The R101 Airship

The R101 airship moored at Cardington

In 1924 the government re-launched the airship programme and commissioned two new ‘supersize’ airships to be built - the R100 to be built by the Airship Guarantee Company at Howden and the state backed R101 to be built at the RAW (Royal Airship Works) site once again providing employment for Bedford people.

Overseeing the government operation was Christopher Thomson (Lord Thomson Secretary of State for Air). The RAW team was led by DAD (Director of Airship Development) Wing Commander R B Colmore who was supported by three assistants, Major Scott (Assistant Director of Flying), Lieutenant-Colonel V C Richmond (Assistant Director Technical) and Alexander Bushfield (Aeronautical Inspection Directorate). Richmonds technical design team included amongst others the much respected Squadron Leader Michael Rope and the young Harold Roxbee Cox both of whom lived in Shortstown for a while.

Unlike earlier military designs both airships were being built for commercial reasons to transport passengers over long distances and so would have to carry heavier loads. The increased load demands meant larger ships so work began to lengthen the original Shorts shed to allow work on the R101 to begin. After almost five years in 1929 tests began in earnest when the R101 was walked out of its shed for the first time - following trial flights the bold decision was taken to further lengthen the ship to allow greater lift and it was taken back into the shed to have an extra section placed in the middle.

It appears that the growing public interest and the success of the R100 Atlantic crossing to Montreal in August 1930 put huge pressure on the R101 team to deliver. It is fair to say that the R101 was at this time still undertaking trials but the insistence of Lord Thomson that the ship would be ready for a state visit to India in Oct 1930 only increased this pressure. Local newspaper reports as early as 1929 tell of huge numbers of people arriving on The Highway at Shortstown to view the ship whilst it was moored and this sense of great public expectation could only have highlighted the need for the whole project to succeed.

The R101 on the mooring mast at Cardington.
The emblem of The Royal Airship Works.
The Shorts Building where the Design Staff worked.
The two airship sheds at Cardington

On Saturday October 4th 1930 thousands of people gathered to see the ship set off on its journey to India. On board were 6 high ranking passengers and 48 RAW officials and crew members. At 2.15 on Sunday morning the ship came down in Beauvais in France with the loss of 48 lives - this early newspaper report suggests 46 fatalities but two of the survivors sadly died days later. See the R101 Victims page on this site for details of these men.