The Hot Air of Private vs. Public

Many libertarians are already convinced that the private market can do anything the government can do, only more efficiently. There’s the historical example about Lysander Spooner outperforming the US Postal Service in the 18th century. Wherein he was so efficient at delivering the mails at a cheaper rate and to his customers’ front door, that the US government outlawed the private market from competing with the post office. Ergo, private parcel companies like UPS and FedEx are not allowed to deliver first class mail, by law. Not surprisingly, when you have a monopoly the first thing to go is quality of service.  The US Postal Service recently announced that your mail will no longer be delivered to your front door. But, there’s another story of private vs. public that is little known. It takes us across the Atlantic, to the UK to be more exact.

The British Airship Scheme

Back in the early 20th century, when air travel was just getting off the ground, the British government created The British Airship Scheme in 1922, in order to catch up with the Germans and French, in the airship race. The newly elected labour government appointed Lord Thomson as air minister and began to plan the construction of three airships. The first two were to be designated R-100 and R-101. Although funded by the British taxpayers, R-100 was privately designed and constructed. It successfully took to the sky December 16th, 1929. Unlike the standard airship with the passenger cabin attached to the bottom of the huge gasbag, these ships were designed with the passenger cabin within the gasbag. The idea was to create lower wind resistance and better performance. But these ships were huge. Big enough for the Titanic to take a bath inside the airframe.

The goal was to have the British government provide its own air service to India and Canada. Against the advice from the engineering team who had doubts that the airframes could endure such an arduous journey, the R-100, adhering to its contract, set off for Canada on the 29th of June, 1930. Flying against the wind, it arrived some 78 hours later in Quebec. After touring around Canada, she set off on the return voyage for the UK. With the aid of a tailwind, she arrived some 57 1/2 hours later. Success!

At First, You Don’t Succeed

The government designed and constructed R-101 was another story. The airbag was too small and its maiden voyage was unsuccessful. Actually, R-101 couldn’t even take off correctly. Back to the drawing board. The pressure was on for the public sector team. They decided to lengthen the airframe, add to the size of the front airbag (made of oxen entrails) and attach more linen to the existing fabric.

On June 23rd, 1930, while the R-100 was on its way to Canada, the R-101 was being towed from the shed for test flying. A 140-foot long tear was discovered on the upper right side. The same area where the “extension” was inserted into the airframe. It was quickly mended and R-101 took to the sky. The crew complained she was “flying heavy” and fuel oil was jettisoned to lighten the load. R-101 made several test flights over a three day period. Unfortunately, many shortcuts were made and inspections weren’t performed in order to keep up with the private team. Plans were drawn up for R-101 to make the flight to Karachi, with an en route fuel stop.

On October 4th, 1930 the R-101 departed for Karachi. Among the passengers were Air Minister Lord Thomson along with other VIPs of the British Air Ministry. The weather was light rain but forecasts, although inaccurate, were calling for clearing skies over France. As she set off, unknown to the crew, the tear in the linen reappeared. Bucking wind and rain made the front canvas tear ever more, exposing the oxen gut airbags in the forward section of the airship. Despite an in-flight engine repair, R-101 crossed the channel and entered the French airspace. The captain complained that she was “flying heavy” again. Unaware to the aircrew, the forward gasbags began to leak due to chafing against the airframe in the wind and rain. The R-101 began nosing down. The crew recovered the airship, but only temporarily. There was nothing the crew could do the second time she nosed down. The captain ordered engines to be slowed as she headed for the ground. Of the 54 passengers, 48 died. In a macabre Frankenstein’s monster sort of way, Air Minister Lord Thomson was killed by his own creation.


So, why no mention of R-102? She was never built. The Air Ministry called a halt to the British Airship Scheme and unfortunately, the successful R-100 was scrapped. Many details were left out of this story, but you get the idea of the underlying public vs. private debate. The private team utilized the best designers and engineers in the industry. They set the tempo on construction, test flights and wouldn’t set off for Canada without a proper inspection. In short, the public team did just the opposite. A catastrophe in the making.

Yes, this is just anecdotal. Nevertheless, history is replete with such stories where the private sector outperforms the public sector. Such incidents can give you a new way to look at the story of mankind. Had R-100 not been scrapped could the British airship service be successful? Probably not. Airships were an expensive, hazardous and an unreliable way to travel. The airplane was quickly being developed by this time and WWII gave us large passenger aircraft anyway. Thanks to the one thing the government does better than the private sector, make war.



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