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Humber airship accident
How a disaster marked the end of the UK's military airship activities
Little is left of the former Royal Naval Air Station, located a few miles north of the town of Howden.
One of the derelict buildings at the Howden base
Cows now graze in the fields where the airships were based. The giant hangers built to house them are long gone. Only a line of poplar trees mark where the 750 feet long structures, large enough to hold six Howden Minsters, stood.
Here and there are a few reminders of its former life, a few decaying outbuildings and a long disused water tower.
At its peak at the end of the First World War it was the biggest airbase in the UK, covering 7.5 acres. It was home to over 1000 staff and 80 airships.
Kenneth Deacon: Howden based aviation historian
Aviation historian Kenneth Deacon, who has written three books on the Howden airbase, says that it was so busy that locals used to say there were more airships in Howden than cars.
It was set up in 1916 in response to the German U-Boat threat. Airships were seen as the ideal solution for protecting convoys from attack.
One of the airships most closely associated with Howden was the ill-fated R38. It was commissioned towards the end of the First World War and was planned to be the first of four ships that could patrol for up to a week at a time, far out to sea. It was a giant of the sky, 695-feet long and 85-feet high. To assist with its performance the fuselage was made from lightweight metal, a decision which later proved to be its undoing.
The war ended and the economy took a downturn, so the plans for a fleet of airships were scrapped. Construction had already started on the R38 and a deal was struck with the American government to buy the airship for use by the US Navy.
The wreckage of the R38 lies on the River Humber
The ship was completed on 7 June 1921 at the Shorts factory in Bedfordshire. Two weeks later she headed to Howden, where a detachment of US Navy personnel were waiting to test her and then fly her over the Atlantic to her new base.
There was a problem on her first flight when some of the struts on the fuselage bent, a problem that took a month to fix.
On August 23rd 1921 the airship left Howden to carry-out flight tests over the North Sea. The plan was to fly it to another airship base at Pulham, Norfolk. When they arrived the base was shrouded by thick fog, making a landing impossible. The R38 headed back out over the North Sea for more tests. The next day it tried to land again at Pulham but the fog had not lifted. The captain decided to head back to Howden and carry out more tests on the way.
Rescuers attempt to free trapped crew members
Whilst over the Humber the airship carried out some high speed turns. The stress on the fuselage was too much and the craft broke in two, causing a large explosion, which blew out windows in Hull.
It crashed in flames into the Humber just off Hull’s Victoria Pier. The accident happened at about 5:30 in the afternoon on the 24th August 1921. Thousands witnessed the crash as people, making their way home from work, stopped to watch the giant airship manoeuvring over the estuary.
People went out to the wreckage in boats in an attempt to rescue the crew. A brave act as the Humber was alight due to burning petrol from the engines. Of the 49 people on board, only five survived.
The memorial to the R38 victims in a Hull cemetary
Kenneth Deacon says the haste to get the airship delivered led to a fatal lack of testing “They’re hadn’t been enough trial flights done on it. It should have done about 150 hours and in fact only did about 40 hours flying. The Americans were in a hurry to get it to go back to the States and the British government were in a hurry to get the money, because the R38 was going to save the airship industry as it were.”
The disaster effectively ended the military's interest in airships. The Howden base was closed down and the buildings and equipment were sold-off.
Archive image courtesy of US Naval Historical Center
last updated: 10/09/2008 at 15:56