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The R38 Disaster

100th Anniversary

One hundred years ago, on 24 August 1921, the huge airship HMA R38 was spectacularly wrecked over the River Humber at Hull, in front of large crowds.

The airship had been sold to the US Navy, which was expanding its fleet of rigid airships, and she was to become the USN’s ZR-2.

She was 699 feet long (213 metres) and her gas-filled envelope had a capacity of 2.7 million cubic feet (77,000 cubic metres). She was powered by six 350 horse-power Sunbeam Cossack engines. She must have been an impressive sight.

First World War

During the First World War British airships were operated by the Royal Naval Air Service and had been used to good effect on convoy escort and anti-submarine duties.

There were Royal Navy airship stations all around the coast of the UK. The crews and ground staff of the interwar airships were predominantly former Royal Naval Air Service personnel, such as J E M Pritchard, the officer in charge of flight testing for the R38. Pritchard had served in HMA R34 for its 1919 ground-breaking double crossing of the Atlantic and had even parachuted from the airship at Mineola, Long Island, New York.

Constructed at Cardington in Bedfordshire, the R38 was due to undergo 100 hours of flight tests in British hands, followed by another 50 with an American crew.

Howden

She had been flown from Cardington to Howden, which by the end of the First World War was the largest airbase in the UK, covering a square mile.

By 1918 Howden, not far up the Humber from Hull, was the base for 80 airships and 1000 personnel. Locals apparently claimed that there were more airships in Howden than cars.

At Howden, R38 had some alterations made and was repainted with her American ZR-2 markings. From Howden, she undertook trials over the North Sea.

What happened over the Humber?

On 23 August she left her shed at Howden and flew down the east coast to Norfolk, bound for Pulham airship base. Her crew was a mix of British and American personnel.

Thick fog over Pulham meant the airship could not attempt to moor at the base and she remained out at sea overnight, before moving north back to the River Humber.

An airship in flight was a crowd-puller and this was the height of summer. Crowds watched as the R38 made some low-level high-speed turns over the Humber, but the stress on the long fuselage was too great and the airship broke in two.

The tail section floated safely down into the river and landed on a sandbar, but the fore section was ripped apart by two explosions, which blew out windows in Hull.

The fore section crashed in flames into the estuary just off Victoria Pier. Thousands watched the disaster unfold. Locals took boats out to the burning wreck to try to save the crew, but 44 of the 49 perished.

The city of Hull is commemorating this very sad centenary of a marvellous flight that turned into disaster.

In the National Museum of the Royal Navy’s collection is a matchbox cover made of aluminium salvaged from the wreckage of airship R38. It was made by Henry Beacock, who was working on a dredger that went to the aid of the survivors. The back of the cover shows the airship breaking in half in mid-air.

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