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The author acknowledges the use of information obtained from the 'Wikipedia', 'Airship Heritage Trust' and 'Roll of Honour' websites and other sources in the preparation of this page.

In 1924 the Imperial Airship Scheme was proposed as a military project to enable a single movement of 200 troops or 5 fighter aircraft. This was expected to require the construction of an airship with a volume of 8 million cubic feet. As a result two prototype airships of 5 million cubic feet (140,000 m³) were to be constructed.

To encourage the promotion of new ideas, two separate teams would be used: one, under the supervision of the British Government's Air Ministry, would build the R101, and the other airship would be constructed by a subsidiary of a private company, Vickers. The latter would build the R100 under contract and for a fixed price. Among Vickers' engineers were the designer Barnes Wallis, later to become famous for the 'Dam Busters' bouncing bomb and, as Chief Calculator (Stress Engineer), Nevil Norway, later known as the novelist, Nevil Shute.

CARDINGTON became one of the major British sites involved in the development of airships when Short Brothers bought land there to build airships for the Admiralty. They constructed a 700 ft long hangar (the No. 1 Shed) in 1915 to enable them to build two rigid airships, the R-31 and the R-32. Some 800 people worked there in 1917 and most of them travelled daily from Bedford. Shorts also built a housing estate opposite the site which they named 'Shortstown'.

The airship site was nationalised in April 1919 and became known as the 'Royal Airship Works'. In preparation for the R101 project Number 1 shed was extended between October 1924 and March 1926. The roof was raised by 35 feet and its length increased to 812 feet. The No. 2 shed (southern shed), which had originally been located at Pulham, Norfolk and dismantled in 1928, was re-erected at Cardington.

The airfield and sheds were used by No 1 Balloon Training Unit which was formed as part of a (barrage) balloon defence system on 9th January 1937 with Grp. Capt A.A. Thompson, MC, AFC as Commanding Officer. One month later the first Barrage Balloon Group, No 30, was formed and the first training courses for balloon crews were started.

In November of 1938 30 Group became the Balloon Command. By September 1939 almost 50 squadrons had been formed manning about 600 sites throughout the UK. The balloons were to remain a familiar site in our skies for the duration of the war.

In November 1943 No 1 Balloon Training Unit was closed and the command was disbanded in February 1945. Also in 1937 (September) No 2 RAF Recruitment Centre transferred to Cardington from Henlow to be followed by Aircrew Selection and Medical Boards.

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Cardington manufactured its own hydrogen in its Gas Factory for both airships and barrage balloons and using the steam reforming process.

In 1948 the Gas Factory became 279 MU (Maintenance Unit), RAF Cardington; and then, in 1955, 217 MU. The unit produced all the gases used by the Royal Air Force as well as gas cylinder filling and maintenance until its closure in April 2000.

The two airship hangars ceased to be part of the RAF Cardington site in the late 1940s and were put to other uses. The fence was moved so that they became situated outside the main RAF Cardington site. After the war the RAF site continued to be used as a recruitment centre until the termination of National Service in the late 1950s. Known as No 102 Personnel Despatch Centre, many of those who had joined the RAF at Cardington passed through the unit again when they were demobilized. The headquarters buildings still stand on this site.

For many years, until around 2001, one of the sheds was used by the Building Research Establishment as a building testing facility. Here, multi-storey steel, concrete and wooden buildings were constructed and then destructively tested. A company, Airship Industries, tried to revive the fortunes of the airship industry in the other hangar in the 1980s, but the efforts ended in failure.

In 1968 some scenes for 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' were filmed at the airsheds. Also during the 1960s, much of the film 'Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines' was shot in the vicinity of the village. Hangar 2 was leased to Warner Bros and used as a studio for film and television productions, including the 'Batman Begins' film in 2005, its sequel, 'Dark Knight' and a Harry Potter film. 'Fred Claus' is programmed to be filmed in Hangar 2 in 2007.

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The R101 airship was built at Cardington and made her first flight in October 1929. At 777ft, she was the largest airship in the world. Here is a view of the airship on the mooring mast (dismantled in 1943) at Cardington with the airsheds in the background (above left).

There were a number of mishaps on her initial flights including sluggishness and lack of lift. In June 1930 she went into a steep dive for over 500ft when returning from the Hendon air show. The crew managed to bring her back under control, only to have to deal with a second and a third dive.

The R101 plainly had significant problems but Lord Thomson, the Secretary of State for Air, insisted that the R101 be ready for a flight to India on the 4th October 1930. Lord Thomson had personal political ambitions in India and wanted to see a regular airship service from London to Karachi, via Egypt. To achieve the additional lift, R101 had a new central bay and gas bag installed.

R101Beauvais.jpg - 97302 BytesIt was expected that the new gas bag would give her another nine tons of disposable lift bringing her up to some 50 tons. The alterations were completed by Friday the 26th September and the R101 was gassed up and floated in the shed.

It was at 06.30 on the 1st October that the R101 emerged from the shed and was secured to the mast. The new ship had a more elongated look as she had been extended by 35 feet to insert the new bay. At the same time, R100, which had been constructed simultaneously with R101 by the private company, Vickers, to a design by Barnes Wallis, was removed from Shed No 2, and walked in to shed No.1 where she too was to be altered in the same way to obtain more lift. (It was the last time the outside world would see the R100 which was later dismantled.)

On the evening of 4th October the R101 left Cardington. She carried 42 crew, 6 officials and 6 passengers. A crowd of over 3,000 came to watch the departure. The start of the journey was not propitious; ballast had to be dumped to compensate for over loading, strong winds were encountered and the aft engines broke down.

At approximately 2 am the R101 passed over Beauvais, a French city to the north-west of Paris. Already flying at very low altitude she went into a dive and despite all the efforts of the crew she crashed into hills south of the city. The airship ran along the ground for some distance before being engulfed by flames. Forty eight people died in the tragedy. Great national feeling surrounding the disaster followed the disaster and the funeral procession through London was watched by thousands. The bodies were afterwards taken by special train to Bedford to be laid to rest in a communal grave in Cardington cemetery (below)

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The church of St. Mary the Virgin (right and below) is situated across the road from the cemetery. Small parts of the building date from the 12th century (these were incorporated in the later reconstruction) but most of the church was rebuilt between 1898 and 1902 except for the early 16th century chancel and chapels.There are a number of medieval tomb slabs set into the east wall of the south chapel, one dating from the 11th century.

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The pennant from the ill-fated R101 in Cardington Church (right)

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