Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 163,152 pages of information and 245,599 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.


From Graces Guide
1919. British Rigid Airship R33.
1927. Airship R 33 Moored to Cardington Airship Tower.

The R33 class of British rigid airships were built for the Royal Naval Air Service during World War I, 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 mast in a gale. She was nicknamed the "Pulham Pig" by locals 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, coincidentally designated 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 L 33 was carefully examined to uncover the Germans' secrets.

The existing design was adapted to generate a new airship based on the German craft and the contract for construction of the R33 was given to Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft at Barlow, North Yorkshire. 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 detection 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, 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" onboard. 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.

This event was recorded in detail in The Engineer below:

"ON Thursday morning, the 16th inst., ten minutes before ten o'clock, the airship R 33 was torn from her mooring mast at Pulham and driven out to sea. The movable arm at the top of the masthead was sheared, and the nose of the vessel crashed on the railings round the top of the mast, with the result that No. 1 gas bag was punctured, and the bow of the of the ship torn and shattered. Within a few minutes of the accident, the crew, were at their posts, the engines were running, and the ship was kept head to wind at a slow speed. It was necessary to lace the front bag to No. 2 frame, in order to form a new bulkhead and this hazardous operation was carried out quickly and without mishap. Before a wind of between 40 to 50 miles per hour, the airship was driven stern first across the North Sea to the coast of Holland. Throughout the day and the night good wireless communication was maintained with Pulham, Croydon and Rotterdam, and with the H.M.S. destroyer Godetia, which followed the ship across the North Sea. When over Holland the Dutch authorities offered every assistance and landing facilities if required but the R33 was able in the early hours of Friday morning to make for Lowestoft, was sighted at Pulham airship station before two o'clock in the afternoon, and was landed and safely housed some two hours later.

What might easily have been a disastrous accident was, by the able handling of the ship by Flight Lieutenant. Booth, his wireless operator, and hit crew, turned into a fine performance. The repairs which will be immediately undertaken, will occupy some six weeks. It may be recalled that the American airship Shenandoah broke away from her mooring mast in January last year, but her unofficial flight was only for eight hours, compared with the thirty hours of the R 33." [1]

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. 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.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. The Engineer 1925/04/24