HL Deb 20 November 1929 vol 75 cc617-22

LORD NEWTON asked the Secretary of State for Air if he would state why the airship cruise arranged for last Saturday was abandoned. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I put this Question on the Paper because I understand that all sorts of rumours have been circulated with regard to the cancellation of the proposed cruise, and I gather that my noble friend the Secretary of State for Air will be glad to make a statement upon the subject. I should like to be permitted, if I may, to make a suggestion of my own. I admit, with a certain amount of reluctance, that I am a complete disbeliever in this particular form of locomotion. I believe it to be a form of extravagance which has been stimulated largely by the Press and which to a great extent is a concession to sensationalism. I have the least possible confidence in these gigantic gas-bags, although it is possible that when I find myself in one in company with a lot of human individuals of the same category I may alter my opinion. But what I want to point out to the noble Lord is that it is most desirable that we should not pay too much attention to climatic conditions, to the weather, because I am under the impression that there are a good many people who hold the same opinion as I do with regard to this particular enterprise. I should think I might secure the support, for instance, of my noble friend Lord Banbury. The scepticism with which this portion of the public regards this scheme will be largely increased if it appears that this is only a sort of fine-weather experiment which can be carried out only under certain conditions. Therefore, although I may be making this suggestion at the risk of my own life, I do suggest to the noble Lord that, in his own interests and in the interests of his Ministry, he should not be deterred by adverse weather conditions and that he should carry out his cruise, always supposing that there are no insuperable obstacles.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for putting down this Question, because, as he truly remarked, there have been many rumours on the subject of why the cruise last Saturday was postponed. I did not realise when he put his name down for the cruise that the noble Lord disbelieved in airships and thought they were a waste of money. I have yet to find an organ of the Press, with the exception of The Times and, possibly, the Daily Telegraph and the Manchester Guardian, which has encouraged the Government in this particular form of extravagance, to use his own words. Until the success of the first few flights was undeniable, most of the newspapers denounced airships in no uncertain terms, and I got many letters from people telling me that I was little short of a murderer.

In answer to the noble Lord's Question, I want to say that it was not at all on account of the roughness of the weather that the flight was postponed. This new airship has stood up to weather at least four times as bad, from the point of view of the force of the wind, as that which was experienced last Saturday. The airship has been in the air, airborne, since the first of this month—nineteen days—she has never been in her shed, and, moored at the mast, she is exposed to far greater strains than when she is loose in the air. At the mast the whole strain due to wind pressure comes on the nose. That is the opinion of the highest experts on the subject. The wind rose to gusts of 83 miles an hour while she was moored at the mast, and pressure on the nose was recorded as 15½ tons. Her strength is calculated to meet a pressure of 30 tons on the nose, and when that pressure of 30 tons is reached, should it be reached—and in view of the excellent streamlining of the ship it does not seem particularly likely—what will happen? The order will be given to slip the ship. She is, in other words, a great deal more capable of resisting wind pressure loose than tied, and the result that has already been achieved—namely, that she has been moored in gusts rising to 83 miles an hour and has stood up to an average wind pressure of 55 miles an hour with frequent gusts of 70 miles an hour, the gusts veering through 135 degrees, thereby exposing the structure to far greater strains than would be caused by a steady wind—is a matter of extreme gratification to the designers and a really justifiable cause for optimism as regards the success of this experiment.

Now I come to the reason why, on a day when the average pressure of the wind was round about 25 miles an hour only, a flight was postponed. The reason was that in this connection the Air Ministry wanted to give Members of Parliament an enjoyable demonstration of what the ship could do. What were the weather conditions? A layer of cloud lay over these Islands. The lower level of that layer was 450 feet above the ground, and the top level was something like 10,000 feet up. The conditions of visibility, therefore, for the passengers that we hoped to take would have been about as bad as they could have been. At the normal cruising height of the airship they would have seen nothing but driving rain. They could have seen nothing else. One of the great features of an airship and one of its great advantages as a form of locomotion—the advantage which, in my humble opinion, will make it popular, provided these experiments succeed—is the spacious prospect, the magnificent view that is obtained from such a ship, a view far superior to anything that one obtains from any other vehicle of my acquaintance, and I include aeroplanes. It is possible, from a height of 1,000 feet or 1,100 feet, to see, as I myself saw the other day, half a county, to see the whole of a great city lying out below, to be quite unconscious of any rapid movement, to sit in extreme comfort and do one's office work or any other work one has to do, to walk about, to stretch one's legs, to enjoy three square meals, to converse and to look out on either side and see the spacious prospect lying below.

