The airships called “dirigibles” were sometimes also called “zeppelins” after their German inventor.
(p. 43) . . . zeppelins had fatal flaws. A single ignition source could turn one into a fireball, as British fighter pilots discovered once they started arming their planes with incendiary bullets. Explosive properties aside, dirigibles were all but uncontrollable in high winds and struggled to stay aloft when rain saturated their cloth skins, adding tons of extra weight.
. . .
That Britain persisted with its airship program owes much to the book’s main character, Lord Christopher Thomson, a retired brigadier and Labour Party politician who in 1923 was appointed to run the British Air Ministry. Witty, cultured and handsome, the India-born Thomson had a romantic vision of a “peaceful, air-linked world” that was closely tied to romance of a different sort. Thomson had for years been carrying on a long-distance affair with Marthe Bibesco, a ravishing (and married) Romanian princess and celebrated author. By 1930, during his second stint as air secretary, there was a chance he would be tapped as the next viceroy of India, a job that would take him even farther from his beloved. In Gwynne’s persuasive telling, Thomson believed that airships could save both the empire and his love life.
Thomson comes across as decent but hopelessly naïve, his faith in R101 based partly on bad information from the underlings responsible for building it. They knew the airship was too heavy, and that its gas bags — made from cow intestines — were prone to leakage. But with few exceptions they kept that knowledge to themselves, for fear of displeasing the boss.
It didn’t help that Thomson was on a tight schedule. Having claimed a berth on R101’s inaugural, round-trip voyage to India, he was determined to be back in London in time for a conference of colonial premiers, perhaps imagining a dramatic, Phileas Fogg-style entrance that would underscore the brilliance of his scheme. To accommodate him, flight tests were cut short, and the airship took off despite reports of bad weather along the route over France. There is reason to believe that the airship’s senior officer may have been drunk at the time.
For the full review, see:
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 1, 2023, and has the title “When Ego Meets Hot Air, the Results Can Be Deadly.”)
The book under review is:
Gwynne, S. C. His Majesty’s Airship: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying Machine. New York: Scribner, 2023.
The story of the competition between the privately-built R100 and the government-built R101 was earlier well-told in:
Squires, Arthur M. The Tender Ship: Government Management of Technological Change. Boston, Massachusetts: Birkhauser, 1986.