Airship Design

John Samuel White Shipyard, Cowes

Out of school and with no formal qualifications, 17 year old Barnes Wallis started an indentured apprenticeship at the Thames Engineering Works at Blackheath, Southeast London. Here Wallis worked on many projects before transferring his apprenticeship to JS White shipyard in Cowes, Isle of Wight during 1908 and trained as a marine draughtsman and engineer. Wallis blossomed and was promoted to the design office, working on torpedo boats and destroyers and learning about diesel engines.

In 1912, a young Hartley Blyth Pratt joined the firm from Vickers and they quickly became great friends. Wallis’ work with boats had given him a sound grasp of fluid dynamics and when airship design again became fashionable Pratt was called back to Vickers. It was only a few months before he called Wallis and arranged for him to join the massive organisation of Vickers as his assistant.

R9 Airship

R9 Airship

In 1913, Wallis and Pratt began their design for a rigid airship of 800,000 cubic feet capacity and, at the same time, for three non-rigid airships. Strength was wanted above all and by the end of the same year the design was approved, and work began at Cavendish Dock early in 1914.

What is a Rigid Airship?

A rigid airship is a type of airship (or dirigible) in which the envelope is supported by an internal framework rather than by being kept in shape by the pressure of the lifting gas within the envelope, as in blimps (also called pressure airships) and semi-rigid airships. Rigid airships were produced and relatively successfully employed from the beginning of the 1900s to the end of the 1930s; their heyday ended when the Hindenburg caught fire on May 6, 1937.
Rigid Airship Design

When war broke out in August 1914, the airship codenamed R9 was nearly ready for erection. Construction continued, yet delays by competing demands for materials and manpower for other projects and the feeling that the project was no longer favoured by the Admiralty meant progress was slow. On 12 March 1915 Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, cancelled the order for the ship. The reasons given for his decision were that it was expected that the war would be finished in 1915, and that the vessel would not be operational by then and thus was a waste of valuable resources. Pratt and Wallis enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles and went off to war. They served for nine months.

“Churchill stopped the building of the R.9 at the beginning of the war because everybody thought the war would be over in three or four months. Pratt and I rushed off and enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles”

On 19 June 1915, after Churchill had been replaced as First Lord by Arthur Balfour, a conference was held at the Admiralty to consider all airship development. The German Zeppelins had proved their efficiency, and at this meeting it was agreed to expand the non-rigid programme and also to resume construction of the R9. However, resumption of work was delayed by the necessity to retrieve Wallis and Pratt from the Army. Final erection of the R9 began in the autumn of that year, but there were delays in obtaining flax from Ireland to make nets for the gas-bags following the Easter Rising, and the ship was not completed until 28 June 1916.

The R9 flew, during its first test flight on 27 November 1916. This was the first time a British rigid airship had flown; however, it was unable to lift the contract weight of 3.1 tons. Following a number of modifications to make it lighter, increasing the disposable light to 3.8 tons, the R9 was accepted by the Navy in April 1917. R9 was then stationed at at Howden in Yorkshire where it spent most of the time being used for experimental mooring and handling tests. From October 1917 to June 1918 R9 was stationed at RNAS Pulham in Norfolk. It was finally dismantled due to demand for shed space to allow construction of newer airships, having spent 198 hours and 16 minutes in the air, of which some 33 hours were at a mooring mast.

R80 Airship

Barnes Wallis' Airship Design

In 1917, Vickers were awarded the contract to build the R37 airship. To build the ship would need a larger shed than the existing facilities Vickers had at Barrow, and the construction facilities at all the main construction sites were full, being used for the production of other ships. Vickers had permission to build a hangar at Flookborough, larger than their two existing sheds, but with the pressures of war this was later refused due to a shortage of steel. This left Vickers with no option but to abandon the project, which was then awarded to Shorts in Cardington. Wallis and Pratt set about designing a ship which would fit within the smaller shed at Warney Island, Barrow-in-Furness, which had used for the construction of 23X class airships.

Construction of the R80 began in November of 1917. The designs were to follow that of the Zahn shape, which had been outlined in the original “Mayfly”, HMA 1. Wallis later was convinced that the design was incorrect and decided on a shape which would only provide a three percent resistance in streamlining. At this stage, build of the ship was under way but work was progressing slower than anticipated due to labour shortages, and with the end of the First World War, the future of military airships was reviewed.

The Air Ministry stopped the work on the R80 in the summer of 1919, as it was considered that the ship was no longer of military or commercial value. Vickers, however, continued to fit out the ship with commercial objectives in mind but the scheme unfortunately fell through. The initial idea was that the ship might have been able to form part of the proposed commercial airship programme and the plans were outlined in a commercial document by Pratt in October 1919.

In April 1920, the outer cover was sewn on to the framework and by June the R80 was complete. On 19 July, the ship emerged from her shed for her maiden flight. The R80 was damaged due to service crew not having alighted from the ship, and the ship had not been properly ballasted, and the lifting gas superheated causing the ship to rise too fast, causing extensive buckling of the framework. R80 was returned to her shed and repairs commenced.

