Yes, Czechoslovakia made aeroplanes…here’s our favourite 10

Czechoslovakia existed for a short time 74 years between 1918-1992 (minus occupation in World War II). In that time it created Cubism and Semtex, and was, despite fierce competition from the DDR and the renegade Yugoslavia, the grooviest country on the ‘other’ side of the Iron Curtain.

Avia B-34.jpg
The Avia B-34 was attractive but not sexy.

With the region’s long history of engineering prowess (and auto-erotic asphyxiating composers), it took to the new science of aviation with alacrity, its first aircraft, the Avia B. H. 1, flying a mere 2 years after the nation’s creation.

Avia B-534 IV. verze.jpg
The Avia B 534 certainly deserves an honourable mention (the Meta-Sokol does not despite tip-tanks).

Like a disgusting drunken British stag-do party leaning against a Prague bar, we ogle ten Czechoslovakian aeroplanes and reduce them to mere objects by rating them on their sexiness alone.

Let L-200 Morava : r/WeirdWings
The Let L-200 Morava has much going for it, but looks like a tadpole.

10. Avia B. H. 1 (1920)

To much fanfare and a 100,000 CSK development grant from the President, the B. H. 1 was the toast of a young proud nation. Despite the glamour and positive publicity, it was chronically underpowered by its original 35 horsepower Austro Daimler inline engine. It was only with a new engine, the radial Gnome Omega, that it could actually fly with both cockpits carrying a pilot. It wasn’t terribly fast at 85mph, six weeks after it first flew France would raise the world airspeed record to a rather alarming 170mph.

Absolutely of its era, the B.H. 1 was extremely attractive, but its shape speaks of adventure and nostalgia rather than sensuality and therefore scores low for sexiness.

9. Hodek HK-101 (1947)

Hodek HK-101

The HK-101 was a rebel. This sports aeroplane was illegally and secretly developed while the nation was suffering the German occupation, then following Czechoslovakian liberation, the type had to fight for its existence against a nationalising Communist aviation industry. The HK-101 wasn’t a brilliant aeroplane, with a cramped cockpit, poor visibility from the rear seat and no radio. The rather romantic designer, Vincenc Hodek, was not favoured by the communist party, and was pushed out of the picture. The project ended in Aero hands, who had little time for it and let it wither on the vine, cancelling it in 1949 or 1950. There had been plans for a sleeker version, known as the Aero PB -1.

To the British eye the PB-1 looks a de Havilland design developed by Handley Page (or worse still Blackburn). It teeters dangerously on the edge of attractiveness but is let down by an overall sensibleness.

8. Aero L-29 Delfín (1959)

The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Сове́т Экономи́ческой Взаимопо́мощи or COMECON in English) was an economic organisation under the leadership of the Soviet Union which did much to co-ordinate communist countries during the Cold War period. When the COMECON dictated that the L-29 was to be the standard jet trainer for the USSR and alligned states, it became one of the few non- Soviet designs to be mass-produced in Eastern Europe in this era. An impressive total of 3,665 was produced and served around the world.

Agreeably friendly in appearance, with elegant bifurcated root intakes and t-tail, it is – but it is hardly sexy.

7. Avia XLE-110 (1951)

By the end of the 1940s, it was clear that the much loved C-2 trainer was too slow to cut the mustard and required replacement. A faster, more modern, indigenous type was required. On November 12 1951, a prototype of the XLE-110 training aircraft crashed during a test flight, with the loss of both pilots. For weapons training, it could be fitted with one MG-17 7.92 mm machine-gun and four pylons for bombs weighing up to 140 kg. Though a promising design, the 110 was cancelled in the spring of 1952, and the requirement was met by Soviet types.

A balanced and pragmatic looking aeroplane lacking in sex appeal.

You can see the Top 10 Polish aircraft here

6. Aero L-39 Albatros (1968)

For an advanced trainer, the L-39 looks decidedly mean. The oversized canopy and rounded nose of the British Hawk, Franco-German AlphaJet and a multitude of other delphine jet trainers may give you the impression that this is a class of rather friendly-looking machines. But the L-39 is different. The combination of a sharp fighter-like nose, dagger-like swept vertical fin and short unswept wings combine to give a pugnacious scorpion-like appearance to the aircraft. It is a vicious cruciform, a jet ninja star. Sometimes it is even fitted with that most stylish of accoutrement, the tip-tank.

It is also terribly whorish, appearing in over 26 films, computer games and TV shows, including the unfortunately named (at least in English) ‘Shit Otechestva’ movie.

5. Avia BH-21 (1925)

File:Avia BH-21 right front photo NACA Aircraft Circular No.22.jpg -  Wikimedia Commons

An excellent pursuit fighter and successful racing aircraft, the BH-21 impressed international observers. NACA (forerunner) of NASA reviewed the type favourably here. With a top speed of 170mph it was 15mph faster than the contemporary British Gloster Gamecock, and armed with two Vickers machine-guns. More importantly for us, it was extremely attractive.

4. Avia B-135 (1938)

Fast and cannon-armed, only a total of twelve of the extremely impressive B-135 fighter was made. It had a top speed of 323mph and was armed with one 20-mm MG FF cannon and two 7.92 mm vz. 30 Česká zbrojovka Strakonice machine-guns. The type was let down by engine issues related to an imperfect installation of the licence-produced version of the popular Hispano-Suiza 12Y. On 30 March 1944 four Bulgarian air force B-135s shot down an intruding USAAF B-24 Liberator. The B-135 was used by the Czechoslovakian and Bulgarian air forces in tiny numbers, and flight-tested by Nazi Germany.

