Tuesday, May 21, 2013

R100 vs R101

My work in progress is a novel, Steamship to Kashmir. It has an airship with Mycroft Holmes as a passenger.

When I conceptualized the airship, I looked at the Hindenburg for inspiration. Since I did not want to see the airship end in a fire-ball, I opted for a non-hydrogen lifting gas--steam. The US zeppelin program lasted several years longer, but the highest-profiles zeppelins operated by the US Navy were lost in storms.

Sadly, I gave short shrift to the British airship programs. This is unforgivable when researching a novel featuring a British airship. The Akron and the Macon as well as the Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg all get prominent mention in the articles I've read, but less so the R100 and R101. It's probably the flashy names.

I had heard of how the disastrous crash of the R101 on its maiden flight doomed British airship development. But I had not heard the story behind the story of the R101 disaster until I read this chestnut. It seems the R100 and the R101 were built by a company named Vickers and by the British civil service, respectively.

One of my surprises upon visiting the UK was seeing private-owned infrastructure where I didn't expect it. If you wait at a bus stop in my home town of Grand Rapids, the bus which pulls up will be owned by GRATA, an entity of the city government that loses money and is propped up by taxes. If you ride a train in the US, it is owned by AmTrak, an entity of the Federal government that loses money and is propped up by taxes.

Thus it makes sense to me that Britain would run two airship programs side-by-side in a competitive fashion. I may be mistaken, but it sounds like running two Apollo programs operated by Boeing and NASA, respectively.

The R101 is a good example of what can happen when political rather than economic or engineering considerations drive a project. The government does not want to be embarrassed and it will use whatever means necessary to avoid embarrassment and shift blame away from itself. Conversely, corporations do not want to lose money and it will use whatever means necessary to minimize loss and shift risks away from itself.

NASA was pushing for faster turn around time and more launches per year, and so they overrode the warnings and launched the Space Shuttle Challenger while icicles were hanging from it. The cold temperatures made the o-rings inflexible and the inflexible o-rings failed catastrophically. Apparently, the same kind of thinking was in play when the R101 took off for India. It got as far as France.

The R100 had already successfully flown to Canada and back. To minimize further embarrassment the UK government grounded it and broke it up for scrap.

To be fair, the state of mathematics and computations at the time made strength-of-materials calculations difficult and time consuming. Thus both ships were probably too weak to handle extreme weather and the UK government's decision to fly in deteriorating weather doomed the R101.

It is simplistic to say Capitalism good, Socialism bad. There are different relative advantages to each approach. If you want to get maximum performance for least expense, you want Capitalism. If you are willing to sacrifice these things for the good of the collective, you want Socialism. Even if the good of the collective requires grounding and breaking up the R100.

Just a few years after this the US Navy's airship  USS Akron would be lost in a storm, and a few years after that the USS Macon would be lost in another storm. Given the available materials and the inability of the engineers to accurately gauge loads, the R100 would have probably been lost in a storm--eventually.

Though the Germans-built airships Graf Zeppelin and Graf Zeppelin II were not lost to storms, they could not survive Herman Goring's order that they be dismantled. Perhaps the Germans knew a little bit more about structural engineering or meteorology than the UK and US.

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