News center
Comprehensive experience and advanced methodologies

Book Review: ‘His Majesty’s Airship,’ by S.C. Gwynne

Jul 08, 2023


Supported by


In “His Majesty’s Airship,” S.C. Gwynne tells of the doomed dirigible R101, and the man behind a disaster.

By John Lancaster

When you purchase an independently reviewed book through our site, we earn an affiliate commission.

HIS MAJESTY’S AIRSHIP: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying Machine, by S.C. Gwynne

The huge British airship was a sight to behold. More than 700 feet long, R101 was the largest flying machine of its time, with a 60-seat dining room, windowed promenades and even a smoking lounge, a curious design choice for an aircraft filled with explosive hydrogen gas. Not to worry, though — the room was lined with asbestos, one of many reasons the airship was said to be the safest ever built.

That, of course, was not saying much. The inherent dangers of the rigid airships called dirigibles were well known by 1930, when R101 slipped its mooring mast at Cardington, England, and began its maiden voyage to Karachi in what was then British-ruled India. Suffice it to say that the voyage ended badly, as dirigible flights often did. Still, another six and a half years would pass before the airship era reached its grand finale, when the Hindenburg went down in flames in New Jersey. R101 was soon forgotten, at least in the United States.

We can be grateful to S.C. Gwynne for bringing it back to life in his captivating, thoroughly researched new book, “His Majesty’s Airship.” A journalist turned author whose 2010 book, “Empire of the Summer Moon,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Gwynne spins a rich tale of technology, daring and folly that transcends its putative subject. Like any good popular history, it’s also a portrait of an age — in this case, the age of an empire on the brink of decline.

At the center of Gwynne’s narrative is a brisk, tightly focused account of R101’s first and final voyage, which keeps the pages turning even as he zooms out to tell a larger story of airships and imperial dreams. Britain in the 1920s ruled over more of the world’s people than at any time in history, though for how much longer was anyone’s guess.

Despite its unrivaled reach, the empire was beginning to come under strain from independence movements in India and elsewhere. Vast distances made governing even harder. So in 1924, Britain launched its “Imperial Airship Scheme,” which envisioned a skein of dirigible routes binding the country to its far-flung colonies.

It was an intoxicating vision: Instead of spending a month at sea, a traveler between Australia and England could complete the journey in 11 days, savoring port and fine cigars while floating serenely above oceans, mountains and forests. To backers of the plan, airships were a better long-term bet than airplanes, which at the time could only fly short distances before landing to refuel, assuming that weather or engine failure didn’t ground them first.

The logic of that bet was one of many mistaken assumptions that undergird Gwynne’s narrative. Another was that dirigibles could somehow be made safe. In a chapter titled “A Brief History of a Bad Idea,” Gwynne tells the familiar but necessary story of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the German nobleman whose eponymous invention served as a terror weapon during World War I, when zeppelins were deployed as bombers over Britain.

But the zeppelins had fatal flaws. A single ignition source could turn one into a fireball, as British fighter pilots discovered once they started arming their planes with incendiary bullets. Explosive properties aside, dirigibles were all but uncontrollable in high winds and struggled to stay aloft when rain saturated their cloth skins, adding tons of extra weight.

These lessons were ignored. In Germany, dirigibles were powerful symbols of national pride, “equal parts engineering and ideology,” as Gwynne puts it. After the war, and with similar nationalistic motives, Britain embraced the technology that Germany had been forced to shelve under terms of its defeat.

The effort went badly from the start. In one especially jaw-dropping scene, Gwynne describes the horrific final moments of an R101 forerunner that “cracked open like an egg” during test maneuvers over the city of Hull in 1921. “The broken airship began to fall in a languid motion, spewing out streams of gasoline and water, while men, fuel tanks and other matériel fell out of the gaping rupture.” The breakup was followed by two explosions so powerful that they knocked people down in the streets.

That Britain persisted with its airship program owes much to the book’s main character, Lord Christopher Thomson, a retired brigadier and Labour Party politician who in 1923 was appointed to run the British Air Ministry. Witty, cultured and handsome, the India-born Thomson had a romantic vision of a “peaceful, air-linked world” that was closely tied to romance of a different sort. Thomson had for years been carrying on a long-distance affair with Marthe Bibesco, a ravishing (and married) Romanian princess and celebrated author. By 1930, during his second stint as air secretary, there was a chance he would be tapped as the next viceroy of India, a job that would take him even farther from his beloved. In Gwynne’s persuasive telling, Thomson believed that airships could save both the empire and his love life.

Thomson comes across as decent but hopelessly naïve, his faith in R101 based partly on bad information from the underlings responsible for building it. They knew the airship was too heavy, and that its gas bags — made from cow intestines — were prone to leakage. But with few exceptions they kept that knowledge to themselves, for fear of displeasing the boss.

It didn’t help that Thomson was on a tight schedule. Having claimed a berth on R101’s inaugural, round-trip voyage to India, he was determined to be back in London in time for a conference of colonial premiers, perhaps imagining a dramatic, Phileas Fogg-style entrance that would underscore the brilliance of his scheme. To accommodate him, flight tests were cut short, and the airship took off despite reports of bad weather along the route over France. There is reason to believe that the airship’s senior officer may have been drunk at the time.

Gwynne makes the most of R101’s short, doomed flight, which he deftly reconstructs from official post-mortems, accounts by its few survivors, and recent scholarly research that pinpoints the exact cause of the airship’s destruction. That the ending is no surprise takes nothing from the power of his story.

John Lancaster is a former Washington Post reporter and the author of “The Great Air Race: Glory, Tragedy, and the Dawn of American Aviation.”

HIS MAJESTY’S AIRSHIP: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying Machine | By S.C. Gwynne | 302 pp. | Scribner | $32


HIS MAJESTY’S AIRSHIP: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying MachineHIS MAJESTY’S AIRSHIP: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying Machine