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Fatal Flight: The True Story of Britain’s Last Great Airship by Bill Hammack

The dramatic story of R101, the last great British airship, which crashed on its demonstration flight to India in 1930. 

I have a thing about airships. Such ridiculous, improbable, impractical and downright dangerous craft, and yet at the same time things of such beauty, elegance and style – and in the 1920s and ’30s the future of intercontinental travel.

Family lore tells that my Great Uncle Marmaduke worked on the designs of the engines for the R101, Britain’s largest (at 731 feet long) airship, but that he was too far down the pecking order to be invited onto its inaugural flight to India, which was just as well …

In Fatal Flight, Bill Hammack tells the compelling tale of the construction of this monster vessel, with its revolutionary framework and 15 enormous gas bags (each made out of approximately 50,000 oxen intestines!). He outlines the very limited testing regime, and the hurried rebuild to fit in extra hydrogen-gas capacity to enable more lift. He describes the pressure the Royal Airship Works was put under by the ambitious Air Minister, Lord Thomson, to complete the R101 as soon as possible, to act as a highly visible symbol of Empire. He catalogues the clashes between those who were – or who thought they were – in charge of the project, both on the ground and in the air. And he mines the diaries of the First Officer and the memories of the few survivors of the 5 October 1930 crash north of Paris to add the all-important human dimension.

It’s a tragic story (there were 48 fatalities), deftly told, written in non-technical language but with full appendices for those who want more in-depth information. Absolutely fascinating – and on occasion jawdropping.


Review by a Library Member