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.


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