The Bournemouth, pictured here, was built by the English Airship Club for the Festival of Britain in 1951. It was the first built in Britain after the disastrous loss of the R101 in 1930, and since the closure of the British Airship programme (1932). At 109 feet long and 27 feet in diameter, it was considerably smaller than the airships produced in the early twentieth century heyday. The R101 had been 777 feet long and 131 feet in diameter (the largest ever constructed). The Bournemouth successfully made its maiden flight on 19 July 1951 but faced later difficulties. On one flight, the airship crashed through the roof of a gymnasium, and damage was caused to the fabric of the airship whilst in its hanger. In the mid fifties, it was discovered that the fabric used for the envelope was of the wrong quality and had begun to deteriorate. What happened to the ship after 1955 is unknown.
British experimentation with airships was at its height in the first three decades of the twentieth century. The first British long-distance cross-country flight by airship was made by E. T. Willows, who flew from Cardiff to London in August 1910. In November of that year, Willows made the first airship flight from London to Paris.
Airships played an important role in the First World War. While German Zeppelins were used in long-distance bombing raids, the Royal Navy used airships mainly to counteract the threat from submarines. Various classes of blimp, or non-rigid airship, were developed by the Royal Navy during the war, the largest of which were the North Sea Class. They had a crew of 10, an endurance of 24 hours and each carried six bombs and three to five machine guns. Britain continued its airship programme after the war, basing some models on German airships. The R33 and R34, for example, were based on the German L-33 which crashed in Yorkshire but survived virtually intact and thus provided a virtual blueprint of itself.
Construction of the R100 and R101 began in 1926 but a number of high profile airship disasters diminshed public confidence in them as a passanger craft, including those of the: R101; USS Shenandoah; USS Akron; and, probably most famously, the Hindenburg. After the loss of the R101, the R100 was taken out of use and sold for scrap, despite completing a safe transatlantic trial flight. After the Hindenburg disaster of 1937, the development of airships as a means of public transport ceased altogether, although their development as a military resource continued.
Interest in airships is now resurgent and various programmes are underway, including an ‘orbital airship’ (or space blimp) which will be capable of lifting heavy cargo into low earth orbit.