|R34 landing at Mineola on 6 July 1919|
|National origin||United Kingdom|
|Manufacturer||Armstrong Whitworth (R33)
|First flight||6 March 1919|
|Primary user||Royal Naval Air Service (to 1918)
Royal Air Force (1918 onwards)
|Developed from||R31 class airship|
The R33 class of British rigid airships were built for the Royal Naval Air Service during the First World War, but were not completed until after the end of hostilities as part of the Royal Air Force. The lead ship, R33, went on to serve successfully for ten years and survived one of the most alarming and heroic incidents in airship history when she was ripped from her mooring mast in a gale. She was called a "Pulham Pig" by the locals, as the blimps based there had also been, and is immortalised in the village sign for Pulham St Mary. The only other airship in the class, R34, became the first aircraft to make an East-to-West crossing of the Atlantic Ocean on 6 July 1919, and was decommissioned two years later after sustaining damage in adverse weather. The crew nicknamed her "Tiny".
Substantially larger than the preceding R31 class, the R33 class was in the design stage in 1916 when a German Zeppelin, production number LZ 76 (and coincidentally carrying the German Navy designation L 33), was brought down on English soil. Despite the best efforts of her crew, she was captured near intact with engines in good order. For five months, the LZ 76 was carefully examined to uncover the Germans' secrets.
The existing design was adapted to produce a new airship based on the German craft and two examples were ordered, one (R33) to be constructed by Armstrong-Whitworth at Barlow, North Yorkshire and the other (R34) by William Beardmore and Company in Inchinnan, Renfrewshire, Scotland. Assembly began in 1918. The R33 class was semi-streamlined fore and aft, the middle section being straight-sided. The control car was well forward on the ship, separated sufficiently from the nearby engine to stop vibrations affecting the sensitive radio direction finding and communication equipment.
R33 first flew on 6 March 1919, and was sent to RAF Pulham in Norfolk. Between then and October 14, R33 made 23 flights totalling 337 hours flying time. One of these, a flight promoting "Victory Bonds" even included a brass band playing in the top machine gun post.
In 1920 she was "demilitarised" and given over to civilian work with the civil registration G-FAAG. This work consisted of trials of new mast mooring techniques to the mast erected at Pulham. On one occasion winds of 80 mph were successfully overcome while moored. Another experiment was an ascent carrying a pilotless Sopwith Camel which was successfully launched over the Yorkshire Moors. After an overhaul, R33 was based at Croydon Airport, moored to a portable mast. In June 1921, R33 was used for traffic observation by the Metropolitan Police, and in July she appeared in the Hendon Air Pageant before flying to Cardington, Bedfordshire, where she was shedded for three years.
On August 24, 1921, the R38 disaster put a stop to all British airship development. Military airships were scrapped, but as a civilian airship R33 was mothballed instead. In 1925, after being inactive for nearly four years, the reconditioned R33 emerged from her shed at Cardington.
On the night of 16/17 April, the R33 was ripped from her mooring on the mast at Pulham during a gale by a strong gust of wind, and drifted away with only a small "anchor-watch" on board. Her nose partially collapsed and the first gas cell deflated leaving her low in the bow. Wind and rain blowing into the bow added to her tilt down. The crew on board started the engines gaining some height and rigged a cover for the bow section, but the R33 was blown out over the North Sea. A Royal Navy vessel was readied and left the nearby port of Lowestoft lest the R33 come down in the sea. The local lifeboat was launched, but was driven back in the face of the weather conditions.
Some five hours after the initial break from the mast, the R33 was under control but still being blown towards the Continent. As she approached the Dutch coast the R33 was ordered to land at Cologne where the Germans could assist. Late in the evening the R33 was able to hold her position over the Dutch coast, hovering there until 5 o'clock the next morning. She was then able to make her slow way back home, arriving at the Suffolk coast eight hours later and making Pulham at 13:50 hrs where she was put into the shed alongside the R36. For their actions, the crew were rewarded by the present of watches from King George V and the coxswain, Sergeant "Sky" Hunt, was awarded the Air Force Medal, which he insisted should be awarded to the crew as a whole.
