Hull Airship Disaster
The R38 airship was the world’s biggest when she was constructed, 695 feet (212m) long and 85 feet (26m) tall. But she was also effectively designed by committee and contingency, surely factors in the disaster that claimed 44 lives during a test flight in August 1921.
During WWI German Zeppelins had for a time proved highly effective weapons, bringing fear to theses islands beginning in January 1915 with a raid on Great Yarmouth, going on in May of that year to attack first Southend and then London . The British Navy wished to have similar aircraft, and the government duly commissioned some. Short Brothers of Cardington near Bedford received the first order, and designed the R38, but the end of the war and a post-war lack of funds led to the cancellation of three of the four on order.
The Americans had wanted a Zeppelin as part of their reparations, but been denied that course by the destruction of the fleet by German crews. It was thus agreed that the R38, to be renamed the ZR-2 for her new owners, would fill that gap at a cost of $2 million. Delivery was to be late 1920, but the project was delayed (a not uncommon occurrence) to the effect that the airship was only completed in early June 1921.
R38’s design had been changed in part because of the restriction on space at the giant Cardington shed where she was assembled, leading to a body not as high as originally intended. Some of the thinking in her design was based on the wreckage of a high-altitude Zeppelin recovered from the North Sea, but it had not been realised that the extra altitude was gained at the expense of manoeuvrability, the German craft requiring very delicate handling. The new owners specified mast mooring gear, adding weight at one end balanced by ballast at the other. To in turn balance that extra weight fewer support rings along her body were included. She was an accident waiting to happen.
After transfer for trials to Howden , south-west of York, buckling of several of her girders was noticed. These were replaced, but the problem was not cured. On August 23 a trail flight was made from Howden to Pulham in Norfolk , but fog prevented a landing, so the ship headed out to the North Sea for further flight trials, returning to a still fog-bound Pulham the next day. It was necessary to make for Howden again, the decision taken to try some tough turns during that journey. When the ship was travelling at 60mph (her maximum being 71mph) over the Humber Estuary in sight of Hull her back broke, and the forward section caught fire and then exploded.
Amazingly, though the wreckage fell into the river from 2500 feet (around 800m) five of the 49 on board survived, all from the tail section. Only one of the 17 Americans on board lived. The dead included the commander of RNAS Howden, Air Commodore Sir Edward Maitland; and American Naval Commander Louis Henry Maxfield.
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