Sleek and muscular in that unmistakably late ’30s way, the B-135 was a stunner.

3. Aero B-34

Czech Aero aircraft and projects | Secret Projects Forum

How we like our objects of desire to never be tarnished by the mundanity of reality! The Aero B-34 never happened, all we have are some tantalising blueprints of a Roger Ramjet-esque machine that would make even the Tornado insecure about its tail fin size.

It was proposed in 1958 as a jet shturmovik Il-10 replacement powered by one unaugmented RD-9 rated at 29 kN. Firepower would have come from two NR-23 23-mm cannon, with unguided bombs and 80 unguided rockets in two rounded receptacles surrounding the main engine bay also on the menu. It wasn’t to be.

2. Aero A-159B Sokol (concept only, 1967)

Fighter, Aircraft, Fighter jets

There is a cliched aviation joke (seemingly the modus operandi of aviation jokes) of saying aircraft X looks the lovechild of aircraft Y and Z. We’ve all been guilty of this, and I am guilty of this now. The Aero A-159B Sokol, a 1967 concept for supersonic attack fighter, absolutely looked like the lovechild of a Tu-22 bomber and the then yet-to-be Mitsubishi F-1.

With those two high-mounted engines with their seductively revealed rear sections and sensual curves the Sokol would have been absolutely sexy. Which leads us to three questions: what do we mean when we say an aeroplane is ‘sexy’, what is a ‘lovechild’.. and is it a term we should be using in 2021?

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  1. Aero 45 (1947)

The Aero 45 is as much art as it is aircraft. Here is an amorphous beautiful thing that confounds simple description. In profile the Art Deco fuselage, with its arching roof, and flat belly, appears dolphin-like. Yet from the front, the large cabin windows give it an almost arthropodic or insect-like appearance. When viewed from above or below, it takes on the form of yet another animal; the long, narrow wings give it the look of a graceful, soaring shorebird.

The elegant Aero 45 was Czechoslovakia’s first aircraft after the German occupation had ended. The aircraft was a clear and bold statement that the small country’s aviation sector was ready to reclaim its pre-war glories, that it had lost none of its ability to produce world-class aircraft.

There is true harmony in the design of this aircraft and in all of its equally gorgeous descendents. Every airframe element fits smoothly with the next and there is not a sloppy line or compromise to be seen.

(Aero 45 section from original Hush-Kit article published here)


Honourable mentions to the Praga E-51 (below) and Aero A.304 (bottom).


Pentagon requests new advanced fighter aircraft for Russia

Image: BAE Systems

THE PENTAGON — The Pentagon released a report today requesting Congressional authorization for the allocation of funds to develop a new air superiority fighter for the Russian Federation. Parlor Banjo reports.

The aircraft project known as Military Air Counterable Grade Unassailable Foreign Fighter Increasement Node (MACGUFFIN) would see an initial $102 billion spent on developing a mass-produced fighter aircraft with greater capability than the ‘Flanker’, ‘Felon’ and nascent ‘Fleabag’ combat aircraft. According to USAF Colonel Tilch Willdergande, “We would like fighter aircraft and funding for future fighter projects, but this will require a credible air-to-air threat. China is at least twenty years behind us and Russia is broke. In the face of such a paucity of threatening air-to-air platforms we propose that we develop a new Russian fighter aircraft with US levels of stealth and situational awareness. In the absence of this project we would be forced to export F-35s to Russia, and possibly China, which would be a huge breach of export protocol and would threaten our global security. For this reason alone, MACGUFFIN is vital for regional dominance.

The Russian Minister of Defence Sergey Figniya released a counter statement on Wednesday, “We are offering to build a new fighter aircraft for the United States in order to leverage funding for a larger Su-57 and Su-75 force. The current mess of prehistoric F-15 and F-16s is a greater throwback to the 70s than Russian Gay rights. The F-22 and F-35 were designed to give IT guys maintenance work uninterrupted by flying hours. We’ve spent lots on really good surface-to-air missiles and the Government won’t give us Rubles for planes, which is annoying as planes are cooler.”

Death Star |

The Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China representative Gǔn Dàn has also recently spoken on the subject, “I forgot to write down which combat aircraft we’re working on so I have no idea on our current air power ranking. Every Monday they email me to tell me we’re building something new. Do the US still build aeroplanes or is that just a Chinese thing now? I think we might have a stealth bomber, or a new naval stealth fighter – is the Death Star ours?”

Meanwhile, European defence planners are planning to have a plan in place by 2045. The United Kingdom, who are currently in their own continent, are actively seeking a ‘sexual unicorn’ for their dysfunctional marriage but thinks their wife is not 100% behind the idea, but maybe Sweden.

Swedish defence company Saab AB is currently collaborating with every future combat aircraft project everywhere. A spokesperson for Saab, Nils Wallerius, described the company’s current dilemma, “As the last company allegedly able to run a fighter project with some degree of fiscal responsibility, we are currently involved in 456 international combat aircraft projects, but this is one higher than the Swedish population of 455 people. My sister has had to give up her Monday badminton club to run a Brazilian UCAV program.”

Image: BAE Systems

Empire of the sky: The Imperial Airship Service

London 2026 AD this is all in the air, by Montague B Black, 1926

The artist Montague Black was famous for his work for the White Star Line shipping company. In 1926 he created a new piece of art for London Underground, a painting set a century in the then future. His vision of 2026 was a city dominated by two things: the aeroplane and the ‘Overground Line.’ This may seem prescient, but Black’s ‘Overground’ was not one of trains, but by a far more remarkable form of passenger transport – airships.

