aviation comes of age

the dirigible
the great airships


Ferdinand von Zeppelin
Zeppelin passenger ships
Zeppelin posters
Hindenburg disaster

HMA 1 Mayfly
HMA 23
R 31
R 32
R 33
R 34
R 36
R 38
R 80
R 100
The R101 airship disaster

USS Los Angeles
the Akron
the Macon


The R 34
edited from the Airship Heritage Trust

To the members of her crew, His Majesty's Airship R.34 was known as 'Tiny' - inevitably. The ship was enormous: as big as a contemporary 'Dreadnought' battleship. Her overall length from bow to stern was 643 ft, twice as long as a football field; her maximum diameter was 79 ft and her overall height just short of 92 ft. Her cost was around 350,000 and her total gas capacity was 1,950,000 cubic ft, giving a gross lift of about 59 tons and a disposable lift, when the weight of the structure and permanent fittings was discounted, of 26 tons. Like her sister ship, five engines were fitted, each of 250 h.p.

At the time, German technical development had been kept a close watch on and R.34, in particular, had departed from the engine plan of L.33 to follow instead that of the later and more advanced L.49, which had been forced to land in France in October 1917. The former ship had boasted six engines: one to each of the three forward propellers, one to the rear propeller and two driving small 'wing' propellers by shaft. On the latter vessel, the designers had done away with this cumbersome arrangement, eliminating one engine and the two wing propellers entirely, harnessing the power of two rear engines to a single enlarged propeller.

Length 643ft
Diameter 79ft
Speed 62mph
Engines 5 x 270hp
Volume 1, 950, 000cft

Construction began at the Beardmore Inchinnan airship factory in 1918 . The whole framework was varnished to prevent atmospheric corrosion and heavily braced by wiring.. Lengths of linen fabric were stretched between each pair of frames, where they were attached by laces. Narrow strips were then glued over the lacing and the covering of the hull was painted with dope containing aluminium powder, to reflect sunlight and so reduce superheating. In the chambers formed by the main circumferential frames and the longitudinal girders were the gasbags, nineteen in all and made of one thickness of rubber-proofed cotton cloth, varnished and lined with goldbeaters' skins. Each gasbag was contoured to fill all the available space and was surrounded by cord mesh to prevent chafing against the girders. Following the same design as the R33, beneath the main body of the airship, suspended by long, wooden struts and braced rigging wires, were four small gondolas.

As designed in the R33, the forward gondola, some fifty feet long and although to outward appearances a single unit, was actually made up of two parts separated by a narrow gap, intended to prevent vibration from the engine affecting the W .T. equipment. Incorporated in the forward section were a control room and a small wireless cabin, below which, during flight, trailed a long aerial. The control cabin, which was fronted with 'Triplex' safety glass and had handling rails mounted on each side. Here were the steering and elevator wheels the gas-valve controls, the engine telegraph, the various navigational and WT instruments, and the toggles controlling the emergency forward water ballast. Connecting control-cabin with the keel was a ladder, protected from the elements by a streamlined canvas cover. Another cover similarly enclosed the numerous control-wires connections that led up into the hull. In the rear section of the forward gondola was the first of the engines, driving a single pusher propeller 17-ft in diameter. In the middle of the lower hull amidships were the two smaller 'wing' gondolas, housing an engine together with reversing gear -a refinement that enabled the airship, which could be operated if those in the main control-cabin failed. The rear car was ringed with a rail to assist handlers, and as with the forward gondola, two 'bumping bags' of compressed air were positioned underneath to help cushion landing shocks.

Each of the five engines was a Sunbeam 'Maori': a new type, designed for the Wolverhampton firm by a Frenchman, Louis Coatalen and intended specifically for airship use, but clearly inferior to the Rolls Royce engines used by earlier British rigids. Unfortunately, no Rolls Royce engines could be made available, as all those produced were now reserved for aeroplane use, and the Sunbeams had been accepted reluctantly. Each engine had twelve water- cooled cylinders, which were intended to produce full power at a theoretical 2,100 r.p.m., although in practice, it was rare for 1,600 r .p.m. to be exceeded. In the forward and wing cars, the radiators were mounted externally and controlled by folding shutters. The after gondola of R.34, containing two engines geared to one propeller.

The engines were each fitted with a hand starter, while the drive to the propellers was through a sliding dog-clutch, a Hele Shaw clutch and a reduction gearbox with a ratio of 1 : 3.86. The clutch enabled the engine to be started and warmed up before flight without incurring danger to the handling-party, and made it easier to carry out repairs in the air. If the engine should be stopped during flight, the disconnected propeller could rotate freely in the air stream to reduce head resistance, although if it was required to remain stationary for landing or any other reason, a special brake was provided for this purpose. Assuming that the airship was still moving forwards, the engine might then be started by releasing the brake and engaging the clutch again.

