Little remains of the aerodrome at Spaldington, where these days waste wood is made into biomass, but in the 1920s it was the site of one of the most remarkable – and even more remarkably, almost forgotten – chapters in British aviation history.
It was there that Barnes Wallis architect of the later Dam Busters raid on Germany, developed the R100 Airship, a craft intended to enter commercial service.
Built in an unheated shed with a leaky roof, the 720ft craft resembled an ocean liner, with a double staircase to a sumptuous dining room for its 100 passengers. It flew to Canada and back, but two months later the Air Ministry’s rival craft crashed in France on its maiden flight to India, killing 48, and the airship programme was abandoned.
Few had seen it coming. Airships could fly vastly greater distances than the conventional aeroplanes of the day, and in the years during and after the First World War, they were considered the future of aviation.
It was no accident that Barnes Wallis found himself installed in the backwater of the East Riding. The Government had requisitioned 100 acres there in 1915 to build an airship station that would protect the shipping convoys out of Grimsby and Goole. It remained open until 1921, when a disastrous crash over Hull killed 44 crew members.
Nevertheless, post-war optimism was high for the airborne liners, and Barnes Wallis was one of two engineers competing for a contract from Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government. As the giant craft took shape, Howden became a hive of industry.
But the dream died with those on board the rival airship, and within five years the old shed had been taken down and sold for scrap.
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