R-101

On October 5, 1930, at 2:05 in the morning, the 777-foot British dirigible R-101 crashed in flames in the woods near the French town of Beauvais, en route to India. All of the passengers and most of the crew perished, and British airship production suffered a setback from which it never recovered.

Two days later, the London medium Eileen Garrett, while in a trance, began to convey messages purporting to come from Lt. H.C. Irwin, who had died aboard the R-101. In jerky, staccato utterances typical of his speech pattern in life, "Irwin" said, "The whole bulk of the dirigible was entirely and absolutely too much for her engine capacity. Engines too heavy. It was this that on five occasions made me scuttle back to safety ... Useful lift too small. Gross lift computed badly – inform control panel ... Explosion caused by friction in electric storm. Flying too low altitude and could never rise. Disposable lift could not be utilized ..."

So began one of the most fascinating and convincing episodes in the history of psychic research, an episode ably chronicled by John G. Fuller in his 1979 book, The Airmen Who Would Not Die. Fuller’s book, extensively documented and written in a crisp, novelistic style, is now out of print but is well worth tracking down.

The voice of "Irwin" continued, speaking almost faster than the stenographer present at the session could take it down:

"Load too great for a long flight ... Cruising speed bad, and ship badly swinging. Severe tension on fabric, which is chafing. Starboard strakes started. Engines wrong – too heavy – cannot rise ... Never reached cruising altitude. Same in trials. Too short trials. No one knew the ship properly.

"Airscrews too small. Fuel injection bad and air pump failed. Cooling system bad. Bore capacity bad. Next time with cylinders but bore of engine 1,100 cc’s, but that bore is not enough to raise too heavy load and support weight. It had been known to me on many occasions that the bore capacity was entirely inadequate to the volume of structure. This I had placed again and again before engineer, without being able to enlarge capacity of Diesel twin-valve ...

"But the structure no good. That actually is the case, not gas did not allow mixture to get to engine – backfired. Fuel injection bad ... There was not sufficient feed. Leakage. Pressure and heat produced explosion ...

"Weather bad for long flight. Fabric all water-logged and ship’s nose down. Impossible to rise. Cannot trim ... At inquiry to be held later, it will be found that the superstructure of the envelope contained no resilience, and had far too much weight in envelope ... The added middle section was entirely wrong. It made strong but took resilience away and entirely impossible. Too heavy and too much overweighted for the capacity of the engines ..."

Over the next few months, Eileen Garrett continued to receive alleged communications from Irwin and other R-101 crewmembers. While the first séance took place in the presence of psychic researcher Harry Price, the remaining ones involved a different sitter, Maj. Oliver Villiers, himself a friend of Irwin and an expert in aviation (though not in the field of dirigible design).

Collectively the transcripts of these seances contain some of the most compelling evidence ever assembled for communication with the dead. Included in the messages received by Eileen Garrett are technical details about the R-101’s design and construction, recollections of test flights, discussions of political pressures and unrealistic deadlines that plagued the project, and a description of the crash itself and its causes. The personalities of the dead airmen also came through in recognizable detail. In one instance Villiers asked the communicating entity to identify itself, at which point the voice replied, "Use your damned intelligence!" – a catch phrase used by Sefton Brancker, who had died in the crash.

Indeed, the personalities of the men emerged so clearly that Villiers, who had several sessions with Garrett, eventually fell into conversing with his old friends as if they were in the room with him.

Garrett’s seances, held in broad daylight in a room designed by Harry Price to be a sealed, deceit-proof environment, yielded so much detailed, factual information that Villiers was moved to present the transcripts to Sir John Simon, in charge of the government’s investigation into the crash. This was a bold decision on Villiers’ part, one that could have jeopardized his career if Simon had looked unkindly on the idea of combing through the transcripts of seances for clues. Yet Simon handled the material respectfully and followed up on leads suggested by the communications.

Working independently of Villiers, Harry Price had the transcript of his single session with Garrett analyzed by Will Charlton, supply officer at Cardington, where the R-101 was built and tested. Charlton’s meticulous analysis revealed that the majority of the information was accurate.

