A Brief History
On October 5, 1929, British Airship R101 crashed in France, killing 48 of the 54 people on board the giant airship. At the time, the R101 was the largest airship ever, and was not matched or exceeded until the ill-fated Hindenburg was launched 7 years later. Like the RMS Titanic before her, the R101 was not only the biggest of its kind, it also went down on its maiden flight! Filled with highly flammable Hydrogen gas, both the R101 and the Hindenburg were basically disasters waiting to happen. (See some of our other articles about aircraft and other disasters.)
How big is big? The R101 was an incredible 731 feet long, just about 3 times longer than the longest version of the mighty Boeing 747! (The Hindenburg was just over 800 feet long.) While the death toll on the crash of the R101 was worse than that of the much more famous Hindenburg disaster in which 36 people lost their lives, there were other airship incidents that also cost more lives than the Hindenburg, including 52 people killed back in 1923 when the French airship Dixmude went down with 52 fatalities. Another airship tragedy that was worse than the Hindenburg was the USS Akron, a US Navy airship that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near New Jersey in 1933, taking 73 men to their deaths.
Why did European powers use Hydrogen to fill their blimps and rigid airships instead of the much more safe and inert Helium gas used by American lighter than air aircraft? Because the United States had a virtual monopoly on Helium, a gas that cannot be created commercially like Hydrogen. Helium is found underground and mined, with limited quantities available for humans to harvest and use. When that underground supply is used up, it will be gone and there will be no more mylar birthday and Valentine’s Day balloons floating around living rooms across America! While rare on Earth, Helium is believed to be the second most prevalent element in the universe, second only to Hydrogen and making up about 24% of the calculated mass of all matter in the universe. On Earth, Helium is created by the decay of radioactive elements such as Uranium and is usually found mixed with natural gas. In space, Helium is created by the nuclear fusion of Hydrogen in stars such as our Sun. Recognizing the strategic value of Helium, the US established a National Helium Reserve in Texas in 1925. American legislation forbade the importation of Helium to other countries, which is why foreign airships had to use highly combustible Hydrogen instead. The United States is still a world leader in Helium production, though no longer the monopoly it once was, with dwindling supplies. Other countries such as Middle East oil producing nations are picking up the pace of gathering Helium, though world supplies are waning.
The era of giant rigid airships, often called Zeppelins after those airships built in Germany by the premier manufacturer of the rigid airship, the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin company, ended with the spectacular and infamous Hindenburg disaster. The Hindenburg was not the worst airship disaster, but the fact that its demise was filmed in great clarity and with haunting audio included made it the most widely seen and graphic airship disaster the widespread public had seen. Even today, most of us have seen numerous showings of the famous video of the giant airship going down in flames. Many of us wonder at how in the heck so many people actually survived the conflagration and “only” 36 people died. Today’s airships are of the “blimp” variety, a gas bag which is basically a cigar shaped balloon filled with Helium, much smaller than the rigid airships of old that were constructed of rigid metal frames with several “gas bags” located inside all covered by a coated cloth covering. While rigid airships at first seemed to have great military promise as bombing and reconnaissance platforms, their slow speed and highly flammable Hydrogen made them easy targets for enemy fighter/interceptor airplanes. Arming the airships with machine guns and even equipping the giants with their own little fighter planes like a gigantic aerial aircraft carrier proved impractical, though not impossible. Today, the military still use blimps for long duration sea surveillance and private companies often use blimps as advertising and video platforms.
In all, there have been only 4 airship disasters with a greater death toll than the Hindenburg, with the USS Akron at 73 dead, the (French) Dixmude with 50 or 52 dead (depending on source), the (British) R101 with 48 dead and the (British) R38 crash that left 44 people dead. Since the Hindenburg disaster, the worst airship incident has been the crash of a US Navy blimp, the ZPG-3W, which went down in 1960, and killed 18 of its 21 crewmen.
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever personally seen or rode in a blimp? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Hammack, Bill. Fatal Flight: The True Story of Britain’s Last Great Airship. Articulate Noise Books, 2017.
Smith, Richard. The Airships Akron & Macon: Flying Aircraft Carriers of the United States Navy. Naval Institute Press, 1965.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of the wreckage of the R101 airship which was probably taken not long after the crash on 4 October 1930 in Allonne, Picardie (France), is in the public domain, because it is one of the following:
- It is a photograph taken prior to 1 June 1957; or
- It was published prior to 1970; or
- It is an artistic work other than a photograph or engraving (e.g. a painting) which was created prior to 1970.