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 36
edited from the Airship Heritage Trust

Length 675ft
Diameter 78.5ft
Speed 65mph
Engines 2 x 260hp (from the
crashed L-71
) and
3 x 350hp
Volume 2, 101, 000cft

The unique R 36 was the first ship to carry civil registration for an Airship - G-FAAF, and was renowned for her passenger accommodation.

With the sudden flurry of airship production in the late part of the war, it was obvious that when the war finished that the decisions regarding the use of airships and their roles were to change. The R36 was one of the last batch of ships completed in the early 1920's which was force to change with the situations around it. This did prove however, that the ship could be certainly classed as multi role.

Designed and built by Beardmore in Scotland, the R 36 truly belonged to the lengthened "R 33" Class of the R 33 and R 34. Her original designs were produced by the new Airship Design Department and design work commenced in November of 1917. As with the R33, fate was dealt to the Allies when the L48 was forced to land at Courbonne-les-Bains in October of 1917, therefore handing over the Zeppelin design secrets to the Allies. The R36 and R37 were designed to be a stretched version of the L48, attaining more lift by adding another bay of some 33ft and giving her a total length of 672 ft. Her diameter was the same as the standard '33 class ship of 78ft 9in.

With the role of airships changing from a military scouting role, to more of a civilian role, it was agreed that the design concept of the R36 was to be altered during her initial construction phase. Although construction started during the war, the ship was not finished until well after and with hostilities ceased, the civil role of the ship was agreed. The main changes were that the command gondola, which had been designed as separated from main hull, was mounted flush with the hull (as with the R31 and R32). A civilian role for the ship was decided and the R36 was to be able to carry a passenger compliment of some 50 passengers whom would be able to be granted the latest comforts, and be able to sleep on board the ship in Pullman type accommodation. The only contemporary ships at the time which had been designed to even satisfy the requirements for passenger accommodation, were the LZ120 "Bodensee" and LZ121 "Nordstern" which when completed in 1921 could only carry up to 20 passengers. The project to convert the R36 was at the very least ambitious.

To fulfil the requirement for the passenger-carrying role, the R36 passenger car was designed to be attached to the hull behind the control car. The passenger accommodation straddled the centre of gravity within the ship, and therefore was able to have people walk about within it, without effecting the trim of the ship. Entry to the passenger accommodation was via the nose of the ship, as the bow mooring gear had added to the ship during construction. The passengers would walk down a covered triangular gangway along the keel, and then to a staircase which would lead them down to the passenger accommodation behind the control car. The car was 131ft long and 7ft 6inches height from floor to ceiling and 8ft 6inches wide at floor level. The sides of the car sloped upwards to adjoin the side of the airship hull, and a fairing at both ends were designed to reduce air resistance.

Inside the car were 25 double cabins arranged along the sides of the car. These cabins were arranged during the day with two wicker chairs and a folding table. At night two bunks were released on hinges and let down to provide the sleeping accommodation, with curtains screening off the cabins at night. It was noted that the wicker chairs, carpet and general finishing of the cabin were made of lush blue damask. A galley was provided for the provision of hot food to the passengers, along with two sets of lavatories and wash rooms. The "ladies" was places forward whilst the "gents" was placed next to the Galley amidships. A storeroom for provisions and luggage space was offered at the aft end of the car.


The crew consisted of 4 officers and 24 men. This also included A H Savidge who served as Chief Steward, and later went on to the later civil airships, R100 and R101. The crew accommodation was not within the main passenger car, but up within the hull as with the normal accommodation on the '33 class ships.

The R36 carried 5 engines, 3 of which were Sunbeam Maori types and two smaller engines were recycled from the crashed L71 and added to the front of the ship. This was the same engine configuration as used on the R101.

The R 36 was launched at 3.00pm 1st April 1921 at the Beardmore works at Inchinnan near Glasgow. The "Captain" of the ship was Flight Lt A. H. Wann, who later went on to a career with the R38. On her first trial flight, she flew over Glasgow and Renfrew before returning to the base, some 2 hours later. She was secured back in the shed by 6.45pm.

On the 2nd April 1921 the R36 made her delivery flight to Pulham. The idea being that this flight was to give the engines a good run and the ship the "settle", and also a chance for the crew to get the feel of the new ship and design. The ship left at 7.40pm on the cool evening with a 20-knot wind blowing. The ship flew down over the Forth Bridge, rounded St Abbs Head, and then over Berwick, then turned south towards Pulham. Arriving at 8.00am the next morning, April 4th, the R36 was to remain in flight over the airfield for crew tests then eased down, and then finally moored at 12.15 to the mast. The journey time of 15 hours and 35 minutes, covering some 412 miles.