"Irwin" said: "The whole bulk of the dirigible was entirely and absolutely too much for her engine capacity ... Engines too heavy ... Useful lift too small ... Gross lift computed badly." All of these comments were correct.

"Flying too low altitude and could never rise ... Disposable lift could not be utilized ... Load too great for long flight." Many witnesses observed that the R-101 was flying low. The ship dumped half its ballast just to escape from the mooring tower, and heavy rain that night would have added more weight to the vessel.

"Weather bad for long flight ... Fabric all waterlogged and ship’s nose is down ... Impossible to rise ... Cannot trim ... Almost scraped the roofs at Achy." The trip took place in a driving rainstorm with high winds. The R-101 was seen flying with its nose angled downward. Charlton noted, "Achy is a small village, 12 ½ miles north of Beauvais, and would be on the R-101’s route."

Much of the information was outside the province of any layman.

"Irwin" said: "Starboard strakes started." The word "strakes" was a technical term known only to experts.

"Airscrews too small." Charlton felt that this was likely to be correct, and noted that the airscrews used on the R-101 were smaller than those originally planned.

"Next time with cylinders but bore of engine 1,100 cc’s ..." Charlton noted that this would be correct if the term "cubic inches" was substituted for "cubic centimeters" ("cc’s").

"... the bore capacity was entirely inadequate to the volume of structure." Charlton noted: "This language is technically correct and might have been Irwin’s opinion [emphasis in original]. It is an opinion that could only be expressed by an expert in the subject ..."

"... it will be found that the superstructure of the envelope contained no resilience and had far too much weight." Charlton found this accurate, saying, "It was the most rigid airship that had ever been constructed."

"The added middle section was entirely wrong. It made strong, but took resilience away and entirely impossible. Too heavy and too much overweighted for the capacity of the engines." The R-101 had been expanded to 777 feet by the additional of a new "middle section" only a few months before the flight. This addition greatly complicated the craft’s handling and may well have contributed to the crash.

In some instances, the information was unknown to anyone who had not been part of the Cardington team.

The "Irwin" voice: "This exorbitant scheme of carbon and hydrogen is entirely and absolutely wrong." This appears to be a reference to upcoming experiments involving a mixture of oil fuel ("carbon") and hydrogen. These experiments, in the planning stage at Cardington shortly before the R-101’s crash, were not reported in the press; only project team members, like Irwin, knew about them.

"Too short trials ... No one knew the ship properly." The abbreviated test period was a concern of those working at Cardington, but was unknown to the public at the time of the séance.

"It was this that made me on five occasions have to scuttle back to safety." True – Irwin had cut short several test flights because the ship was too heavy. The press had not been told of these failures.

The Villiers transcripts, which were not seen by Charlton, offered an equal wealth of technical detail, as well as personal observations. Among these was the claim by a voice representing itself as another crewmember, Lt. Cdr. Atherstone, that he had kept a secret diary recording his worries about the R-101 program. When official inquiries were made of his widow regarding this diary, she insisted she had never heard of it. But years later, in 1967, Mrs. Atherstone produced the diary, which was found to contain exactly the kinds of private worries mentioned by the "Atherstone" voice nearly four decades earlier.

In the face of this considerable accumulation of evidence for the genuineness of the Price and Villiers communications, it would seem that a powerful case for the continuation of life after death had been made. Indeed, many of those who participated (sometimes reluctantly) in the seances or in subsequent analysis of the transcripts came to this conclusion – among them, William Wood, a pilot and outspoken atheist who wrote for the magazine The Freethinker, and who startled his readership by declaring his belief in an afterlife after studying the messages.

And yet, in the field of psychic phenomena, nothing is ever cut and dried. There are always objections to be lodged, skeptical arguments to be advanced. The R-101 case is no different. A good summary of these objections is found in the book Psychic Detectives, by Jenny Randles and Peter Hough.

