‘Titanic of the skies’: The story of London’s ill-fated luxury airship service to Melbourne
The R101 was the biggest of two rigid frame airships build in the UK in the 1920s. (Supplied: Airship Heritage Trust)
History is full of twists of fate that change its course for better or worse.
It was one, or perhaps a few, of those twists that meant the first passenger flight between Britain and Australia was by a plane — and not by an airship the size of the MCG, piloted by a pig farmer from Victoria’s Fish Creek.
Let me explain.
You see, in the 1920s Britain was giddy for airships: those enormous, gas-filled contraptions that look like a giant AFL football fitted with propellers.
And before you say “oh yeah, a blimp” — no, a blimp is different.
A blimp (like the Goodyear) maintains its shape through the pressure of the gas it holds, in the same way as a balloon. If the gas comes out, a blimp becomes shapeless.
An airship (like a Zeppelin) has a rigid frame that holds internal gas bags for lift.
It still has shape even without gas.
Blimps carry passengers in a gondola — often a re-purposed plane fuselage — hanging beneath the balloon, while airships carry people inside the structure itself.
Both are what’s known in aeronautical terms as “dirigibles”, meaning they are self-powered and steerable, unlike a balloon.
Good. I won’t explain it again.
An illustration shows the size of the R101 compared to landmark Melbourne buildings. (The Argus)
The Imperial Airship scheme
Britain embarked on an ambitious plan in 1924 to build two massive airships capable of traversing the monumental distances between the mother country and her colonies — most importantly Canada, India, South Africa and Australia.
It also had to convince the colonies that this was a good idea and, if possible, get them to pay for some of it.
Stanley Bruce, Australia’s then-prime minister, would’ve had plenty of time to contemplate Australia’s geographical remoteness on his five-week boat journey to London for the 1926 Imperial Conference.
When Bruce and other delegates were shown a scale model of a proposed 200-metre-long airship that could make the journey to Australia in just 12 days he must have absolutely wet himself — diplomatically speaking.
In fact, the idea of an empire airship scheme had been raised at the previous Imperial Conference in 1922 by the then-agent-general for Tasmania, Alfred Ashbolt.
He used the analogy of Rome losing touch with its outposts to push for Britain strengthening ties with hers — via giant floating bags of combustible gas.
Bruce returned to Australia, slowly, and set things in motion.
In mid-1927, a delegation called the Airship Mission was sent from Britain to investigate potential sites for airship mooring masts and to generally drum up interest in the scheme.
It was something local politicians and newspapers were only too happy to help them achieve.
From London to Australia, there were a number of routes the Imperial Airship could take. (The Argus)
The preferred route from Britain to Australia was across the Indian Ocean, via India or South Africa, arriving in Western Australia.
The Australian government began investigating, buying up land at Jandakot, in Perth, to establish a mooring site.
But why would you go to the trouble and expense of setting up an airship service to the other side of the world if you were just going to deposit people in Perth?
A second base on the east coast was a must.
Officials calculated costings for an airship mooring tower and shed base in Melbourne
In an early victory in the ongoing intercity war, Melbourne was chosen ahead of Sydney thanks to the unchallenging terrain on the western approach to the city and Sydney’s tendency to experience what the Airship Mission described as “undesirable weather phenomena” including sudden thunderstorms and intense rain.
It was estimated that the cost of establishing a mooring base at Deer Park, west of Melbourne, would be around a half a million pounds (roughly $40 million by today’s standards) and that the base would be — get this — connected to the railway network!
He was keen as mustard but, before he would commit, the prime minister wanted to see a demonstration flight from Britain to Australia, preferably coinciding with the proposed (but eventually abandoned) 1931 Empire Exhibition that he was trying to secure for Sydney.
Once that was completed, the way would be clear for a fully-fledged passenger service to begin by 1935.
A 1927 Works and Railways department memo addressed the possible purchase of land west of Melbourne for an airship mooring site. (ABC News)
By 1929, Britain had built two massive airships — the R100 and the R101 — which were housed in enormous side-by-side hangars at Cardington, north of London.
In 1930, the R100 completed a transatlantic flight to Canada in 78 hours and the return journey in less than 58 hours. The airship moored in Montreal for 12 days and attracted more than 100,000 visitors.
It was a huge public relations success.
Britain pushed on with plans for another test flight to India, this time with the bigger of its airships — the R101.
The R101 was, at the time it was built, the largest flying aircraft ever made, at a length of more than 220 metres.
The British press, prophetically, called it “the Titanic of the skies”.
The R101 was luxurious compared to other aircraft at the time, with 50 passenger cabins, a dining room for 60 people and two promenade decks.
Passengers could move about freely and the journey was comparatively silent.
Worried about safety while you have a smoke? Have no fear: the smoking room is lined with asbestos for your protection.
With the airship built and a mooring station set up in India, the British now only needed someone to fly the thing.
