What we’re reading: His Majesty’s Airship

(R101 during a test flight over Westminster, London in 1929. Credit: Alamy)

We’re just past the anniversary of the May 6, 1937 crash of the Hindenburg. The zeppelin – or rigid airship – famously met its demise in Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing 36 people; 13 passengers, 22 crewmembers, and one worker on the ground.

But when you read S.C. Gwynne’s new book, His Majesty’s Airship: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying Machine, you’ll wonder why zeppelins were still flying by that time at all.

Gwynne’s book is about the R101, a 777-foot-long zeppelin that crashed in 1930.

At that time it was the largest, most technologically sophisticated, and most expensive aircraft ever to fly. And it was designed to be better than any of the airships Germany had constructed.

For a zeppelin, (or blimp), it was quite swanky. R101 had two floors of fifty heated sleeping berths, bathrooms, cooking, and dining facilities, and a smoking room.

In October 1930, the maiden voyage of the steel-framed, linen-draped, hydrogen-filled airship was supposed to take fifty-four passengers from England to India and back – a 10,000-mile journey.

But as Gwynne thrillingly and meticulously documents in this book, the building of R101 and the entire journey were doomed by bad decisions, inflated egos, faulty technology, and bad luck.

On October 5, not long after leaving England, the British airship R 101 carrying 54 people crashed on a hill in Beauvais, France. 8 people escaped, but 2 of those people died later from their injuries bringing the total death count to 48.

Meet the author of His Majesty’s Airship

S.W. Gwynne, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and a New York Times bestselling author, is currently on a book tour in support of His Majesty’s Airship.

The Stuck at the Airport book club is going to see Gwynne at Town Hall in Seattle on May 15. He’s also making stops in Hudson, OH (May 10), Corte Madera, CA (May 16) and other cities.

Museum Monday: Oregon’s Tillamook Air Museum

There are more than 700 air and space-related museums in this country.

Each Monday, we highlight one of them.  Eventually we’ll hit them all.

This week: The Tillamook Air Museum in Tillamook, Oregon.

Tillamook Air Museum

The museum has about three dozen aircraft in its collection, but I’ve chosen to highlight it this week because of history of the building that houses the museum.

During WWII, the U.S. Navy stationed a fleet of blimps along the east and west coasts.  Each airship was 252 feet long and filled with 425,000 cu. feet of helium.

These “K-class” blimps had a range of 2,000 miles and could stay in the air for three days at a time, so they were ideally suited for anti-submarine patrol and for escorting ship convoys out to sea.  The blimps also trailed targets for fighter-plane practice.

To store off-duty dirigibles, the Navy built 17 seven-acre blimp hangars.

They used the exact same blueprint for each building, and each clear-span wooden structure was 15-stories high, more than 1,000 feet long, and built with fire-retardant lumber.

Tillamook’s dairy land was chosen as the site for two of those hangers in part because the countryside offered mild weather and the largest flat area on the Oregon and Washington coast.

Tillamook Blimps in hangar

Unfortunately, Tillamook’s Hangar A burned down in 1992. (It turned out that the chemicals that make wood fire-retardant eventually leech out.) But Hangar B is still around and now shares the title of World’s Largest Clear-Span Wooden Building with the six other still-intact blimp hangars around the country.

Hangar B is now also home to the Tillamook Air Museum, which houses a flight simulator, a collection of more than 30 WW II “War Birds,” and historical films and displays about the construction of the building and the blimps that were once based here.

Blimp Hangar  Bio

Length: 1,072 feet
Height: 192 feet (over 15 stories)
Width: 296 feet
Area: Over 7 acres (enough to play six football games)
Doors: 120 ft. high, 6 sections each weighing 30 tons. 220 ft. wide opening. The sections roll on railroad tracks
Catwalks: 2 catwalks, each 137 ft. above the hangar deck

Do you have have a favorite aviation or space museum? If so, let us know where it is and why you like it. Your museum pick may be featured on a future edition of Museum Monday here at