By Long Branch Mike

Black’s painting isn’t the only reminder of London (and indeed Britain’s) airship past. A physical one can be found at Cardington, a village just outside Bedford within the London commuter belt. There, two massive airship sheds still stand. Today they play host to a new British airship, the Airlander 10. The sheds were originally assembled for an even grander scheme, to connect London to its Dominions – the Imperial Airship Service, which promised not just to cut ocean crossing times by a half to a third, but also to do so with a degree of grace and ease that few steamships could match.

Britain is late to the party

Britain came late to the airship game, only developing larger rigid dirigibles after London had been bombed by Zeppelins, starting in May 1915. Those attacks highlighted just how effective airships could be and with the threat of even larger Zeppelins on the horizon, the UK Government decided to accelerate its own development plans.

This was not to say that there hadn’t been British efforts in this area before the First World War. Small airships funded by wealthy individuals had been built in earlier days and in 1909 Flight Magazine ran an ‘Airships for the Nation’ campaign and some supportive government funding emerged. Even at this stage this was largely a reaction to German efforts in this area, led by Graf von Zeppelin.

It was ultimately the war though that pushed British airship development forward and by the Armistice, the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) operated 103 dirigibles, albeit all smaller than their rival Zeppelins. Most had a semi-rigid design rather than the robust German fully-rigid design, which had airbags enclosed in a metal frame (known as a ‘hull’).

Vast distances by airship

One of the main attractions of airships during the war for Germany, Britain, France and Italy had been range. This was epitomised by L 59 (Zeppelin works number LZ.104) which undertook the longest airship flight of the whole war. Departing from Bulgaria with critical war items in 1917, it was intended to resupply General von Lettow-Vorbeck in German East Africa, one of Germany’s (if not the war’s) most creative and successful commanders.1 It flew non-stop over the Mediterranean, the Sahara and part of British-controlled Africa, only turning back when it received word that the General had been forced to cede the Zeppelin-friendly flatlands of the colony to the British and withdraw to the mountains.

Von Lettow-Vorbeck pinned down over 300,000 allied soldiers in Africa for four years with a force that at its largest comprised only 14,000 men. He returned, undefeated, to a hero’s welcome in Germany after the armistice. A noted anti-racist, when offered the role of Ambassador to Britain in the thirties by Adolf Hitler, the General infamously told the Fuhrer to ‘go fuck himself.’

By the end of its unplanned return flight L 59 had flown a total distance of 4,199 miles in 95 hours, a world record 99 years ago and one that remains impressive even now. No commercial airplane could stay aloft that length of time in 2016, except with multiple repeat episodes of in-flight re-fuelling. By comparison the Zeppelin did it with only one extended-range load of fuel. This range was useful in wartime, but was equally useful when peace came, and it was not long before airships were being seen as a possible option for getting from London (and the rest of Europe) to America.

Atlantic adventures

The British R.34 (a derivative of the wartime Zeppelin designs, particularly the LZ.76) flew to New York and back in 1919, a voyage plagued by adverse winds. A Zeppelin (works number LZ.126) was built by Germany for the USA as war reparations and was also flown across the Atlantic in 1924 and giving its name to a popular fox-trot dance song at the time ‘On the ZR-3’. It also carried mail – a valuable revenue earner.

ZR-3 “USS Los Angeles” moored to a USS Pakota in 1931


By the 1920s the potential for these colossal vessels to become profitable peacetime long-distance passenger ‘air ships’ was seen as obvious. Indeed Black not including one in his painting would have likely been more controversial than the opposite. In everything from Black’s painting to hundreds of children’s books and magazines, and many forward-thinking learned articles and books, the skies of the future were lousy with airships.

Detailed illustration of possible London airship station, The Sphere, 1919. Note the connecting ‘airship train’ service – similar, one presumes, to an ‘ocean liner train’. Jonathan Roberts’ collection.

The poor cousins

At the time airships certainly seemed as viable a transport option as aeroplanes. Both had begun development at about the same time, but the latter were small, uncomfortable, unreliable, noisy and (in most cases) extremely draughty. Although faster than dirigibles, aeroplanes had to land every few hours to refuel and had extremely limited passenger and payload capacity, so were not seen as a serious contender for long-distance transportation or mail service.

In comparison, dirigibles could fly for days without stopping and carry dozens of passengers in smooth comfort, and tons of mail and freight. Airships also offered passengers ocean liner comfort without the sea-sickness and with a shorter journey time. Over land, no train could compare to the stability and calm ride of airship travel, at least in good or average weather. Airships could navigate around most bad weather.

By 1924 airships had a cumulative 72 years of airborne operating experience, much accelerated by the war, whilst aeroplanes had only 16 years.  Both means of aerial transport had made three Atlantic crossings each, but airships had carried a total of 72 people whilst aeroplanes had carried only six. More importantly, only three Atlantic airship crossings had been attempted and all of them had been successful. The same was not true for aeroplanes, which had a number of fatal failed crossings on their scorecard. 

Opening of the Royal Airship Works

Cardington, five miles south east of Bedford, is where the Shorts Brothers Engineering Company, having won a contract for the construction of an airship in 1916, set up their manufactory. The presence of numerous locally-based light engineering companies and a gentle prevailing wind were key reasons for the site’s selection. This airship base was nationalised in 1917 under the Defence of the Realm Act and renamed the Royal Airship Works.