In addition to the gondolas, a considerable amount of space was available also inside the hull and invisible to the outside observer. Running almost the entire length of the ship was a long keel corridor, consisting of a succession of A-shaped frames standing on the two lowest girders, and with three auxiliary longitudinal girders of their own to fence off the surrounding gasbags. At its widest part, this corridor was about 10 ft across, narrowing somewhat towards the extremities. Leading to the wing and after cars were narrow ladders, fully exposed to the force of the elements. It had been discovered following tests on R.33 that the turning co-efficient of the two airships was 6.4 , giving a minimum turning circle some 4,100 ft in diameter. However, so strong was the effect of the slipstream of the after propeller acting on the rudder, that with the forward engine still and the wing propellers both running in reverse, it was possible to pivot either ship on herself.

Designed slimmer than the theoretical ideal, the aerodynamic shape of R.34 was a distinct improvement on most earlier designs -her total air resistance being only seven per cent of a hypothetical flat disc of the same diameter. In later airships, this was reduced even further, but in her own day the streamlining of R.34 was excellent and twice as effective as that of her British predecessors. Even though the R34 was designed during a time of war, the R.34 was never fitted with a full armament. In addition to bomb racks, the original plan had been to include a ventral 'gun house' behind the rear car, which would carry a one-pounder Pom-Pom and two Lewis machine guns. Another Lewis gun was to be mounted on the rear platform behind the tail, while six more were to be shared equally among the two wing-cars, the forward gondola and the top gun platform. Further arsenal of weapons included a two-pounder quick-firing gun was to be placed on each side of the hull and two more were to join the Lewis guns on top. This heavy armament, which was presumably intended for defence against German zeppelins, and in the event the gun house was never fitted and the number of guns considerably, reduced. The original spec showed that her bomb-load was quite considerable: twenty at 100 lb and four at 550 lb.

The firm of William Beardmore and Company Ltd. , of Inchinnan, near Glasgow, began work on R.34 on 9 December 1917 and she was completed just over a year later on. By the time R.34 was ready for her test flights, the war was over and she was too late to see active service. But on 30th December, while bad weather delayed the trial flight, Admiralty agreed to lend their airships to the Air Ministry for long-distance trials. R.34 was specifically mentioned. Preparations H.M.A.R.34 was completed in December 1918 and her lift and trim trials were carried out successfully on the 20th of that month. But because of the persistently bad weather it was not until the following March that she left her hangar at lnchinnan, near Glasgow, where the Beardmore Company had their works.

On 14 March, R.34 was brought out from her hangar and her crew began the task of accustoming themselves on the ship. The maiden flight lasting nearly five hours, was uneventful and the ship was returned safely to her shed. On 24th March, despite cold, windy conditions with intermittent fog, snow and hail, R.34 left lnchinnan in the late afternoon for a more extended trial. She flew down the Clyde, and then turned to fly over the North of England, towards Newcastle, then turned and returned via Liverpool, over the Irish Sea to Dublin, and returned via the Isle of Man. During this trial it was discovered that her elevator had jammed down, lifting the nose up, after bringing the ship to an even keel, the ship was nursed home to Scotland. No real damage had been done, but on return on the base, the ship was badly handled by the ground crew, which caused damage to her propellers and some of the main girders. The damage caused the ship to be laid up to be repaired, it was this incident which caused the delay in the trip to the USA, and hence loosing the title of the "first to cross the Atlantic" to Alcock and Brown. The

R34 was ready for service again at 6.00pm on 28th May and the ship left Inchinnan for her new home of East Fortune, the main airship base on the Firth of Forth. The R34 was enveloped in fog and so headed out to sea to wait an improvement in the landing conditions . The ship had to wait longer than expected and finally landed at 3.30pm the next afternoon, the crew hungry after 21 hours as no food had been carried on board this flight. The plans for the transatlantic voyage were hurried forward . Two weeks after arriving at East Fortune, the R34 flew with the R29 over Edinburgh and Berwick. This short 6-hour flight was to confirm the stability of the ship. On the evening of the 17th June 1919 the R34 was sent on an endurance voyage to give her a proper test before her major flight. The idea was that the ship would be scouting the German Baltic Shores. The ship carried out its duties and also flew up to Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The ship landed after this endurance trial on the morning of the 20th June after a trip of 54 hours.

The Air Ministry had now finally decided to take the R34 to the USA, and a northerly coastal route was decided in case the ship ran out of fuel, then she would never be too far from landfall. Two warships, the Renown and Tiger were offered as supply vessels in case the ship would come in to difficulty and also to offer meteorological reports. It was agreed that if the ship did get in to difficulty, then the R34 would be taken in tow. The plans which were being arranged in New York were the supply of hydrogen for the ship, and a party of 8 experienced airmen were dispatched to America to arrange and train the main part of the American ground crew. The American s had at that time, no experience of a rigid airship.

