7 - 13 November 2002
Issue No. 611
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Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (467)
Dangerous takeoffsThe crash of the British airship R101 in 1930 ended an important chapter in aviation history. In this week's instalment of the Diwan Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* reads about the catastrophe -- and opinions surrounding it -- in the pages of Al-Ahram
"Airship R101 crashes in France. Seven passengers rescued", read one headline in Al-Ahram on 6 October 1930, accompanied by a photograph with the caption, "The ill-fated British dirigible still anchored in Cardington airport before its tragic voyage."
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Al-Ahram's senior writer and a flying enthusiast Mahmoud Abul-Fath, here photographed with a Zeppelin, was lucky to be denied a ticket on the R101 in 1930
This incident occupies a unique place in the history of mankind's conquest of the skies which started with the wings of Abbas Ibn Firnas breaking over the mountains of Andalusia. Progress in aviation gained momentum in the latter half of the 19th century when lighter-than-air gasses, such as hydrogen or helium, were used to fill balloons equipped with navigating, elevation and speed control devices. The same period saw the first experiments with hard- bodied winged craft. Experts in the field predicted that dirigibles, or airships, would gain the upper hand; they had a greater passenger capacity and were cheap to operate. Time soon proved them wrong and such incidents as the Cardington airport one in 1930 were decisive in determining the course of modern aviation.
The first successful airship flight was that undertaken by Henri Giffard in 1852. Like the first steps in every endeavour, the Giffard balloon was a modest affair -- it only remained airborne over Paris for a very brief span of time and could not exceed 10 kilometres per hour. Because of its rudimentary steering equipment, it could not return to its starting place. This feat would not be accomplished for another 30 years by two of Giffard's French compatriots.
Over the next decades more and more refinements were made and tested in France, Britain and the US. But it was Germany that won the lead through the efforts of the inventor Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, whose name became an international byword for the airship. Al-Ahram relates, "Europe first became acquainted with this type of airship in 1901 when Count Zeppelin founded a factory to produce it on the banks of the Lake of Constance, where he conducted his first trial flight. The Germans scoffed at him as mad and he received no financial assistance for his endeavours whatsoever, as is the case with every inventor whose imagination and creations depart from what people are accustomed to."
Five years later, the German inventor created his second airship, called Zeppelin II. With the successful trial of this craft over the lake "his reputation soared across the world and his nation finally took note of him." The newspaper continues, "A commercial venture was formed for the construction of airships and after five more years of work on the third Zeppelin the German people rushed to invest in the new project. It is interesting to note, here, that Count Ackner who circumnavigated the earth in his balloon had been, before 1901, the most outspoken critic of Zeppelin and his invention. Yet, when he went to Constance with the intention of demonstrating the folly of the German inventor's work, he revised his opinion entirely and became a dedicated disciple of Zeppelin and his successor in his work after his death."
Nevertheless, Zeppelin had his share of failures. His fifth airship made a successful 80 hour non-stop voyage, but "six months later, fire destroyed his sixth airship because of the negligence of the workers while storms destroyed two more airships that had been destined for the German fleet before the war."
The Zeppelin company constructed a total of 127 airships. Of the 67 that had been manufactured by 1918, the few surviving Zeppelins that had not crashed or been captured during the war were surrendered to the allies under the Treaty of Versailles. Production picked up again in the post war period. Aided by the discovery of a non-flammable lighter-than-air gas and advancements in motor design and power, airships became larger and faster. By the end of the 1920s, Germany created the mammoth Graf Zeppelin with a 129 ton gas capacity, a length of 776 feet and five engines. It was also in the process of constructing a 168 ton ship powered by eight engines.
Meanwhile, the craze for constructing huge airships spread to other countries. Great Britain owned five, among which were the R100 and the ill-starred R101, which was 777 feet long, had a capacity of 165 tons and six engines. The R101 was only surpassed in design by the US-owned 180 ton capacity airship equipped with eight 585-horsepower engines, each housed in a separate compartment.
