R38 first flightIn June, 1918 the Admiralty made plans for an air ship to be built which would "be required to patrol the North Sea for six days without support, as far as 300 miles from a home base." It was to have a combat ceiling of 22,000ft, and was required to carry enough fuel for 65 hours at full speed of 70.6 mph. It was agreed that the air ship would be classed as "Admiralty A Class" and was to be designated as the R38.

In June, 1918 the Admiralty made plans for an air ship to be built which would "be required to patrol the North Sea for six days without support, as far as 300 miles from a home base." It was to have a combat ceiling of 22,000ft, and was required to carry enough fuel for 65 hours at full speed of 70.6 mph. It was agreed that the air ship would be classed as "Admiralty A Class" and was to be designated as the R38.

The order was given to Shorts Brothers at Cardington, Bedfordshire and in February 1919 work started on the ship which would become the largest airship in the world. Later in 1919, it was proposed that the R38 order should also be cancelled, as Cardington had been "Nationalised" under the Defence of the Realm Act. However, following the Armistice and the division of the remaining German Zeppelins amongst the European allies in the Treaty of Versailles, the Americans still wanted a large rigid airship and so to gain experience in this field, the R38 contract was offered to them in October 1919. The American designation was to be ZR2. The ship was finally completed on 7 June 1921. She made her first test flight on 23 June 1921 when she was launched from Cardington and delivered to Howden in Yorkshire. While still the property of the British Government she was already displaying the US Navy insignia.

 

R38 first flight

R38/ZR2 on her maiden test flight

23 August 1921, the R38/ZR2 was now ready for her fourth trial flight. Still resplendent in her American livery, the ship was to fly from Howden to the Royal Naval air station at Pulham, Norfolk and carry out height and speed tests over the North Sea.

R38_1

R38/ZR2 leaving her hanger in August 1921

 

The ship would fly out over the North Sea and spend the night over water. When she arrived in the morning at the Naval Air Station, the airfield was obscured by thick fog. It was agreed that the ship should return to Howden and carry out more trials en route that day. At approximately 17.00 on the 24 August disaster struck on the trial flight during a tight turn over the Humber near Hull.

Eyewitness reports confirmed that the ship seemed to crumple along mid section and then the front section broke. It detonated in two explosions killing forty four crew members. The tail section tilted and the two sections fell 1,200 feet towards the Humber estuary. Five members of the crew in the tail section were saved from the wreckage which had not caught fire. More people were killed in this disaster than in the Hindenburg Airship Crash in Lakenhurst, New Jersey in May 1937.

 

R38_Wreckage

The wreckage of R38/ZR2 in the Humber Estuary

 

R38_Rescue

Rescuers on the wreckage of R38/ZR2

 

Immediately a rescue and salvage operation was commenced. RFA Reindeer was sent from Southampton to the scene and commenced, with other salvage experts, to recover the bodies of the deceased and the remains of the airship.

 

RFA-Reindeer

RFA Reindeer

 

RFA Reindeer was a Mariner class composite screw sloop which was built in Devonport Dockyard and had been a boom defence vessel in 1904 and a salvage ship since 1917. She was sold out of service on 12 July 1924.

The memorial to those killed was erected at Hull (Western) Cemetery. Nine of those who lost their lives are buried beneath the memorial.

 

R38_Memorial

 

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