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 38
edited from the Airship Heritage Trust

Length 695ft
Diameter 85.5ft
Speed 71mph
Engines 6 x 350hp
Volume 2, 724,000cft

The original plans for the R38 were laid down as part of an order by the Government for a series of ships at the latter part of the first world war. In November 1916 the Cabinet authorised plans for 2 ships, based on the crashed L33.These were to become the R33 and R34. In January of 1917, more spending was agreed and 3 more ships were ordered, designated the R35, R36 and R37. In the following June of that year, the L48 was brought down in Suffolk and it was agreed that the plans for the three ships be altered to follow the latest designs of the Germans. The discovery that the L48 was a new "height climber" meant that the three new ships would be altered as follows :-

R 35 to have an extra cell installed and required to have a height ceiling of 16,500 ft
R 36 to have an extra cell, to be lightened and to have a height ceiling of 17,000 ft
R 37 to have the same modifications as the R36.

In June of 1918 the Admiralty made requirements for a ship to be build which would "be required to patrol the North Sea for 6 days without support, as far as 300 miles from a home base." It was to have a combat ceiling of 22,000ft, and required to carry enough fuel for 65 hours at full speed of 70.6 mph. It was agreed that a further ship be ordered and the new ship, classed as the "Admiralty A Class" was designated the R38. The ship was also to be armed for defence of ships on escort duty and for attacking other aggressors :-

4x 520 lb of bombs
8x 230lb of bombs
1x 1pdr gun on gun platform on the top of the ship
12 pairs of machine guns spread along the top of the ship, the lower gun pit, and throught the gondolas.

The order was given to Shorts Brothers at Cardington, and in February 1919 work started on the ship which would become the largest airship in the world. With the work commencing on the ship, the order was given for sister ships of R39, R40 and R41 be constructed, and design/structural work was begun. However the with end of the war in November of 1918, and a sudden down-turn in the economy, Treasury expenditure was revised. Under Treasury restrictions on expenditure it was decided that the R29 and R2 be broken up, R34 to be retained for air service, and R33 probably turned over to a commercial company which will also take the R80. The ships R35, R39, R40 and R41 were immediately cancelled. These changes on policy always hampered the construction and life of the R38 and the airship works at Cardington.


R 38 Control Car under construction

R 38 at Howden shed


R 38 Engines under construction

Later that year, it was proposed that the R38 order was cancelled, as Cardington had been “Nationalised” under the Defence of the Realm Act. The Shorts Brothers were paid £40,000 in compensation for the cancellation, and the loss of the Cardington premises which became know as the Royal Airship Works. The future looked bleak for the British airships with the consideration that the ships would be given away to a commercial company so that the Air Ministry would no longer have to be responsible for them.

However, following the Armistice and the division of the remaining German Zeppelins amongst the European allies in the Treaty Of Versailles, the Americans still wanted a large rigid airship and so to gain experience in this field, the R38 contract was offered to them in October 1919. For the sum of $2,500,000 the British agreed to provide the Americans with an brand new and unique airship, and also offer training for her officers and crews. The contract was agreed, and it was also agreed that each country would equally borne the sharing of any possible loss. In this price was included the use of the R32 and R80 for training the crews. America also had to prepare for the delivery of the worlds largest airship, and advised that they could not expect to receive the ship for at least one year in order that they could make arrangements for it's housing in the United States.

The whole process of building was restated. Designed as a match to the “Zeppelin Height-Climbers” the R38 was to be a high altitude, high speed airship. Slow progress was made on the ship, and when the contract was originally agreed with the United States, a delivery date of "late 1920" was agreed upon. However. The staff at Cardington were concerned when the work on the R37, which was being built in the bay beside the R38 was halted. The workmen on the R37 were then laid off when it was decided not to progress on the ship. Of course this worried the construction staff working on the R38 as there were no further workorders coming through the airship factory. The ship was finally completed on 7th June 1921. The pressure to get the ship "flying" was noted as there was not time to change the registration of the ship from R38 to the designated the ZRII by the American’s. It was agreed that the ship would fly with this US insignia markings on the outer cover but also with her "British" Registration R38, on her first flight, and have the conversion completed to the ZRII when she reached her Howden base.

On 23rd June 1921 she was launched from Cardington, and delivered to Howden in Yorkshire. Minor girder damage had been caused in flight by various stresses and the suggestion was made that strength had been sacrificed to achieve lightness. Later test flights were not conclusive about the strength of the ship.

Wreckage of the R38 being salvaged from the Humber.

23rd August 1921, the R38/ ZRII was now ready for her 4th trial flight. Now resplendent in her American livery, the ship was to fly from Howden to Pulham in Norfolk and carry our height and speed tests over the North Sea. The Following completion of the trials she flew over the coast to land at Pulham. The original plans were to have at least 150 hours of intensive flight trials for all crews on the new ship, however it was decided that once airworthiness was agreed then the ship be handed over to the Americans with their agreement. This meant that the planned 150 hours were not required and the ship fly down to Pulham, moor on the mast and be loaded up ready for her transatlantic delivery to Lakehurst New Jersey. When the ship flew in low over Norfolk, the airship station was obscured by fog and so it was agreed that the ship would fly our over the North Sea and spend the night over water. When she returned in the morning to the airship station, the airfield was still obscured by thick fog, it was then agreed that the ship return to Howden and carry out more trials en route that day. At approximately 17.00 on the 24th August Disaster struck on a test flight during a tight turn over the Humber near Hull.


Eyewitness reports confirmed that the ship seemed to crumple along mid section and then the front section broke away and detonated. The nose section detonating in two explosions killing 44 crew. Five members of the crew in the tail section were saved from the wreckage as it did not catch fire.

The tail section tilted and fell towards the Humber estuary, but was not alight. The official report attributes structural weakness as the cause of the crash, however the board of enquiry did not offer any technical opinions of the disaster. However the ship had been build far stronger than the comparable L-71, but the L-71 was not capable of being manoeuvred as sharply, and protected from higher stresses as exerted on the R38/ZRII.

In March 1922 the Air Ministry, following Commander Scott's investigations suggested that the R36 be given to the United States as part compensation. The United States would have to bear the $30,000 expense of repairs and inflation of the ship and upkeep of Pulham after 31st March and the risks of the transoceanic flight. The Air Ministry would not approve the R36 being flown across the Atlantic by an American Crew and so Scott was to be the Commander. The US department of Aeronautics declined the offer. The final interest the US had in the R38 was the settlement of the accounts.

Three quarters of the $2,000,000 of the contract price had been paid with the final $500,000 being due on acceptance of the ship. It was agreed by both Governments that the ship was lost before delivery and hence both were equally liable for the loss. The total loss of the R38/ZRII was calculated at $1,964,334.

There is some evidence of what the US were going to do with the ZRII had she not been destroyed. In 1923 it was hoped that both the ZRII and the completed ZRI would be in operation. The ZRII to be based at Lakehurst and the ZRI on the west coast of America. Although primarily to be used in it's original role of scout and escort ships, there would be some cruises over continental United States in order that the cost of airship operation for commercial concerns be evaluated, and of course to stimulate the public interest. Potable mooring masts would be facilitated and it was hoped that "municipalities" would erect masts at their own expense.

The people of Hull still recall the loss of the R38 and there are still many eye witnesses coming forward with details of their own accounts of the loss.