A blog by Patrick Crozier

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July 03, 2003

State Failure #3: The R101

The R101 was an airship. In 1931 it crashed on its maiden flight killing most of those on board - including the Secretary of State for Air and several other notables.

Now, I had thought the story went along these lines: both the private sector and the state sector were, at the same time, in the business of building an airship. The R100, the private sector airship (worked on by, amongst others, Barnes Wallis and Neville Shute - yes, that Neville Shute) worked perfectly. The state airship, the R101, obviously didn't and after the crash, rather than admit that it wasn't up to the job, the state banned production of all airships.

Not quite. According to this what actually happened was that the state sponsored the building of two airships: one by the state and one by the private sector. And when the R101 crashed, it scrapped the whole project - largely on cost grounds.

OK, so not quite the state failure I had thought it was but it was still a state failure. While the example of the R101 might not demonstrate the superiority of the free market, it does demonstrate the superiority of private enterprise. It also another example of a state projects ending up in expensive and embarassing failure. A sort of Concorde of the 1930s, if you will.

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I grew up with the R101 hangar at Cardington visible from my bedroom window. A good book on the airship is John Fuller's "The Ghosts of R101" (the title might be wrong; it was a long time ago) which, inbetween the seances etc. did talk intelligently about the Space Shuttle-style bungling and buck-passing that led to the disaster. It began with rejecting helium as the balloon gas on the grounds of expense and went on from there.

Posted by James Hamilton on July 9, 2003