View Full Version : Rigid Airships in the RAF

mike rondot
14th Aug 2012, 11:23
There is a painting in the RAF Club titled "The First British Rigid Airship". It has been on long-term loan/assignment "until the revival or establishment of an Airship Branch".

Hmmm.... I thought the RAF had never owned or operated an airship at any time in its history. Am I correct?

Mike Rondot

14th Aug 2012, 13:22
Doesn't seem to mention whether RAF or not, but the following from an old book of my father's that I found:




Funny how when they talk about "The war", they mean WW1: and how they eagerly await performance and luxury details of those "leviathans of the skies", the R100 and R101.

mike rondot
14th Aug 2012, 16:30
I think they were owned by the RNAS and have wagered a bucket of beer on that. Balloons? maybe, but a rigid airship in the RAF? I don't think so.

Does anyone out there have the answer please.

14th Aug 2012, 17:53
The R-33 was also G-FAAG.

Mike, take it you've seen this site? Airship Index (http://www.airshipsonline.com/airships/index.html)

This from the R33 page:

In 1920, following the change in responsibility at the Admiralty to the newly formed Air Council, the RAF airships were registered as "civilian aircraft" to carry out limited programmes in the commercial field.

And this from the R32:

She was technically decommissioned from the Navy in October 1919 and her ownership changed to the new Royal Air Force, who took over all airship operations.

I should acquire a very small bucket!

mike rondot
14th Aug 2012, 21:21

Yes, I have seen that website (airships index) and still think my beer is safe.
The references are vague and are not authenticated by documentary evidence. I suspect some old inaccuracies from oral history have been accepted as gospel, as is often the way in military research. The RAF may have provided the airfield facilities but I see no evidence that the RAF operated or owned any rigid airship.

Still, it will be interesting to hear from someone who knows his subject...

15th Aug 2012, 12:39
I wouldn't be at all surprised if that's the case Mike.

(Afraid my knowledge of airships is strictly limited to watching the Goodyear and other assorted blimps bumbling around from time to time - and reading "Slide Rule"!)

15th Aug 2012, 17:00
According to Ces Mowthorpe's Battlebags: British Airships of the First World War, an Illustrated History (Wrens Park Pulishing, 1998), the Army was the first service to operate airships, although the Admiralty commissioned a rigid airship of its own, the short-lived HMA No. 1 (nicknamed "Mayfly), in 1909. The Army turned over all its airships to the newly-formed Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) in January 1914. RNAS operated the military nonrigid and rigid airships until October 1919, when according to Mowthorpe "the RAF took over all airship operations from the Navy" (p. 136).

I don't have citations at hand to confirm, but IIRC when the Imperial Airship Scheme was launched in 1924, the RAF personnel came under the jurisdiction of the civil side of the Air Ministry, though still technically they remained in RAF service and so were able to keep their pay and rank. Apologies if I have that wrong.


mike rondot
15th Aug 2012, 18:32

Thanks for that.

There are confusing statements in various publications about the RNAS disbanding on the formation of the RAF in April 1918 and their airships passing to the RAF. I think R29 was the last British military airship to fly after April 1918, operated by the RNAS, finishing its flying career in October 1919. Any airship flights after that date were by civilian registered aircraft, as far as I can make out.

The very highly respected historian Owen Thetford does not list any airships in his volume "Aircraft of the Royal Air Force since 1918".

I spoke today with the Custodian of The Airship Heritage Trust (http://www.airshipsonline.com/index.html) . He didn't know the answer either.

Maybe this thread should be in Military Aircrew - PPRuNe Forums (http://www.pprune.org/military-aircrew-57/)

Any sleuths out there?

Lima Juliet
25th Aug 2012, 21:48

How about R31, built at RAF Cardington, first flown for 2 hrs by Sqn Ldr W C Hicks AFC RAF in July 1918 and adorned with a RAF roundel? She flew a 2nd test flight on 16 Oct 18 from Cardington for 2 hrs.

See here Airshipsonline : Airships : R31 (http://www.airshipsonline.com/airships/r31/index.html)

She was not an H.M.A. and the RNAS had dissolved before first flight, so she was de facto RAF by default. She also flew for 4hrs 55mins in the last 5 days of the Great War after commisioning as a RAF airship on 6 Nov 18.


I can find Hicks' appointment of a Permanent Commission and promotion to Wg Cdr in the Gazette here in 1919:

This is a direct quote from the London Gazzette from the Air Ministry in 1918:

All Officers serving with the Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Flying Corps on the 31st March 1918, or in connection with those Services in certain Government Departments, in other than the undermentioned capacities, are granted temporary commissions in the Royal Air Force, with effect from the 1st April, 1918, in ranks which will appear in the Royal Air Force List.

Can I claim my virtual beer for this?


26th Aug 2012, 16:45
No beer, LJ, just a chocolate fish. In October 1919 Britain's airships were officially taken over by the RAF when the Admiralty relinquished its control over them; with the creation of the RAF on 1st April the airships, although nominally then possession of the new force by default were still the property of the Admiralty until 1919, despite not being responsible for the men that flew them. The change of service ownership had little impact on the crews - operations continued in the tradition of naval vessels as they had been previously and photos show airship crews, even after RAF uniforms had been issued (which was a slow process) sometimes chose to retain their Royal Blue outfits.

Interestingly enough, many who operated British airships served with all three of her armed forces; From the transfer to the RNAS of army airships on 1 January 1914 and then to RAF operations was within the space of six years. Air Commodore Edward Maitland, who sadly died aboard R.38 in 1921 originally served with the Essex regiment but became a huge lighter-than-air fan, firstly piloting balloons, then going onto airships with the army. In 1919 he was the most senior officer aboard (but not its captain - he was Maj George Herbert Scott, note his rank) R.34 when it made its return flight to the United States.

Regarding continuing traditions, even once the Air Ministry took over the remaining airships after the R.38 disaster, which prompted the end of all British military airship operations, service discipline and practice still remained in place. When R.101 crashed in October 1930 she had aboard an RAF ensign.

This one, in fact:


and adorned with a RAF roundel...

As for the RAF roundel on the R.31, the roundel wasn't just RAF, RNAS aircraft also wore it during the war and FAA subsequently; many WW1 airships wore the colours, including rudder/elevator flashes.

Interestingly, R.31's endoskeleton, built by the Short Brothers at Cardington was constructed entirely of wood.

Genghis the Engineer
28th Aug 2012, 07:18
British Army Dirigible No 1 - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Army_Dirigible_No_1)

Just thought I'd mention it; Nulli Secundus was part of the folklore when I was an RAE Apprentice.

RAE having been, of-course, prior to 1918, the RAF (Royal Aircraft Factory).