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Coastal Airships – Please Don’t Call Me A Blimp!

First launch

On 31 May 1915 the Royal Navy’s first Coastal class airship took to the skies after only three weeks development. That is quite a feat for the production of any craft but demonstrates the determination and resourcefulness of the Royal Navy during the First World War.

After the limited success of the Royal Navy’s first rigid airship HMA 1, the Royal Navy concentrated on non-rigid airships until 1916. HMA 1 had successful mooring trials, but in 1911 her rigid structure was broken in 1911 as she left the shed for the first true flight.

During the First World War 213 non-rigid airships were built for the Royal Navy. The largest class were the Submarine Scout SS airships, of which 139 were constructed.

The Coastal class included 32 Coastal and 10 Coastal Star airships. Royal Navy non-rigid airships also included Parsevals and North Sea class.

The airships were remarkably successful and suffered only minor losses in their submarine-spotting duties.

They operated on coastal patrol and convoy escort duties, having the advantage over aeroplanes of the time of greater height and longer flying range. 

The Admiralty constructed many of its non-rigid airships at Royal Navy Air Station Kingsnorth on the Isle of Grain, Kent and the Coastals were built there. 

How did they build C1 in three weeks?

Well, technically they cannibalised other craft, using the No. 10 Astra Torres airship for the envelope, the large gas-filled bag, and the front sections of fuselage of two Avro seaplanes, joined back to back to provide an engine and a propeller at each end, one pushing the craft forward, and one pulling. As an experimental airship it worked.

A useful anti-submarine aircraft had been developed and the Coastal class became the best airship for long patrols of the Western Approaches.

A C1 at Kingsnorth

The Coastal Class Airships

The 60-metre long Coastals had a top speed of 47 mph, but a flight duration of up to 20 hours. The five-man crew consisted of a pilot, a coxswain, an observer, a radio operator and a mechanic.

They usually had two Lewis guns in their gondola, the control car for the airship, plus a third gun on top of the envelope of the ship.

This was for defence against enemy aircraft attacking from above, but to man the gun, a crew member had to climb a rope or wooden ladder running up a tube inside the gas-filled envelope. Bombs provided the main anti-submarine armament, typically four 100-pound bombs or their equivalent. This gave the Coastal the possibility at least of disabling a U-boat.

What was it like for the crews? 

The flights were intended to be long. To maximise the amount of daylight for patrols, take-offs would be made before dawn, but landings would take place in darkness at night.

Unlike modern aerodromes, Royal Navy Air Service stations were not equipped with floodlights or marker lights, so most landings were made in near-total darkness, with only hurricane lanterns held by the ground crew providing basic illumination.

Later C-Class airships had a hatch in the floor of the gondola to allow a flare to be fired downwards to light up the landing ground.

Twenty hours is a long time to be airborne in an open cockpit. The Royal Navy Air Service provided a standard ration pack for each crew member for the flight, some salted bacon or a sandwich, chocolate and a flask of tea.

At the height the airships flew, the crews suffered extreme cold and were at risk of hyperthermia and frostbite. It is said that after some patrols, ground crew had to lift the airship crew out of the gondola.  However, it was all part of Britain’s defence against U-boats and vital war service.

The car on a C9

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