Cardington is 44 miles north of Whitehall as the airship flies. Before you reach for your period Bradshaws, there were four weekday trains between St. Pancras and Cardington (changing at Bedford) on the Bedford-Hitchin line, or you could go from Kings Cross to Hitchin and change there. Branch line and fast London connections ranged from good to awful, and the typical journey took 1½ hours to well over 2 hours.

As a result for passengers there would likely have been a special airship train (like an ocean liner train service) to Cardington had regular airship services become the norm. Such a journey would have been about 1¼ hours. There was railway freight track right into the Royal Airship Works, which would be ideal for bringing passengers right into the base.

Cardington’s airship shed was by far the largest building in Britain at that time, and was large enough to construct and house airships to rival the largest future Zeppelins. This was crucial, as the size and range of an airship was above all limited by the size of the shed it was built in.

Imperial dreams

At the 1921 Imperial Conference proposals were tabled for an Imperial Air Service. This would service passenger and mail routes between London and key parts of the Empire – most notably South Africa, India, Australia and New Zealand.

The proposal caught the eye of aeronautical engineering firm Vickers. By 1921 Vickers had already dipped their toes into airship design with their R.80 dirigible in November of 1917. R.80 was originally designed in the traditional Zeppelin Zahn shape – cylindrical with streamlined ends – but Chief Designer Barnes Wallis2. soon decided to reshape the envelope of the airship. The result was a constantly curved, streamlined design that massively reduced air resistance.

 One of the finest aeronautical engineers of the 20th century, Barnes Wallis was also responsible for the Wellington Bomber and the ‘Bouncing Bomb.’

R-80, via the excellent

Vicker’s proposal

Sensing an opportunity, Vickers and Shell Oil floated the idea of creating a company which would build and operate a five-airship Empire service for the British government in 1922. Initially, this would fly bi-weekly to India and Australia. The airships would be about 3.8 million cubic feet in size (as large as the later Graf Zeppelin LZ.127) with a cruising speed of 55 knots (63 mph). These two companies expected that the service would lose money in its first two years, but turn a profit once construction costs and depreciation were paid off.

The proposal included stop-over bases with mooring masts, with the following timetable from London:

CitySteamship (days)Airship (days)
Bombay175 ½
Rangoon21-217 ½
Hong-Kong288 ½
Australia3511 ½

In 1923 Vickers formally proposed the plan to the Government. It was rejected, but it planted a seed in the minds of several politicians.

The Air Ministry steps in

Alongside Vickers’ efforts, the Air Ministry itself had constructed a number of airships. The largest of these was R.38 in 1921, which was part of an export order to the United States (based on the lightweight Zeppelin LZ.96 design). Tragically whilst executing a turn at full speed in calm weather, she broke in two mid-flight and fell to earth, where she then caught fire. The accident resulted in a heavy loss of life and the subsequent inquiry determined that the Air Ministry had not performed any calculations whatsoever of the aerodynamic forces acting on the ship in flight.

Rescuers clamber over the wreckage of R.38, courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center.

In turn, the Air Ministry blamed the R.38 disaster on her naval designers. R.38 had originally been destined for uS military service and they had designed the airship to German wartime specifications. Those specifications placed a strong emphasis on keeping overall weight extremely low – necessary in wartime where there was a need to avoid anti-airship fire from ground-based guns, but far less critical once R.38’s role had changed to that of a peacetime craft.

None of this should have excused the Air Ministry from performing any structural analysis of the R.38 design, nor from realising that German bombing Zeppelin had very different design needs to a civilian airship.Despite this, none of the Air Ministry officials in charge of developing were disciplined or held accountable in any way.

The Imperial Airship Scheme

In 1924 Britain elected its first Labour Government. The new Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, was keen to demonstrate the superiority of state-run enterprises. One flagship project which soon emerged was the Imperial Airship Service – a new strategic plan for airships to carry passengers, post and parcels on ‘All-Red-Routes’ linking British territories across the Empire, with London as the hub. The requirements were for two airships, larger than any existing or planned dirigibles at that time, to fly with one stop from London to India.

Alternatively known as the Imperial Air Communications Scheme, it was also in part seen as a way of binding the Empire more closely together, reduce the isolationist tendencies of some Dominions and keep the Empire commercially competitive with the United States. To many, it was the obvious way forward and would demonstrate Britain’s continuing scientific advancement and technical innovation, led by her finest engineers and minds. It was a popular scheme with cross-party support, and development continued even after the Labour government had fallen and the Conservatives returned to power.

The endeavour was the largest project of its kind, and its only competition in the mid- and late 1920s was from Germany’s smaller Graf Zeppelin LZ.127. This was planned to be the pioneer airship of a new fleet of Zeppelins which would be larger still (these eventually appeared in the mid-1930s as the Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin II).

Construction began on the LZ.127 Graf Zeppelin in the mid-1920s, after the delivery of the LZ.126 to the United States. This was the first German airship to be constructed without risk of prohibition or enforced seizure by the Allies for reparations after WW1 (LZ.120 and 121 were seized, and 122-125 were prevented from being constructed). Nevertheless the Graf Zeppelin was delayed by funding difficulties.

In August 1929, sponsored by William Randolph Hearst the US media magnate, she made the first around the globe airship flight between New York City (Lakehurst airfield is actually in New Jersey), Friedrichshafen, Tokyo via the USSR, Los Angeles and returning to New York City. There were also start and finish flights from Friedrichshafen to New York, and return.