At the Admiralty, a room was set a side for wireless messages. A map was also provided for the ship's progress. At East Fortune, further alterations were being made to the ship itself for the voyage. Food lockers replaced bomb racks, which had been installed at her construction, and a compass was placed on the upper gun platform in order that the magnetic field would not be interfered with by any of the electrical equipment. Additional tables and new wash basins were added in the crew space, and furnished with lightweight curtains to stop the drafts from the interior of the hull. Along the keel an additional 24 petrol tanks were fitted bringing the total fuel capacity to some 6,000 gallons.

The crew were divided in to two watches for the trip. In addition to the RNAS uniforms, the crew was issued with heavy duty flying suits, which were redesigned to include parachute harnesses and integral life saving collars.

On 1st July 1921 the ship was gassed to its limit and loaded to its full capacity, and by the end of the evening the ship was ready to go. The ships official departure time was set at 2.00am (GMT) on 2nd July in order to obtain the maximum lift from her gasbags. The ship was eased out of her shed slowly by 700 members of the handling party. The weather forecast was favourable and Major Scott decided not to wait any longer, and at 1.42 am (GMT) the signal to release was given and the R34 lifted slowly in to the misty night sky.

The engines were signalled to commence and the propellers roared into life. The ship was on the way to America, but was so loaded for the journey, that even with the forward momentum of the engines, she very slowly gained height. The R34 travelled along the Firth of Forth, then at a height of 1,300ft she cleared Rosyth, Glasgow, and down the Clyde by daybreak.

Life on board began to settle in to routine of the agreed scheduled watches, meals and rest times. Strains of jazz could be heard through the ship from the gramophone , which was carried on board for the entertainment of the crew. Crossing the ocean, the morning fog lifted and the crew saw that they were stuck between two cloud layers, the upper obscuring the sun. The wireless operators were finding that these weather conditions were causing electrostatic shocks from the equipment. The clouds soon parted and the sun broke through. Major Scott was wary of the effect of superheating on the gasbags, and wanted to avoid at all costs the valving of hydrogen at this early stage of the flight, and so he bought the ship down low into the layer of fog, which protected the ship from the sunshine and soon cooled the gas. The ship carried on with her voyage at a steady pace, and standard routines.

The main upset occurred at 2.00pm on the first day. It was discovered that a stowaway had managed to creep on board the ship, and hide up in-between the girders and the gasbags inside the hull of the ship. Before starting on the voyage, it was decided that some of the members of the crew, including W.W. Ballantyne , must be left behind, the numbers being limited of necessity to thirty on the voyage. Two hours before the flight, William Ballantyne managed to climb back on board the ship, and hid himself in the darkness of the ship. He had also carried with him, the crews' mascot, a small tabby kitten called "Whoopsie". Both of these stowaways had hidden themselves. But the cramped conditions and the fact that the smell of the gas had made Ballantyne nauseous, made him give up and come out of hiding.

The dishevelled stowaway was brought in front of Major Scott and Maitland, and it was decided that there was actually nothing they could do about it. It was agreed that had they been over land then Ballantyne would have been put overboard by parachute, but as the next landfall was in fact America, he was to stay on board. The only problem that could occur was the strain on the very limited and controlled resources. Having been quite ill for some time, he was rested on one of the hammocks, and attended to by Lieutenant Luck. When he recovered, Ballantyne was, as with traditional stowaways, made to work his passage as cook and often having to hand pump the petrol into the tanks. As to the second stowaway, Whoopsie, it was deemed that the oldest airman on board, 42 year old George Graham accepted responsibility for the cat, and Whoopsie worked her passage throughout the rest of the voyage, providing entertainment and comfort to the other crew members.

The weather slowly worsened, and all the ships engines were engaged to full power as the wind speed increased and a storm began to approach. The next morning the R34 was halfway across the Atlantic but the weather was continuing to deteriorate. However throughout the day there were some breaks in the weather causing the ship to be able to view the transatlantic shipping traffic below, for some 50 miles in each direction. By the evening the weather became increasing stormy and the wind turned head on to the ship. Coming up from the southeast, the winds were blowing at about 50mph causing the ship to fight her way forwards and sideways.

Throughout the night, Major Scott tried to move the ship up higher to avoid the wind, but if was found to be the same at each level. By morning the cloudbank had moved away and clear skies brought a sight of a 150ft iceberg below the ship, further behind it smaller bergs and pack ice was visible. The clouds soon returned as Newfoundland was not far off the ship, and fog enveloped the ship once more. Concern was beginning to show by Major Scott as there were no gauges on the petrol tanks and use of the dipstick showed that there were only some 2,200 gallons of petrol left. With further strong headwinds expected down the coast, the thought of getting to New York without stopping was looking more unlikely every hour that drew on.

