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Making History
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Listen to this editionTuesday 3.00-3.30 p.m
Sue Cook presents the series that examines listeners' historical queries, exploring avenues of research and uncovering mysteries.
The R38 crash, 1921 - the giant airship which split in two over Hull

Listener's query
"My late mother lived in Hull and saw the R38 crash in 1921. What exactly happened?"

Brief summary
The R38 airship crash was the first airship disaster after the First World War. The R38 had been commissioned during the war but was not built until after the war was over, when the Government's priorities had changed. There were more important things on which the Treasury wanted to spend its money, and it was in this mood of uncertainty, with Britain wanting to offload what was a financial white elephant, that the seeds of disaster were sown.

The original design contract was for a high-speed, high-altitude airship for military use which could fly higher and faster than the wartime German Zeppelins. The contract was awarded to Short Brothers who had their works at Shortsdown Cardington near Bedford. The high-altitude flying meant that a new lightweight method of metal construction was used. The R38 was completed in 1921 and was to be housed at Howden on the banks of the Humber. She flew from Cardington to Howden, but on that first delivery flight several faults were found, including some buckling of the girders.

The decision was then taken that the R38 was virtually surplus to requirements. The word was that America was interested in getting into airships. A deal was done, she was sold for a good price and the intention then was to get her off Britain's hands as soon as possible. Those involved with her knew there were problems and advised that 150 hours of test flying ought to be undertaken before she was allowed to leave Howden to fly all the way across the Atlantic to her new owners. The Air Ministry said that 50 hours were enough and she was renamed the ZR2. The trials were hurried through and American officers came over to join her and eventually take her back.

On 23 August 1921 the R38 flew from Howden on an acceptance cruise with the intention of going to Pulham in Norfolk where she could land and be moored to the airship mast there. She flew across the Humber and down the Lincolnshire coast, but there was a thick fog and at Pulham there was zero visibility. It was decided to go out over the North Sea, cruise round all night and try again in the morning. The weather being no better the next morning, the R38 set course for Howden, her home base. So that the journey should not be wasted, trials were done on the way home, including simulated sharp turns at speed to port and starboard. The crew started to do this as they flew over the Humber and had just passed Hull. During the manoeuvres the stress was too much and the airship broke in half. Aviation historian Tom Jamison says the manoeuvre might have worked at high altitude, but not lower down where the air was less thin. The front half of the airship exploded and the back half fell into the river. People rushed out in boats to help, but it was a tragedy played out and watched by thousands on a warm summer's evening. The wreckage was brought ashore at the Riverside Quay. Of the 49 people on board, Britons and Americans, 44 died.

Experts consulted
Tom Jamison
Gordon Kinsey
Chris Ketchell, Local History Unit, Hull College

Further reading
Tom Jamison, Icarus Over the Humber: The Last Flight of Airship R.38/ZR-2 (University of Hull Press & Lampada Press, 1994)
Gordon Kinsey, Pulham Pigs (Terence Dalton, 1988)
Patrick Abbott and Nick Walmsley, British Airships in Pictures: An Illustrated History 1784-1998
(House of Lochar, 1999)

Further information

Local History Unit, Hull College
James Reckitt Library, Holderness Road, Hull HU9 1EA


The Airship Heritage Trust - the R38

US Naval Historical Center - Airship R-38

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    Vanessa Collingridge
    Vanessa CollingridgeVanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald. 

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