In reporting on the aforementioned crash, Al-Ahram described the R101 as unprecedented in size and design. "It was intended to be twice the size of the largest airship in the world. Many new improvements and changes were accommodated into the design. Featuring the most spacious passenger capacity, it contained an enormous reception hall, which at 323 feet long by 26 feet wide, extended the full length and breadth of the hull. On each side of the hall, there extended full-length balconies from which passengers could behold the most spectacular views. It also contained a large banquet hall that could seat 50 persons at once, as well as an inflammable smoking room -- a facility that exists in no other airship. Passenger cabins were spacious and comfortable, generally painted white with gold trim, and with royal blue curtains. The trial of the process of collecting rainwater that fell on the airship was hugely successful. The collected rainwater was funnelled into specially designed tanks."
The "mission" of the airship, Al-Ahram wrote, was to "shorten the distance between remote countries and erase borders and barriers dividing them". It continued, "If there are fruits that accrue to a people or a nation from scientific discoveries and endeavours, the services these create benefit all mankind."
Al-Ahram, like newspapers everywhere, eagerly covered the flights of the amazing new British airships. In August 1930, for example, it featured a lengthy article on the R101's flight across the Atlantic, in which it commented, "It is likely that this airship has broken the speed record for flying across this ocean. The fastest speed to date was that scored by the Los Angeles, which, in 1921, covered the distance in 81 hours. However, if it is true that the R100 reached Montreal at midnight this would mean its voyage only took 68 hours."
If enthusiasm over the R100 was great, the next generation -- the R101 -- would spark even keener curiosity. Even as it was being built, Al-Ahram's special correspondent in London breathlessly reported on 18 September that the latest British airship would soon be taking its maiden flight. One of the more remarkable features of the new craft was that its engines would not be powered by ordinary gasoline. "This invention is of the utmost importance as it eliminates the danger of fire en route." He adds, "Many other improvements have been added to this airship, which, at a capacity of 166 tons, is now the largest in the world. It is scheduled to undertake a long-distance excursion to India at the end of this month."
On the morning of 23 September 1930, Al-Ahram reported that the British High Commissioner in Cairo informed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the British-made R101 would be embarking on its flight from Britain to India sometime between 30 September and 6 October, that it would be passing over Egyptian territory and would land in Ismailia. Naturally, readers were eager to hear more and the paper was eager to provide.
In addition to the technical specifications of the craft, the newspaper provided some information on the forthcoming flight itself. The airship would be piloted by Lieutenant Erwin who would be assisted by five engineers. The ship was equipped with a wireless and a cinema camera, which would be put into operation between Ismailia and Karachi. It would be transporting a considerable quantity of official correspondence as well as a number of British officials, including the minister of aviation.
Meanwhile in Egypt, the authorities prepared for the arrival of the R101. The minister of transport and communications put various agencies on the alert for any emergency. On standby were the Public Security Department of the Ministry of Interior, the Health Department, the Coast Guard and Border Authority, the Telegraph Authority, the Governorate of the Canal Zone and the Municipality Authority. In addition, Al-Ahram reports, "The Egyptian General Command of Aviation has invited members of the press to observe the airship as it lands in Ismailia Airport. The Command predicts that the airship will arrive on the evening of 6 October."
The R101 lifted off from Cardington Airfield on 4 October at 7.30am. As the craft flew over London it could not be seen from the ground due to the overcast weather. "All that the crowds who were peering up into the skies could see were the craft's red, white and green lights." Prior to takeoff, the British minister of aviation released a statement saying that the passengers were fully confident and that weather conditions appeared favourable. He anticipated that the airship would reach Karachi in four or five days and that this maiden voyage would usher in regular flights between Britain and India.
