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HMA No. 1

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HMA No. 1

HMA No. 1 "Mayfly"
HMA No. 1 Mayfly at her mooring, Barrow-in-Furness
(September 1911)
Role Aerial scout airship
National origin United Kingdom
Manufacturer Vickers
Designer C. G. Robertson
Lieutenant N. F. Usborne
First flight Never flown
Status Abandoned project; airship wrecked by winds on 24 September 1911
Primary user Royal Navy

His Majesty's Airship No. 1 was designed and built by Vickers, Sons and Maxim at their works in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, England, as an aerial scout airship for the Royal Navy. She was the first British rigid airship to be built, and was constructed in a direct attempt to compete with the German airship programme. Nicknamed “Mayfly” by the lower deck (i.e. the non-commissioned component of a naval ship’s crew), she is often referred to by this name, but in public records is designated ‘HMA Hermione’, because the naval contingent at Barrow were attached to HMS Hermione, a cruiser moored locally preparing to act as her tender.[1]

When she was moved from her shed in Cavendish Dock to conduct full trials on 24 September 1911, she broke in two as a result of being subject to strong winds before she could attempt her first flight.[2] Although Mayfly never flew, her brief career provided valuable training and experimental data for British airship crews and designers.[3]


In July 1908, Captain Reginald Bacon, the Royal Navy's Director of Naval Ordnance, recommended that the Navy should acquire an airship that would compete with the success of the early German rigid airships designed by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.[4] The British Government agreed that a sum of £35,000 "should be allocated to the Admiralty for the building of a dirigible balloon",[3] and in March 1909 the armament firm of Vickers, Sons and Maxim advised that they could construct the ship for £28,000, not including the goldbeater's skin gas-bags and outer cover, for which the Admiralty was required to provide contractors, and that they would erect a constructional shed at their own expense in return for a 10-year monopoly on airship construction, similar to the submarine agreement they already had with the Crown. The contract was awarded to Vickers on 7 May 1909, with design responsibility divided between Lieutenant N. F. Usborne at the Admiralty and C. G. Robertson of Vickers; the 10-year monopoly clause was refused.[3][4]


Mayfly was intended to be an aerial scout, and was similar in design to contemporary Zeppelins, but with some major differences. She was 66 ft (20 m) longer than the contemporary LZ 6 and had a 50% greater volume, giving a correspondingly greater lift.

Zeppelins of the time had a useful load of around 10,000 lb (4,500 kg) and were capable of flying at 37 mph (60 km/h).[5] The Vickers design, designated HMA (His Majesty's Airship) No. 1, was intended to be moorable on water, carry wireless equipment, be capable of 40 kn (46 mph; 74 km/h) for 24 hours, have a ceiling of 1,500 ft (460 m), and carry a crew of 20 in comfort. The mooring was to be to a mast, a practice that the British were the first to adopt as standard, and Mayfly was the first rigid airship to be fitted with the mooring equipment in the nose of the ship.[3]

Before construction began an experimental section was constructed. This used a variety of construction techniques: one end used hollow timber spars, the centre frame used a combination of timber and aluminium and the other end used aluminium. Although wood proved the most satisfactory, the Admiralty preferred metal. In late 1909 duralumin became available, and it was decided to use this new alloy, which would allow a considerable weight saving while also forming a stronger structure.[6] The hull was made up of 40 twelve-sided transverse frames spaced 12.5 ft (3.8 m) apart: some of these were cross-braced by wires, dividing the structure into 17 bays of irregular length, varying from 12.5 ft to 37.5 ft (3.8 m to 11.4 m). The frames were connected by 12 longitudinal girders and a triangular section keel below the main structure.[7] The hull shape was based on work by the American aerodynamicist Albert Zahm, and its head resistance was claimed to be 40% of that of contemporary Zeppelins. A fully streamlined shape had been proposed, but was rejected by the Admiralty as being too difficult to construct. It was not until 1917/18 that a truly streamlined airship, the R80, was constructed.[8]

Experiments were also carried out to determine the most suitable material for the outer cover, resulting in the choice of a treated silk. The covering of the upper half was additionally treated to reduce heat absorption by adding aluminium powder to the coating. This resulted in the underside being primrose yellow and the top aluminium coloured.[9]

The design of the control surfaces were based on a design by the Short brothers and were adopted after experiments by the National Physical Laboratory, and consisted of quadruple rudders and triple elevators attached to the trailing edges of the cruciform tail surfaces, supplemented by a forward mounted triplane elevators and small triple rudders behind the aft gondola.[10]

The two gondolas were constructed of mahogany using the Consuta process and were watertight, so that the craft could be operated off water.[11] Each contained a Wolseley 160 hp water-cooled V-8 piston engine, that in the front gondola driving a pair of 11 ft 10 in (3.61 m) diameter four-bladed propellers mounted on outriggers and geared to rotate at half engine speed. The rear engine drove a single 15 ft (4.6 m) two-bladed propeller mounted at the rear of the gondola. Equipment to recover water from the exhaust gases was fitted to replace the weight of fuel as it was consumed and so avoid the necessity to vent lifting gas.[12][13]