Britain looks to lead

Graf Zeppelin’s development and global circumnavigation may have been much publicised, but Britain was set to leapfrog Germany in the airship race. Not until the Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin II seven years later would Germany construct passenger airships of similar size, range and carrying capacity to the planned British Imperial Airship fleet.

Part of the thinking behind the Imperial specification was for the airships to carry 200 soldiers and kit over long distances in case of war. Alternatively the airships could become aerial motherships for four or five biplane fighters for home defence, carried up to 15,000 feet and released to intercept enemy bombers off the coast. This was based upon plans for the R.33 to carry a parasite fighter, which was trialled a year later with a small De Havilland DH. 53 Hummingbird. The Hummingbird was successfully launched and retrieved. Full size RAF Gloster Grebes were then launched from the R.33, and returned to airfields.

R.33 with Gloster Grebe aeroplanes tethered beneath.

The Cabinet Committee appointed to investigate the airship scheme determined that this would be an ideal competition between state and private industry, so they let concurrent contracts for the private sector. Vickers were to design and construct the R.100, with the Air Ministry at the Royal Airship Works at Cardington designing and building the R.101 to the same specification.

The Imperial Airship Competition

It was felt by the Cabinet Committee that having two competing prototype designs would double the level of innovation. 

These airships were planned to be larger and more innovative than any other existing.
The Imperial Airship specification was for two airships with:

  • a structural weight not exceeding 90 tons
  • 62 tons disposable lift
  • accommodation for 100 passengers
  • fuel for 57 hours’ flight
  • a cruise speed of 63 mph (55 knots/101 kmh) and maximum speed of 70 mph (61 knots/110 kmh).

This would result in airships capable of flying from Cardington to India in six days, Australia in ten (both journeys with refuelling stops), and Canada non-stop in three.

The R.100 and R.101 each had an initial budget of £350,000 (about £26m at 2021 value), but the overall budget including research, infrastructure and flight testing was £2.4m (equivalent to an astonishing £178 million in 2021 pounds).

Airships of 5 million cubic feet of gas capacity, and approximately 735ft long, were calculated to satisfy these requirements. To put into perspective, this is only slightly shorter than One Canada Square at Canary Wharf turned on its side and three times longer than an Airbus A380.

Radical design

Neither Vickers nor the Royal Airship Works were deterred by the then-recent airship disasters of the R.38, France’s Dixmude (lost in a thunderstorm, originally the German LZ.114), or Italy’s Roma. The Roma was the world’s largest semi-rigid airship at 1.2 million cubic feet and had been sold to the US Navy and crashed apocalyptically during testing. Both British design bureaus believed that these disasters could have been prevented with better designs, and that hydrogen airship travel could be made acceptably safe.

Both the R.100 and R.101 were almost identically streamlined. They used the same principles as R.80, with long pointed tails shaped like a teardrop for maximum aerodynamic efficiency. Both ships also incorporated their passenger compartments within the airship itself. Combined, these innovations made them the most aerodynamic airships constructed to date. 

Both ships went with internal passenger and crew accommodations for a number of reasons. The original Zeppelin style gondola slung under the hull limited the configuration to a long narrow space. Moving the passenger area internally allowed a much more spacious layout, created less aerodynamic drag, and reduced the effect of passenger movement on the trim of the ship. The disadvantage was the loss of approximately 100,000 cubic feet for gas, but on the long voyages for which these ships were designed this was more than counteracted by the reduced drag and consequent fuel requirements.

On each airship, an internal gangway extended from near the nose, where the passengers boarded, along the bottom of the hull to the passenger and crew accommodations, to the fins, to the very tail where a lookout position was placed. In addition there was a two man winching position at the very tip of the nose, with a bow lookout 20 feet back to oversee the mooring approach and process. A ladder up the centre of the ship opened to a hatch to allow access to the top of the hull, from whence sextant navigation sightings were made.

A general issue with airships of that era was how best to compensate for the weight of engine fuel consumed during flight. To maintain the ship’s equilibrium as the ship becomes lighter, traditionally lifting gas was vented (ie wasted). The Graf Zeppelin used ‘blaugaz’ for fuel, chemically similar to coal gas. It was non-explosive, and because it weighed approximately the same as air, burning it and replacing its volume with air did not lighten the airship.

An elegant Imperial solution incorporated into both ships was a rainwater collection system along the top of the hull. This accumulated water ballast to compensate for the loss of weight of the consumed fuel, keeping the weight of the ship constant, and preserving the hydrogen.

To help avoid potentially dangerous storms, both ships’ control cabs were equipped with the latest radios to receive weather forecasts and conditions. They also both carried an experienced meteorologist on board and their higher maximum speeds gave them greater ability to avoid bad weather.

Telegraphs, and speaking tubes in case of electrical failure, connected the control car to the engines and other positions within the ship. 

Strategic sausage skins

Dirigibles contained very large gas cell bags, each made from goldbeater skin painstakingly sewn together from the intestines of 50,000 cattle by a Zeppelin subsidiary in Germany. Goldbeater skin is the processed outer membrane of an animal intestine, valued for its strength against tearing.

Goldbeater skins had been a major strategic material for Germany during the Great War, to the extent that occupied territories in Poland, and northern France, as well as the citizens of Austria, had been banned from making sausages so that the skins would be available for Zeppelin manufacture.