The R101 had a dining room for 60 people and 50 passenger cabins. (Supplied: Airship Heritage Trust)
Lieutenant Commander Noel Grabowsky Atherstone had the rare distinction of being the only British airman to sink a German submarine from an airship in World War I — effectively leaning over the side of a gondola to drop a mine on it in a typically low-tech Great War endeavour.
After the war, Atherstone sought a quieter life and moved overseas to Victoria.
Airman Noel Atherstone sought a career change after moving to Victoria, and became a pig farmer. (The Times)
He was able to secure land at Fish Creek, east of Melbourne, under the Discharged Soldiers Settlement Act.
The decorated soldier and daring airman became a pig farmer.
But an extraordinary offer to be part of the new Imperial Airship scheme was enough to lure Atherstone out of retirement and back to Britain in 1927.
He was appointed First Officer — effectively second-in-command — of the R101 in 1929.
He had a chance to be part of history onboard the world’s biggest flying craft on its maiden intercontinental voyage.
Pig farming could wait.
Noel Atherstone (second from the right) was enticed out of retirement to be part of the R101 crew. (Supplied: Airship Heritage Trust)
A local lad
Melburnian William Palstra had been awarded the Military Cross during World War I, later joining the Australian Flying Corps where he was credited with shooting down six enemy planes.
Palstra rose through the ranks of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to Squadron Leader by 1928, when he was nominated for a course at the Royal Air Force College, travelling to Britain with his young family.
A rising star in the RAAF, Palstra stayed on as a liaison officer in London.
The young airman was due to return to Australia in 1930 when fate, as it tends to do, intervened.
William Palstra was given a last-minute opportunity to fly on the maiden flight. (Sydney Morning Herald)
The Australian officer who was to be onboard the R101 for its historic flight — Flight-Lieutenant Charles Harman — retired and Palstra was chosen at short notice to take his place and report back to the Australian government on the voyage.
Harman had been on test flights with the R101, which he described as “successful and wholly enjoyable”, although he would later admit he thought everything about the airship “looked dreadfully inflammable”.
Palstra was said to have had reservations too.
The Associated Press reported that he told a fellow officer he “didn’t like the idea of that 5 million cubic feet of gas above me”.
Nevertheless, he took his place along with 53 others on the R101 as it departed Cardington on October 4, 1930, bound for Karachi, Pakistan.
The R101 crossed the English Channel but hit strong and gusty winds near the town of Beauvais, north of Paris.
A split developed in its outer cover, causing it to drag and then nosedive.
Despite the efforts of the crew, the R101 dropped from an altitude of 1,200 feet — about 365 metres — in just over two minutes, to touch the ground on the edge of a forest.
Although the R101 only made relatively gentle contact with the ground, a fire had started which ignited the airship’s gasbags and it exploded, reducing the craft to a charred frame.
The R101 crashed in France en route to Karachi after a split developed in its outer cover. (Supplied: Airship Heritage Trust)
Forty-eight of the 54 men onboard the airship died — more than were killed in the Hindenburg disaster seven years later.
The Hindenburg crash, caught on film with radio journalist Herb Morrison’s anguished cries of “oh, the humanity!” as a soundtrack, is the tragedy we most associate with airships.
But the R101 disaster was every bit as horrifying, only it happened in a quiet field in France in the middle of the night.
Among the victims of the crash were Atherstone and Palstra.
The disaster also claimed the life of British cabinet minister Lord Thomson, who’d been so convinced of the merits of the R101 that he was determined to be onboard, telling the House of Lords it was “one of the most significant scientific experiments man had ever attempted”.
The few crash survivors at the funeral for victims of the 1930 crash, north of Paris. (Supplied: Airship Heritage Trust)
The R101 lay for a year where it had crashed, before metal from the wreck was salvaged and later sold to the Zeppelin Company, which is rumoured to have used some of it to build the Hindenburg: a tempting of fate that borders on the ludicrous given the benefit of hindsight.
Flight-Lieutenant William Harman personally delivered news of the crash to Palstra’s widow, who returned to Melbourne the following month — by boat — with the couple’s three children.
Atherstone’s widow was reported to have said she knew there had been a tragedy, as her dog had howled at the exact moment of the crash.
The bodies of the 48 victims, many of which were impossible to identify, were taken back to Britain to be buried in a communal grave at Cardington, just a few hundred metres from where the giant airship hangars still stand.
The hangars, no longer needed to house airships, now play host to film shoots.
All three of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were shot there.
Back in Australia, Stanley Bruce had lost the general election in 1929, and it was left to the acting prime minister James Fenton to pay tribute to Palstra.
“To know him was to know his worth, and we grieve for his sorrowing widow and family,” he told parliament.
Then-member for Kooyong, John Latham, lamented the loss of the airship and its crew, but told his fellow MPs that “this calamity, however, will be but a temporary setback; others of our race will press on to secure the mastery of the air”.
The Imperial Airship Scheme was abandoned the following year.