Bedford, England’s Forgotten Airship Legacy

The R101. Public domain UK government photo.

When German experimental psychologist Dr. Hugo Eckener set the first of his major airship records with the first intercontinental lighter-than-air voyage in the Graf Zeppelin in 1928, the Germans weren’t the only ones in the airship biz. The British Imperial Airship Scheme, aimed at providing lighter-than-air travel to the furthest reaches of the Empire,  had established a burgeoning operation at Bedford, about 90 minutes north of London. There, the Royal Airship Works operated out of the city of Cardington and giant airship sheds graced the village of Shortstown.

But by the time Eckener made the last of his record-setting voyages in the Graf Zeppelin, the 1931 Arctic flight, the Brits were pretty much getting out of the industry. Why? The disaster of the R101, which crashed in a field in France while on its way to India, killing 49 people (including 48 of the 55 crew). That essentially ended the British airship industry of the 1930s, until World War II revived it — not with airships, but with barrage balloons. Bedford became an important hub when Britain fielded 1,400 barrage balloons by mid-1940, designed to protect against dive bombers. London was then bombed for 76 consecutive nights starting in September, 1940, in what’s now known as “The Blitz,” in which Bedford’s barrage balloons made a lasting imprint on British visual history. And provided a later backdrop for a truly amazing Doctor Who episode.

A new exhibition at the Bedford Museum, in partnership with the Airship Heritage Trust, shows off Bedford’s airship history, including the R101 disaster. There’s an airship-nerd’s cornucopia of lectures through December 15, 2010, including including “Cardington – Behind Closed Doors” (saucy!), “The R101” (spicy!) “The R100” (also spicy!) and a particularly interesting-looking one, Hybrid Air Vehicles, which no doubt is inspired by the fact that U.S. military airships bound for Afghanistan are based at Bedford. These are the same aerostats (“blimps,” to the punters) that perform surveillance duties over U.S. war zones, as we here at Techyum got all hopped up about earlier this month, and Jane’s did a few days later.

If you’re an airship nerd who can’t get to Bedford, you’ll be disappointed to hear that the exhibition’s photo gallery is sparse. But in that event, you simply must (and I mean must) check out the Airship Heritage Trust’s amazing historical catalog of British airships, which has thoroughly engrossing articles on each ship, with photos, and their reference area, which has an FAQ, a bibliography, and even an airship crew organization chart.

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