Twenty-nine pages containing 40 photographs is a hell of a lot of coverage for one story, even for the Canadian Geographical Journal, which, back in its early days, regularly ran lengthy features. But then the R-100 airship and its flight from England to Canada and back again in July and August 1930 was a story for which the public had a huge appetite [Read the full archived story here].
Rigid airships such as the R-100 were at the height of their popularity in this period; the Graf Zeppelin had taken its first flight in 1928, and the Hindenburg would not burst into flames over New Jersey for another seven years, an event that would sound the death knell for airships. Aircraft such as the Graf Zeppelin were used largely for commercial purposes, taking passengers, freight and mail across the likes of the Atlantic and Mediterranean and to places such as the Middle East. The Graf Zeppelin was even used to explore the Arctic in 1931.
The R-100 and its sister ship, the R-101, were part of Britain’s Imperial Airship Scheme, the goal of which was, as Rénald Fortier, the curator of aviation history at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, points out in his photo essay collection The R.100 in Canada, to create a commercial airship service that “would bind the Empire closer together, reduce the isolationist tendencies of some Dominions,and keep it commercially competitive with the United States on a worldwide basis.”
If the accounts “condensed from the Montreal newspapers” — condensed! — the magazine used in its October 1930 issue to tell the story of the R-100’s flight are anything to go by, the airship’s nearly two-week stay in Canada was a resounding success: “Not since the close of the Great War did any event so deeply stir the interests, prides and affections of the Canadian people.”
A new airport and mooring mast were built at St. Hubert, Que., into which the Canadian National Railway built a siding in anticipation of the huge crowds that were expected to come see the R-100, a 219-metre-long modern miracle that was equipped with six Rolls-Royce Condor IIIB liquid-cooled V-12 engines and had a maximum speed of 131 kilometres per hour. According to newspaper reports, “800,000 Canadians visited her at the airport during her stay of 13 days, and probably a million and a half more watched for and saw her on a two-day flight across Ottawa, Toronto, Niagara Falls and other Canadian points, prior to her start on the journey home,” which the R-100 reached on Aug. 16.
Sadly, perhaps, the Imperial Airship Scheme came to an end after the R-101 crashed in France while on its way to India in October 1930, killing 48 of 54 people on board. As Fortier notes, “As a result, the R.100 was broken up between December 1931 and February 1932; the structure was dismantled, flattened with a steamroller and sold at scrap value.”