A picture proverbially equals a thousand words, but if those words are lost to popular history, they bear repeating. A pair of images posted by Jim ‘Buster’ Culling on Instagram piqued my interest; their superficial charm lays with the old bike/dirigible mashup, but there’s a terrific tale behind these images, pinpointing exactly where and when they were taken, and what was happening with British aviation.  

The photos show a couple of friends posing aboard a 1930 BSA ‘Sloper’ S30 Deluxe (the model # changed by year from 1927-35), with its chrome tank and fishtail muffler, which was designed by Harold Briggs (who’d left Daimler) for BSA in 1926, for the ’27 season.  It used a wet-sump design, and proved a very quiet and fast machine, and a big seller for BSA. The gents in the photo are enjoying their triple good fortune on that day, with clear bluebird skies, a lovely BSA to ride, and the added interest of Britain’s fantastic new dirigible, the R100, moored on a special mast which allowed 360deg of movement in case of shifts in the wind. The photos are shot in St. Hubert, Quebec, the only dirigible mooring in Canada, where the R100 arrived on August 1st, 1930, and stayed until August 11th, after which it traveled to Toronto.  The lower failfin had been damaged on the Atlantic crossing, as shown in the top (higher resolution) photo.  Photos of the R100 over Toronto on Aug. 12/13 show the lower tailfin had been repaired, so these photos must have been shot the first week of August, 1930.

Likely a friend of the BSA’s owner with the new 1930 BSA Sloper and the R100 moored in St Huber, Canada.

The origins of lighter-than-air craft is documented as far back as the AD200s in China, when floating lanterns were used for signaling – ‘Kongming lanterns’. The first Europeans saw of aerial lanterns was during the invasion of the Khans in the 1200s, as the Mongols studied captured Chinese signal-lanterns, and replicated them… which is exactly how Europeans were introduced to gunpowder,too. It took another 500 years for the first documented human flight in a hot-air balloon, in 1709, when Bartolomeu de Gusmao demonstrated the principle to the King of Portugal. Balloons grew in popularity through the 1700s and into the 1800s, for both popular and military/surveillance uses. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin witnessed observation balloons on a visit to the US during the Civil War, and was keenly interested in their potential.  A lecture on lighter-than-air craft for postal and commercial travel in 1874 inspired Zeppelin to sketch out his first dirigible that year, a rigid-framed airship using bags of hydrogen to lift the craft, and engines slung beneath for direction and power. Zeppelin patented his design in Germany and the US, and his first, privately-funded airship, the LZ-1, flew over the beguiling waters of the Bodensee on July 2, 1900.  Experiments, crashes, and a huge public interest in the project meant by 1914 the new Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH factory (still in business!) had built 24 ever more capable dirigibles, with over 1500 flights and 10,000 paying passengers under its belt. They proved unreliable and dangerous for anything but observation during WW1, and most bombers-dirigibles were destroyed by weather or enemy bullets, as giant hydrogen bas bags are easy, and spectacularly flammable targets.

The R100 on its mooring mast in Cardington, the HQ of the British Dirigible Project, looking very much like the landscape in our BSA Sloper photos

Post-war, the dream of regular dirigible airline service was realized by the Zeppelin company, who circumvented postwar restrictions on large aircraft by building Zeppelins for American companies!  And while they knew helium was the safer lighter-than-air medium, American patent holders on helium production refused to license rights, so the rest of the world carried on with hydrogen dirigibles, with occasionally spectacular failures. While Britain experimented with its own dirigibles in the ‘Teens, they weren’t particularly successful.  Still, it galled the British Air Ministry that Zeppelins were making great strides in Arctic exploration, global circumnavigation, and a popular passenger service.  In 1924, the Air Ministry launched the Imperial Airship Scheme to connect its far-flung empire with dirigibles. Two teams competed for a new design; the R100 by Vickers-Armstrongs, and the R101 by the Air Ministry itself. The R100 was built using ‘conventional’ Zeppelin practice, headed by Barnes Wallis who had experience with dirigible design (and who later used the truss dirigible frame design for the structure of Wellington bombers), which proved an exceptionally air-worthy craft, while the R101 was more experimental, terribly overweight, and unstable.  The R100 successfully crossed the Atlantic, made numerous test flights, and garnered excellent press. Politics within the Air Ministry meant the R101 was pushed into service.  In October 1930, the R101, on its first overseas flight, crashed in France, killing its design team and the Air Minister himself, Lord Thomson. That was the end of the British Dirigible project; the R100 was immediately grounded, and destroyed the following year. The story of the R100 is fascinating, and told brilliantly by engineer Nevil Shute in his book ‘Slide Rule’.  Shute was Deputy Engineer on the R100 project under Barnes Wallis, and took over as Chief Engineer in 1929.  ‘Slide Rule’ was recommended to me by Dennis Quinlan, and I’m passing the favor along to you; like books by Phil Irving, or Kevin Cameron’s Cycle World columns, Shute manages to wrest very technical matters into an entertaining read.

The majesty of an enormous Zeppelin is undeniable, and when the LZ-26 was flown over the White House in 1926, president Calvin Coolidge called it ‘an angel of peace.’ After Count von Zeppelin died in 1917, the company was taken over by Dr Hugo Eckener, who was adamant the airship be used for peaceful purposes. He was a vocal anti-nazi, and made an official ‘non-person’ during WW2, and only intervention by Hindenburg prevented his arrest.