On this day in 1930, a British dirigible crashes in Beauvais, France, killing 49 people. The airship, which was Great Britain’s biggest, had first been launched about a year earlier.
In the 1920s, the major European nations competed with each other to build larger and larger airships in order to gain control over the fledgling air-travel industry. As the decade came to an end, the R-101 was Great Britain’s latest model. It was 777 feet long, weighed 150 tons and could carry 100 passengers. It was powered by six Rolls-Royce engines.
On its maiden voyage on October 14, 1929, engine troubles arose immediately, causing the R-101 to be grounded for almost a year. Finally, it was brought back into service the following October with assistance from Lord Thomson, a member of Parliament who championed the endeavor. Thomson was one of four passengers, along with a 52-member crew, on board the dirigible as it took off on the evening of October 5 for a trip to the Far East.
The trip was problematic from the start. First, the crew accidentally released four tons of water ballast, the weight carried in order to control altitude, at the outset of the trip. They also took off straight into a storm hovering over the English Channel, even though dirigibles were known to be dangerous in bad weather. As soon as the R-101 reached the air over France, it was not able to hold a level altitude and was flying only 250 feet above the town of Poix. The pilots were not aware of the problem because of the dark night. Soon, the the ship was skimming the trees of Beauvais. Eventually it hit a small ridge and the impact ignited the airship's hydrogen supply.
The resulting explosion killed all 56 people on board immediately.