"Critics [say the authors] claimed that the matter was not so clear cut. It emerged that Will Charlton was not an ‘expert’, but someone in charge of stores and supplies at Cardington. He was also a spiritualist. One of those challenging Charlton’s views was Archie Jarman, whom Fuller credited as knowing more about the subject than any other living person ...

"While Jarman was compiling a report on the R101 affair in the early 1960s, he consulted his own experts: Wing Commander Cave-Brown-Cave, who had been closely involved in the airship’s construction, and Wing Commander Booth, who had captained the R100 [a different airship] on its Montreal flight. Booth said, ‘I have read the description of the Price-Irwin sequence with great care and am of the opinion that the messages received do not assist in any way in determining why the airship R101 crashed.’

"As for the Villiers sequence, Booth commented: ‘I am in complete disagreement with almost every paragraph ... the conversations are completely out of character, the atmosphere at Cardington is completely wrong, and the technical and handling explanation could not possibly have been messages from anyone with airship experience.’ ... From what was supposedly said during the seances, the officers knew they were setting off on a suicidal mission before the airship had left England. Writer Edward Horton argues that if this was really the case – and there was no indication of this before the seances – all Irwin had to do was turn the airship around and, with the wind behind them, limp back to Cardington."

Superficially this seems like a convincing rebuttal of the R-101 case. But in fact many of the arguments summarized by Randles and Hough are spurious. Let’s look at them one by one.

"Will Charlton was not an ‘expert.’"

While Charlton was not an engineer himself, he did know all the engineers who had built and tested the airship. He shared the transcripts with them, obtaining their input in addition to his own.

Charlton "was also a spiritualist."

He was not a spiritualist at the time he reviewed the transcripts. Later on, after becoming convinced that the dead airmen had made contact through Garrett, hebecame a spiritualist.

"One of those challenging Charlton’s views was Archie Jarman."

This does not seem to be accurate. It is true that Jarman did not find the Villiers transcripts useful, because Villiers had jotted down incomplete notes and later supplemented them by memory. Jarman felt that this method opened up too many possibilities for unconscious distortion or embellishment of the material. (He may have been too hard on Villiers, who was known for his prodigious and retentive memory, a faculty still intact when John Fuller interviewed him at the age of 91.) In any case, Jarman assessed the Price transcript (the one reviewed by Charlton) quite differently. Because these notes had been taken down verbatim by a trained stenographer, he judged them to be a reliable record of the séances – and he felt they did provide important evidence about the fate of the R-101b that could not be obtained through normal means.

"Booth said: ‘...I am of the opinion that the messages received do not assist in any way in determining why the airship R101 crashed.’"

Booth’s statement, as reported, is puzzling, because whatever anyone thinks of the messages’ provenance, they surely do provide a viable theory (at least) of the R-101’s crash. The scenario is as follows:

1) The airship was overloaded and underpowered, hence unable to achieve sufficient altitude ("The whole bulk of the dirigible was absolutely and entirely too much for her engine capacity ... Useful lift too small ... Flying too low altitude and could never rise ... Never reached cruising altitude," said the "Irwin" voice).

2) High winds caused the chafing of the gas-bag compartments, one of which eventually ruptured ("Severe tension on the fabric which is chafing," said "Irwin.").

3) The rupture of this bag allowed the wind to penetrate the vessel, subjecting it to further strain as it twisted against itself.

4) This twisting caused structural damage.

5) The airship, having lost structural integrity, lost altitude. Because it was flying low to begin with, it didn’t have far to fall, and there was no time to execute emergency maneuvers like dropping the ballast.

6) At this point, one or more explosions occurred. They were set off by

a) the release of static electricity from the hull when the ship hit the ground ("explosion caused by friction in electric storm");

b) the backfiring of an overtaxed motor ("... backfired. Fuel injection bad."); or

c) electrical shorts produced by structural damage ("Pressure and heat produced explosion.").

Quite possibly two or even all three of these causes were responsible.

7) The explosions set fire to the huge amount of the volatile hydrogen gas inside the craft, quickly reducing the R-101 to cinders.

