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Saturday, 01 November 2014

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BBC TV show focuses on Barrow’s airship disaster

A BBC programme is set to shed light on Barrow’s role in one of the most remarkable – and disastrous – periods in British aviation history.

Coast, which airs tomorrow on BBC Two at 9pm, will detail the story behind Vickers’ failed attempt in 1911 to launch an airship to rival the German’s mighty Zeppelins.

The saga began in 1909 when the British government commissioned Vickers and Sons and Maxim to build Her Majesty’s Airship No 1 at Cavendish Dock.

Engineers had little more than observations of the German Zeppelins to base their designs on and before long one local wag had christened it the Mayfly – as in it may fly or it may not.

On September 24, 1911 that nickname proved prophetic as when the company went to launch the ship, a gust of wind caught it and snapped it in two.

The Mayfly never left the ground.

Dock Museum assistant and aviation buff Graham Cubbin, who was interviewed for Coast by presenter Dick Strawbridge, said the disaster was a crushing blow for British pride.

“It was hugely embarrassing,” he said. “This cutting-edge piece of British technology had snapped in half while in the dock – it never actually flew.

“It was like one of these new submarines suddenly splitting in half and sinking.”

The red-faced government terminated airship production, which was described by one Royal Navy admiral as “the work of an idiot”.

But the following year, the government had a change of heart after seeing the advances the Germans were making with their Zeppelins and went back to Vickers.

Engineer Hartley Pratt was tasked with leading the project and with him came assistant Barnes Wallis, who would later find fame designing bombs used in the Second World War.

Production was moved from Cavendish Dock to Walney and by 1922, when the operation was transferred to Yorkshire, Vickers had built five rigid airships.

Mr Cubbin said although the airships produced in Barrow saw little action, it was an important part of aviation history.

“It’s a fascinating story that possibly gets overlooked in the history of Barrow and in the history of British aviation and British technology,” he said.

The Dock Museum has a display dedicated to airship construction, including an example of a duralumin girder used in the Mayfly.

Have your say

Maybe if the government had asked Vickers to build HIS Majesty's Airship, instead of HER Majesty's, the project might have been more successful!! Edward VII had been on the throne for eight years in 1909!! Back to the schoolroom for history lessons, Evening Mail!

Posted by Petey on 28 May 2012 at 10:19

Perhaps it was R100 that represented the best effort of British airship engineering at the time. It flew to Canada in 78 hours and back to Cardington in 57 and one- half. No accident ever befell her and she was retired from service in 1931.

Posted by Donald Edwards on 28 May 2012 at 00:32

View all 4 comments on this article

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