The ship flew over Labrador and at 12.50 the land was sighted for the first time. Now the ship had to follow the coast down and head for it's landing place at New York. With only 500 gallons of fuel left, the ship was bought down to 800ft to try and escape the worst of the headwinds. From this height, the crew had superb views of the North American forests and could see, smell and hear every detail. The ship had been in the air for 4 days and the crew was beginning to tire. Emergency preparations were tentatively being made in Boston for emergency landing there, but the ship continued on her voyage. Each fuel tank was inspected and whatever was left in the bottom of the tanks was collected and poured in to the main tanks to keep the engines running. Major Scott made the decision to continue onto the agreed landing area at Mineola, Long Island, New York. In the last hour of the flight, the crew busied themselves in making themselves presentable.

By 9.00am Mineola came in to view. All the car parks were full and a huge grandstand had been erected for local and national dignitaries. Major Pritchard donned a parachute and whilst the ship circled overhead, dropped to the ground and became the first man to arrive in America by air. He hastily arranged the ground crews, and helped ease the ship to the ground. The R34 landed at 9.54am after 108 hours 12 minutes flying time. This became the world endurance record breaking that set previously by the British NS 11. There were 140 gallons of fuel left on board, which was sufficient only for another 2 hours flying at reduced power.

The ship was only in America for 3 days. During this time the crew were allowed to rest and have hot showers, they attended a constant series of events where they were saluted for their historic crossing. The people of New York lavished their generosity on the crew and they were bombarded with offers of invitations to formal functions during their stay. The engineering crew stayed with the ship ready to give the engines a long-awaited overhaul and a full check over in preparation for their return voyage home. It was found that that no repairs were necessary and the engines had performed well. The propellers had accumulated a thick coating of engine oil and this was proudly removed by a local firm, free of charge and just happy to offer assistance to the crew and to the ship.

The R34 was in very good shape, and moored to a three-wire system at the bows, whose own lift kept the wires taut. The crew returned to the ship and provisions were loaded back onto the ship for her return voyage. The final preparation was to gas the ship, and this was carried out using thousands of cylinders of hydrogen gas. As with the flight to America, the R34 would be gassed to capacity again, and await the coolest part of the day to depart, and so the ship was finally launched at 6 minutes to midnight on Wednesday July 10th. The great crowd which had always been around the R34 her entire time in America gave a huge cheer, and the ship was launched.

The wind had picked up before the launch and was gusting at 30mph, which caused concern, but the ship cleared the landing field, and made her way eastwards. As a gesture of gratitude to the city, which had generously hosted her crews, the R34 flew towards the illuminated metropolis. The ship made her way up to a height of 2,000ft as Major Scott was unsure of the height of the skyscrapers. Searchlights illuminated the ship as she flew over the city and, despite it being 1.00am in the morning; thousands of well wishers took to the city streets and rooftops to wave. The ship then turned out to the sea and headed on towards home.

Very good progress was made during the night as the ship had the advantage of a strong tail wind, and her speed increased to 90mph as she flew in the prevailing air current. The forward engine was rested and still the ship was managing to race along at 90 mph. The crew was unprepared for the swiftness of their eastward crossing of the Atlantic. It was considered that, as the R 34 was gaining time on her voyage and not expending much of her fuel compared to her outward journey, the ship change her flight route and fly over London before returning to East Fortune. The return home was uneventful, and the standard ship routine continued. The only problem occurred when an engineer fell against the clutch of an engine causing the engine to be freed and race until destruction because the connecting rods fractured.

The repairs could not be made in flight and so the engine was stopped, but this in no way impeded the speed of the ship. Due to this event and not having any spare power in case of emergencies, it was decided to cancel the voyage over London and head straight home. It was not until the final evening at midnight when a message was received from the Air Ministry to divert the ship from landing at East Fortune, but go directly to Pulham. It was initially due to bad weather at East Fortune, but a few hours later a message from East Fortune confirmed the weather conditions had improved. A request was put in to the Air Ministry to have the ship return to East Fortune but this was turned down and the ship was ordered to Pulham. No reason was ever given for this change in plan and no explanation can be found for it. The ship carried across the English countryside and came, rather quietly to Pulham Air Station at 6.57 GMT to be welcomed by the RAF personnel, which was rather quieter than that which greeted the ship at New York, and than expected at East Fortune.

The return journey had taken three days three hours and three minutes. The ship had travelled some 7,420 miles on this voyage at an average speed of 43 mph.