ONE of the rarer acts of peace-time bravery saw the crew of the airship R33 awarded the Air Force Medal.They included George Ernest Long, whose medals and associated ephemera came up for auction at Lockdales of Ipswich on March 27.
Long, who had become a qualified balloon pilot during the First
World War and was the first civilian coxswain to HMA R100, steering
it on its first flight to Canada, was civilian coxswain of the R33
when it broke away from its mooring mast at Pulham, Norfolk on
April 16, 1925.
The accident happened only two weeks after the reconditioned R33
had left the airship shed at Cardington near Bedford - the centre
of operations for the airship industry where she had been stored
for four years - and flown to Pulham.
According to records held by the Airship Heritage Trust, on the
night of April 16 the R33 was anchored to the high mast at Pulham,
with only a skeleton "anchor watch" on board. Towards dawn gale
force winds tore the ship from the mast and it drifted backwards
with ballast tanks and one of its gas bags damaged, as well as a
buckled nose, narrowly missing the doors of the airship shed.
The crew started the engines and the ship gained height, with
two of the crew assessing the damage by crawling up the ladder to
the upper gun position, and then forward as far as they could along
the top of the hull. It was essential to prevent the forward
damaged girders from puncturing more of the gasbags.
They rigged the deflated gas cell, and the flapping envelope, as
a shield before the crew jettisoned as much equipment as possible
from the forward section to bring the ship onto an even keel.
Meanwhile HMS Godetia and the local lifeboat were dispatched
from Lowestoft as the airship drifted out across the North Sea. As
the weather took a turn for the worse, the lifeboat had to turn
back, leaving the R33 to hold its position, nose into the wind, but
unable to make progress against the storm. Headquarters kept track
via radio messages transmitted every 15 minutes to report on the
ship's condition and her position.
It took a total of five hours for the crew to bring the airship
under control, by which time they had drifted to within a few miles
of the Dutch coast.
So close had they come to ditching in the sea at one point that
the pilot, Flight Lieutenant R.S. Booth, ordered all surplus
equipment - including their parachutes - to be thrown
The weather improved and the ship hovered above the coast
overnight, setting a course for the Suffolk coast early the next
morning, where a welcome crowd had gathered to wave her on to
At 1.50pm the R33 finally appeared above the airfield where it
was eased to the ground by volunteers pulling on ropes, before
being towed back to the shed.
The R33, which was originally commissioned in 1916 and not
retired until ten years later, was the longest serving airship in
the British fleet and was also engaged in experiments that helped
to develop the later, more celebrated R101.
Long's AFM was awarded for conspicuous devotion to duty in
circumstances of exceptional difficulty and danger and came with a
1914 Star Trio and a cased and named Civil British Empire Medal,
along with a boxed 1935 Jubilee Medal and a Defence Medal in a
named box, plus original set of miniatures.
It also came with a good deal of original ephemera, including
Long's named R100 Pass for Admittance to St Hubert Airport, several
press photos of balloon 'CARD 1' from the 1951 Empire
Exhibition, for which Long was the pilot, and a photo of Long
with actor Michael York, believed to be from the 1971 film
Zeppelin, on which Long was a consultant.
Additionally, there is an original R100 souvenir pin badge and
silk ribbon for the England to Canada 1930 voyage as well as other
Estimated as one lot at £2500-3500, it took £15,500 plus 17.25%
premium. The sale totalled £288,980.
For more on airships and fascinating footage of many of them,
including the R33, visit the Airship Heritage Trust's website at
By Ivan Macquisten