As was the case with the aeroplane, Great Britain left France and Germany to make the running in the early days of airship construction; the balloon section of the Royal Engineers was compelled to confine its energies to work with balloons pure and simple until well after the twentieth century had dawned, and such experiments as were made in England were done by private initiative. As far back as 1900 Doctor Barton built an airship at the AlexandraPalace and voyaged across London in it. Four years later Mr E. T. Willows of Cardiff produced the first successful British dirigible, a semi-rigid 74 feet in length and 18 feet in diameter, engined with a 7 horse-power Peugot twin-cylindered motor. This drove a two-bladed propeller at the stern for propulsion, and also actuated a pair of auxiliary propellers at the front which could be varied in their direction so as to control the right and left movements of the airship. This device was patented and the patent was taken over by the British Government, which by 1908 found Mr Willow's work of sufficient interest to regard it as furnishing data for experiment at the balloon factory at Farnborough. In 1909, Willows steered one of his dirigibles to London from Cardiff in a little less than ten hours, making an average speed of over 14 miles an hour. The best speed accomplished was probably considerably greater than this, for at intervals of a few miles, Willows descended near the earth to ascertain his whereabouts with the help of a megaphone. It must be added that he carried a compass in addition to his megaphone. He set out for Paris in November of 1910, reached the French coast, and landed near Douai. Some damage was sustained in this landing, but, after repair, the trip to Paris was completed.
Meanwhile the Government balloon factory at Farnborough began airship construction in 1907; Colonel Capper, R.E., and S. F. Cody were jointly concerned in the production of a semi-rigid. Fifteen thicknesses of goldbeaters' skin--about the most expensive covering obtainable--were used for the envelope, which was 25 feet in diameter. A slight shower of rain in which the airship was caught led to its wreckage, owing to the absorbent quality of the goldbeaters' skin, whereupon Capper and Cody set to work to reproduce the airship and its defects on a larger scale. The first had been named 'Nulli Secundus' and the second was named 'Nulli Secundus II.' Punch very appropriately suggested that the first vessel ought to have been named 'Nulli Primus,' while a possible third should be christened 'Nulli Tertius.' 'Nulli Secundus II.' was fitted with a 100 horse-power engine and had an envelope of 42 feet in diameter, the goldbeaters' skin being covered in fabric and the car being suspended by four bands which encircled the balloon envelope. In October of 1907, 'Nulli Secundus II.' made a trial flight from Farnborough to London and was anchored at the CrystalPalace. The wind sprung up and took the vessel away from its mooring ropes, wrecking it after the one flight.
Stagnation followed until early in 1909, when a small airship fitted with two 12 horse-power motors and named the 'Baby' was turned out from the balloon factory. This was almost egg-shaped, the blunt end being forward, and three inflated fins being placed at the tail as control members. A long car with rudder and elevator at its rear-end carried the engines and crew; the 'Baby' made some fairly successful flights and gave a good deal of useful data for the construction of later vessels.
Next to this was 'Army Airship 2A 'launched early in 1910 and larger, longer, and narrower in design than the Baby. The engine was an 80 horse-power Green motor which drove two pairs of propellers; small inflated control members were fitted at the stern end of the envelope, which was 154 feet in length. The suspended car was 84 feet long, carrying both engines and crew, and the Willows idea of swivelling propellers for governing the direction was used in this vessel. In June of that year a new, small-type dirigible, the 'Beta,' was produced, driven by a 30 horse-power Green engine with which she flew over 3,000 miles. She was the most successful British dirigible constructed up to that time, and her successor, the 'Gamma,' was built on similar lines. The 'Gamma' was a larger vessel, however, produced in 1912, with flat, controlling fins and rudder at the rear end of the envelope, and with the conventional long car suspended at some distance beneath the gas bag. By this time, the mooring mast, carrying a cap of which the concave side fitted over the convex nose of the airship, had been originated. The cap was swivelled, and, when attached to it, an airship was held nose on to the wind, thus reducing by more than half the dangers attendant on mooring dirigibles in the open.
Private subscription under the auspices of the Morning Post got together sufficient funds in 1910 for the purchase of a Lebaudy airship, which was built in France, flown across the Channel, and presented to the Army Airship Fleet. This dirigible was 337 feet long, and was driven by two 135 horse-power Panhard motors, each of which actuated two propellers. The journey from Moisson to Aldershot was completed at a speed of 36 miles an hour, but the airship was damaged while being towed into its shed. On May of the following year, the Lebaudy was brought out for a flight, but, in landing, the guide rope fouled in trees and sheds and brought the airship broadside on to the wind; she was driven into some trees and wrecked to such an exteent that rebuilding was considered an impossibility. A Clement Bayard, bought by the army airship section, became scrap after even less flying than had been accomplished by the Lebaudy.
