This is going to be an unusual post – a book review of the Fatal Flight – The True Story of Britain’s Last Great Airship By: Bill Hammack!

But let’s start from beginning. Quite a while ago I’ve contacted Jesse Krizik from US, a real actual man owning the http://krizik.com/ domain! It is not a typical me to keep contacting random people, but it all got motivated by a story of František Křižík – a Czech’s Thomas Alva Edisson. I was simply elaborating about some different name for our project and following inspiration on Tesla, Nikola etc. Krizik seemed to be giving a pretty good foundation.

Anyway, Jesse came back almost instantly, quite surprisingly saying that this is an amazing coincidence that he’s just reading a book from Bill Hammack on a fate of one of the largest airships ever built. I couldn’t resist and ordered one from the Australian Booktopia. I didn’t know that such a service exists, but they printed it out for me on-demand and send me my-own copy, in an excellent shape and quality. Book arrived in a week and I sent following picture to Jesse to thank him for suggestion.

Not a most beautiful picture of … me. Try to focus on the book!

I hope it is not getting too boring, so let’s get back to the main story here. The book is written by Bill Hammack who an American chemical engineer, and Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. I never heard about him before getting a word from Jesse. Bill runs a technical series on Youtube and he has a gift to bring engineering principles to masses. I strongly recommend reading about him, going through his bibliography and watch his Youtube channel.

The book finally! Let’s say it that first 186 pages is a readable compilation of the R101 story from many sources, many of those never published before, with a nice touch of an artist to make it more acceptable (less boring) for today’s audience. Amount of “beef” varies chapter by chapter, quite likely correlating with information density of original sources. I understand that technical author can’t make up things to keep the pace, but this is perhaps my only critique to this book – some areas simply stand out how detailed they are (an engineer climbing a ladder, dinner menu), while standing next to the others where similar details would be appreciated (airship design history, building, multiple other test flights, aftermath).

But enough of that – it is how it is, Mr. Hammack clearly builds up a fascinating picture of one of the flying legends. Think about this book as a historical episode of the Seconds from Disaster TV show. With every page unfolding you are just getting better and better understanding why this amazing project ended up like it did.

I wonder, does documentaries work with a concept of “spoilers“? I suppose they don’t, but I still won’t go in too many details, but still let me present few interesting notes I made for myself.

As the first thing, I loved all Bill’s schematics in the book. As they are clearly saying “do not copy” I’m putting here just one – the Crew & Passenger decks and meanwhile I’ll ask Mr. Hammack to check if that’s ok.

Wikipedia intro: R101 was one of a pair of British rigid airships completed in 1929 as part of a British government programme to develop civil airships capable of service on long-distance routes within the British Empire.

  • Hydrogen gas bags were made from oxen entrails – 50.000 of them! All imported from the South America. Why oxen entrails? Because there were no plastics invented yet in 1920! That all came more like 30 years later in 1950s.
  • It’s rigid structure (dead weight) ended up weighting 110 tons, that was a big failure as an overall lift generated (under the best conditions) was 140 tons, leaving just 30 tons for a “disposable lift”. Those are quite a difficult numbers, when e.g. A380 comes with 664 tons of lift (payload)
  • Appendixes! All of them just brilliant, but the Appendix D – The report on flight in the Graf Zeppelin and visit to Friedrichshafen by Lieutenant-colonel V. C. Richmond and Squadron leader F. M. Rope – This is clearly a must-read! Fascinating story in every paragraph with so many historical overlaps.

Finally, the appendix called just “Notes”. Every its line, just a treasure, while the note #24 took me completely by surprise.

Yes, what it says is that when comparing the relative lift valves of helium and hydrogen – the difference (loss) of commercial load of the helium airship is incredible 59% to the hydrogen one! I suppose I am very much biased here by our hydrogen airship project, still I find it amazing to find such a strong supporting claim.

Yes, I’ve instantly ordered the Airship Technology by Khoury from Booktopia. Let’s see if it is really there! 😀

Update I. (21st March 2022)

As a reaction on this review I’ve received a comment pointing to a song from Iron Maiden (which is not usually on my daily playlist) called “Empire of the Clouds”. Quite surprisingly this song is wrapping the faith of our R101!

Mist is in the trees, stone sweats with the dew

The morning sunrise, red before the blue

Hanging at the mast, waiting for command

His majesty’s airship, the R101

Iron Maiden – Empire of the Clouds


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