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The Royal Airship Works Shortstown

The sheds at RAF Cardington March 2011
The sheds at RAF Cardington March 2011

Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service possesses a copy of an article on the history of the Royal Airship Works written for an Empire Day programme of 1938. The text is reproduced below with annotations in square brackets made by H. G. Tibbutt before giving it to the office [CRT130Cardington4]:

“The Royal Airship Works, Cardington, were laid down in 1917 to meet the requirements of the Admiralty for an additional Airship Constructional Station”.

“The lay-out included a Factory, Airship Shed, a Hydrogen Plant, a Foundry and Rolling Mill to manufacture Duralumin Alloy”.

“The first airships to be constructed, the L.31 and L.32, were reproductions of the Schutte Lanz design, with wooden girder-work. Later, R.38 was constructed for special operations in the North Sea, capable of an altitude in excess of enemy aircraft at the time”. [R.38. On August 24 1921, wrecked in Humber, loss of 42 out of complement of 49. 695 feet long, 85 feet 4 inches in diameter, gas capacity 2,700,000 cubic feet. 6 Sunbeam Cossack engines each of 350 H.P. R. 38 was built at Cardington by Air Ministry in the shed built and used during Great War by Short Brothers of Rochester and Bedford. Before it flew R. 38 was sold to the United States Navy and was called the Z. R. 2].

“A further airship programme was approved in 1924, when the design for R.101 was laid down. It was then found necessary to lengthen the existing airship shed by the addition of four bays and to increase the height. The shed now measures 812 feet long by 180 feet clear door space, with a total height of 170 feet. This work was completed by 1927, and in the same year it was decided to transfer an airship shed from H. M. Airship Station, Pulham, and re-erect it at Cardington, with additional structure to bring it to the same dimensions as No. 1 Shed”.

Working on the sheds at the Royal Airship Works 1927 [X766/1/31]
Working on the sheds at the Royal Airship Works 1927 [X766/1/31]

“The Cardington MooringTower, completed in 1928, is a steel-framed octagonal structure, 200 feet in height, designed to take a pull of 30 tons in any direction at the mooring cone. In addition to the stairway, a passenger lift to accommodate eleven passengers is installed. The passenger lift is 40 feet in diameter and 170 feet above the ground”.

The R101 at its mooring mast [Z426/1/18]
The R101 at its mooring mast [Z426/1/18]

“The operations carried out at Cardington have been concerned with the following airships: L.31, L.32, R. 33, R. 38, R.100 and R.101. It was from Cardington that R.101 undertook her trials, including her last flight. The total measurements of R.101 were 777 feet, with a capacity of 5,500,000 cubic feet”.

“During the airship programme, the Meteorological Office established a Research and Forecasting Station at Cardington, to investigate weather conditions on the main Empire routes”.

“After the disaster to R.101|, airship research was continued, and it was intended to fit out R.100 as a “flying laboratory”, but the work was stopped as a result of economy measures in 1931”.

“The Kite Balloon Design Office was transferred to Cardington in 1924”.

“In 1929, H. R. H., the Duke of Windsor, then Prince of Wales, visited the Royal Airship Works, and inspected R. 101, then under construction. Amongst other notable visitors were the Dominion Prime Ministers, who were in England for the Imperial Conference, in November 1930 [1926], they witnessed a demonstration flight of R. 33. One hundred Members of Parliament also paid a visit to the Royal Airship Works on 23rd November, 1929, and lunched aboard R. 101, which was then moored to the tower”.

“The Graf Zeppelin landed at Cardington on 26th April 1930, for Doctor Hugo Eckener to embark”.

Number 1 hangar at the former Royal Airship Works, in the parish of Eastcotts, was designed and built by A. J. Main and Company of Glasgow in 1916 and 1917. Airships R31 and R32 were built in this shed. It was enlarged in 1926 and 1927 by ClevelandBridge and Engineering Company of Darlington [Durham] to house R101 during and after its construction. It measures 812 feet long by 275 feet wide by 180 feet high. Number 1 hangar comprises twenty nine bays of steel framing with side aisles. Six stairways lead up to three roof catwalks used during construction of R101. R100 was broken up inside the shed in 1931.

The structure is clad in corrugated steel sheeting and the huge doors, weighing five hundred tons, are moved by an electric motor at the west end. It is the last survivor of an airship shed in situ in Europe. It was listed by the former Department of Environment in January 1982 as Grade II*, a particularly important building of special interest.

The adjacent Number 2 hangar stands in the parish of Cardington. It was built during the First World War at Pulham in Norfolk and later transported to Cardington and enlarged.

Shortly after R101 crashed on 5th October 1930 the decision was taken to abandon the concept of giant passenger airships. Before the month was out a third of the staff at the Royal Airship Works had been made redundant. R101’s more successful sister ship R100, built by Vickers in Yorkshire, was broken up the following year and the Royal Airship Works was mothballed until November 1938 when it was renamed the Balloon Development Establishment and became the principal barrage balloon operations training centre for the Royal Air Force.