In April of 1910,, the Admiralty determined on a naval air service, and set about the production of rigid airships which should be able to compete with Zeppelins as naval scouts. The construction was entrusted to Vickers, Ltd., who set about the task at their Barrow works and built something which, when tested after a year's work, was found incapable of lifting its own weight. This defect was remedied by a series of alterations, and meanwhile the unofficial title of 'Mayfly' was given to the vessel.
Taken over by the Admiralty before she had passed any flying tests, the 'Mayfly' was brought out on September 24th, 1911, for a trial trip, being towed out from her shed by a tug. When ha]f out from the shed, the envelope was caught by a light cross-wind, and, in spite of the pull from the tug, the great fabric broke in half, nearly drowning the crew, who had to dive in order to get clear of the wreckage.
There was considerable similarity in form, though not in performance, between the Mayfly and the prewar Zeppelin. The former was 510 feet in length, cylindrical in form, with a diameter of 48 feet, and divided into 19 gas-bag compartments. The motive power consisted of two 200 horse-power Wolseley engines. After its failure, the Naval Air Service bought an Astra-Torres airship from France and a Parseval from Germany, both of which proved very useful in the early days of the War, doing patrol work over the Channel before the Blimps came into being.
Early in 1915 the 'Blimp' or 'S.S.' type of coastal airship was evolved in response to the demand for a vessel which could be turned out quickly and in quantities. There was urgent demand, voiced by Lord Fisher, for a type of vessel capable of maintaining anti-submarine patrol off the British coasts, and the first S.S. airships were made by combining a gasbag with the most available type of aeroplane fuselage and engine, and fitting steering gear. The 'Blimp' consisted of a B.E. fuselage with engine and geared-down propeller, and seating for pilot and observer, attached to an envelope about 150 feet in length. With a speed of between 35 and 40 miles an hour, the 'Blimp' had a cruising capacity of about ten hours; it was fitted with wireless set, camera, machine-gun, and bombs, and for submarine spotting and patrol work generally it proved invaluable, though owing to low engine power and comparatively small size, its uses were restricted to reasonably fair weather. For work farther out at sea and in all weathers, airships known as the coast patrol type, and more commonly as 'coastals,' were built, and later the 'N.S.' or North Sea type, still larger and more weather-worthy, followed. By the time the last year of the War came, Britain led the world in the design of non-rigid and semi-rigid dirigibles. The 'S.S.' or 'Blimp' had been improved to a speed of 50 miles an hour, carrying a crew of three, and the endurance record for the type was 18 1/2 hours, while one of them had reached a height of 10,000 feet. The North Sea type of non-rigid was capable of travelling over 20 hours at full speed, or forty hours at cruising speed, and the number of non-rigids belonging to the British Navy exceeded that of any other country.
It was owing to the incapacity--apparent or real-- of the British military or naval designers to produce a satisfactory rigid airship that the 'N.S.' airship was evolved. The first of this type was produced in 1916, and on her trials she was voted an unqualified success, in consequence of which the building of several more was pushed on. The envelope, of 360,000 cubic feet capacity, was made on the Astra-Torres principle of three lobes, giving a trefoil section. The ship carried four fins, to three of which the elevator and rudder flaps were attached; petrol tanks were placed inside the envelope, under which was rigged a long covered-in car, built up of a light steel tubular framework 35 feet in length. The forward portion was covered with duralumin sheeting, an aluminium alloy which, unlike aluminium itself, is not affected by the action of sea air and water, and the remainder with fabric laced to the framework. Windows and port-holes were provided to give light to the crew, and the controls and navigating instruments were placed forward, with the sleeping accommodation aft. The engines were mounted in a power unit structure, separate from the car and connected by wooden gang ways supported by wire cables. A complete electrical installation of two dynamos and batteries for lights, signalling lamps, wireless, telephones, etc., was carried, and the motive power consisted of either two 250 horse-power Rolls-Royce engines or two 240 horse-power Fiat engines. The principal dimensions of this type are length 262 feet, horizontal diameter 56 feet 9 inches, vertical diameter 69 feet 3 inches. The gross lift is 24,300 lbs. and the disposable lift without crew, petrol, oil, and ballast 8,500 lbs. The normal crew carried for patrol work was ten officers and men. This type holds the record of 101 hours continuous flight on patrol duty.