This scenario not only is plausible, but closely matches the official results obtained by a government inquiry into the crash. How Booth could say that the transcripts were of no value in explaining the disaster is therefore something of a mystery.

"Booth commented: ‘...the conversations are completely out of character, the atmosphere at Cardington is completely wrong ...’"

Yet Charlton and Villiers, who worked at Cardington and knew the crewmembers, assessed the conversations quite differently. And there does not seem to be any doubt that "the atmosphere at Cardington" was one of political infighting, impossible deadlines, and desperate shortcuts, just as the messages suggest.

"Booth commented: ‘... and the technical and handling explanation could not possibly have come from anyone with airship experience.’"

But equally knowledgeable aviation experts like Lord Dowding, Commander-in-Chief of the (British) Fighter Command in World War II, and Sir Victor Goddard, former commander of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, were favorably impressed with the technical accuracy and evidential value of the transcripts.

"From what was supposedly said during the seances, the officers knew they were setting off on a suicidal mission before the airship had left England. Writer Edward Horton argues that if this was really the case – and there was no indication of this before the seances ..."

Actually, more than one crewmember expressed reservations about the flight. On the day of the flight, Brancker told Villiers, "I have had several talks with Scott and Colmore [other crewmen]. They’ve become more and more uneasy at the prospect of this journey to India. In their opinion, the ship is not really airworthy." Another witness also reported that Brancker was unusually nervous that day. The Atherstone diary, mentioned above, confirms that the R-101 crew were well aware of the risks of the flight.

If "the officers knew they were setting off on a suicidal mission ... all Irwin had to do was turn the airship around and, with the wind behind them, limp back to Cardington."

This objection was answered in the seances themselves, when it was explained that, for political purposes, it was thought necessary to start the much-ballyhooed trip to India by crossing the English Channel. The airship could then be docked in France, and the cancellation of the rest of the trip could be blamed on bad weather. This compromise was a way of saving face, both for the British government, which had invested two million pounds sterling in the project, and for the R-101 program itself, which was dependent on political goodwill for continued funding.

The scheme, while desperate, was not necessarily "suicidal." In fact, the airship did make its way across the Channel before suffering irreparable damage. Had the forecast of twenty- to thirty-knot winds proved accurate, the R-101 probably would have docked safely in France. Unfortunately, the winds blew at forty to fifty knots, conditions the crew could not have anticipated when starting out.

If the bulk of these objections are spurious, do we then have an incontrovertible case of after-death communication? Regretfully, I have to say no. While I find the R-101 case extremely powerful, I would not classify it as airtight. There are still legitimate areas of doubt. Here are a few things to consider.

First, although John Fuller did an excellent job in researching and writing The Airmen Who Would Not Die, his credibility is not unimpeachable. He had earlier writtenThe Interrupted Journey, a bestseller about the alleged UFO abduction of Betty and Barney Hill. The Hill case has been well addressed by skeptics and, in my opinion, offers little if any evidence of an extraterrestrial encounter.* If Fuller could be favorably impressed by the Hills’ dubious claims, perhaps his journalistic hardheadedness is open to question in the R-101 case, as well.

Second, some technical details conveyed in the seances were wrong. These errors perhaps can be accounted for by miscommunication or mistakes in transcription, but they should not be glossed over. Villiers distinctly heard mention of "altimeter springs" on two occasions, but the R-101’s altimeters had no springs. "Irwin" mentioned a gas indicator rising and falling throughout the flight, but Booth says that there was no such gauge onboard.

Third, we have to remember that both the Price session and the Villiers sessions involved the same medium, Eileen Garrett. This is not too surprising, since Garrett was the most famous medium in England, and considered the most powerful by those who believed in her abilities. Still, while no taint of fraud was ever attached to Garrett in her long career, it is fair to say that the communications would have been more impressive if two, three, or even more mediums had been involved. Cross-correspondences among various mediums provide the strongest evidence of genuine paranormal phenomena but, except for some marginal communications reported by other mediums, are lacking in this case.

