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The huge 1937 disaster of the Hindenburg Airship which burst into flames and crashed as it came into land at Lakehurst New Jersey was perhaps the first major air crash that was captured by another new invention – the newsreel camera and those vivid images screened all around the world might have finished lighter than air flight forever. But they didn’t quite kill the dream.

Ann I flew a brand new Zeppelin over Lake Constance in Germany in 2006. In this blog we will visit a few places in Britain to learn more about airships and we’ll also find out about another aspect of lighter-than-air flight hot air balloons and show you how you can become a balloonatic.

Airship and balloons work on a very simple theory. When a huge fabric envelope is filled with either hot air or a light gas such as hydrogen or helium it actually weighs less than the air it displaces and it floats in the air that surrounds it.

Many people buy a flight in a balloon to celebrate a special birthday, a retirement or something similar, it really is a wonderful experience. The balloons usually take quite a few passengers, and you’ll all help the pilot and his team unroll the huge fabric of the balloon and start the inflation.

Most flights take place in the early morning or late afternoon when the weather tends to be stiller. You pilot will be keeping a close eye on the weather because passenger balloons can only fly in gentle breezes.

Once the envelope is inflated you’ll be called on to climb into the basket and when everyone is in the pilot opens the huge blowlamp like heater that roars loudly and the balloon lifts oh-so-gently into the air. Suddenly the pilot will turn off the heater and in absolute silence you will drift across the landscape.

Although the balloon can’t be steered in the conventional sense, a skilled pilot can find different directional winds and breezes at different heights. These enable the pilot to take the route he wants. Height is controlled by firing the heater or turning it off to let the air cool slightly.

The landing will come all too soon. The pilot cools the air to lose height and will aim for a level and preferably grassy field away from trees and the worst enemies of balloons – power lines.

Most of the landings we’ve had have been so gentle you wouldn’t believe it. The ground crew will anchor the balloon and the pilot pulls a line that rips open a valve in the top of the balloon and spills out all the hot air.

Once the balloon is spread out on the ground you can climb out of the basket and pop open the traditional Champagne that follows every flight. Then its help to roll up the envelope and pack it and the basket on to its trailer to return to base and plan your next flight. Balloon flights are addictive.

Airships are different from Balloons, much, much rarer for a start and they are kept inflated all the time. Modern airships use the non-inflammable helium gas.

A flight on the new generations of Zeppelins is an incredible experience. The huge cigar shaped ship is far bigger than a jumbo jet but the gondola underneath is about the same size as our motor caravan. The gondola seats just 12 passengers and as well as the pilot there is just one other crew member who is co-pilot, navigator and air hostess combined – what a job.

Because of the way it flies loading and unloading of an airship isn’t easy. If you unloaded all twelve passengers at once the ship would be so lightened it would leap up into the air. What has to happen is that two passengers get off. Then two new ones get on so that the ship is balanced. The process is repeated until the whole dozen passengers are changed for new ones and off the Zeppelin goes for its next flight. Sounds complicated I know, but the whole process takes less than five minutes from landing to next take off. For the first and last flights of the day the weight of the passengers is made up by water ballast and the ship is moored to a mobile tower.

So what is it like to fly an airship? Well, totally different from any conventional aircraft I’ve ever flown in. No noise, the engines are buried inside the cigar and a long way from the gondola. There is no feeling of speed, the take-off is like going up in a very gentle lift. In flight you can walk about open a window and lean out to take a photograph.

You can see the landscape below clearly as it passes slowly beneath you. Imagine London stretched out below with all the capital’s wonderful landmarks viewed clearly from above.

My first Zeppelin flight made me appreciate what it must have been like to fly across the Atlantic in the 1930’s. It must have been one of the most sophisticated and awesome travel experiences ever.

Airships are making a slow but significant come back. This summer’s London flights are just a part of it.

Richard Branson owns a fleet of small airships that are used for filming and advertising at major sports events and the huge Goodyear Company have a fleet of blimps doing the same kind of work. You may well have seen them in the reports from the Beijing Olympics.

Whether you want to get up in an Airship, fly a balloon, or just get to see these amazing flying machines and learn a little more about them there are plenty of places to visit in Britain.

Who can do it?

A pilot we know has a regular booking at an old people’s home where several years ago he was booked to take up a lady to celebrate her eightieth birthday. Now he goes on her birthday every year and takes her up for a flight. When the balloon is ready for takeoff, but not a moment before, the elderly birthday girl picks half a dozen of her fellow residents to join her aloft. They all love it and it demonstrates that this is an experience for just about anybody.

Places to visit.

The Cardington Sheds, Bedfordshire

Airships were, and are, always built and stored in sheds not hangars. When the two huge sheds at Cardington just outside Bedford were built they were the largest buildings in the world. So big in fact that they created their own weather inside. Clouds still form among the girders high in the roof.

The sheds still dominate the Bedfordshire skyline. Although the sheds have found new and alternative uses they are still the centre of Britain’s airship activity and it’s not unusual to see lighter than air craft dropping in to visit the historic site.