The ship didn’t fly again until early 1921 when she was commissioned in January and then flown to Howden in Yorkshire on 24th February. With the post war economy in depression, the costs of keeping the ship along with the other ships which had been constructed and stored, made her future look uncertain. The decision whether to scrap, deflate or store the ship was left up to the Secretary of State, who was also responsible for the other airships in the service. However as the R80 was new, a reprieve came in the form of a request that the ship remain serviceable to allow the US Navy to train. The US Navy made 4 flights in the ship totalling some 8 hours 45 minutes between 26th March and 1st June.

The R80 was then flown from Yorkshire to Pulham in Norfolk; this flight on the 20th September proved to be her last. The ship was used for destructive tests on components and she was finally dismantled in 1925 after 4 years, having flown for a total of 73 hours.

R100 Airship

R100 Airship

R100 was built as part of a British government programme to develop airships to provide passenger and mail transport between Britain and the countries of the British Empire, including India, Australia and Canada. This had its origin in Dennistoun Burney’s 1922 proposal for a civil airship development programme to be subsidised by the Government and carried out by a specially established subsidiary of Vickers. When the General Election of 1923 brought Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour administration to power, the new Air Minister, Lord Thomson formulated the Imperial Airship Scheme in its place. This called for the building of two experimental airships: the R101, to be designed and constructed under the direction of the Air Ministry, and the other, the R100, to be built by a new subsidiary of Vickers; the Airship Guarantee Company.

It was felt by the government that having two prototypes built would lead to twice the level of innovation over traditional lines. Both the R100 and R101 teams were the first to build airships in a more aerodynamic form than the traditional Zeppelin designs. British designers had always tried to improve the aerodynamic shape to aid efficiency compared to other contemporary ships, Wallis’ R80 being the case in point, being the most aerodynamic ship constructed to date.

With Barnes Wallis using new design techniques assisted by Neville Shute-Norway as his chief calculator, the R100 was designed as a unique and efficient craft. Construction of the R100 began at the Howden construction facility in 1927, the ship being designed to only just fit within the existing shed. Construction of the ship was slow due to innovations being added, such as rainwater collection devices along the top of the ship. Also, the contract with Vickers was for a ship to be constructed at a fixed contract price. As part of the original design concept, Wallis had designed the R100 to be built from as few different parts as possible, with as few machines, to cut down the need for additional costs. The plan was to design, and build a ship to fit the planned contract. The construction phase was also hindered by strikes delaying works, and the R100 was not ready for shed trials until 3rd July 1929.

“The hull structure was built from only eleven different parts, differing that is in their outward or mass-produced shape, variations in thickness being ignored. Over half a million of the smallest part, a bracing piece, were used, and they could be ordered by the 100,000 at a time. That they would be fitted into their places anywhere from bow to stern is evidence of the perfection of accuracy to which the structure could be built by virtue of its mathematical derivation”

After the 7 successful trial flights and flights checking the outer cover ripple effect that had become apparent during testing, the decision was made for a transatlantic flight or long distance proving flight by one of the two new airships. As the R101 had been put back in Shed Number 1 for further changes to the design to increase the disposable lift, the R100 was tasked with a trip to Canada, successfully crossing the Atlantic to Montreal to the newly erected mast.

The ship slipped the moorings from the Cardington mast at 02.48am on the morning of 29th July 1930. The ship flew over the Atlantic and headed down the Newfoundland coast to Montreal, arriving on 1st August at 05.37am, after a voyage of some 78 hours and 49 minutes; a journey of 3,364 miles. The R100 stayed at Montreal for 12 days with over 100,000 people visiting the airship each day while it was moored there. It also made a 24-hour passenger-carrying flight to Ottawa, Toronto, and Niagara Falls while in Canada. On 16th August 1930, R100 made her return to Cardington and, making use of the gulf stream, managed to knock 21 hours off the outward bound flight time, arriving on 16th August 1930 at 11.06am after 2,995 miles and a trip of 57 hours 56 minutes.

Wallis’ R100 represented the best that conventional airship technology in Britain had to offer at the time. R101 suffered in comparison, partly because of her many groundbreaking but ultimately problematic innovations, and also because of the weight of her diesel engines. After R101 crashed and burned in France, en route to India on 5 October 1930, the Air Ministry ordered R100 grounded. She was deflated and hung up in her shed at Cardington for a year whilst three options were considered: a complete refit of R100 and continuation of tests for the eventual construction of R102; static testing of R100 and retention of about 300 staff to keep the programme “ticking over”; or retention of staff and the scrapping of the airship. In November 1931, it was decided to sell R100 for scrap. The entire framework of the ship was flattened by steamrollers and sold for less than £600.

Well before the demolition men had moved in, indeed even before the R100 had flown to Canada, Barnes Wallis had moved on to Vickers Aviation.