Cat no. 490


Sound 1971 Pulham St Mary, Norfolk

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The history of airships.



This film, recalling the history of airships, begins with newsreel footage of the Hindenburg catching fire as it approached the landing mast at Lakehurst New Jersey at 7.25pm on 6th May, 1937. 35 people died in this airship accident and it marked the end of airship travel. From the commentary it is obvious that they were there to cover a normal landing when the airship suddenly burst into flames. The commentary becomes disjointed and hysterical, although it records the fire. Peoples' screams are audible on the actual sound track. There are stills of the fire and of the wreckage. The story goes back another ten years to recall the voyages made by the Hindenburg's sister ship, the Graf Zeppelin. There is film and stills of the Graf Zeppelin. Interior views show the luxury in which airship passengers travelled. As a way of comparison, the airship is seen flying over a liner.

The next section of the film recalls the airships that flew from Pulham St. Mary in Norfolk from 1919 and during the mid- 1920s, the Pulham Pigs. These were non-rigid airships. The R33 is seen in her shed and in flight. There are shots of the airfield, now disused. In an interview, Oliver West, a local farmer, recalls the airships flying at Pulham. There is a still of the R34. It was at Pulham that they pioneered the mooring mast system. This is described by Wilfred Pickering, a crew member of the R33. There are stills of the R33 at the mooring mast. Oliver West recalls the day the R33 blew away from her mooring mast. Film shows her returning battered after the makeshift crew on board had regained control. there are stills of the crew and a close up of Squadron Leader Booth who later became commander of the R101.From 1926 there were experiments carried out to test out airships as a kind of airborne aircraft carrier. There is also film of the Italian airship Norge that flew to the North Pole in 1926. This sequence carries general shots of and from airships as well as some of the more bizarre experiments during this period of airship mania. For example, an airship is shown towing a water skier.

The film moves to Cardington where film of the airfield and of a hanger introduces a section regarding the R100 and the R101. There are some shots of the construction of the R100. This was privately financed and was built at Harlands. One of the designers involved was Dr. Barnes Wallace. The R100 was ready to fly by July 1930 and on 29th July she arrived safely in Quebec to a heroes welcome, despite being hit by an electric storm just off the Canadian coast. Ted Stubbles, the Chief Engineer, remembers this event. The damaged fabric needed replacing. to do this he and some of his crew had to climb out onto the airship frame attached to wires. The journey had taken 79 hours. The return journey, with better weather conditions, was to take 56 1/2 hours. There is film of the R100's welcome in Quebec including the singing of an anthem of praise written for the occasion. There are stills of the crew. This was the first and last flight of the R100 despite its success. The R101 had been designed as a sister ship. This was built using government money and was designed to carry 100 passengers and tons of freight. However, the design was not a success. Jock Armstrong, who worked on the airship, recalls that the airship was sluggish and found it difficult to get enough lift. There were other problems. The gas bags moved in flight and the airship leaked hydrogen gas. Armstrong claims that he heard the crews' voices change when they were breathing in the gas and always knew that that was when they needed to be got out. The crew at Cardington were under pressure from the Minister of Air, Lord Thompson, who wanted to use the R101 for a planned voyage to India. To try and overcome its problems, the R101 was cut up and a 40' section was placed in the middle. This, claims Jock Armstrong, made it unstable.There is film of the R101 attached to its mooring mast and an interview with Paddy Puddyfat (?) the chief engineer on the second watch. He was not keen to travel to India as he had just returned from China. Another chief engineer, Tiny Savory, was keen to make the journey and travelled in his place. On October 4th, the R101 set off with 48 officers and men aboard and without having had any real trails. There is a still of Lord Thompson and film of the R101 in flight. Weather conditions worsened and Paddy Puddyfat recalls being woken by the police with the news that the R101 was down. There is film of the wreckage. 38 men died. A survivor, Victor Bell, talks about the experience. He recalls hitting the ground and bursting into flames. He and his fellow crew member were saved because a tank of water above them burst. They got out of the wreckage by soaking cleaning rags and wrapping themselves in them. Once out they lit cigarette from the burning ship. Jock Armstrong recalls the effect this news had on the town. There are shots of the military funeral in Beauvais and of the wreckage. This was the end of airship flight in Britain. The R100 was sold as scrap for ?470. There are shots of the memorial to the men of the R101 at Cardington. The final sequence shows an interview with Squadron Leader Frank Leatherdale who offers his views on the viable future of airship flight. The film ends with a recapitulation of the main subjects of the film and further shots of airships.

Featured People:

Oliver West, farmer; Wilfred Pickering, crew member, R33; Squadron Leader Booth, commander R33 and R101; Ted Stubbles, chief engineer, R100; Jock Armstrong, worker on the R101; Paddy Puddyfat, engineer, R101; Lord Thompson, Minister for Air; Victor Bell, survivor, R101; Squadron Leader Frank Leatherdale

Featured Events:

The R100 flies to Canada, 29th July, 1930; The last flight of the R101, 4th October, 1930; The Hindenburg crashes at Lakehurst, New Jersey, 6th May, 1937

Douglas Salmon

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