Airship Career Paths

Thanks to the detailed biogs sent in by Darren Howlett below (who also owns the medals shown) we now have two clear examples of the various routes that could be taken to become part of an airship crew. Photographs of WWW1 crews for example can be very confusing with crew sporting RFC, Naval and later RAF uniforms. In the cases of R38 victims LAC William Oliver and AC1 William Penson both came to the R38 via different routes. William Oliver began his military service via the army and the RFC (Royal Flying Corps) and then the RAF when it was formed in April 1918. William Penson came via the Royal Navy.

Thanks to Darren for sharing this information. - Jane June 2020.

The WW1 and Victory medals of LAC William Oliver who lost his life in the R38 crash.
The WWI medal AC1 of William Penson another victim of the R38 crash.

LAC William Oliver R38 Crash Victim.


11 July 1892 – Born at Sheffield, Yorkshire, the eighth of nine children of Frederick Eaton Oliver and Alice Rachel Oliver (nee Bennehan).

31 March 1901 – Aged 8, recorded as living at 32 Steade Road, Sheffield, with his parents and siblings. His father’s occupation is listed as Solicitors Clerk.

2 April 1911 – Aged 18, recorded as still living at 32 Steade Road, Sheffield, with his parents and siblings. His father is now listed as retired on pension from Magistrates’ Clerks’ Office, Sheffield, and his occupation is listed as Engineers’ Turner.

14 December 1911 – Aged 19, married Annie Louisa Harrop (born 15 August 1891) at Sheffield.

19 May 1912 – Birth of first son, William Frederick Oliver, at Sheffield.

4 August 1914 – Britain declares war on Germany and enters the Great War.

11 December 1915Aged 23, attested into the Army but appears to have been placed on the reserve (probably due to being in a reserved occupation).

22 June 1916 – Birth of second son, Robert Wilfred Oliver, at Sheffield.

17 August 1917Aged 25, enlisted into the Royal Flying Corps as an Aircraftman 2nd Class, Number 92523, giving his trade or calling as Turner and Fitter, Height: 5’ 5“, Chest Measurement: 31“, Brown Hair, Blue Eyes, Fresh Complexion, Scar on Right Leg and Mole on Back.

23 August 1917 – Appointed Aircraftman 1st Class (Fitter and Turner).

28 September 1917 – Posted on active service to 1 Aeroplane Supply Depot (ASD), St. Omer, France.

(No 1 depot was a base repair and maintenance depot with a pool of pilots attached for ferrying new aircraft to their respective squadrons and bringing back salvage and spare parts where possible. By 1917 it had nearly 4000 men on its strength involved in all aspects of the RFC’s many duties.)

1 April 1918Transferred to the Royal Air Force on its formation as an Aircraftman 1st Class (Turner), retains Number 92523, and continues to serve with 1 ASD. His wife, Annie, is recorded as living at 169 Shirebrook Road, Sheffield.

11 November 1918 – The Great War ends and continues to serve in France.

1 January 1919 – Reclassified Leading Aircraftman.

8 January 1919 – Posted from 1 ASD to Base MT Repair Depot, Motteville, France.

10 March 1919 – Period of Engagement extended for three years.

9 August 1919 – Posted from Base MT Repair Depot, France, to Officer Cadet School, RAF Manston, Kent.

21 November 1919 – Posted from RAF Manston to Marine Aircraft & Experimental Depot (MA & ED), RAF Grain, Kent.

16 March 1920 – MA & ED renamed Marine & Armament Experimental Establishment (M & AEE).

17 August 1920 – Awarded 1st Good Conduct Badge.

23 August 1920 – Granted 4d per day Progressive Pay.

1 March 1921 – Posted from M & AEE, RAF Grain to RAF Airship Base Howden, East Yorkshire.

1 May 1921 – Birth of third son, John Sydney Oliver, at Sheffield.

28 May 1921 – Transferred to Airship R.38 and entitled to flying pay of 2/- per diem.

8 September 1921 – Buried with full military honours in Hull Western Cemetery (nine of those who died in the R.38 tragedy are buried together and now lie beneath the R.38 Memorial in the western enclosure of the cemetery).

