Airship Navigator

by E A Johnston
Review by Tom Hamilton

When the R101 airship crashed into a hillside near Beauvais, France in October 1930, not only did the ensuing conflagration bring to an end the dreams of an Imperial airship service, it also extinguished some of the most brilliant lights in the British aviation community at that time.

The Airship Navigator is about the author's father, Ernest L. Johnston OBE AFC, who became an airship pilot in the Royal Naval Air Service in 1916 and lost his life in the R101.

Airship Navigator tells the fascinating story of the mainstream of British airships from the point of one man who flew them between 1916 and 1930. It also contains an account of some pioneering commercial aeroplane operations in which he was involved in the formative years, 1923-27.

Many people have written about the tragedy of the airship R101, including a piece in this magazine-Dream and Nightmare, September 1994. by James Cambias

Johnston was twelve when his father died in the crash. He was born with one ear "cocked to catch the sound of engines of airships returning from patrol."

The author was inspired to write his work after reading Sir Peter Masefield's To Ride The Storm, an authoritative, detailed account of the 1924 Airship Program and its tragic demise. Johnson disagreed with some of Masefield's conclusions and set out on his own search for what caused the crash.

Johnson worked closely with Masefield and Professor Alan Simpson in an attempt to write a joint pamphlet describing the outcome of their study of the R101 disaster. Professor Simpson did a computer study of the motions of R101 under various flight conditions and leading up to the final moments before the airship crashed and exploded in flames.

Perhaps driven by his own personal need for answers, the technical paper became this book. The tale of the R101 is told from the point of view of the author's father and the people he knew best, the senior management at Cardington and the officers of the R100 and R101.

The British airship program became the political boondoggle of its day. The push to establish airship service to Canada and India took on a life of their own. Lord Thomson, who was the government air minister, pushed his political ambitions. The author's exhaustive and authoritative study of the events leading up to and during the crash of R101 lay the blame for the accident on Lord Thomson.

In the end, as an airship orphan, Johnston gives us his conclusion:
"Whatever the technical or operational causes of the disaster, Colmore, Richmond, Scott, Irwin, Atherstone, Johnston, Rope and all their colleagues died in the same instant as Thomson because, in the end, they had not been strong enough to stand up against the ruthless determination of the ambitious politician who had hitched his political reputation to the performance of 'his' ship. Thomson too had courage, for he must have had an inkling that the dice were loaded against the successful accomplishment of the Indian voyage; yet, having laid his timetable on the line, he was too proud and obstinate to listen to those who counselled caution. Only Brancker, who died with him, that outstanding pioneer of both military aviation and the civil air routes top India and through Africa to the Cape, a man of proven accomplishment and personal bravery in the air, had the strength of character to argue against him, suggesting postponement right up to the day before the ship left. But Brancker had no authority over the airship development programme; he could only speak as an airman of judgement and experience, admired and trusted by the whole aviation community, a leader who knew how to listen to what was said by the people who flew."

Airship Navigator, One Man's Part in the British Airship Tragedy 1916-1930, by E A Johnston ABE FRAeS, hardback, 205 pages, illustrated with 25 black and white photographs and three diagrams. Published by Skyline Publishing. Price 19.95 All profits from the sale of this book will be donated to the Airship Heritage Trust's work and it is available direct from them at: The Airship Heritage Trust, c/o The Royal Air Force Museum, Royal Air Force Station, Cardington, Bedford, MK42 0TH, England.

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