R33 class airship

R33 class airship

__NOTOC__ Infobox Aircraft

caption="R34" landing at Mineola on 2 July 1919
type=Patrol airship
national origin=United Kingdom
manufacturer=Armstrong Whitworth ("R33"), Beardmore ("R34")
first flight=6 March avyear|1919
primary user=Royal Navy
more users=
number built=2
variants with their own articles=

The "R33" class of British rigid airships were built for the Royal Navy during World War I, but were not completed until after the end of hostilities. The lead ship, "R33", went on to serve successfully for ten years and survived one of the most alarming and heroic incidents in airship history when she was ripped from her mast in a gale. She was nicknamed the "Pulham Pig" by locals and is immortalised in the village sign for Pulham Market. The only other airship in the class, "R34", became the first aircraft to make an East-to-West crossing of the Atlantic Ocean on 6 July 1919, and was decommissioned two years later after sustaining damage in adverse weather.


Substantially larger than the preceding "R31" class, the "R33" class was in the design stage in 1916 when a German Zeppelin, coincidentally designated "L 33", was brought down on English soil. Despite the best efforts of her crew, she was captured near intact with engines in good order. For five months, the "L 33" was carefully examined to uncover the Germans' secrets.

The existing design was adapted to generate a new airship based on the German craft and the construction of the "R33" was given to Armstrong-Whitworth at Barlow, North Yorkshire and "R34" to William Beardmore and Company in Inchinnan, Renfrewshire, Scotland. Assembly began in 1918. The "R33" class was semi-streamlined fore and aft, the middle section being straight-sided. The control car was well forward on the ship, separated sufficiently from the nearby engine to stop vibrations affecting the sensitive radio detection finding and communication equipment.

Operational history


"R33" first flew on 6 March 1919, and was sent to the airship station at Pulham Market in Norfolk. Between then and October 14, R33 made 23 flights totalling 337 hours flying time. One of these, a flight promoting "Victory Bonds" even included a brass band playing in the top machine gun post.

In 1920 she was "demilitarised" and given over to civilian work with the civil registration "G-FAAG". This work consisted of trials of new mast mooring techniques to the mast erected at Pulham. On one occasion winds of 80 mph were successfully overcome while moored. Another experiment was an ascent carrying a pilotless Sopwith Camel which was successfully launched over the Yorkshire Moors. After an overhaul, R33 was based at Croydon, moored to a portable mast. In June 1921, R33 was used for traffic observation by the Metropolitan Police, and in July she appeared in the Hendon Air Pageant before flying to Cardington, Bedfordshire, where she was shedded for three years.

On August 24 1921, the R38 disaster put a stop to all British airship development. Military airships were scrapped, but as a civilian airship R33 was mothballed instead.In 1925, after being inactive for nearly four years, the reconditioned R33 emerged from her shed at Cardington.

On the night of 16th/17th April, the R33 was ripped from her mooring on the mast at Pulham during a gale by a strong gust of wind, and drifted away with only a small "anchor-watch" onboard. Her nose partially collapsed and the first gas cell deflated leaving her low in the bow. Wind and rain blowing into the bow added to her tilt down. The crew on board started the engines gaining some height and rigged a cover for the bow section, but the R33 was blown out over the North Sea. A Royal Navy vessel was readied and left the nearby port of Lowestoft lest the R33 came down in the sea. The local lifeboat launched but was driven back in the face of the weather conditions.

Some five hours after the initial break from the mast, the R33 was under control but still being blown towards the Continent. As she approached the Dutch coast the R33 was ordered to land at Cologne where the Germans could assist. Late in the evening the R33 was able to hold her position over the Dutch coast, hovering there until 5 o'clock the next morning. She was then able to make her slow way back home, arriving at the Suffolk coast eight hours later and making Pulham at 13:50 hrs where she was put into the shed alongside the R36. For their actions, the crew were rewarded by the present of watches from King George V and the coxswain, Sergeant "Sky" Hunt, was awarded the Air Force Medal, which he insisted should be awarded to the crew as a whole.

In October, following repairs, she was be used for experiments that would give useful data for the construction of the R101 airship. Once these were finished in mid October she was used for trials launching a fighter aircraft (see parasite fighter for the concept). The plane in question was a lightweight DH 53 Hummingbird. After some near misses, a successful launch and recapture was achieved in December that year. The following year she was launching a pair of Gloster Grebes weighing about a ton apiece. She was then sent to the sheds at Pulham Market where in 1928 she was finally broken when "severe" metal fatigue was found in her frame. The forward portion of R33's control car is on display at the RAF Museum at Hendon.


"R34" made her first flight on 14 March 1919 and was delivered to her service base at East Fortune on 30 May of the same year. R34 made her first endurance trip of 56 hours over the Baltic on the 17 to 20 June.

It was then decided to go for the first return Atlantic crossing under the command of Major George Scott. The R34 had never been intended as a passenger carrier and extra accommodation was arranged by slinging hammocks in the keel walkway. Hot food was provided by cooking on a plate welded to the engine exhaust pipe. She left Britain on 2 July 1919 and arrived in Mineola, Long Island, United States on 6 July after a flight of 108 hours with virtually no fuel left. As the landing party had no experience of handling large rigid airships, Major EM Pritchard jumped by parachute and so became the first person to reach American soil by air from Europe. This was the first East-West crossing of the Atlantic and was done two weeks after the first non-stop Atlantic crossing by Alcock & Brown. The return journey to Pulham St Mary in Norfolk was from 10 to 13 July and took 75 hours.

She then returned to East Fortune for a refit before going to Howden, East Yorkshire, for crew training.

On 27 January 1921 she left on what should have been a routine exercise. Over the North Sea the weather worsened and a recall signal sent by radio was not received. Following a navigational error the craft hit the North York Moors in the dark and lost two propellors. She went back out to sea using the two remaining engines and in daylight followed the Humber estuary back to Howden. Strong winds made it impossible to get her back into the shed and she was tied down outside for the night. By the morning further damage had occurred and the R34 was written off.


*Royal Navy


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volume m3= 55,000
volume ft3= 1,950,000
aspect ratio=
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lift kg= 26,470
lift lb= 58,240

eng1 number=5
eng1 type=Sunbeam Maori
eng1 kw= 205
eng1 hp= 275
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max speed kmh=99
max speed mph=62
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see also=
similar aircraft=

ee also

*Timeline of hydrogen technologies


* Lord Ventry and Eugene Kolesnik,"Airship saga: The history of airships seen through the eyes of the men who designed, built, and flew them ", 1982, ISBN 0-7137-1001-2
* Manfred Griehl and Joachim Dressel, "Zeppelin! The German Airship Story", 1990 ISBN 1-85409-045-3
* Ces Mowthorpe, "Battlebags: British Airships of the First World War", 1995 ISBN 0-905778-13-8
* Lord Ventry and Eugene Kolesnik, "Jane's Pocket Book 7 - Airship Development", 1976 ISBN 0-356-04656-7

External links

* [http://www.aht.ndirect.co.uk/airships/r33/index.html Airship Heritage Trust R33 Page]
* [http://www.aht.ndirect.co.uk/airships/r34/index.html R34 - The Record Breaker - The Airship Heritage Trust]
* [http://www.gurney.co.uk/halliday/beckvale/psmair.htm Airships at Pulham]

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