Saturday, 18 April 2015

Ghosts of Imperial Airships

Lying apparently forgotten In the middle of the Bedfordshire countryside are two hangers so large they could be mistaken for vast upturned ocean liners made from corrugated iron. The patches of rust from as yet un-restored parts (only one corner now) are a relief to the eyes in that they are the only way of judging the scale of these enormous structures which date back to the early 1930s and are Grade Two listed buildings.
Cardington as seen from side road (white van bottom right)

GoogleMap screenshot of Bedford showing scale of Cardington (bottom right)
This is Cardington, for most of it's life regarded as a monument to technological arrogance and an embarrassing Imperial folly. Now - not so much. I'll get onto my visit to Hybrid Air Vehicles in Hanger 1 in the next post, but for this one I just want to convey the grandeur of these buildings and their environs. This isn't just the ultimate post of a man loving a shed - it's an appreciation of a nexus of alternative realities.

Main doors, Hanger 1
Cardington was to be the base of the Imperial Airship Scheme, the 1920s-30s effort to link the already crumbling British Empire together with a fleet of world spanning lighter than air liners based on the work of Count von Zeppelin.

Such was the importance of the project two gigantic airships were built to test the concept. The first, the R100, was built to a strict budget using tried materials and techniques by a private company (Vickers, in Yorkshire) and designed by a promising young designer called Barnes Wallis, who would go on to become an engineering legend immortalised as the creator of the bouncing bomb in THE DAMBUSTERS. The other airship, the R101 which was increasingly seen as a competitive exercise, was built as a government project actually at Cardington. Government was Labour at the time and so the papers dubbed the R100 the 'Capitalist' airship and the R101 the 'Socialist' airship. To be more accurate one was built by engineers using established engineering techniques, and the other was built by a committee to a timetable.

The unfolding tragedy is explained best by Nevile Shute in his book Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer, which we have to take as the authoritative source as he was a designer on the R100 at the time. It is summarised well here

Un-restored corner of Hanger 1
The R100 was an unqualified success and made a maiden trip to Canada. Amongst many of  Barnes Wallis's innovations, including the strong, light geodesic construction that would be used in Wellington aircraft in World War 2, the R100 was designed to be easily mass produced by materials and factories already available in Britain at the time.

The R101 was a disaster even before it left the drawing board. Pushed into a maiden flight to India by political pressure, before it was ready and in the middle of a raging storm, it crashed in France killing 48 of the 54 on board including many influential members of government and society - wiping out at a stroke all the influential advocates for airship travel in Britain. Shortly after the blameless R100 was quietly scrapped.

Hidden is a restored corner of Hanger 1 is one of the original docking towers from the 1930s
Other high profile airship disasters followed. The USS Ackron and USS Macon, giant lighter than air aircraft carriers for the US Navy, foundered in storms in the Pacific. Shockingly the Nazi airship Hindenburg exploded in front of the worlds camera's - perhaps as a result of terrorism. (In similar fashion to the fate of the R100, the Graf Zeppelin I, Hindenburg's predecessor, veteran of 590 flights covering more than a million miles was scrapped after nearly a decade of successful service) . These killed airship travel world wide, but particularly in this country, 80 years after the event R101 is a still byward for disaster so strong that modern equivalents refuse to associate themselves with the term Airship.

No amount of train crashes, air disasters and Titanic tragedies have had the effect on an industry that the R101 disaster had. The truth is the British Empire stopped paying for itself some time in the 1920s and became a burden after that (financially as well as morally) so who knows what the Imperial Airship Scheme might have achieved. Likely World War 2 would have ended it anyway, but it is hard not to stand next to Cardington and think how busy and influential the place is in the universe of alternative reality's we are told exist beyond our own.

"R-100 attached to mooring mast in Bedforshire, 1928" by Nationaal Archief - Zeppelin aan landingsmast / Zeppelin attached to mooring mastUploaded by PDTillman. Via Wikimedia Commons"

Inside Hanger 1, the original floor from 1917 is now several feet beneath the current level.
Both of the giant hangers at Cardington and being fully restored. For details on current going's on see the next post in this blog.

Just north of Cardington, well within site of the sheds, is Shortstown. This was the 1930s new town, built in the middle of the Bedfordshire countryside to accommodation the families of those working on the Imperial Airship scheme. This lost little world has been rediscovered by the property developer, who has added to the charm of the original community by renovating the great old Shorts building and adding a much larger modern housing development which (I think) compliments the original site.

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