The gas bags unfortunately absorbed moisture quite readily, which weakened them and made them susceptible to rip if exposed to the wind by a break in the cover.

Safety was designed into both airships, in the form of gas bag valves and internal wiring to hold the gas bags securely in place. Shifting of airbags in turbulent air greatly magnified flight trim and control problems.

R.100 over the Canadian Bank of Commerce building in Toronto in 1930, then the largest building in the Empire. Courtesy City of Toronto.

Pressure relief valves were fitted to the gasbags of each dirigible to deal with unexpectedly large rates of ascent, set at 2,500 feet per minute, such as might be experienced near a thunderstorm. The impetus for this was the loss of the airship USS Shenandoah in such a storm in September 1925. This was a US-built airship using a strengthened version of the lightweight LZ.96 design, with German technical assistance, and operational from 1923. Its last flight had been insisted on by the Navy Department for promotional purposes, despite the poor weather anticipated. Gas bags were ruptured by excessively fast height gain, and there was also a major hull structure failure.

Stay safe

In the wake of the R.38 disaster in 1921, the Air Ministry Inspectorate introduced new rules for airship safety in 1924. These required extensive stress calculations to be performed on the ship’s structure, rather than relying on empirical data as was the Zeppelin practice.

A subsequent effect was that both R.100 and R.101 had fewer longitudinal girders to simplify the stress calculations, thereby making the structure lighter as well. The stress calculations performed by both design teams are remarkably close to modern practice.

Imperial upgrade

To house and build the new fleet, Cardington No. 1 Shed was lengthened in 1927 by 10m (30ft), and the shed from H.M. Airship Station, Pulham3., was dismantled in 1927 and re-erected at Cardington as No. 2 Shed, with additional sections added to make it as long as No. 1 Shed.

In its heyday RNAS Pulham was a major Airship station in its own right, complete with Hydrogen plant.

The Royal Airship Works itself was expanded to include a hydrogen plant, foundry, rolling mill and factory to manufacture duralumin alloy. The Meteorological Office established a Research and Forecasting Station there as well to track and predict weather conditions on the main Empire routes.

Cardington also became home to one of the most innovative docking technologies of the airship age. For the first time, an airship mast was developed to resist a pull of 30 tons in any direction, obviating the need for very large ground handling parties to bring a dirigible in to land. The 200ft high mast also contained a passenger lift which could accommodate twelve passengers at a time, as befitted the distinguished passengers expected. The Royal Airship Works mast was completed in 1926.

In the next part of this series we will look at the construction of the two airships in detail as well as their flights (planned and actual) between London and the world.

London 2026 AD this is all in the air, by Montague B Black, 1926

I flew the CF-104 Starfighter: Don’t call it the ‘Widowmaker’!


RAF fighter pilot Tom Hammond swapped his Harrier cockpit for that of the sleek CF-104 Starfighter. We met Tom to find out more.

Describe the CF-104 Starfighter in three words… 

Legendary fast interceptor. 

How did you get to fly it? 

I went on Exchange with the Canadian Air Force at CFB Baden–Soellingen (in what was West Germany) 1982-85 after two RAF Harrier tours. The conversion course was completed in Canada at CFB Cold Lake in northern Alberta. 


What’s the best thing about it? 

Pure speed and a smooth ride at low level with the small wings. 

..and the worst? 

Not enough fuel as with most aircraft meant the flight was over all too soon sometimes. 

What was its biggest achievement? 

Time to height and pure altitude records in the 60s. 

How would you rate it in the following: 

Me in “checkerbird” painted CF-104, 1983

Instantaneous turn 

Not great unless flaps were down and without tip tanks then good. 

Sustained turn 

Painting of CF-104 by Tim Nolan hangs on my wall

Again without tips sustained 7 g with some flap. Also good when supersonic. 

Climb rate 

Excellent, 20000ft within 4 miles of the runway. 

Ride at low-level 

Very smooth all the way up to supersonic even on turbulent days. 

Crew comfort  

Nice big cockpit and the comfortable absence of G suits (CF104)  

What are the biggest myths about the aircraft? 

That it was the “widowmaker”, a term hated by all who operated it. Some other aircraft were just as dangerous, and some more so although to be fair they were also single-seaters: Harrier (which I also flew) and Lightning.  

Tell me something I don’t know about the CF-104 

We used to carry envelopes full of cut-up foil as one-shot “chaff” stuck inside the speedbrakes, placed there by a brave technician after start. If not used in flight they were latterly discharged on landing as we always landed with the speedbrake out. 

What was your most notable mission or flight? 

No actual war missions. The ones I remember most were the Mach 2 run on the conversion, having the engine nozzle stick closed one day and not being able to get the speed below 300kts clean. Any range trip firing the awesome CRV7 rocket. 

What would enemy aircraft types would it likely face in war and how would it fare against them? 

In my time were up against MiG-21s, -23s primarily. We had, on 441Sqn, a secondary air defence role within the Canadian Air Group, so had the all-aspect sidewinder missiles which would have helped but ultimately running away at ultra-low level was the last resort. 

What systems or weapons did it lack? 

With Mk 82 bombs, BL755 cluster weapon, CRV7 rockets, and the 20-mm Gatling gun it was well-armed but lacked the capacity to carry a significant amount of firepower. The LW33 nav system was very good. 

Top 7 Five-engined aircraft…yes, you read that correctly

Avro Vulcan | BAE Systems | United Kingdom
We will ignore engine testbeds, like the Vulcan Avro Vulcan B1 (XA894) fitted with an Olympus 320 engine for TSR-2. Unless we get stuck.

