Thursday, January 29, 2015

Why did the R101 crash?


Nevil Shute Norway, with the R100 he helped design
I mentioned in the comments section of my last that scientists these days are dependent on research funding, academic tenure etc., so they may feel constrained in what they can say or do; whereas in the nineteenth century and earlier, scientists could speculate fearlessly. Agreeing with this, Natalie suggested that some ideas derided by orthodoxy today may yet take root and flourish in a yet unimagined future.

And then I was reminded of something, a broader principle which has long convinced me, and I can trace it back to a particular time in my life, a book which made an impression, and a particular passage in that book.

Nevil Shute’s novels span four decades, from the Twenties to the Fifties. By profession he was an aeronautical engineer. In his memoir Slide Rule, he tells the story of two rival British airship projects: the R100 and the R101. Everyone remembers the R101 because it crashed on its first big flight from England to India, killing 48 of the bigwigs who travelled as passengers. Many of them had hoped to bask in its reflected glory. The R101 was a government-sponsored project funded with taxpayers’ money and managed by civil servants. Much of Shute’s book analyses what it did wrong compared with its rival airship R100, which was privately designed and built; and which had promoted Shute (in his real name of Nevil Shute Norway) as its deputy chief engineer.

I was more interested in this book than his novels, discovering myself to be an engineer at heart, though my professional career was in software, a rather abstract realm that wouldn’t suit me now. I’d sooner work with materials. I’m just old enough to have used a slide rule at school. Shute’s book takes its name from the millions of slide rule calculations used in designing the R100 airship, in the late Twenties. I was fascinated by every detail in his book, but the bit I remember best was about “private means”:

Now and again, we would find some cheerful young commander or captain who was not affected by these scruples, who was as brave in the office as he was at sea. Commenting on such a regular officer and on his way of doing business we would say,

The R101 at Carrington, where it was built and trialled
"He’s a good one. I bet he’s got private means. Invariably investigation proved that we were right. The officers who were brave in the Admiralty were the officers who had an independent income, who could afford to resign from the navy if necessary without bringing financial disaster to their wives and children. It started as a joke with us to say that a brave officer in the office probably had private means. and then it got beyond a joke and turned into an axiom. These were the men who could afford to shoulder personal responsibility in the Admiralty, who could afford to do their duty to the Navy in the highest sense.

Such men invariably gravitate towards the top of any government service that they happen to be in because of their carefree acceptance of responsibility. They serve as a leaven and as an example to their less fortunate fellows; they set the tone of the whole office by their high standard of duty.

“The greatest disaster in the history of aviation
The torn and twisted skeleton of R101
An aerial view of the wreck on a hill near Beauvais”
I think this is an aspect of inherited incomes which deserves greater attention than it has had up to now. If the effect of excessive taxation and death duties in a country is to make all high officials dependent on their pay and pensions. then the standard of administration will decline and that country will get into greater difficulties than ever. Conversely, in a wealthy country with relatively low taxation and much inherited income a proportion of the high officials will be independent of their job, and the standard of administration will probably be high.

I do not know the financial condition of the high officials in the Air Ministry at the time of the R101 disaster. I suspect, however, that an investigation would reveal that it was England’s bad luck that at that time none of them had any substantial private means. At rock bottom, that to me is probably the fundamental cause of the tragedy.


To see virtue in inherited wealth is of course an old-fashioned attitude, popularly identified with conservatism. Today’s world is anxious and aspirational. Money is pursued as a proxy for contentment. The rich are envied and hated. Heedless of the tenth commandment, people are encouraged to consider covetousness the new virtue. It churns the economy, increases the GDP. It doesn’t do much for the sense of well-being but many are prepared to pay that price.

Shute wrote Slide Rule in 1954. The values he extols carry little weight in today’s landscape, but I take his words personally. There is still a class of person with “private means”, who is able to step out of the economic rat race. I remember it said that British pre-eminence in pop music in the Sixties—the Beatles leading the way—was financed by a generous system of unemployment benefit which allowed young men (mainly) to develop new styles, because they had time to do so, and could afford to fail.

Why did the R101 crash? Shute hints that it may have been because few if any of its team were could afford to lose their jobs by speaking out against the rush to deadline, the cut corners, the glaring risks whitewashed over, so as to win the race against the R100 and get all the kudos.

There will always be persons of private means. They are the ones whom progressive parties promise to squeeze when it’s General Election time. Tax the rich to feed the poor. But you don’t have to be rich. There’s a whole army of persons no longer in full employment, whose bodies and minds are not yet worn out, who can expect to live for some years yet, thanks to medical advances not available in Shute’s day. And his words still apply. We (for I march in that number) shelter under the aegis of retirement, and ought to accept a “high standard of duty”. Instead of lazing about, waiting till I become a burden on the young, I can afford to “shoulder responsibility” and do my duty to the universe “in the highest sense”. Crashes of all kinds occur in this flawed world. If R101 had not crashed on its maiden long-distance flight, airships might have had a safe few years, helium would have become available instead of hydrogen, and the world would have been a little different.