In the matter of rigid design it was not until 1913 that the British Admiralty got over the fact that the 'Mayfly' would not, and decided on a further attempt at the construction of a rigid dirigible. The contract for this was signed in March of 1914; work was suspended in the following February and begun again in July, 1915, but it was not until January of 1917 that the ship was finished, while her trials were not completed until March of 1917, when she was taken over by the Admiralty. The details of the construction and trial of this vessel, known as 'No. 9,' go to show that she did not quite fill the contract requirements in respect of disposable lift until a number of alterations had been made. The contract specified that a speed of at least 45 miles per hour was to be attained at full engine power, while a minimum disposable lift of 5 tons was to be available for movable weights, and the airship was to be capable of rising to a height of 2,000 feet. Driven by four Wolseley Maybach engines of 180 horse-power each, the lift of the vessel was not sufficient, so it was decided to remove the two engines in the after car and replace them by a single engine of 250 horsepower. With this the vessel reached the contract speed of 45 miles per hour with a cruising radius of 18 hours, equivalent to 800 miles when the engines were running at full speed. The vessel served admirably as a training airship, for, by the time she was completed, the No. 23 class of rigid airship had come to being, and thus No. 9 was already out of date.
Three of the 23 class were completed by the end of 1917; it was stipulated that they should be built with a speed of at least 55 miles per hour, a minimum disposable lift of 8 tons, and a capability of rising at an average rate of not less than 1,000 feet per minute to a height of 3,000 feet. The motive power consisted of four 250 horse-power Rolls-Royce engines, one in each of the forward and after cars and two in a centre car. Four-bladed propellers were used throughout the ship.
A 23X type followed on the 23 class, but by the time two ships had been completed, this was practically obsolete. The No. 31 class followed the 23X; it was built on Schutte-Lanz lines, 615 feet in length, 66 feet diameter, and a million and a half cubic feet capacity. The hull was similar to the later types of Zeppelin in shape, with a tapering stern and a bluff, rounded bow. Five cars each carrying a 250 horse-power Rolls-Royce engine, driving a single fixed propeller, were fitted, and on her trials R.31 performed well, especially in the matter of speed. But the experiment of constructing in wood in the Schutte-Lanz way adopted with this vessel resulted in failure eventually, and the type was abandoned.
Meanwhile, Germany had been pushing forward Zeppelin design and straining every nerve in the improvement of rigid dirigible construction, until L.33 was evolved; she was generally known as a super-Zeppelin, and on September 24th, 1916, six weeks after her launching, she was damaged by gun-fire in a raid over London, being eventually compelled to come to earth at Little Wigborough in Essex. The crew gave themselves up after having set fire to the ship, and though the fabric was totally destroyed, the structure of the hull remained intact, so that just as Germany was able to evolve the Gotha bomber from the HandleyPage delivered at Lille, British naval constructors were able to evolve the R.33 type of airship from the Zeppelin framework delivered at Little Wigborough. Two vessels, R.33 and R.34, were laid down for completion; three others were also put down for construction, but, while R.33 and R.34 were built almost entirely from the data gathered from the wrecked L.33, the three later vessels embody more modern design, including a number of improvements, and more especially greater disposable lift. It has been commented that while the British authorities were building R.33 and R.34, Germany constructed 30 Zeppelins on 4 slips, for which reason it may be reckoned a matter for congratulation that the rigid airship did not decide the fate of the War. The following particulars of construction of the R.33 and R.34 types are as given by Major Whale in his survey of British Airships:--
'In all its main features the hull structure of R.33 and R.34 follows the design of the wrecked German Zeppelin airship L.33. 'The hull follows more nearly a true stream-line shape than in the previous ships constructed of duralumin, in which a greater proportion of the greater length was parallel-sided. The Germans adopted this new shape from the Schutte-Lanz design and have not departed from this practice. This consists of a short, parallel body with a long, rounded bow and a long tapering stem culminating in a point. The overall length of the ship is 643 feet with a diameter of 79 feet and an extreme height of 92 feet.
'The type of girders in this class has been much altered from those in previous ships. The hull is fitted with an internal triangular keel throughout practically the entire length. This forms the main corridor of the ship, and is fitted with a footway down the centre for its entire length. It contains water ballast and petrol tanks, bomb storage and crew accommodation, and the various control wires, petrol pipes, and electric leads are carried along the lower part.
