By Brian Roulston
When Hamiltonians gaze up at the clear blue sky on a lovely summer day, we consider ourselves fortunate that the 83-year-old Lancaster Bomber is still ripping through the skies. However, we often overlook the diverse array of other aircraft crisscrossing above our heads.
November 11, 1918, with the end of WW1 the dream of flying passengers around the world began. Just as the world marvelled at the Wright Brothers on December 17th, 1903 and as the first Boeing 747 took to the sky for the first time in 1969, airships were the marvel of the early 20th century. Hamiltonians looked in awe on August 11, 1930 when they awoke at 6:30 in the morning to see something floating silently a thousand feet above the city’s eastern limits. It was a highly anticipated sighting. It was the British Wonder Airship, also known as R100, which was about ‘’three city blocks long’’ and ‘’seven stories tall’’. The United Kingdom built the rigid airship in 1929. It made its maiden transatlantic voyage to Canada in 1930, which took 79 hours and set a record for the distance flown by an airship at the time. The airship had a top speed of 128 km/h (80 mph).
The R100 was part of the British government’s attempt to use airships to connect the Empire. Canada’s Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King is largely credited for the R100’s visit to Canada. He was striving to promote trade and air travel by using airships and aimed to demonstrate the future of aviation to Canadians at that time. Over 800,000 people visited the behemoth when it was moored at its brand-new airship facilities in Saint-Hubert, Quebec. The R100 airship became a media sensation, generating newspaper stories, radio broadcasts, and celebrations in Montreal and Toronto and even Hamilton. During her two-day trial across Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, and Niagara Falls, it was estimated that a million and a half more people watched and observed her. Hamiltonians were both amazed and curious about the airship. Some newspapers of the day described it as a “flying hotel” or a “giant cigar”.
The R100 passenger vessel was designed separately from the airship by Barnes Wallis in Howden, Yorkshire. It was described at the time as a hybrid between a Pullman coach and an ocean liner. It had three levels, two for its 100 passengers and a level for its crew of 37.
The passenger decks were designed to provide maximum comfort and convenience to the passengers. The lounge doubled as a dining room, and the wooden card tables could be used as tables and chairs for up to four diners. There was also a smoking room, a writing room, and 50 sleeper cabins that lined the exterior walls. Each cabin had a port window, single size bunk beds, and a chair similar to the average kitchen chair. The promenade deck was a great place for passengers to walk around and enjoy the view outside the vessel through huge sloped windows. If you were lucky enough to get a sleeper on the upper deck you had your very own balcony but you still had to skip to the loo down the hall.
The British government built a sister ship, the R101, a year later, based on the success of the R100. This vessel was designed to transport travellers and mail to India, Australia, and Canada. The R101 crashed and burnt on a hill during its inaugural flight to India on October 4-5, 1930, after encountering heavy weather above the northern French city of Beauvais. Six of the 54 passengers survived. Numerous top British officials were among those killed in the accident.
As a result of the crash, public and political support for airships waned in Britain.
The R100 was broken up between December 1931 and February 1932; the structure was dismantled, flattened with a steamroller and sold at scrap value. After its production, the private manufacturer of the airship, Royal Airship Works, which was a division of Vickers Ltd (Aviation Department), was subsequently shut down.
Although the airship did not become a commercial success, the airfield at Saint-Hubert did become the first modern airport in Canada. It is still in use today, known as the (YHU) Montréal Saint-Hubert Longueuil Airport.
Image Below – Hamilton Herald , August 11 1930 clipping
Featured top image – Airship R100 on mooring mast in Canada. Photo from US Library of Congress. Credit Theodor Horydczak