Two British Airships: Past Tragedy and Future Dreams

The song “Empire of the Clouds” (The Book of Souls, 2015) portrays the disastrous maiden voyage of the British airship R101 in 1929 which resulted in the death of many. Yet, this song does much more than simply retell history. It was obviously inspired by Bruce Dickinson’s involvement with the Airlander 10-project (Hybrid Air Vehicles) – the development of a new airship in the UK featuring new technology, such as the complete lack of a supportive skeleton. The song discusses past disaster and visions for the future. It also draws attention to general aspects, such as (British) pride, loyalty, foolishness of the leading personnel in hierarchy, and the power of dreams.

British Pride and Hubris

The title “Empire of the Clouds” refers to the colonial character of the undertaking. The R101 was supposed to connect the UK with India. Dickinson compares it to a “magic carpet”, a bit of Orientalism which further underlines the aspect of colonialism. A magic object of the East, a flying carpet, is supposed to extend the ways of transport within the British Empire. An empire, which had been controlling its colonies with a navy for centuries, using the sea as a means of transport as well as intimidation, extends its grip to the skies. From now on, the Empire should be ruled via the skies as well. However, an empire that is made of clouds is something insubstantial, something likely to dissolve. And this is just what happened to the planned project. The airship has never come any further than France; airship production came to a halt after the catastrophe.

Another reference to British pride and ambition is the comparison to the RMS Titanic. Although the RMS Titanic is introduced as a means of contrast to illustrate the sheer gigantic seize of the R101, the parallels between both accidents are striking. Both vessels were destroyed during their maiden voyages, both catastrophes claimed many lives, both vessels were destroyed because their outer hulls were ripped (what Dickinson describes as “Achilles” – referring to the Achilles heel), both had never been tested at full speed before, both fell victim to fatal decisions taken by the leading personnel in the chain of command, both had successful sister ships which makes their accidents even more striking, both were considered indestructible, both were prestige objects of the UK. Both were sacrificed for ambition and pride.

This blind ambition is expressed with curse words. “To ride the storm and damn the rest…oblivion” (dots in original) illustrates foolishness which is followed by the wish to just forget about the consequences of these fatal decisions. The next example of “damn” is a direct quote of the captain who tells the coxswain where his place is. There is no need to care about trivial things such as cargo and the additional weight of the water of a downpour, because a “politician can’t be late” (most likely referring to Lord Thomson of Cardington, Secretary for the State of Air). This description implies that one did not want to postpone the voyage out of prestige reasons or out of impatience.

Those responsible for the airship are so convinced of their new invention, that they “laugh” at the possibility of an accident. “A million to one” is quoted twice, first at the beginning, when they are still laughing about it; then a second time in the middle of the song when the airship is tossed about by the violent storm. Here, it becomes a reproach: “A million to one, that’s what he said”. It has become all too clear at this point that they were given a wrong promise. A promise which will be broken. The strength of the airship to cope with a storm has been misjudged – another example of hubris.

Being a national prestige object, the airship is celebrated during its departure. The onlookers are described as “groundlings”, a term similar to “landlubbers”, little do they know of what is really going on behind the scenes. They are easily impressed while they are baptized by the water of the airship. This reference to Christian baptism hints at a fatal believe in technology, giving it the dimension of a religion. The new religion is technology; baptism is done by a new development. Even the onlookers are a part of the fatal hubris.

The descriptions of the resulting horrors are very vivid. The men are already “asleep in their graves”. The reaper “with his scythe cuts to the bone” – a literally description of the remains of the airship; it was burned in a way that only its metal skeleton remained behind. The reaper has indeed “cut to the bone”. All that remains are “just ashes”. The term “just ashes in our past” implies once more that this catastrophe is easily forgotten, something to be better ignored, an indignity not talked about.

Loyalty, the Chain of Command, and Hierarchy

The airship crew is described as “sailors of the sky”. They work in hardship. Not only are they facing sleep deprivation, they also have almost become one with the ship. Thus this extreme familiarity with the ship makes up for the loss of sleep. The sailors are driven by their loyalty to “the king and an airship creed”. The sailors are trained and hard-working men who know how to handle their ship as much as they are loyal to their craft. These loyal sailors were sacrificed by the one who should be responsible for them, the captain. The maiden flight must take place, at all costs, no matter what the outcome may be: “We must go now, we must take our chance with fate”. The last verse, which seems to be an indirect quote of the captain, implies that he was ready to take the risk of flying into a storm and to hazard the lives of his crew.

I have already mentioned that the captain does not take the information of the coxswain seriously but denigrates him instead. The curse “damn the cargo” is unbefitting for such a high-ranking command. The choice of curse language illustrates all the more that in this depiction of the events, the captain is driven by blind ambition. He has forgotten what his real obligation is: to guarantee the save passage of his airship. Ambitious leading personnel has the say over hard-working, loyal men who are willingly sacrificed. This is the worst form hierarchy can ever take on – an example of abuse of power.

The Power of Dreams

When listening to the song I could never shake the feeling that Bruce Dickinson really had stood where the R101 was built; that these lines had to be taken literally. During my investigations I soon found the affirmative. The Airlander 10 is located in the very same halls where the R101 and R100 had been constructed.

Despite the vivid description of the horrors and the tragedies, the song contains one moment of hope. Even if only ashes stay behind, the dreams are still there. Dreams never die. In the end, it was not the failed project which had killed the victims; neither was it the failed dreams; it was the fatal decisions that had been taken. Dreams have been perverted for impatience, ambition, and abuse of power. This does not mean, however, that the dreams were bad. Dreams are immortal and when they are dreamt on, they can still be used for the good. And here, the R101 gives way to the Airlander 10. The past and the present-day airship meet for a moment in their shared hangar. The dream is dreamt on in form of the new airship. Despite the tragic past, there might still be a bright future for these dreams which dreamt up the R101.

Sources

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