Five-engined aeroplanes are rare beasts, and as you will shortly find out, a generally cursed form of transport. Let us know three more in the comments below and we can expand this list into a top 10.

7. FMA IA 36 Cóndor (1951)

Ok, this didn’t actually get to the prototype stage but we would be remiss to not share this incredible machine. Designed by Kurt Tank and powered by five Nenes fed by unusual annular intakes, this could have catapulted Argentina into the major league of advanced airline manufacturers. With a projected top speed of 590 mph and range of 3,100 miles it appeared to offer much. It was cancelled in 1958.

6. Caudron C.53 (1919)

Caudron C.43 L'Aéronautique January 1921.jpg

This rather handsome 8-passenger aircraft was a development of the three-engined C.39, its designer Paul Deville was clearly unaware of the curse that affects five-engined and only one was produced. Its five Le Rhône 9C 9-cylinder rotary engines combined to pump out 400HP.

5. Felixstowe Fury

Not the Felixstowe fury that occurs every Friday after pub kick-out, but the Felixstowe Fury seaplane of 1918. At its maiden flight, it was the largest seaplane and British aeroplane ever flown. The five Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII V-12 water-cooled piston engines, 334 hp (249 kW) combined to create less power than a single Spitfire Mk 24 engine. Still, different times. Only a single example of the ‘Porte Super-Baby‘ was ever made. DNA tests revealed it to be the great-grandfather of heavyweight boxer Tyson Fury.

4. Zeppelin-Staaken R.V (1918)

That strategic bombers existed in World War One with 42-metre wingspans is so weird my mind keeps blanking it out. The rather terrifying (to both opponents and crew) R.V had two engine pods, each with two engines paired, driving single propellers through clutches, gearboxes and shafts. So basically the conceptual grandad of the He 177. It also had a tractor propeller on the nose. Only one was built. It flew sixteen operational missions.

The German bombing in World War One, caused widespread terror across Britain. Though the airship raids are better known today, there was actually more raids by aeroplanes and they were responsible for the death of more British civilians. Airships made 51 bombing raids on Britain and killed 557 people. By 1917 it was apparent that airships were too vulnerable and aeroplanes took over. German aeroplanes carried out 52 raids, dropping 2,772 bombs for the loss of 62 aircraft, killing 857 people. The final and largest aeroplane raid took place on the night of 19 May 1918. A total of 38 Gotha G.Vs and three Zeppelin-Staaken R.VI Giants (a close relative of the R.V) were dispatched to attack London. A total of 49 people were killed and 177 injured that night.

3. Heinkel He 111Z Zwilling


The Messerschmitt Me 321 was a military transport glider with a wingspan as big as a B-52’s. The Germans had nothing powerful enough to tow it in to the sky so mated two He 111 together and added an extra engine. Twelve to fifteen were produced, making this the most prolific five-engined aircraft we can think of.

2. Richard-Penhoët 2

A rather unpowered twenty-passenger flying boat designed by one Lewis Quincé. Sadly, much like the owl and the pussycat, the ungrateful Richard-Penhoët 2 dined on Quincé, killing him during a test flight on the Loire estuary.

  1. Tupolev ANT-14 (1931)

“Writers build castles in the air, the reader lives inside, and the publisher inns the rent.”
― Maxim Gorky

Named for the writer Gorky, the Soviet propaganda squadron had as its flagship the enormous Tupolev ANT-14 ‘Pravda’. This vast machine was put to use publicising the achievements of the young Soviet Union. It was to transport inspiring figures like farmers who’d made their quotas and other heroes of the Revolution, as well as Moscow sightseers. It had a 40-metre wingspan and could carry up to 36 passengers, only one example was built. It enjoyed by far the longest service life of a five-engined type: It was flown for ten years during which it carried more than 40,000 passengers.

The very finest of Hush-Kit with bespoke illustrations and a generous portion of new material will be found in the gorgeous hefty coffee table book that is The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes Vol 2. Pre-order your copy here.
ANT-14 Pravda

RB-57F pilot interview: Flying high with USAF’s ultra high altitude nuclear sniffer-dog

A massively modified Martin B-57 Canberra, the RB-57F was there when America needed something done at very high altitude. Its duties were wildly varied, from photographing the eye of a hurricane to classified nuclear snooping. We spoke to former RB-57F pilot David Baird about flying this incredible machine.

The Blackbird pilot B.C. Thomas said that you were interested in talking to an F model pilot. I flew it in the early ‘70’s. I checked out at the same time as the first NASA guys and in recent years was the President of the B-57 Canberra Assn.


How high could the B-57 fly? The F’s max altitude is about 70,000 feet. Most missions were flown at a pre planned altitude, usually 55-65,000. My primary mission, “Cold Bounce “ was always at 62,000.

AttachmentsFirst color picture of the eye of a hurricane. “Beulah “ taken by 58WRS around 1967.

What was the role of the type?