Finally, there is the fact that the R-101 program had been heavily covered in the press. It is conceivable that some of the technical details and other information conveyed by Garrett were known to her, if only subconsciously. Militating against this idea is the fact that Garrett was hardly a technical whiz. She never owned a car or even learned to drive, and, according to Jarman, who knew her well, she was entirely uninformed about mechanical principles. Even so, is it possible that Garrett pulled the necessary facts out of her own subconscious or, via telepathy, out of the minds of the sitters participating in the sessions? This hypothesis would not explain all the data that came through, but might cover some of it.

The bottom line is that no single case can establish the validity of a phenomenon like mediumship. What is impressive, as John Fuller and many others have pointed out, is the cumulative weight of hundreds, even thousands, of well-documented communications that have been received over more than a century of research. Even acquiring an overview of this mass of material is a large job, but a rewarding one. Those who would like to begin can find no better place to start than in the rainswept woods outside Beauvais, early in the morning of October 5, 1930, when the R-101 met its fiery end.

----------------

* Among other objections, skeptics point out that the bulk of the Hills' testimony was recovered under hypnosis, an unreliable method that often produces false memories. Other alleged memories of the abduction surfaced in Betty Hill's dreams, which she related to her husband, perhaps influencing his recollection. The story changed over time; in Mrs. Hill's dreams, the aliens appeared human, but years later, under hypnosis, she remembered them as having bulbous heads, wraparound eyes, and lipless mouths. In her early hypnosis sessions, Mrs. Hill said that one alien spoke English with an accent; later she said that he communicated without speaking, via telepathy. Many details of the encounter are reminiscent of 1950s and '60s science-fiction dramas, and Barney Hill's description of the aliens closely matches an extraterrestrial depicted in an episode of The Outer Limits that aired a couple of weeks before the hypnosis sessions began.

References:

John G. Fuller, The Airmen Who Would Not Die, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1979

Jenny Randles & Peter Hough, Psychic Detectives: The Mysterious Use of Paranormal Phenomena in Solving True Crimes, Reader’s Digest Association, 2001

* * *

Update, October 15, 2003: Recently, while searching the Web, I noticed a few references to a 1984 book called Psychic Paradoxes by John Booth. It was said to provide "fresh, penetrating insights" into paranormal phenomena. But what really caught my eye was this promotional claim: "Booth's eye-opening, first-time explanations for the baffling R101 tragedy seance [and other mysteries] are revealed."

An explanation for R-101? This I had to read. On the Web, I tracked down a secondhand copy of the out-of-print book, supposedly in "fine" condition, and ordered it. I admit I had some trepidations about spending $15 on this item. Psychic Paradoxes was published by Prometheus Books, a small publishing house founded by rationalist philosopher Paul Kurtz, who also was instrumental in founding CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, a zealously skeptical organization. Prometheus Books is known for putting out a large number of anti-paranormal and anti-religious tracts, many of which seem to be hastily written and indifferently edited. Nevertheless, Psychic Paradoxes might be different. I owed it to myself, and to my millions -- okay, dozens -- of fans, to find out.

The book arrived about ten days later. It was not in "fine" condition. It looked as if someone had left it out in the rain and then peed on it. But it was readable. I turned to the index, and found that the R-101 tragedy was economically covered in just four pages. Booth spends the first couple of pages recounting the events in minimal detail. He then presents the groundbreaking theory which will explain it all.

Eileen Garrett, he tells us, was "a woman of abiding curiosity. Copies of the aircraft blueprints could have been slipped to the psychic long before the tragedy. Her friendships in high places were numerous. Security was not tight in that period of euphoric peace. The entire nation was fascinated by the construction of this new marvel of the airways.

"We are aware that she had followed its building. In his book Eileen Garrett and the World Beyond the Senses, Allan Angoff ... reveals that 'she had predicted (the R101 tragedy) long before the dirigible crashed in France.' Others who had studied its construction carefully, perceived dangerous potential flaws.

"The medium was a brilliant woman. Her subsequent career as a psychic researcher, publisher and administrator, both in Britain and the United States prove this. She could deduce accurately the probable sequence of fatal events by piecing together newspaper reports, checking back over her earlier investigations and perhaps even discussing the matter in seeming innocence with a valued technician friend from the airdrome.