The next day April 5th 1921 the R36 a demonstration flight had been ordered and with some representatives from the Air Ministry on board, the R36 left Pulham at 07.25am bound for the outskirts of London. Conditions became turbulent when the R36 was crossing Chorley Wood and continued to do so. Continuing down to near Salisbury Plain, the ship rose up to 6,000ft when she began manoeuvres. In the turbulent air, the R36 began to start a fast turn of 130 degrees with the engine revs increased. During this turn a wind sheer managed, with the turbulent air, put severe pressure on the rudder and hence caused the top rudder and starboard elevator to crumple. This caused the ship to fall rapidly for about 3,000ft whereby the ship had attained a severe nose down angle, but this was arrested and the ship was managed under control and re-trimmed using both crew and water ballast. The R36 climbed back up to 4,500ft and immediate repairs were made to the damaged control surfaces at the rear of the ship. The demonstration flight was aborted and the ship limped home on her one remaining rudder and elevator, and running the engine speeds to give a degree of directional control. The ship finally made it back to Pulham at 9.15pm, however there was no room to house the ship, as the Pulham shed contained the R33 and the two German Zeppelin, L64 and L71. The R33 was quickly taken out of the shed and moored to the mast, and the R36 moved in to the shed next to the two German ships.

The repairs were carried out on the ship to repair and strengthen her rudders and elevators. The R 36 came out on the evening of 8th June for a test flight. Even though she had been fully loaded for a long flight, it was decided that the ship would only undertake a local flight for 2hours 15 minutes then returned and secured at 8.15pm.

The next morning, 9th June at 9.26am the R 36 undertook an extensive flight of 11 hours. Flying cross-country towards Nottingham, then up towards Manchester and Liverpool, then return to Pulham. She secured her moorings at 8.30 in the evening after a flight of 11 hours.

The role of the R36 was now coming under scrutiny and it was deemed that the trail flights were to continue and ideas emerged that the ship should start to take a role within the Empire communications plan. The idea that the ship should try a circular route around the Mediterranean and a non stop flight to the Middle East. These ideas are not so far fetched, as contemporary sources believed the ship had the range and the speed to carry this out. Whether in practice she could have carried out such demonstration flights, we would never know.

The 10th June the R36 was loaded up again for another longer test flight. At 10.00pm in the evening, the ship slipped the mast, and made her way southwest, towards London. At 1.00am on the next day, the ship altered course for Southampton and by 4.00am the ship was over Portsmouth, and out to the Solent. An impressive speed as today the same journey by rail takes nearly 5 hours. The ship climbed to 3,500 ft and headed out over the Solent and set a course towards the Channel Islands. The passengers could see France some 21 miles away and would have had a spectacular view over the ocean in wonderful accommodation. Sark was seen just 2 miles away to the starboard. Passing over St Helier, the ship turned and headed back to the base, travelling towards Lizard, in Cornwall. Crossing Cornwall and Devon, the ship took advantage of a following wind and flew up towards Swindon, Oxford and Aylesbury. Crossing the Home Counties of Buckingham, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire, then heading towards Suffolk, the ship came in sight of Pulham at 01.05am. At 4.00am on the 12th June the R36 was secured to the mast. The R36 completed an epic voyage with considerable ease over mixed conditions of land and sea, for 29hours and 54 minutes, of which 446 miles was over land and 288 miles over sea, a total of 734 miles.

The R36's high profile passenger accommodation allowing her to fulfil a number of different roles gave cause for a number of requests for the use of the ship. The Metropolitan Police requested that the ship be used for aiding in communication traffic congestion around the Ascot Races. The original "eye in the sky" would be used to signal to the local Police Force the areas of congestion from above the races.

Only 2 days after the epic long distance test, the R36 was slipped from her mast at 07.31am on 14th June with a passenger compliment of both representatives of the police force and journalists on board for the flight. The ship flew southwest towards Wembley and Ealing making 60mph, and then turning towards Windsor Great Park. At 9.45am the R36 was in position and was watching the roads of Staines and Windsor, reporting to the police on the ground. A summer lunch of hams and salad with beer, fruit salad followed by cheese and biscuits was served by Steward A H Savidge as the ship cruised the countryside surrounding the racecourse. At 2.00pm the ship overflew the Croydon airfield as the journalists dropped their reports by parachute to be sent by motorcycle courier up to Fleet Street in London to make the papers.

