From the bestselling author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist Empire of the Summer Moon comes a stunning historical tale of the rise and fall of the world’s largest airship—and the doomed love story between an ambitious British officer and a married Romanian Princess at its heart.
The tragic story of the British airship R101—which went down in a spectacular hydrogen-fueled fireball in 1930, killing more people than died in the Hindenburg disaster seven years later—has been largely forgotten. In His Majesty’s Airship, historian S.C. Gwynne resurrects it in vivid detail, telling the epic story of great ambition gone terribly wrong.
Airships, those airborne leviathans that occupied center stage in the world in the first half of the twentieth century, were a symbol of the future. R101 was not just the largest aircraft ever to have flown and the product of the world’s most advanced engineering—she was also the lynchpin of an imperial British scheme to link by air the far-flung areas of its empire from Australia to India, South Africa, Canada, Egypt, and Singapore. No one had ever conceived of anything like this. R101 captivated the world. There was just one problem: beyond the hype and technological wonders, these big, steel-framed, hydrogen-filled airships were a dangerously bad idea.
Gwynne’s chronicle features a cast of remarkable—and often tragically flawed—characters, including Lord Christopher Thomson, the man who dreamed up the Imperial Airship Scheme and then relentlessly pushed R101 to her destruction; Princess Marthe Bibesco, the celebrated writer and glamorous socialite with whom he had a long affair; and Herbert Scott, a national hero who had made the first double crossing of the Atlantic in any aircraft in 1919—eight years before Lindbergh’s famous flight—but who devolved into drink and ruin. These historical figures—and the ship they built, flew, and crashed—come together in a grand tale that details the rocky road to commercial aviation written by one of the best popular historians writing today.
About the Author
S.C. Gwynne is the author of His Majesty’s Airship, Hymns of the Republic, and the New York Times bestsellers Rebel Yell and Empire of the Summer Moon, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He spent most of his career as a journalist, including stints with Time as bureau chief, national correspondent, and senior editor, and with Texas Monthly as executive editor. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife.
“We can be grateful to S.C. Gwynne for bringing [the R101] back to life in his captivating, thoroughly researched book. Gwynne spins a rich tale of technology, daring and folly that transcends its putative subject. . . . That the ending is no surprise takes nothing from the power of his story." —New York Times Book Review
“A Promethean tale of unlimited ambitions and technical limitations, airy dreams and explosive endings.” —Wall Street Journal
"Gwynne brings this story alive with a sharp eye for detail, an engaging empathy for his characters, and a gift for storytelling second to none.” —Air Mail
“In Gwynne’s masterfully told tale, the characters behind the making of the prosaically named R101 are at least as vivid as the airship itself.” —The Advocate
“An addictive account the rise and disastrous fall of the R101 airship. Author S C Gwynne, no stranger to literary success, does a fine job in explaining the machine’s lineage, capturing the spirit of the times and something of the never-say-die attitude that persisted. A compelling read.” —FlyPast Magazine
“The tragic story of the British airship R101—which went down in a spectacular hydrogen-fueled fireball in 1930, killing more people than died in the Hindenburg disaster seven years later—has been largely forgotten. In His Majesty’s Airship, historian S.C. Gwynne resurrects it in vivid detail, telling the epic story of great ambition gone terribly wrong.” —Skybrief
"Gwynne thrillingly and meticulously documents [how] the building of R101 and the entire journey were doomed by bad decisions, inflated egos, faulty technology, and bad luck." —Stuck At the Airport
“Gwynne delivers a fascinating account of the bad decisions, distractions, naivete, and sheer incompetence behind the crash of the massive British airship R101 in a field outside Beauvais, France, in October 1930. Meticulously researched and vibrantly written, this is an immersive and enlightening account of how hubris and impatience can lead to disaster.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“S.C. Gwynne is a consummate storyteller, and his well-documented account of the 1930 crash of a spectacularly large hydrogen-filled British airship is not to be missed.” —BookPage
“A sturdy, well-paced contribution to aviation history.” —Kirkus
“Gwynne meticulously recounts the final flight of the British airship R101 and the entire zeppelin era in this engaging history. There is plenty of international zeppelin history here, but it is the personal conflicts in the R101 control room, exacerbated by Scott’s spiraling problem with alcoholism, the social context, and the near minute-by-minute presentation of the tragic flight that will capture reader attention.” —Booklist
"Gwynne’s meticulous reporting and the sweet rise and fall of his prose are a mirror to our own foibles, desires, dreams.” —Doug Stanton, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Horse Soldiers
"Aviation history is nothing less than miraculous; it took a mere sixty-three years, after all, to get from the Wright brothers to Neil Armstrong. Barely a century ago, however, our skies were filled with a bounty of gliders, biplanes, and flying boats; balloons, blimps, and zeppelins. With His Majesty’s Airship, the inimitable Mr. Gwynne explores in vivid detail how this dream bloomed, and how it, in time, fell tragically to earth. He has written both a remarkable history and an eye-opening revelation of technology’s recurrent phantasms." —Craig Nelson, award-winning author of Pearl Harbor andRocket Men