In October 1925, following repairs, she was used for experiments that would give useful data for the construction of the R101 airship. Once these were finished, in mid-October, she was used for trials launching a fighter aircraft (see parasite fighter for the concept). The plane in question was a lightweight DH 53 Hummingbird. After some near misses, a successful launch and recapture was achieved in December that year. The following year she was launching a pair of Gloster Grebes weighing about a ton apiece, the first of which was flown by Flying Officer Campbell MacKenzie-Richards. She was then sent to the sheds at Pulham where in 1928 she was finally broken up, after "severe" metal fatigue was found in her frame. The forward portion of R33's control car is on display at the RAF Museum at Hendon.
R34 made her first flight on 14 March 1919 and was delivered to her service base at East Fortune on 30 May of the same year. R34 made her first endurance trip of 56 hours over the Baltic from 17 to 20 June.
It was then decided to go for the first return Atlantic crossing under the command of Major George Herbert Scott. R34 had never been intended as a passenger carrier and extra accommodation was arranged by slinging hammocks in the keel walkway. Hot food was provided by cooking on a plate welded to an engine exhaust pipe.
The crew included Brigadier-General Edward Maitland and a representative of the US Navy. William Ballantyne, one of the crew members scheduled to stay behind to save weight, stowed away with the crew's mascot, a small tabby kitten called "Whoopsie"; they emerged at 2.00 p.m. on the first day, too late to be dropped off.
R34 left Britain on 2 July 1919 and arrived at Mineola, Long Island, United States on 6 July after a flight of 108 hours with virtually no fuel left. As the landing party had no experience of handling large rigid airships, Major E.M. Pritchard jumped by parachute and so became the first person to reach American soil by air from Europe. This was the first East-West crossing of the Atlantic and was done two weeks after the first transatlantic aeroplane flight. The return journey to Pulham in Norfolk was from 10 to 13 July and took 75 hours. Returned to East Fortune for a refit R34 then flew to Howden, East Yorkshire, for crew training.
On 27 January 1921 R34 left 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 impacted terrain on the North Yorkshire Moors in the dark and 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.
- Length: 643 ft 0 in (196 m)
- Diameter: 79 ft 0 in (24 m)
- Volume: 1,950,000 ft3 (55,000 m3)
- Useful lift: 58,240 lb (26,470 kg)
- Powerplant: 5 × Sunbeam Maori, 275 hp (205 kW) each
- Maximum speed: 62 mph (99 km/h)
- Related development
- Abbott, Patrick. Airship the Story of R.34 and the First East-West Crossing of the Atlantic By Air Encore Editions, 1977.ISBN 978-0684152349
- Griehl, Manfred and Dressel, Joachim Zeppelin! The German Airship Story. London, Arms and Armour Press, 1990 ISBN 1-85409-045-3
- Higham, Robin. The British Rigid Airship 1908-1931. Henley-on-Thames: Foulis, 1961.
- Mowthorpe, Ces. Battlebags: British Airships of the First World War. 1995 ISBN 0-905778-13-8
- Rosie, George. Flight of the Titan: The Story of the R34 Birlinn Ltd, 2010. ISBN 978-1-84158-863-6
- Venty, Arthur Frederick and Eugene M. Kolesnik. Airship Saga: The history of airships seen through the eyes of the men who designed, built, and flew them. Poole, Dorset, UK: Blandford Press, 1982. ISBN 978-0-7137-1001-4.
- Venty, Arthur Frederick and Eugene M. Kolesnik., Jane's Pocket Book 7 - Airship Development, 1976 ISBN 0-356-04656-7
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to R33.|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to R34.|
- Airship Heritage Trust R33 Page
- R34 - The Record Breaker - The Airship Heritage Trust
- The Transatlantic Voyage of R 34 Flight 10 July 1919
- The Return Voyage of R 34 Flight 17 July 1919.
- Airships at Pulham