A dream that burst into flames – the British Hindenburg disaster

Scores of people died when the airship burst into flames. It crashed into the ground just over 50 miles away from one of the world’s most important cities. Its demise marked the end of a national programme of airship construction and the death of an imperial dream.

But this is not about the Hindenburg disaster. Just under seven years earlier, the British faced a similar tragedy when His Majesty’s Airship R101 plunged to the ground north of Paris.


The story of LZ 129 Hindenburg’s tragic last flight is well known. Hundreds of people came to watch the famous airship land. A live account of its fiery destruction on 6 May 1937 was broadcast on the radio. The recording became famous around the world. HMA R101 did not have an audience to witness its last moments.

British Airship R101

R101 was the flagship of the Imperial Airship Service. The blimps were designed to bind the far flung territories of the British Empire with vastly improved communications. Sailing times of weeks and even months could be compressed into days. They might be slower than planes, but they offered the promise of cruise ship levels of comfort to well heeled passengers.

Airship R101 at mooring mast (1929)

The project was initiated at the fourth Imperial Conference in 1921. The crash of R101 meant it would be terminated before the seventh Imperial Conference in 1930.

R101, along with her sister airship R100, would ply the route from London to Australia via Egypt and India. Alternatively, they could head west, crossing the Atlantic and linking Britain with Canada.

Whichever route they plied, they would play an integral role in linking London with other capitals in the Empire and Commonwealth.

Cardington Shed By Mac from UK (Cardington Airship Shed) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Those dreams would go up in flames when the dirigible crashed in France on 5 October 1930. Out of the 54 people on board, 48 died including the Air Minister Lord Thomson.

Even if public faith in airship travel wasn’t fatally compromised, the crash had robbed the Royal Airship Works of its most important designers and engineers.