cemetery, Hull

Specifications (R38/ZR-2)[edit]

Data from Flight, 9 June 1921, p. 388 [1]

General characteristics

  • Crew: 28–30
  • Length: 695 ft in (211.83 m)
  • Diameter: 85 ft 4 in (26.0 m)
  • Volume: 2,700,000 ft3 (77,135 m3)
  • Useful lift: 185,900 lb (84,331 kg)
  • Powerplant: 6 × Sunbeam Cossack III V12 water-cooled piston engine, 350 hp (260 kW) each


  • Maximum speed: 71 mph (114 km/h)
  • Range: 6,500 miles (10,500 at cruising speed km)
  • Service ceiling: 22,000 ft (6,700 m)


  • 1 × one-pounder gun top (intended)
  • 24 × machine guns in twelve pairs (intended)
  • 4 × 520 lb (236 kg) bombs (intended)
  • 8 × 230 lb (105 kg) bombs (intended)
  • See also[edit]


    1. ^ Historic England. "Airship Monument in Hull (1512866)". PastScape. Retrieved 12 January 2013. "Entry includes considerable details about the ship, flight, and crash."
    2. ^ Driggs, Laurence La Tourette (7 September 1921). "The Fall Of The Airship". The Outlook. New York. 129: 14–15. Retrieved 30 July 2009.
    3. ^ a b c d e "R38/ZR2". The Airship Heritage Trust. Retrieved 14 December 2012.
    4. ^ Swinfield 2012, p. 78
    5. ^ Higham 1961, pp. 204–5.
    6. ^ Higham 1961, p. 207.
    7. ^ Robinson 1974, pp. 168–9
    8. ^ Swanborough, G. and Bowers, P. M. United States Navy Aircraft since 1912 (2nd ed.), p. 587. London: Putnam, 1976 ISBN 978-0-370-10054-8
    9. ^ Robinson 1974, p. 169
    10. ^ Robinson 1974, p. 170
    11. ^ "Airship R-38". Navy Historical Department. Retrieved 15 December 2013.
    12. ^ Higham 1961, p.221
    13. ^ "The Airship Disaster" (PDF). The Engineer: 231. 2 September 1921. Retrieved 13 July 2015.
    14. ^ Althof 2004, p. 4
    15. ^ Higham 1961, p. 222
    16. ^ US Navy photograph of plaque showing US losses
    17. ^ US Navy photograph of plaque showing British losses
    18. ^ Douglas H. Robinson, and Charles L. Keller. "Up Ship!": U.S. Navy Rigid Airships 1919–1935. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1982, page 220, note 36
    19. ^ "R.38 Court of Enquiry". Flight: 671. 13 October 1921.
    20. ^ "Editorial Comment". Flight: 31–2. 19 January 1922.
    21. ^ "The Accident to H.M. Airship R. 38"Flight, 2 March 1922, p. 139


    • Airshipsonline. 2006. Airshipsonline – Airship Heritage Trust: R38, last accessed 28 June 2008
    • Althof, William F. USS Los Angeles: The Navy's Venerable Airship and Aviation Technology. Brassey's, 2004, p. 4
    • Robinson, Douglas H., and Charles L. Keller. "Up Ship!": U.S. Navy Rigid Airships 1919–1935. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1982. ISBN 0-87021-738-0
    • Griehl, Manfred and Dressel Joachim , Zeppelin! The German Airship Story, 1990 ISBN 1-85409-045-3
    • Higham, Robin. The British Rigid Airship 1908–1931. Henley-on-Thames: Foulis, 1961.
    • Jamison, T. W. Icarus over the Humber, Lampada Press, 1994 ISBN 1-873811-03-9
    • Mowthorpe, Ces. Battlebags: British Airships of the First World War, 1995 ISBN 0-905778-13-8
    • Swinfield, John. Airship: Design, Development and Disaster. London: Conway, 2012. ISBN 978-1-84486-138-5
    • Lord Ventry and Eugene Kolesnik. Jane's Pocket Book 7 – Airship Development, 1976 ISBN 0-356-04656-7
    • Lord Ventry and Eugene Kolesnik. Airship saga: The history of airships seen through the eyes of the men who designed, built, and flew them , 1982, ISBN 0-7137-1001-2
    • BBC Humber article on the R38 disaster

    External links[edit]

    • "The "R.38" Disaster" (PDF). Flight. XIII (35): 589–592. 1 September 1921. No. 662. Retrieved 27 April 2012. Detailed contemporary report of the R38 accident, including survivors' accounts, early speculation on the cause, and reporting of official reactions. An editorial view is on pages 581–582.
    • "Honouring the Dead" (PDF). Flight. XIII (36): 606. 8 September 1921. No. 663. Retrieved 27 April 2012. Contemporary report of the funeral services for the R38 victims.
    • ""R.38" Court of Enquiry" (PDF). Flight. XIII (41): 671. 13 October 1921. No. 668. Retrieved 28 April 2012. Report of the Court of Enquiry on the R38 accident. An editorial comment is on pages 667–668.
    • Smith, Alfred Emanuel (21 September 1921). "Lessons of the ZR-2". The Outlook. 129: 80, 82. Retrieved 30 July 2009. Photograph of the crash site.