Those pleasures would have been denied to the noble Lord and other noble Lords who proposed to travel last Saturday, and to the Members of Parliament. I wish to express, on behalf of the Air Ministry, the very greatest regret and disappointment that noble Lords were disappointed. We made every possible arrangement for their comfort, down to the provision of a very excellent lunch, as I think it would have been, and of liquid refreshment. We wanted them to enjoy themselves. We felt certain that they could not possibly enjoy themselves at any altitude on a day such as last Saturday was. It was the sort of day, as an eminent foreign diplomatist said to me, on which only a lunatic or an Englishman would even go for a walk. It rained until 6 p.m. in sheets, a solid downpour. It was not because of the weather conditions in the least, from the point of view of the safety of the airship, that we postponed the flight. There were two positions in which that airship could have easily flown that day and given a view. It could have flown very low, which is by no means desirable, or it could have flown very high, and in that position all that the Members of Parliament and your Lordships could have seen would have been a sea of cloud below you. It was, therefore, in the opinion of the Air Ministry, unsuitable weather for this sort of entertainment, and for that reason, and for that reason alone, the flight was postponed. During the whole of that day the airship was airborne and exposed, as I have already said, to a greater strain than she would have been flying in the mist with a hundred Members of Parliament of both Houses on board.

I sincerely hope it will be possible for this flight to take place next Saturday. I hope, if I may say so, that there will be a fresh breeze of from 40 to 45 miles an hour blowing. The ship does not roll much, and I am sure that those noble Lords who go on the trip in those conditions will enjoy themselves thoroughly. I hope there will be bright sunshine, so that they will have a splendid view. I am almost certain from my own experience that they will be able, in spite of the breeze, to enjoy their lunch. In the unfortunate circumstance of similar weather to that which prevailed last Saturday, I am afraid we shall have to postpone again, and I am afraid that we shall have to postpone for a very long time because R. 101 has now practically concluded her tests, and there is another airship to be tried out, which is not quite ready but which we hope may be ready some time next week. There is only one mast, and therefore R. 101 will have to leave it and the other ship take its place. The Air Ministry are very much on their mettle in this matter, and they are praying more earnestly than anybody for a flight. I would like to remind your Lordships that the day after this trip was postponed the airship flew 1,200 miles in rain, fog and mist, a circuit of these Islands, but found its way back to the mast-head in very dense fog, and that was really a father remarkable achievement due to the refinement of direction finding by means of wireless.

In order to spare any noble Lord and others who wish to go on the flight, may I read just a portion of a notice which will be issued:— The General Post Office have made arrangements to inform all Directory Enquiry Centres in the London area before 8.30 a.m. on the 23rd instant of any decision to postpone the flight. Members will thus be able to ascertain definitely, by asking their local telephone exchanges for 'Directory Enquiry,' whether the flight will take place. That, I hope, will save any noble Lords the trouble of enquiring of the Air Ministry, whose exchange was very crowded last Saturday, or of arriving at Old Palace Yard to find the flight, off. I will only repeat my regret at what happened last Saturday, our sincere hope that you will have a good fresh breeze and a clear sky next Saturday, and our confidence that you will return from the flight in a very different mood from that expressed by some people who were disappointed on the last occasion.

The noble Lord talked about extravagance. There has been a great deal of inaccurate information in the Press about the cost of the airship and the airship programme generally, but I hope at no distant date to prove to your Lordships that the amount of scientific knowledge acquired by these experiments alone would almost have justified the expense incurred. It certainly has been a most fruitful experiment from that point of view, and I feel quite certain that none of your Lordships grudge money spent carefully and prudently on scientific research. I would like to repeat my thanks to the noble Lord for giving me an opportunity of making this statement.

House adjourned at a quarter past five o'clock.