29 September 1921 – Widow allowed a pension of 26/8 plus 23/6 for the children with effect this date.

31 May 1922 – British War Medal and Victory Medal in respect of service during the Great War sent to his widow.

AC1 Charles William (Charlie) Penson R38 Crash Victim


12 January 1898 – Born at Sleaford, Lincolnshire, the eldest of seven children of James Ambrose Penson and Eliza Ellen Penson (nee Spencer). Two of his younger brothers died in infancy.

31 March 1901 – Aged 3, recorded as living at 75 Westgate, Sleaford, with his parents. His father’s occupation is listed as Brewer’s Cellar Man.

2 April 1911 – Aged 13, recorded as living at 111 Westgate, Sleaford, with his parents and four surviving siblings. His father’s occupation is listed as Foundry Man at Iron Foundry and his Charles’s occupation is listed as Doctor’s House Boy.

4 August 1914 – Britain declares war on Germany and enters the Great War.

15 June 1916Aged 18, attested into the Royal Navy as an Officers Steward 3rd Class, Service Number L.8976, giving his trade or calling as Tinsmith. Height: 5’ 8“, Chest Measurement: 34“, Brown Hair, Blue Eyes, Fresh Complexion.

15 June 1916 – 28 August 1917 – Stationed at Royal Naval Air Service Training Establishment, Cranwell. Personnel of RNAS Training Establishment were held against HMS Daedalus.

29 August 1917 – Posted to RNAS Airship Station Longside, Aberdeen.

1 April 1918 – Transferred to the Royal Air Force on its formation as a Private 2nd Class (Batman) and continues to serve at Longside.

2 April 1918 – Re-mustered as Aircraftman 3rd Class (Rigger Airship).

11 November 1918 – The Great War ends.

1st January 1919 – Reclassified as Aircraftman 2nd Class (Rigger Airship).

17 May 1919 – Posted to RAF Airship Station East Fortune, Lothian.

(At 1.42am on 2nd July 1919 Airship R.34 and her crew of eight officers and 22 men, one stowaway, two pigeons and a kitten departed from East Fortune Airfield on the first ever return flight between Britain and the United States and the first east-west crossing by air, landing on Long Island, New York 108 hours later. The return journey to RNAS Pulham took place from 10 to 13 July and took 75 hours. Returned to East Fortune for a refit, R34 then flew to Howden, for crew training. Charles Penson was not on this flight but was a reserve member of the crew.)

1st August 1919 – Re-mustered as Aircraftman 2nd Class (Rigger Airship, Group 2 Trade). Awarded 1st Class Conduct Badge the same day.

22nd November 1919 – Reclassified as Aircraftman 1st Class.

1 April 1920 – Posted to RAF Airship Base Leuchars, Fife.

3 May 1920 – Posted to RAF Airship Base Howden, East Yorkshire.

5 November 1920 – Entitled to draw flying pay as crew of H.M. Airship R.34.

9 December 1920 – Ceases to draw flying pay.

(On 27 January 1921 R.34 set off from Howden on what should have been a routine exercise. Over the North Sea the weather worsened and a recall signal sent by radio was not received. Following a navigational error the craft flew into a hillside on the North Yorkshire Moors during the night, and the ship lost two propellers. She went back out to sea using the two remaining engines and in daylight followed the Humber Estuary back to Howden. Strong winds made it impossible to get her back into the shed, and she was tied down outside for the night. By the morning further damage had occurred and R34 was written off and scrapped. Charles Penson was a member of the crew of R.34 on this flight. )

9 March 1921 – To draw flying pay 2/- per diem as crew of H.M. Airship R.36. (R36 was launched for her maiden flight on 1 April 1921 from the Beardmore works at Inchinnan near Glasgow. Late the following day she flew on to RNAS Pulham in Norfolk. On 5 April it left Pulham at 07:25am bound for London. After making its appearance over the city it proceeded to Salisbury Plain, where it climbed to 6,000 ft. (1800 m) and began manoeuvring trials. Starting a fast turn of 130 degrees it encountered windshear, which overstressed the rudder, damaging the top rudder and starboard elevator. This made the ship adopt a nose down attitude and rapidly lose height, but it was brought under control at around 3,000 feet. Emergency repairs were made to the damaged control surfaces and the ship limped home on her one remaining rudder and elevator, using differential engine control to help with directional control, reaching Pulham at 9.15pm).

28 May 1921 – Transferred from R.36 to R.38 and entitled to flying pay.