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Fatal Flight: The True Story of the Britain's Last Great Airship Paperback – December 16, 2016
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Learn more
"A fascinating story, not nearly well enough known on the American side of the Atlantic, artfully and engagingly told." G.J. Meyer New York Times bestselling author of A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914 to 1918 & The World Remade: America in World War I
"Why does brilliant vehicle design sometimes end in tragedy? The crash of the intended flagship of the British Empire, the magnificent dirigible R.101, is not only an absorbing human and technical story as told by Bill Hammack. It is also a vital lesson in the risks of even apparently small compromises and unforeseen hazards to big projects when confronted by the forces of nature. Impressively documented, Fatal Flight should be required reading for engineers and political leaders alike." Edward Tenner Author of international bestseller Why Things Bite Back & Our Own Devices
"A well-researched and gripping look at Britain's greatest airship disaster from a new perspective: through the eyes of a man who built, flew, and died with the ship." Dan Grossman, Airship Historian author of airships.net and coauthor of Zeppelin Hindenburg: An Illustrated History of LZ-129
About the Author
Bill Hammack hosts the engineerguyvideo YouTube channel, which has nearly a half million subscribers and twenty-five million views. Make magazine said of Bill’s video work that he was a “brilliant science-and-technology documentarian,” whose “videos should be held up as models of how to present complex technical information visually.” Wired called them “dazzling.” He teaches engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he focuses on educating the public about engineering and science. Bill’s work has been recognized by The National Association of Science Writers with their Science in Society Award, the American Chemical Society’s Grady-Stack Medal, and the American Institute of Physics’ Science Writing Award.
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Pg. 1. JLENS was not a "blimp" it was an unpowered teathered balloon. This is an important difference that the author (an engineer) failed to point out.
Pg. 3 "...an airship's construction differed dramatically from that of a free balloon or blimp." True for a balloon, but a blimp is an airship. The author however, says "an airship's shape is formed by a metal framework." Here the author (an engineer) is clearly confusing the term "airship" with "zeppelin". This is a glaring mistake that would never have been allowed into print by anyone with the most rudinentary knowledge of the subject. See Wikipedia/airship.
Pg. 8 "The Hindenburg... was not built until 1938." It crashed on May 6, 1937. See Wikipedia/hindenburg disaster.
Pg. 24 "...for a commercial commercial airship, hydrogen is the only choice." While true for R101 (she was sized for hydrogen) this claim does not apply to all "commercial" airships - Hindenburg, for example, was designed to fly with helium and sized accordingly. Additionally, the author implies that helium would simply have been available at a higher price from the U.S. if desired. This was not the case. In the late 1920's the U.S. hardly had enough helium to keep their own airships aloft and were in no position to sell it in sufficient quanity to domestic or foreign entities for "commercial" use. As a historian, the author should have noted this in the book. See Wikipedia/helium and Meyer, Henry Cord; Airshipmen, Businessmen, and Politics. Chapter 10.
Pg. 29 "...each of the tower's four legs." The tower had eight (8) legs. See diagram pg. 33 in Hammack, Bill: Fatal Flight.
Pg. 38 "He turned around and looked past the 440-foot-tall rudder..," This would have made for a very unusual arrangement considering the airship was originally 732 ft. long and later lengthened to 777 ft. (See any drawing or photo of R101) This would also have made it awkward to put the ship on the 200 foot tall mast (See Hammack, Bill: Pg 12.)
The sad tale of the R101 is arguably the most poignant in the history of Lighter-Than-Air travel and makes for very compelling reading. Therefore, to those wishing to learn more about it, I recommend James Leasor's "The Millionth Chance": it is a better written, more accurate and less expensive alternative.
Bill Hammack seems like a great guy and his take on technology is always interesting.
I'm not an airship buff, but this well-written account held my interest from beginning to end. The level and choice of detail made the world of airships come alive for me in ways other accounts have never done. Too many accounts echo the marketing of the time, emphasizing the luxury and comfort of these ships; this one is full of details about how the lightness and airiness of the structure must have affected the passenger experience. I'd never thought about or had anyone mention details like having to wait at an elevator, able to take only one passenger at a time, to ascend the mooring mast and board the airship. I don't want to put in too many "spoilers" about particular details, but I'll mention one more: the gas bags were made of ox cecum (a part of the gut), got moldy, and smelled.
The highest compliment I can pay is to say that I found myself regretting that R101 crashed so soon into its flight--thus cutting the story short!
One warning: according to my Kindle app, only 38% of this book is Hammack's narrative. The rest is devoted to long appendices of source material, detailed notes showing the sources of every fact mentioned in the narrative, and a long bibliography of sources. That is not to suggest that the story is short or skimpy--just that this is "only" a 170-page book.
The book has two weaknesses. One is a serious deficiency of illustrations, maps, and photographs. The second is that while I am convinced that Hammack's scholarship on details and events is meticulous, I do not know whether he is equally accurate on human details. it is pretty clear whom Hammack thinks are the heroes and whom he thinks are the villains. It's hard to believe it's as clearcut as he makes out. Lord Thomson reminds me of the pointy-haired boss in Scott Adams' "Dilbert" comics. G. H. Scott, according to Hammack, was known to everyone to be habitually drunk, and apparently responsible for many errors in seamanship when piloting and mooring airships.
Finally, the book leaves me wondering and musing whether or not airships really were safe and practical. I doubt it. On the evidence of the book, the R101 was fragile in so many ways. And while on the one hand, the record of the Graf Zeppelin is convincing, the sheer number of disaster, the number of losses in other big airships--the Akron, the Macon, the Hindenburg, the R38, and so many of them from structural failure in flight--gives me reason to doubt.
Thanks to the "99% Invisible" podcast, produced by Roman Mars, for bringing this book to my attention.
(P.S. After writing and posting my review, I read Scott Daneker's one-star review complaining about factual errors. I suggested he put the actual errors into his review instead of leaving them hidden in the comments. Do glance at his review. I am not changing my own evaluation because these seem to me to be not much worse than typos, not worth taking off a star for. But pretty sloppy).