Airships ahoy - from blimps to bumps and Blackpool’s role in aviation history

AIRCRAFT ALOFT: Nigel Caley and his model of the R32
AIRCRAFT ALOFT: Nigel Caley and his model of the R32
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Some men have Airfix model aircraft aloft – or model boats below. Yet more have model railway layouts in a corner of the house out of bounds to the missus – and the kids.

But few have a 10ft model of an R32 airship suspended above their living room - and a raft of reference material below.

Welcome to former teacher Nigel Caley’s world.

Airships are not so much his guilty pleasure as his passion. The wealth of material at his Poulton home has helped fire the interest of award winning former Fleet Street and radio and TV journalist John Swinfield.

John’s measured tones are best remembered from The Money Programme, and from documentaries on the dispossessed of Latin America and South East Asia.

His new book Airship : Design, Development and Disaster (Conway Publishing, £25) is a labour of love.

He explains: “My own enchantment started when I was a young reporter learning my craft on a weekly paper in Bedford - and learned of the two mammoth airship sheds at Cardington, outside the town, where the ill-fated government-backed R101 was built.

“The gaunt sheds always held a fascination for me. Later on - as a reporter for ITV – I made a film about the little Europa airship built at Cardington by the Goodyear company and I was fortunate enough to sail in her. It was a wondrous experience and from then on I was hooked. It’s an addiction with no known cure.”

As a former newsman he’s more than familiar with the headline hitting catastrophes of old - such as the calamitous losses of USS Akron in 1933 and LZ129 Hindenberg in 1937.

But he reckons few appreciate the potential lost to such tragedies – and the swerve of engineering talent (such as Barnes Wallis) towards aeroplanes that came with the Second World War.

With Nigel’s help John has charted the history of lighter-than-air craft from the continental pioneers of the late 19th century through to European airship stations in the Great War, Germany’s military zeppelins, British behemoths R100 and R101 and those tragedies of the 1930s.

He also shows how airships were bent towards military use at the ultimate cost of their commercial potential.

John acknowledges his debt of gratitude to the Fylde’s resident airship expert Caley, a specialist teacher turned full time carer.

He explains: “Nigel has built up an amazing collection of airship memorabilia. He’s one of the foremost airship historians.”

Nigel says it all started with his grandparents. His paternal grandfather witnessed the R38 airship crash above Hull in 1921, plummeting into the Humber. It had been commissioned to fly higher and faster than the wartime German Zeppelins but split in two when taking turns to port and starboard at speed. The front half exploded, the back fell into the sea. Of the 49 Brits and American on board, only five survived, and the disaster was witnessed by thousands.

Nigel’s maternal grandmother had also seen the first Zeppelin shot down over London in the First World War.

“Both stories fired my imagination and I’ve never lost that interest. My biggest regret is I never asked my grandparents to tell me more. I’ve done a lot of digging since. Today I can tell the source of material just by looking it.”

Nigel has 1,500 books on airships – plus one thanks to John’s latest book.

“I’ve helped several authors. I should write a book myself one day. I’d love to look at Soviet airships as they did quite a few in the 1930s and had some spectacular accidents.

“I’m not just interested in British airships or German Zeppelins. The Italians first used semi rigid airships to bomb in the Libyan campaign in 1912 three years ahead of the Germans.”

Nigel also reckons the local coastline’s role in airship development is often overlooked.

“Just up the coast Barrow was the number one experimental centre for airship development in the First World War - Vickers gave Barnes Wallace free hand there.

“He came up with the R80, the first time we equalled the Germans in airship design.

“Airships were all tested over Morecambe Bay so people here on the Fylde coast would have had a grandstand view.

“And it was highly skilled labour.

“Airships of today are operated quite differently to how they operated in the past when they were fully lighter than air or at neutral buoyancy.

“If you went on an airship then it would feel as if the earth was falling away, there was no sensation of rising as in an hot air balloon at all.”

The Wright brothers cracked heavier than air flight in 1903 but it was the Second World War which set the scene for commercial travel. In developing aeroplanes large enough to carry a significant payload (bombs) the way was paved for commercial air liners.

“Until then airships had been seen as the only long range air craft.”

Blackpool played an all important role in airship development too, says Nigel.

The gasbags for the R33 – which first flew in March 1919 – were put together in the ballroom of the Winter Gardens.

“The British public wanted a British airship so teams of engineers would inspect any German ones brought down in decent condition.

“The gas bags were put together for one in Blackpool.

“In a rigid airship there’s an outer cover stitched over the metal frame, the hydrogen gas contained in large round cheese-style bags, individual gas tight cells inside the metal frame.

“And they were made in Blackpool for the R33, a sister ship for the R34, the most successful of the British airships .”

The R33 made headline news after breaking away from her British mooring mast in a storm – complete with skeleton crew on board – and ending up over Holland before the crew could get her under control and coax her back to Britain.

“A huge gust ripped her off her mooring mast, pulled the girders out of a shape, deflated the first few gas bags and damaged the bow – yet the coxswain managed to get to the top of the airship to patch her up and pull the cover down over the huge smashed in bit at the front.

“They were all decorated for their bravery.”

The same airship flew over Blackpool.

“It was in acknowledgement of the town being involved in her construction.

“The Hindenberg flew not too far from here - when it flew Barrow way and came close to Blackpool on one flight.

“There’s all this talk about how silent airships were - yet they had enormous engines roaring away.

“I’ve met people who saw the R101 fly over Blackpool - and silent she was not. Not with five large diesel engines.

“At 4am flying relatively low at 1500ft she must have woken half the town.

“That was on her long flight of 1929 when they were showing off the airship - in much the same way as we were treated to a flypast by Concorde years later.”

Nigel’s delighted with Swinfield’s Airship book.

“British airships have been very unfairly treated by historians over the years. But they were experimental designs by incredible engineers who each went on to have great careers in British aviation and whose influence is still felt today.

“John’s book redresses the balance.

“It’s very much written from a journalist’s point of view - and it’s immensely readable.

“There is something of the sailing ship appeal about airships. They have the same tug on the heartstrings.

“Haynes are bringing out a manual on the R101, you know?

“I’ll certainly be buying it...”