'Throughout this internal corridor runs a bridge girder, from which the petrol and water ballast tanks are supported. These tanks are so arranged that they can be dropped clear of the ship. Amidships is the cabin space with sufficient room for a crew of twenty-five. Hammocks can be swung from the bridge girder before mentioned.
'In accordance with the latest Zeppelin practice, monoplane rudders and elevators are fitted to the horizontal and vertical fins.
'The ship is supported in the air by nineteen gas bags, which give a total capacity of approximately two million cubic feet of gas. The gross lift works out at approximately 59 1/2 tons, of which the total fixed weight is 33 tons, giving a disposable lift of 26 1/2 tons.
'The arrangement of cars is as follows: At the forward end the control car is slung, which contains all navigating instruments and the various controls. Adjoining this is the wireless cabin, which is also fitted for wireless telephony. Immediately aft of this is the forward power car containing one engine, which gives the appearance that the whole is one large car.
'Amidships are two wing cars, each containing a single engine. These are small and just accommodate the engines with sufficient room for mechanics to attend to them. Further aft is another larger car which contains an auxiliary control position and two engines.
'It will thus be seen that five engines are installed in the ship; these are all of the same type and horsepower, namely, 250 horse-power Sunbeam. R.33 was constructed by Messrs Armstrong, Whitworth, Ltd.; while her sister ship R.34 was built by Messrs Beardmore on the Clyde.'
Of the two vessels, R.34 appeared rather more airworthy than her sister ship; the lift of the ship justified the carrying of a greater quantity of fuel than had been provided for, and, as she was considered suitable for making a Transatlantic crossing, extra petrol tanks were fitted in the hull and a new type of outer cover was fitted with a view to her making the Atlantic crossing. She made a 21-hour cruise over the North of England and the South of Scotland at the end of May, 1919, and subsequently went for a longer cruise over Denmark, the Baltic, and the north coast of Germany, remaining in the air for 56 hours in spite of very bad weather conditions. Finally, July 2nd was selected as the starting date for the cross Atlantic flight; the vessel was commanded by Major G. H. Scott, A.F.C., with Captain G. S. Greenland as first officer, Second-Lieut. H. F. Luck as second officer, and Lieut. J. D. Shotter as engineer officer. There were also on board Brig.-Gen. E. P. Maitland, representing the Air Ministry, Major J. E. M. Pritchard, representing the Admiralty, and Lieut.-Col. W. H. Hemsley of the Army Aviation Department. In addition to eight tons of petrol, R.34 carried a total number of 30 persons from East Fortune to Long Island, N.Y.
There being no shed in America capable of accommodating the airship, she had to be moored in the open for refilling with fuel and gas, and to make the return journey almost immediately.
Brig.-Gen. Maitland's account of the flight, in itself a record as interesting as valuable, divides the outward journey into two main stages, the first from East Fortune to Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, a distance of 2,050 sea miles, and the second and more difficult stage to Mineola Field, Long Island, 1,080 sea miles. An easy journey was experienced until Newfoundland was reached, but then storms and electrical disturbances rendered it necessary to alter the course, in consequence of which petrol began to run short. Head winds rendered the shortage still more acute, and on Saturday, July 5th, a wireless signal was sent out asking for destroyers to stand by to tow. However, after an anxious night, R.33 landed safely at Mineola Field at on July 6th, having accomplished the journey in 108 hours 12 minutes.
She remained at Mineola until of July 9th, when, although it had been intended that a start should be made by daylight for the benefit of New York spectators, an approaching storm caused preparations to be advanced for immediate departure. She set out at by British summer time, and flew over New York in the full glare of hundreds of searchlights before heading out over the Atlantic. A following wind assisted the return voyage, and on July 13th, at , R.34 anchored at Pulham, Norfolk, having made the return journey in 75 hours 3 minutes, and proved the suitability of the dirigible for Transatlantic commercial work. R.80, launched on July 19th, 1920, afforded further proof, if this were needed.
It is to be noted that nearly all the disasters to airships have been caused by launching and landing-- the type is safe enough in the air, under its own power, but its bulk renders it unwieldy for ground handling. The German system of handling Zeppelins in and out of their sheds is, so far, the best devised: this consists of heavy trucks running on rails through the sheds and out at either end; on descending, the trucks are run out, and the airship is securely attached to them outside the shed; the trucks are then run back into the shed, taking the airship with them, and preventing any possibility of the wind driving the envelope against the side of the shed before it is safely housed; the reverse process is adopted in launching, which is thus rendered as simple as it is safe.