As with great British traditions, afternoon tea was served at 4.00pm and it was noted that the food and beverages on offer were comparable to the grand scale of lunch. The ship returned to her traffic reporting duty in the late afternoon as the traffic built up after the race meeting. The ship then turned for home, crossing North Hertfordshire and Knebworth house on route home to Pulham. The R36 was moored at 10.00pm that day. A round aerial cruise of some 556 miles for 14 and a half-hours, carrying 60 passengers and crew.

The gruelling trials continued and the next day the ship was readied on 17th June for another demonstration flight, this time to Members of Parliament. A simple summer afternoon flight of 3 hours around the Norfolk and Suffolk countryside.

On 21st June the ship slipped her mast at 8.00am for another trial flight. Flying north from the airship station, the continued up the coast as far as Scarborough in Yorkshire. There she turned in land and headed for York and returned via Howden and south to Cramwell, which she reached at 5.45pm. Turning and heading in an easterly direction, she headed off home towards Norwich. When coming in to land at Pulham, Commander Scott took over from Lt Irwin and decided to direct the landing himself. The mooring rope was dropped at 9.15pm and secured to the mast. However the ship approached the mast far too quickly and the rope fouled the bottom of the mast and brought the ship up with such a jerk that two of the forward emergency ballast bags released their contents. The bows pitched up sharply and the full length of her cable halted the ship. The strain caused the bows to collapse at frame 1. The ship was eased down and put in the hands of the handling party. By 10.00pm it was decided that the ship be accommodated in a shed immediately. However the only vacant space was back at Howden as all the berths at Pulham were full and the mast was incapable of accommodating a ship.

The wind began to pick up and it was then decided that urgent action be taken. The sacrifice of the L64 ensued as, unable to get the ship out of the shed, it was decided that the L64 be lowered to the shed floor, and everyone on the base, be set about to dismantle the ship with hacks and saws. By 2.00am on the 22nd June there were enough space cleared to accommodate the R36 and the ship eased in to the shed. This is always a tricky manoeuvre and, as found with the German Zeppelins, an airship is at it's most vulnerable when being brought in to or out of the hanger. Whilst being moved in to the shed, a gust of wind caused the side of the ship to slam against the shed doors and caused damage to her port side amidships.

The ship was finally secured at 7.00am on 22nd June. It was noted that Lt Irwin broke down when he saw how much damaged had been done to the ship. The official court of inquiry records that the blame fell on equipment failure.

With the R36 in her shed, and the whole airship scheme under considerable review, it was decided to leave the ship in the hanger and start repairs until such time a decision sa to what exactly was to be done with the British airships. One consideration following the crash of the R38 was offered by Commander Scott in the setting up of a private company with the intention of selling the R36 to the Americans as a replacement for the loss of the R38.

Two years later, with the revival of the Airship Scheme in 1924 the provision of the refurbishment of the R33 and R36 was incorporated in to the idea that the ship be used for testing the routes on the Imperial Airship Scheme. A grant of 13,800 (483,477 today) was given to have the ship refurbished and this was undertaken. A replacement outer cover was added to the ship. The idea being that the R36 would carry out a non-stop flight to Ismailia in Egypt to gather meteorological and other data on the trip. Work was finished in August of 1925 and the ship was due to fly in the October of that year. It was recalculated that the ship would not have enough disposable lift for the journey, having a lift of some 16.5 tons for fuel and passengers. It was therefore decreed that the flight be cancelled. As the airship scheme continued to gather momentum with the design concepts for the larger 5,000,000 cft ships, the R36, designed some 8 years earlier, would not fit the current requirements. The R36 remained in the hanger until June of 1926 when it was decided that the ship be scrapped and she was dismantled.

It is with interest to note that there is a set of plans for the R101 in the Public Record office, showing a concept drawing of the ship with the exact same engine configuration and a totally external passenger car, similar in design shape and style to that of the R36. This of course was later evolved in to the R101 design as well known today.

Even though the R36 was initially built to be a military airship, her conversion in to a civil role proved that she could carry out the flights and provide comfort and luxury which was later continued in the larger ships. She was a groundbreaking airship who in 1921 had a passenger compliment larger than contemporary airships to even that of the Los Angeles and Graf Zeppelin. She would only be surpassed by the later ships of the R100 and R101 in passenger comfort. Her unique lines and layout gave her a sleek style all her own and not copied or surpassed by any other airship ever built.