Ballooning Ambitions

REVIEW: ‘His Majesty’s Airship: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying Machine’

August 27, 2023

On June 18, a small submarine called the Titan imploded in the depths of the Atlantic, killing five people on a visit to the RMS Titanic, which had sunk to the ocean floor in 1912. The question, of course, is why five men would risk their lives just to see the drowned corpse of an old passenger liner. The answer is that they knew, as we all know, that the Titanic is more than a wrecked ship. It’s a symbol of a time when we imagined and built great things—and saw them sink, too, from time to time.

Failure is inevitable in engineering pursuits. Yes, the lives lost from such engineering overreach are a tragedy. But early failures can provide instruction for future successes, and the unavoidable fact of occasional failure is the price of grand ideas.

Some grandiose projects fail from bad engineering, some from bad operators, and some from just plain bad luck. Others are simply bad ideas. Not examined enough, however, is yet another reason for failure or success: the cultural narrative behind a technology. America’s moon program, for example, succeeded in good measure because its race for technological advancement was willing to express a national purpose.

Or, for an example of failure, consider the sad history of zeppelins, dirigibles, and blimps. A recent book, His Majesty’s Airship: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying Machine, reminds us of the power of narrative for an overly hyped technology that struggles to stay in the air. S.C. Gwynne tells the story of a 1929 British airship program that produced the R101 airship, a rigid-frame, hydrogen-filled lighter-than-air craft that, at 777 feet, was the largest airship of its time. Tracing the engineering challenges, the in-group dramas, and the political battles, Gwynne reminds us that behind every nut, bolt, and sewn cow-intestine hydrogen gasbag is an engineer, a banker, and a politician who help make the technology possible.

Lighter-than-air craft, beginning with hot-air observation balloons, had their beginnings in war. The ones known as "airships" are steerable vessels with a structural frame, held aloft by hydrogen or helium. At a time when heavier-than-air planes were dangerous, needed regular refueling, and could not carry heavy loads, airships seemed a plausible technology.

These early airships had their shortcomings. Lift—the upward force generated by buoyancy from the lightweight gas—needed to be managed meticulously. In calm skies, this task can be done by a back-of-the-envelope undergraduate-level force-balance calculation. But even the slightest breeze generates sufficient force to push the airship hundreds of feet. Meanwhile, the lifting potential of the flammable hydrogen gas is altitude and temperature-dependent. Rearward engines provided the linear motion of the vessel, but as the engines operated, fuel would be consumed, decreasing the weight. If more lift was required, excess fuel, cargo, and supplies needed to be jettisoned. Everything not bolted down or breathing was at risk of being thrown overboard.

Working their way through the book, readers will find themselves on the side of the engineers and their grand idea, willing the airships to work—if not in 1929, then certainly with the more advanced engineering we have today. And in His Majesty’s Airship, Gwynne eggs that optimism along—until the end, when he destroys any hope of a possible solution. These gigantic airborne beasts did not work and never will.

On October 5, 1930, on its first flight, the R101 failed over the French countryside, angling down and catching fire. Of the 54 people onboard, 48 died, including the British air minister, various government officials, and—in a generational loss of talent—almost all the airship’s designers. Gwynne suspects the breaking of the elevator cables as the proximate cause, but the full explanation of the wreck of the R101 remains beyond reach. With dozens of possible failure points, a vessel as vulnerable as an airship was always heading toward disaster. The fundamental problems have no solution, especially the mortal enemy of static-electric sparks near hydrogen gas.

Gwynne is not the first to write about the R101. Engineering professor and science writer Bill Hammack also recounted the tragedy in his 2016 book Fatal Flight: The True Story of Britain’s Last Great Airship. Leaning on his engineering expertise, Hammack gives exact details and provides a linear timeline, while Gwynne’s narrative is more investigative—his previous books include The Outlaw Bank: A Wild Ride into the Secret Heart of BCCI (1993) and The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football (2016). This difference in style is evident in their supplementary materials: Hammack includes five appendices of engineering details; Gwynne provides pictures of the crew and the wreckage.

Gwynne’s narrative style does help us understand the British nationalistic desire to one-up the Germans. Called Wunderwaffen—"wonder weapons"—by German author Rudolf Martin, these airborne World War I leviathans instilled fear in the British people, even as, by 1917, the fixed-wing airplane outpaced the airship.

More important than the few casualties from German airship campaigns was the ruined sense of security and isolation the British island had long enjoyed: surrounded by water and possessing the world’s largest navy. "Nationalism had always been the driving force behind the big rigids. They were equal parts engineering and ideology," Gwynne writes. The R101 was a national glory, born of a romantic nationalism.

Gwynne cannot come close to the bravado of Tom Wolfe’s electric pacing and style in his 1979 book, The Right Stuff, about the space race: daring, dexterous young men thousands of feet in the sky. But in his telling of the R101 and all those pilots and airmen before it, Gwynne does catch something of a world of technological challenges and disasters, with the turbulent lives of the pilots and engineers. In the case of the airship, a successful voyage depended in part on the instinctive, ad-hoc solutions of George Scott, a national hero and expert pilot, who once flew into a wet cloud bank to cool the superheated hydrogen. (He died piloting the R101 on its maiden voyage.) Success for an airship also needed onboard mechanics constantly patching holes in the gasbags while bouncing several thousand feet in elevation.

The air minister, Lord Christopher Thompson, pushed, cajoled, and forced the construction of the massive airship. But the nationalistic investment in lighter-than-air craft emptied out after his death onboard the R101, never to be reinflated.

His Majesty’s Airship is an expertly told, fast-paced account of the inevitable doom of airships. We want, sometimes desperately, for some technologies to work because we feel as though they should. Yet Gwynne helps us understand why, in the case of airships at least, projects destined to fail persist beyond their merit. It is difficult to understand how, after the failures of the R101, anyone would approve the construction or operation of future airships. And yet, seven years later, the German LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire over Lakehurst, New Jersey.

It may seem silly that the British invested so much time and money in the R101. But the mourning public understood they had lost something—something big. It had brought the British people onboard something larger than themselves. Much like the Apollo program and even the Titanic, the development of the R101 grasped at something grand: a dream of speed, safety, and luxury. A grand dream of national romance.

His Majesty’s Airship: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying Machine
by S.C. Gwynne
Scribner, 320 pp., $32

Matthew Phillips is a doctoral student in aerospace engineering at North Carolina State University.