Authors: Nevil Shute
In the autumn of 1924 I left de Havillands, with some regret. It was a delightful company to work for, but it was staffed by seniors who were all young men and all vastly more experienced than I was, so that no promotion could be rapid. In aviation at that time there were opportunities on every side for those who had the wit to take them, and Mr. B. N. Wallis, who was then a designer of rigid airships working for Vickers Ltd, was gathering together a staff for the design of a very large airship to be known as the R.100. I joined this staff in the capacity of Chief Calculator, which should not be misinterpreted. I knew nothing of airships at that time and the Airship Guarantee Company, a subsidiary of Vickers Ltd, employed three consultants who were to teach me the fundamentals of my job and carry out research into the methods. Professor Bairstow was our authority on aerodynamics, Professor Pippard on structures, and Mr. J.E. Temple was the most practical and useful of them all because he had been Chief Calculator for Wallis on the design of a former ship, the R.80, built by Vickers at the conclusion of the war. My job was to get together a staff of calculators to do the work on R.100, translating the theories of the consultants into the forces and stresses in each member of the ship and so providing the draughtsmen with the sizes for each girder and each wire.
This was an important matter, for the previous experience of England in the construction of rigid airships had not been happy. Rigid airships had been built during the
war upon the lines of the German airships that had been shot down. Vickers had had a hand in this programme with the construction of R.80 and other ships, and R.80 at any rate had been properly stressed according to the best aerodynamic data available at the time. Most of the other ships had been designed and built by a staff of government officials attached to the Air Ministry, but the methods of the German designers were not known, of course, and these ships had been built empirically and by copying the sizes of the girders in the German ships. The last of them was R.38. On her third flight a structural weakness in the girders was revealed, but was made light of. On her fourth flight she was doing turning trials over the Humber in very perfect weather when she broke in two, the front part catching fire and falling in the river and the rear part coming down on land. Forty-four lives were lost in the accident. At the enquiry into the disaster it came out that the officials responsible had made no calculations whatsoever of the aerodynamic forces acting on the ship in flight; it was not therefore very surprising that she broke when doing turns at full helm and full speed.
On taking up my new job I spent many hours in reading old reports and records to find out what had been done in the field of airship calculations before, and when I came on the report of the R.38 accident enquiry I sat stunned, unable to believe the words that I was reading. I had come from the hard commercial school of de Havillands where competence was the key to survival and a disaster might have meant the end of the company and unemployment for everyone concerned with it. It was inexpressibly shocking to me to find that before building the vast and costly structure of R.38 the civil servants concerned had made no attempt to calculate the aerodynamic forces acting on the ship, and I remember going to one of my chiefs with the report in my hand to ask him if this could possibly be
true. Not only did he confirm it but he pointed out that no one had been sacked over it, nor even suffered any censure. Indeed, he said, the same team of men had been entrusted with the construction of another airship, the R.101, which was to be built by the Air Ministry in competition with our own ship, the R.100.
The situation in the airship world at that time was curious. It was generally agreed in 1924 that the aeroplane would never be a very suitable vehicle for carrying passengers across the oceans, and that airships would operate all the long-distance routes of the future. We were all quite wrong, of course, but at that time it seemed reasonable; no aeroplane had yet succeeded in crossing the Atlantic from east to west, whereas a German airship, the Graf Zeppelin, was already carrying commercial loads of passengers both ways to South America upon a regular schedule. In England Sir Dennis Burney was perhaps the leading airship enthusiast, acting with Vickers Ltd, and in 1923 this group put forward a proposal to the Government that they should build six commercial airships and set up a company to operate them on the Empire routes. This proposal was approved in principle, but before an agreement could be signed and sealed the Conservative Government went out and the first Labour Government came in, and the whole thing was thrown back into the melting pot.
The Government of Mr. Ramsay MacDonald appointed a Cabinet Committee to investigate the whole matter and to decide a course of action. There was, of course, a strong inclination towards State enterprise and a disinclination to put the whole airship programme in the hands of private capital; moreover there was a nucleus of civil servants in the Air Ministry who had been associated with the R.38, who considered that they alone knew how to build airships. The controversy of capitalism versus State enterprise has been argued, tested, and fought out in many ways
in many countries, but surely the airship venture in England stands as the most curious determination of this matter. The Cabinet Committee heard all the evidence, and had difficulty in making up their minds. Finally, in effect, they said, “The Air Ministry at Cardington shall build an airship of a certain size, load-carrying capacity, and speed, and Vickers Ltd shall build another one to the same contract specification. By this ingenious device we shall find out which is the better principle, capitalism or State enterprise.” I joined the capitalist team.
However satisfactory the competitive experiment may have been to that Cabinet Committee, it cannot be said that it brought peace to the competing staffs. Each had its own peculiar viewpoint, and the two were quite irreconcilable. The Air Ministry staff at Cardington considered that they were engaged upon a great experiment of national importance, too great to be entrusted to commercial interests. For the sake of appearances it had been necessary to give commercial interests some small share in the experiment, but it was impossible to suppose that any private company could compete with Cardington in this matter, backed as it was by all the finance and research resources of the Government.
The staff of the private company took a different view. In 1916 the principle had been laid down for aeroplanes that all construction should be left in the hands of private enterprise, a decision which had been imposed by bitter experience. In the realm of airships this principle had never been observed, and the bitter experience was not yet at an end. The disaster to the government-designed R.38 was still fresh in the memory. These were the people, said the private staff bitterly, these very same men all but one who had killed himself in R.38, who were to be entrusted with the construction of another airship when by rights they ought to be in gaol for manslaughter.