The following morning in Cairo, Prime Minister Sidqi and Minister of Transport Doss left on the noon train to Ismailia, where a reception would be held for the crew and passengers of the airship. After a night's rest in the Suez Canal city, the Egyptian officials woke to learn of the disaster. On 6 October, Al-Ahram reported, the R101 had crashed near Beauvais, 40 miles north of Paris, and was completely destroyed by fire. "Only seven out of the 53 passengers and crew were rescued. The rest of the people on board, among whom it is believed was Lord Thompson, were burned alive. The survivors were taken to hospital where they were treated for critical burns and wounds."
Under the headline, "Full details on the airship disaster", Al- Ahram relates that the British airship had been flying at an altitude of 1,500 feet and at a speed of 45 nautical miles per hour. All was proceeding smoothly as it traversed the French coastline. "After having dined on a sumptuous meal, the passengers moved to the smoking room where they had their last cigarettes and cast their eyes over the vista of the French coast. Then, they retired to their cabins as the crew continued at their work."
Suddenly, as it was approaching Beauvais, "it was struck by powerful winds that caused it to drop to a hundred metres. However, it was a second gale that proved fatal. The crew's attempts to navigate it proved futile, for the rudder had ceased to operate. At that point, a powerful explosion erupted creating a frightening blaze that lit the city of Beauville six kilometres away. Ten minutes after it crashed, a second, less powerful, explosion occurred. The first explosion was so powerful that pieces of aluminium were cast up to two kilometres from the site of the crash. By noon, 48 bodies had been excavated from the rubble."
The newspaper went on to report that the R101 had been flying at such a low altitude over Beauvais that "The roar of its engines had awoken all the inhabitants of the city and frightened the children. The dangerously swaying craft soon disappeared behind a hill to the south of the city and only seconds later a blast shook the very foundations of the houses. Then a horrifying yellow light lit the sky for five minutes. The people from nearby villages rushed in their cars, on horseback or by bicycle, to the site of the explosion, but they could not approach the airship due to the fire." It continues, "No one aboard the airship had been awake at the time of the disaster apart from the 12 crew members who were steering the craft. A further indication of the suddenness of the disaster was that one of the engine operators had been found burned to coal with his hand still gripping a control lever."
Al-Ahram's correspondent in London relates one of those odd coincidences that often counterpoint a tragedy. The newspaper's senior editor, Mahmoud Abul-Fath, he wrote, was one of those who should be congratulated for not having been aboard the ill-starred craft. From the moment he arrived in London, the Egyptian journalist and flying enthusiast had pursued every possible avenue to obtain a ticket to take the leg of the airship's journey to Cairo as Al-Ahram's representative. "He sought out friends of British Minister of Aviation Lord Thompson to mediate for him in this matter. However, although his request received positive attention, it was later decided that no passengers should be permitted on board other than officials of the British government."
Abul-Fath then met Sir Branker at a banquet hosted by Prime Minister MacDonald for delegates to the imperial conference and broached the subject. The British official promised to do his best to obtain permission, but shortly before the airship's departure, he informed Abul-Fath that an order had been handed down to forbid any journalist on board.
Abul-Fath must have delivered a thousand prayers of thanks that he had not met a fate as gruesome as that of the other passengers. Lord Thompson, the newspaper added, had been burned beyond recognition and his body could only be identified by the monocle that was still attached to his eye.
Al-Ahram mentioned two further details connected with the accident. Unlike the US and Germany, where private firms funded the construction of airships, the British government had footed the bill for the R101. And the bill was hefty, even by the standards of the age: £4.5 million. Secondly, all the victims of the disaster were British government officials, foremost among whom was the minister of aviation.