The firm of Short Brothers built the Cardington sheds and also a small town – Shortstown – within the shadows of the airship station. The town is still there and the local working men’s club still bears the epic name ‘The British Airship Works Social Club’.

Several local pubs have collections of pictures and memorabilia from the times that airships filled the skies around Bedford. A good one to visit is the Bell at Cotton End.

The Cardington sheds were the home base of the famous R101 British airship which crashed in a storm on its maiden voyage from Bedford to India in 1930.

The ship crashed into a hillside in Beauvais, Northern France and the 48 crew and passengers who were killed in the disaster there are buried in a cenotaph in the churchyard at Cardington.

That crash effectively ended airship building in Britain for 60 years. Only now with the modern developments are the airships slowly returning.

Airship Museum

There has been much speculation in recent years about building an airship museum at Cardington. At present the best British museum airship display is just five miles up the road at the ShuttleworthAircraftMuseum at Old Warden. www.shuttleworth.org

 Bristol Balloon Fiesta. Aston Court, Bristol.

The huge gathering of Balloons at Aston Court in Bristol is one of the largest outdoor events in the country, attracting thousands of visitors each year for a four-day festival of fun and lighter than air flying.

The Balloon Fiesta’s carnival atmosphere continues non-stop; there are stalls to browse, catering and refreshments from all over the world and a packed programme of arena entertainment throughout the day.

Don’t miss the spectacular Night Glow, which takes place on Thursday and Saturday evenings at 9.30pm, where tethered balloons light up their giant flame burners and seem to dance to the music. The Night glows are followed by an awe-inspiring fireworks finale.

Every morning and evening of the Fiesta there are mass launches of over 120 balloons. Watch them as the literally bounce off one another and float off  across Bristol.

Commercial flights are available at the Fiesta including some joining in those mass take-off. I was luckly enough to get a morning flight and we won’t forget the mass take of where we bounced off other balloons close by.

We drifted over Brunel’s famous Clifton Suspension Bridge and on to land in the countryside on the edge of the city

Entrance to the Fiesta is free but there is a charge for the car park. There are also a number of  temporary campsites that serve the Fiesta.

The Zeppelin that was shot down

Theberton, Saxmundham, Suffolk

The small, quiet and pretty village of Theberton in suffolk, just four miles from Saxmundham, welcomes you with signs that tell you it is twinned with Theberton in Australia. No doubt as a result of local transported criminals taking the village name with them.

The village is dominated by a fine church which is worth a visit for its font, its stained glass, its pulpit…

… and the remains of a German Zeppelin displayed in its porch. It is a reminder of the time when the peace and quiet of the village was disturbed in a most spectacula manner. It was here at two o’clock on the morning of 17th June, 1917 that the German airship L48 was shot down by british fighters.

The Zeppelin  was on a bombing raid, one of many being made on East Anglia by airships flying from Heligoland of the coast of North Germany. Sixteen  members of the crew Zeppelin died in the crash, three survived but one later died from his injuries. Their bodies were buried in Theberton churchyard but have since been moved to a central burial ground for German war dead at Cannock in Staffordshire.

A memorial to the Zeppelin crew can still be seen in the cemetery across the road from the church in Theberton..

Part of the framework of the Zeppelin itself is mounted in the porch of the church along with a small display that tells the amazing tale. The actual site of the crash was recently the site of a Time Team TV Programme.

Crossing the Atlantic

East Fortune, Scotland

Every pub quiz fan knows who were the first men to fly the Atlantic. It was Allcock and Brown who flew their converted bomber from Newfoundland and crashed in a bog in Galway. That was in June 1919.

Not many people know that just a fortnight later the British Airship R34 left the airship base at East Fortune south of Edinburgh, to fly to the USA. The airship flew for 108 hours before arriving safely in Long Island, New York. This was the first ever east-west Atlantic crossing by air. The ship carried a crew of thirty and a stowaway cat.

As the Americans had no experience of handling large rigid airships, Major EM Pritchard jumped by parachute to direct operations and so became the first person to reach American soil by air from Europe

Once the R34 had done the east-west crossing they turned round and did the return trip back to Britain without fuss or bother.

The R34 had never been intended as a passenger carrier and extra accommodation for the large crew was arranged by slinging hammocks in the keel walkway. Hot food was provided by cooking on a plate welded to the engine exhaust pipe.

So what happened to this history making aircraft? On 27 January 1921 she left on what should have been a routine exercise. Over the North Sea the weather worsened and a recall signal sent by radio was not received. Following a navigational error the craft hit the North York Moors in the dark and lost two propellors.

She went back out to sea using the two remaining engines and in daylight followed the Humber estuary back to the airfield at Howden, Yorkshire. Strong winds made it impossible to get her back into the shed and she was tied down outside for the night. By the morning further damage had occurred and the R34 was no more.

There is a memorial to the historic Atlantic crossing of the R34 at East Fortune and the airfield is now home to the Scottish National Air Museum; well worth a visit.

This article originally appeared in the now defunct Motor Caravan Magazine.

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