To the role of the F , I can best say, varied! The primary squadron mission was radioactive sampling in the upper atmosphere. Nearly all airplanes were capable of sampling. Individual airplanes were also configured for specific programs for specific customers. Aircraft “500” which flew “Cold Bounce “ was equipped with an airborne laser package. The mission was mostly flown from Wright-Patterson AFB for the AF Avionics Lab. Other missions included photo recon, ADC Interception exercises, Earth resources, air pollution research, and some actual Weather Reconnaissance! Project Storm Fury studied thunderstorm development and dissipation. I can recall sampling and photographing a huge New Mexico cell that topped 60,000’ and was building at about 5000’ per minute! Los Alamos Scientific Labs (LASL) was our main customer and I can’t go into much detail about their projects, even now. LASL scientists flew in the back seat sometimes and I’d just fly the profile they wanted. We flew weather recon for manned space shots at Cape Canaveral and for certain other classified launches. Four times a year we flew Project Airstream. This was upper atmospheric radiation sampling during a nine-day period flying out of Fairbanks, AK, Albuquerque, Panama and Mendoza, Argentina.

Takeoffs were exciting! Try to hold the brakes while setting take-off power, release brakes and your head snapped back against the headrest. In less than 2500’ , at 120K relax forward pressure on the yoke and it leaps into the air.

At 150 knots (min single-engine control speed) push the power up to max and start pulling back, back, back on the yoke to prevent exceeding max IAS (185kias), continue climb at about 60 degrees of pitch. It would go through 50,000’ with the VVI pegged at 6000’ per minute. Landing was a bit tricky because of the tremendous amount of lift and power (even at idle thrust).

Max Mach is .80 and is super critical. Normal cruise was / is .72. About the same as a Boeing 737.

Approach speed was typically around 110 K, and touchdown 2 knots below approach. If flown faster than recommended, it would float “forever “! Brakes were the weak point in the design. No anti skid, so application had to be judicious. The entire VFR traffic pattern was normally flown at idle power, even with the gear down and spoilers open. There was also a 3 1/2 degree bank limit at touchdown to prevent wing tip runway contact. This made the crosswind limit 15 K.As You asked about handling- excellent at all altitudes. At 60,000’ it could roll right into a 45-60 degree bank turn. Stalls weren’t a problem. The nose would drop very slightly and start flying again. Over speed was a huge danger and was to be avoided. Not a big problem as long as the pilot was paying close attention.

To continue… the best thing about the program was the people! The squadron was selectively manned with all volunteers, so we had the best. We also operated more like a wing. The Commander was a full colonel, we had our own maintenance section, our own medical section with 2 flight surgeons, plans and current ops, and, of course, a large life support section to provide and maintain the full pressure suits. Everyone worked well together and were very good at their jobs!
I can’t think of anything particularly bad about the “F” other than that it was old technology as far as instruments and basic airplane systems. It wasn’t especially fast, but at our operating altitude headwinds weren’t a factor. At those altitudes, everything was critical so staying alert wasn’t a problem. .72 Mach was about 128 knots and stall speed about 118 knots (IAS).

3-word description? Really special, really spectacular! My last flight was out of Yokota on a cold winter day and went through 33,500’ 18 miles from the approach end the runway! By the way, we were at Yokota waiting to sample a Chinese atmospheric nuclear test. Jan, 1974. Everywhere we went we received wonderful support which made for effective mission accomplishment. It was a wonderful time in my life and I wouldn’t change a thing!


The Pakistani/Chinese JF-17 fighter aircraft might not have Russian origins… but it may have Romanian ones!

So how good is Pakistan's JF-17 fighter aircraft? Analysis from RUSI  think-tank's Justin Bronk | Hush-Kit

– Andreas Rupprecht

It is an old and often repeated story that the Soviet MiG Project 33 fighter design influenced the Chinese/Pakistani JF-17, and in my opinion, there is NOTHING in it. The FC-1 aka JF-17 had already well advanced through the original CAC conception, then through the Sino-US cooperation with Grumman under the Super-7 name – and finally by CAC with Pakistani participation. When the “Russians” stepped in, that at least in my opinion it was much too late to gain any substantial redesigns by adding Project 33 (often known incorrectly by its never allocated designation of MiG-33)-genes. Additionally, I’m also convinced that Project 33 ever progressed far to have anything to meaningfully contribute. All I have seen from the Project 33 are a few quite crude desk models and drawings, but I have seen no true detailed blue-print. As such, I’m quite sure, the Russian participation was to modify the airframe – eventually most of all the intake’s airflow – to fit a different engine. As such their contribution was mostly one of engine integration, similar to the integration of the AL-31FN to the J-10.

MiG-37 | Hush-Kit
Pre-order The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes Volume 2. There’s more on the MiG Project 33 in The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes Volume 1.

My main argument for this is that the external shape of the JF-17 fixed, and here I must add a rather weirder idea than Russian influence. It is barely known fcat, that China had originally its foot in the door in the Romanian IAR-95 fighter project, which was to use a WS-9 – aka a RR Spey Mk. 202 (?) – as its powerplant.

Fictional IAR-95
IAR-95 digital image from DCS

And if you compare this very early IAR-95 wind-tunnel model with an early JF-17/FC-1 wind tunnel model in Pakistan, it has at least, I’m my, opinion, more similarities (besides a different tail, saw-tooth in the wing’s leading edge and a slightly different aka lower-placed wing) than to any Project 33 model I know.

In consequence, I would rate Jane’s report as on a major Russian involvement on the design as false – and I know there is a similar claim for the J-10-Lavi connection, all based on an interview with an unknown (he wanted to remain anonymous) Russian technician, who was allegedly involved in that project.

I would say there was for sure a certain Russian involvement, but that certain engineer simply hyped up this involvement – may be to diminish the Chinese part, or to over-emphasize the Russian, or perhaps his own personal contribution – and now after decades it is a de facto accepted fact on social media and no-one is willing or even able to check the facts.