"Preliminary trial flights of an airship, short ones, reveal defects that assist postmortem verdicts. Garrett's confidante [sic], perhaps noting later how she had picked his brain, would hardly dare to reveal the true source of some seance information. His own employment and standing would be jeopardized and a friend's reputation disintegrate."

The rest of Booth's treatment of the R-101 mystery consists of a brief discussion of a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes written by Clifford Irving, and the well-known Piltdown Man hoax. These cases prove that people can be fooled.

Now, when I read this, I have to confess that I became very excited. I felt I had just received a revelation of startling import and potentially life-changing implications -- namely, that I should never, ever, ever again buy anything published by Prometheus Books.

I also realized that Booth had proved his case conclusively in at least one respect. It is possible for people to be fooled. Case in point: I had been fooled into purchasingPsychic Paradoxes.

It's probably a waste of precious computer pixels to spend much time rebutting this remarkably dumb argument. A few points might be noted.

1. Eileen Garrett had indeed heard of the R-101 program before the crash. Everyone in Britain had heard of it. It attracted as much public interest as America's Apollo program of the 1960s. But the technical details of the airship's construction were never published, and the average person knew no more about the fine points of dirigibles than the average American in the 1960s knew about rocketships.

2. Garrett did indeed claim to have foreseen the crash. She made no secret of this, and it was mentioned in John Fuller's book and many other places. No one has ever made much of it. Psychics are always getting (or claiming to get) premonitions.

3. Garrett did have "friendships in high places." She was a member of London's literary arts community. Numbered among her friends were such luminaries as James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw. There is no reason to think that she ever hung out with aeronautical engineers, or that there was any overlap between the literary and theatrical circle in which she moved and the tightknit fraternity of engineering experts working on a secret government project.

4. Garrett was undeniably "a brilliant woman." And she was certainly successful as a psychic researcher, publisher, and administrator. None of these talents would qualify her for the job of "piecing together newspaper reports [and] checking back over her earlier investigations" (what investigations?) to deduce anything about the mechanical failure of an airship. Garrett's brilliance did not lie in the area of mechanics or engineering. She never even learned how to drive a car, and her ignorance of all things mechanical was well-known.

5. Could Garrett have had "a valued technician friend from the airdrome" who served as a secret confidant? Well, this claim is certainly impossible to disprove -- since if the relationship was secret, then by definition it was never found out. Is there any evidence that she had such a relationship? No. Was the possibility ever raised at the time? Yes. Her statements about the crash were sufficiently specific to arouse the suspicion of the government, which send agents to investigate Garrett. No link between her and the R-101 project or any of its participants was uncovered.

But maybe the investigators just weren't good enough, or Garrett was too clever for them. She would have to have been very clever indeed. Presumably, according to Booth's "theory," she was smart enough to anticipate that the dirigible would crash in the near future. She decided she could use this event to enhance her reputation as a psychic. To pull off her scheme, she had to befriend a technician working on the top-secret project and obtain classified information from him, even including blueprints! She then had to use her formidable intelligence to anticipate how the crash would occur - employing a chain of deductive reasoning that was apparently beyond the capabilities of the engineers themselves. She also had to learn all the relevant technical jargon so that she could recite it in her seances. Moreover, she had to be so fluent in her use of this jargon and so knowledgeable about the underlying concepts that she could engage in extended, highly technical dialogues with an aeronautics expert. She accomplished this feat despite the fact that at no time in her life, before or since, did she show any interest in or knowledge of mechanics. She also had to learn so much about the deceased crew members' mannerisms, vocal inflections, and turns of phrase that she could impersonate them well enough to fool someone who had known them in life.

All this is plausible, Booth suggests, because, after all, people were fooled by Clifford Irving and by the Piltdown Man.

If anyone from Prometheus Books is reading this, could I please get my $15 back? 

Entire site contents © 2017 Michael Prescott. This site is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program.