Most of those men are now dead, killed in the accident to the airship they designed in competition with us, the R.101, and it may be that these acerbities ought not to be revived twenty-five years later. If I revive them for a moment now it is because there are still lessons to be learned from this peculiar experiment of Government and private enterprise working in direct competition on constructions to the same specification, and because the bitterness, almost amounting to direct hostility, between the competing staffs had its effect on history; if there had been more friendly co-operation between the design staffs the disaster to R.101 might not have happened.
In the five years that were to elapse before either airship flew neither designer visited the other’s works, nor did they meet or correspond upon the common problems that each had to solve. Each trod a parallel road alone, harrassed and overworked. Towards the very end of the construction I made contact with my opposite number, Dr. Roxbee Cox, and went on a visit to Cardington to see their ship, but his chiefs prevented him from accepting my invitation to visit us at Howden. If the Cabinet Committee wanted competition they had got it with a vengeance, but I would not say that it was healthy.
So the thing started, and each staff began work on the preliminary researches that precede design in a big job like that. It was no fault of the Cardington party that they had the Air Ministry press department always nagging at their elbow for a story to put out in order that the expenditure of public money might be justified, but the effect was a stream of optimistic forecasts in the newspapers from the men who were building the R.101 which in the end were to build a ring fence around them from which there was no escape. It was our good fortune, on the Vickers staff, that we had no press department and therefore few published statements to prevent us from changing our plans
quickly when we found it necessary to do so, and in that design we were venturing so far into the unknown that we perforce made many changes of plan. In the end, and largely through the press department, I think, the Cardington designers found themselves hemmed in behind a palisade of their own published statements which could not be broken through without some personal and public discredit, till one course only was left open to them, a course they never would have taken had they been free men, a course which was to lead to tragedy and death.
WORK ON THE DESIGN OF R.100 began in a somewhat humdrum manner. Aviation work up till then had meant for me life on an aerodrome amongst experimental aeroplanes, with pilots to talk to every day, and flying for myself whenever I could afford it. The airship job began with office work in Vickers House in Westminster, followed by more than a year in a derelict office in the depressing industrial suburb of Cray ford in Kent. The work was stimulating and even fascinating in its novelty, but the contact with aviation in those first eighteen months was purely theoretical.
There was a great deal to be done before we dared to begin on the working drawings for the airship, and we had little past experience to guide us. Wallis was a veteran designer of the Vickers airships of the war years, but few of the rest of us had ever seen an airship, much less flown in one. From the start it was evident that it would be necessary to depart entirely from the Zeppelin design since this ship was to be more than twice the size of any airship that had flown before, and to attempt to build an airship from first principles alone, guided only by sound theory and calculation, and by the use of the most up to date aeroplane practice where that was applicable.
There were an infinite variety of problems to be solved. It seemed necessary to design a special airship engine that would run on kerosene and hydrogen drawn from the gasbags, to maintain the ship in equilibrium; all this had to be
thought out and put in hand, and the experimental engine built. Little existed in the way of theory on the air forces acting on an airship or the distribution of the forces in the structure; a great mass of new theory had to be evolved from first principles, tried out, and proved true. The ship was to be built at Howden in Yorkshire, on flat land adjacent to the Humber and roughly equidistant between York and Hull. Howden aerodrome and airship shed, derelict since 1921, had to be reconditioned and made ready for the installation of machinery. Attempts were made to produce improved varieties of gasbag material and improved designs of mooring mast. A new system of gasbag retaining mesh wiring had to be developed from pure theory and tried out on water bag models. New designs of girder had to be evolved, and new machines produced to manufacture the helically wound four-inch duralumin tubes of which the girders were to be built. Girder tests had to be carried out at Birmingham University. Eighteen months were occupied by these and many other matters; it was a time of urgent preparation, strenuous and unpeaceful.
During most of that period I lived in digs in Hatherley Road, Sidcup, a suburb of London not far from the office at Crayford in Kent where I was getting my staff of calculators together. I built a five-valve wireless set for my parents in those months, and I started on a third novel, entitled
, which was to be my first book to be published, by Cassell. I had evidently learned from my previous efforts, because I wrote
twice through from start to finish and large portions of the book were written a third time; I was evidently resolved to spare no effort. It probably took me about eighteen months of my spare time to write, working on it in the evenings as a relaxation from my airship work.
I must have had a good deal of energy in those days,
because on summer mornings I used to get up at about half past five, drive six or seven miles to Chislehurst where there was a livery stables, ride for an hour on Chislehurst Common, and get back in time to bathe, breakfast, and catch my train to Crayford. I think I felt that my surroundings at that time were so drab that it was necessary to regain contact with the country and do something different from all the other daily-breaders; I think the airship calculations benefited from these early morning rides, and perhaps they benefited from the novel, too. I have always liked to do two jobs at the same time; one helps you to rest from the other and the fact that in the evenings my mind was fully occupied upon the novel gave me a clearer view of the airship problems next morning, I think, than some of my colleagues could achieve.
By the spring of 1926 most of the preliminary work was over and we were ready to commence the design of the actual airship, and at that time we all moved up to Howden. The little town stands in dead flat country unrelieved by hills, and clings desperately to its ancient status of a town among the villages of the district. Modern times have not dealt kindly with the place. It was a centre of learning in pre-Reformation days and a fine avenue of trees still leads beside the ancient fish ponds to the site of the college, but the roof of the great church fell in about the time of the Armada, and ruins surround the portion still in use. In the last century Howden was an export centre for the Yorkshire horse trade, shipping horses to the Continent. There are large houses in the town, the homes of prosperous dealers in the past, now fallen in to decay. The presence of the airship station during the first war did something to restore prosperity for that brief time, and it may be that we, too, did something for the town while we were there. I hope we did.