Naturally, an aviation catastrophe of such a scale could not have passed without comment in the Egyptian press. Expressing Egyptian sentiments towards the event in Beauville, Ahmed El-Sawi Mohamed remarked in his famous column Short but Significant, "One's first reaction is to be stunned by this painful failure of science. The feeling is all the more acute after all the fanfare that had been made over the past year over the magnificence, the great size, the enormous power and the luxurious fittings of this craft. Moreover, this was to be the competitor of the Zeppelin that circumnavigated the earth with the greatest success. Germany had hoped that with its Zeppelin and the flight around the world it would recuperate its international moral stature, which had been so shattered in the Great War. When Britain entered the aviation arena to rival Germany, its arrow flew wildly off the mark at horrendous expense."
El-Sawi Mohamed touched upon another political aspect of the R101 disaster. One of Great Britain's reasons for constructing the mammoth airship, he observed, was to deliver a message to the peoples under its dominion. It was to "make them quake with the knowledge that England rules both the seas and the air".
In a letter to the editor, a reader signing Y M expounded on the political dimensions of the airships. The Germans had wanted to include Egypt in the Zeppelin's route around the world. "Neither Egypt nor Britain, which contended that it had major interests and rights in Egypt, would have been harmed in the slightest by fulfilling the German wish. Proof of this was that the Zeppelin flew over England and other parts of the British empire, indeed over many capitals in Europe, Asia and America, without causing any material or moral damage. However, the British refused to permit the gigantic German airship to enter Egyptian airspace and to land near Ismailia and they compelled the Egyptian government, which should have sovereignty over its airspace and which should have the right to accept or refuse guests, to turn a blind eye to this political scandal."
Y M suggested that the reason Britain rejected the German request was to drive home the message "that the British, alone, control and have the right to defend the Suez Canal and that the Egyptian government and its representatives abroad do not have the right to permit or prevent others from passing through or over this waterway".
The reader suspected a second motive as well. The British did not want the Egyptians to see a great invention that was the product of talents and efforts of any nation but Britain. "They believed that if Egyptians saw something great that was not British this would lower their prestige in Egyptian eyes." Such thinking "demeaned the Egyptian intellect and dignity, because Egyptians are no less keen observers of the course of progress and civilisation than other rising nations". He continued that as long as the British insisted on casting the Egyptians as their enemy and dealt with them underhandedly, "then I, as an Egyptian and, above all, as a human being who greets good with good and bad with bad, take this opportunity to confide in the ears of the British people that if they want allies then they must be faithful to their intentions towards us, stop their malicious propaganda against us and refrain from disdaining our minds and our abilities".
Abroad, reactions were more emotive, although economic and technical considerations were addressed. In Britain and France large funerary ceremonies were held to commemorate those who died in the crash. The remnants of the charred and mangled British corpses, many of which were unidentifiable, were transported to England where public mourning was the most intense. Al-Ahram reports that in the early morning hours of Thursday 9 October, Victoria Station bore witness to an unprecedented throng "that had begun to gather hours ago in spite of the cold and rain". He went on to describe the emotional reception of the train bearing the remains of the victims, which he described as a display of sorrow Britain had not experienced since the end of the Great War 12 years earlier.
In spite of the significance the disaster held for the future of airships, it was not long before news came from Germany that it had successfully completed construction of another large Zeppelin. As though it wanted to affirm its superiority in the realm of air travel, the German government announced that preparations were underway for the ship to take a transatlantic flight. A spokesman from Berlin declared that if the flight was successful "an airline company consisting of large airships, funded jointly by the US and Germany, will commence offering regular transcontinental flights".
Meanwhile, in Britain, authorities had been stunned into reviewing their policy on airships. In a statement to the press, the new British minister of aviation announced that his ministry was examining the fate of British airships as a whole and that it intended "to avoid any further involvement in any project that might produce dissatisfactory results". He added that his ministry intended to shift all its focus on progress in airplane aviation.
This was indeed the course the British aviation industry pursued over the coming years. Like Britain, many other countries halted the production of airships fearful of a repeat of the disaster of the R101, one which heralded the end of an exciting era in the history of aviation.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
Letter from the Editor
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