The History of R38


The history and development of R.38

R.38/ZR-2 in production.

British Pathé film from 1920 shows the airship under construction.

(Taken from Dr Antony Firth’s Project summary, the background for his submission to Historic England.)
Shortly after 5.30pm on 24 August 1921, the airship built as R.38/ZR-2 broke in two, exploded and fell in flames into the River Humber in front of hundreds if not thousands of onlookers in the city of Hull. Of 49 people on board, 44 died. Witnesses tell of crew parachuting from the ship to land in the flaming water below. The sight can only be imagined now, though the famous newsreel of the Hindenberg disaster 16 years later gives a sense of how sudden and traumatic the crash may have been. The impact on the people of Hull was considerable and preliminary work indicates that there are still many family stories of the incident. The crew included both UK and US personnel. The R.38 had been conceived for the Admiralty but sold to the US Navy as the ZR-2. It crashed in the course of its final acceptance trials prior to its imminent departure across the Atlantic. The craft was both at the forefront of design – the world’s largest airship at almost 700 feet in length – and fundamentally flawed. It sits at the end of the extensive and successful use of lighter-than-air craft against U-boats by the British during the First World War; and at the start of US naval interest in rigid airships that was to continue through the 1920s and 1930s in craft such as the USS Shenandoah (ZR-1), Los Angeles (ZR-3), Akron (ZR-4) and Macon (ZR-5). The R.38 was influential in the development of civil airships in the UK in the form of the R.100 and R.101, but also in broader aspects of aircraft design, testing, the use of aluminium, and air crash investigation.

A thorough historical account of the R.38/ZR-2 has been published as Icarus over the Humber: the last flight of Airship R.38/ZR-2 by Tom Jamison (Lampada Press 1994).

Royal Aeronautical Society webinar

“On 24th August 1921 the British Rigid Airship R.38 was on trials with the United States Navy. Designed to fly at altitude it maneuvered over Hull and broke in two before falling into the Humber Estuary taking the lives of many airship experts of the day. This talk briefly outlines the airship life and character of Major Pritchard and some of his colleagues, while detailing the R.38 disaster and its aftermath.”

(The Royal Aeronautical Society presentation by Wendy Pritchard, descendant of Jack Pritchard, who kindly gave permission for this to be included.)

The Airship Heritage Trust website has more details regarding the development and construction of the R.38 and further information regarding some of the crew.

R.38/ZR-2 at Cardington, 1921. From Darren Howlett’s collection.
R.38/ZR-2 gondola. From Darren Howlett’s collection.
R.38/ZR-2 gondola. From Darren Howlett’s collection.

R.38/ZR-2 Facts & Figures

Length – 695 Feet
Height – 93 Feet
Diameter – 85½ Feet
Volume – 2,700,000 cubic feet
Fuel – 30 ‘Long Tons’ of petroleum
Powerplant – 6 Sunbeam Cossack 11 V-12 Water-cooled piston engines
Propellers – twin-blade wooden fixed-pitch
Endurance – 65 hours at full speed
Max Speed – 70 mph
Range – 6,500 miles (at cruising speed)
Service ceiling – 22,000 feet
Crew – 28-30
Armament –15 guns of mixed calibre and 10 bombs in total.

(Figures taken from ‘Disaster over the Humber’, The Dalesman, August 2021.)

Hydrogen vs Helium

R.38/ZR-2 used hydrogen, the Earth’s lightest element, which made it ideal as a lifting gas. However, it is also highly flammable, which ultimately rendered it unacceptable for manned airship operations.

Most modern airships use helium, an inert gas, which is less efficient and more expensive than hydrogen, but crucially is much safer.

The fatal test flight

On 24 August 1921, airship R.38/ZR-2 exploded and crashed into the River Humber in front of thousands of onlookers in Hull, killing 44 of its 49-strong British and American crew. The R.38/ZR-2 was based at Howden, East Riding for its last test flights before being sold to the United States Navy. While returning to Howden along the Humber, a final test of extreme movements to the airship’s steering to simulate the stresses of bad weather caused the light structure to break apart, resulting in catastrophe.

The Humber was a focal point for airships in the early 20th century. During the First World War, Hull was repeatedly a target of German zeppelins raiding across the North Sea. British airships were constructed in the North Yorkshire village of Barlow and patrolled for German U-boats from the nearby base at Howden in the East Riding. The R.38/ZR-2 was built at Cardington in Bedfordshire, but it had moved to Howden to complete the test flights, complete with its British and American crews.

Like the Titanic, the R.38/ZR-2 was the most advanced of its kind at the time. It was larger, faster and could fly higher than any of its predecessors. The crash was a personal tragedy for the crew, their families and had huge ramifications for the future of aviation.
(Historic England press release, May 2021.)

Illustration from Icarus over the Humber : the Last Flight of Airship R.38-ZR-2 by Tom Jamison.
Illustration (Fig. 89) from Icarus over the Humber : the Last Flight of Airship R.38-ZR-2 by Tom Jamison.