Construction and trials

The construction shed (which doubled as a hangar) was designed by Vickers and built from the wall of Cavendish Dock at their "Naval Construction Yard" in Barrow, out to piles driven into the basin floor. It contained a float on which construction of the airship took place and which could be taken out of the shed together with the airship. Beginning in 1909, the work was due to be completed in August that year and the ship delivered two months later, but in June trouble occurred with driving the piles into the floor of the dock. Consequently, the shed was not completed until June 1910, at which point the actual construction of HMA No. 1 could begin. A screen was erected in the dock together with a newly designed 38 ft (12 m)-high floating mooring mast that was capable of withstanding a steady pull of 80 tons (81 tonnes). A large safety margin had been allowed – the maximum load the ship would exert on the mast was calculated to be approximately 4 tons (4 tonnes) in a wind of 80 mph (130 km/h).[3]

In preparation for the completion of Mayfly, crew training commenced on 25 February 1910, covering important skills such as working the rubber fabric (carried out at Messrs Short Brothers works, Battersea, London), instructions in petrol engines at Vickers works, signals, instruction in aeronautics and meteorology.[3]

An entry in Handbook for HMA No. 1 noted that:[3]

"Two crews were used to look after the ship whilst out, as the work was new. They lived on board the airship and suffered no discomfort at all although no provision had been made for cooking or smoking on board. At night the temperature of the living space was a little above that of the outside air, but as the ship proved quite free from draughts in the keel and the cabin, it was anticipated that with suitable clothing, no trouble would be experienced from the cold."

The Admiralty's officer responsible for the design of HMA No. 1, Lieutenant N. F. Usborne, was selected as her Captain.[14]

The finished Mayfly was the largest airship yet constructed.

Static trials

Static trials inside the shed began on 13 February 1911. The motors were run and controls operated, but outdoor trials could not be carried out until the weather moderated.[15]

On Monday 22 May 1911 Mayfly was removed from the shed for handling and mooring trials. It was towed stern first from her very narrow shed, then gradually swung out of Cavendish Dock and attached to a mooring mast mounted on a pontoon. While moored, nine officers remained on board (having quarters in the keel and telephone communication between the cars) to conduct engine trials, but these were cut short due to radiator problems. On the following day she was subjected to winds of 45 mph (72 km/h), and during the two nights she was out of the shed, searchlights were trained on it so that its movement could be observed. Mayfly showed no signs of rising, and it was discovered from calculations that the removal of fixtures weighing some three tons would be necessary to enable it to become airborne.[3] It was decided to return it to the shed, where with all ballast, fuel and some equipment removed it floated for approximately five hours with both gondolas around 3 ft (0.91 m) out of the water. During this time the engineers were able to perform trim trials.[3]

The most drastic of the modifications was the removal of the external keel. Hartley Pratt, a draughtsman working in another department at Vickers, calculated that this would be disastrous, but his warnings were ignored. Pratt subsequently left the company, but was re-hired to lead the design of the next British airship, the No. 9r which was ordered from Vickers in 1913.[16] Other changes included deleting the forward elevators and the water recovery apparatus. The positions of the gondolas was also reversed, the heavier forward gondola being moved to the aft position.[17] The changes resulted in the Mayfly having a disposable lift of 3.21 tons.[18]

Final outing

Mayfly emerging from her floating shed on 24 September 1911
HMA No.1 after breaking its back

Whilst under cover, an improved system was devised for removing Mayfly from the shed. This consisted of a series of electric winches that could gently ease her out, even in windy conditions, and on 24 September 1911 it was decided to move Mayfly from the hangar for full testing. Just as the nose cleared the hangar door, a gust caused the ship to roll virtually onto her beam ends. It eventually righted, but as it was being swung round so that the nose would point back out to the dock, there were cracking sounds amidships and she broke in two. At that point the centre started to rise, and the crew in the aft gondola dived overboard causing the stern to rise. Subsequent damage was caused by a bracing cable on the top of the hull, which held fast causing several frames to be severely damaged as the damaged hull was moved by the wind. There were no fatalities, and the wreck was returned to the shed the same day.[19]

A court of inquiry's conclusion was that no-one could be attributed the blame for the incident, and that it would be reasonable to support the story that the squall was to blame. It was of such a force that later ships would have also been severely damaged if they had encountered it under the same circumstances.[3] Commander Masterman is reported as stating unofficially that, "Mayfly was pulled in half by the handling party when someone forgot to release the lines that tethered the bows of the ship."[20] Furthermore, in an article entitled Twenty-One Years of Airship Progress Lt.Col. W. Lockwood Marsh wrote: "This accident, though the ship was undoubtedly weak, was directly due to a mistake in handling, one of the parties on a hawser continuing to haul in without noticing that the after car had fouled a buoy."[21]


Reginald Bacon had left the Navy in 1909 and "Jackie" Fisher, who was an advocate of airship development was no longer First Sea Lord. Winston Churchill, who became the First Lord of the Admiralty on 24 October 1911 was generally dismissive of airships, favouring the development of heavier-than-air aircraft. As a result no attempt was made to repair the Mayfly and it was left to rot in its shed.[3]

Churchill later made the following statement in House of Commons on 26 March 1913: "Altogether, compared with other navies, the British aeroplane service has started very well... I have a less satisfactory account to give of airships. Naval airship developments were retarded by various causes. The mishap which destroyed the May-fly, or the Won't Fly, as it would be more accurate to call it, at Barrow, was a very serious set-back to the development of Admiralty policy in airships." [22] And on 31 March 1913 Sir Bolton Eyres-Monsell (who would himself later become First Lord of the Admiralty) made the following comment regarding the fate of Mayfly and the lack of British airships: "The 'May-fly' broke three years ago, and nothing further has been done. In non-rigid airships, Germany has seventeen, and against that we have two very inferior ones and two on order, but we are not doing anything in this respect."[23]

Despite never having flown, the brief career of the aptly named Mayfly provided valuable technical experience for British airship designers.[3]


Data from Airships Heritage Trust,[3] Flight International[4] (sources do not agree on all values; and as Mayfly never flew, performance figures are theoretical. Engine data from Lumsden[24])

General characteristics
  • Crew: 20
  • Length: 512 ft in (156.1 m)
  • Diameter: 46 ft in (14.6 m)
  • Volume: 660,000 ft3 (18,800 m3)
  • Empty weight: 44,000 lb (19,900 kg)
  • Useful lift: 48,000 lb (21,800 kg)
  • Powerplant: 2 × Wolseley 160 hp (each driving 2 propellers), 147 hp (110 kW) each each


  • Cruise speed: 42 mph (68 km/h)
  • Range: 1,090 miles (1,750 km)
  • Endurance: 24 hours
  • Service ceiling: 1,500 ft (460 m)


  1. ^ Jarret, P., (ed.) (2002) Pioneer Aircraft; Early Aviation before 1914. London: Putnam. ISBN 0-85177-869-0, p 41
  2. ^ "Airship Breaks in Half" Popular Mechanics", December 1911, p. 773.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m HMA No. 1 "The Mayfly" The Airship Heritage Trust. Retrieved on 1 March 2009.
  4. ^ a b c "Rigid Airships HMA No 1". Flight International. 3 October 1974. Retrieved 2 March 2009. 
  5. ^ Robinson 1973, p.330
  6. ^ Robinson 1974, p. 148
  7. ^ Robinson 1974, p.147
  8. ^ Higham 1961, p. 42
  9. ^ Higham 1961, p. 44
  10. ^ Higham 1961, p.45
  11. ^ Robinson 193, p
  12. ^ Robinson 1973, pp.147-50
  13. ^ "Launch Of The Naval Airship" The Times (London). Tuesday, 23 May 1911. (39592), col D, p. 8.
  14. ^ Lieutenant N. F. Usborne Usborne family tree. Retrieved on 1 March 2009.
  15. ^ Higham 1961, p.47
  16. ^ Pugh Barnes Wallis Dambuster p 6 quoting Official History of Vickers
  17. ^ Higham 1961, p.49
  18. ^ Robinson 1974, pp. 149-50
  19. ^ Higham 1961, p.52
  20. ^ Chamberlain (1984), p. 20.
  21. ^ "Twenty-One Years of Airship Progress" Lt.Col. W. Lockwood Marsh, Flight, 3 January 1930. Retrieved on 8 April 2009.
  22. ^ Winston Churchill (23 March 1913). .  
  23. ^ Sir Bolton Byres-Monsell (31 March 1913). .  
  24. ^ Lumsden (2003), p. 232.


  • Chamberlain, Geoffrey. Airships, Cardington. Lavenham, Suffolk: Terence Dalton Ltd, 1984 ISBN 978-0-86138-025-1
  • Higham, R. The British Rigid Airship 1908-1931 London: Foulis, 1961
  • Lumsden, Alec (2003). British Piston Engines and their Aircraft. Marlborough, Wiltshire: Airlife Publishing, 2003. ISBN 1-85310-294-6.
  • Robinson, Douglas H. Giants in the Sky: History of the Rigid Airship. Henley-on-Thames, UK: Foulis, 1973. ISBN 978-0-85429-145-8.

External links

  • Airshipsonline home page, The Airship Heritage Trust
  • Balloon fabrics made of Goldbeater's skins by Chollet, L. Technical Section of Aeronautics. December 1922 PDF (472 KiB)
  • Flightglobal Archive PDF
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