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 Beauvai. She was en route to India. Out of 54 persons aboard, everyone except six crew members were killed.
The R-101 was one of a pair of “lighter than air” airships funded by the British government. The organizations building these two dirigibles were in a sort of competition to see who could build a better ship. The ultimate aim was to produce airships for fast transport between the far-flung colonies of the British Empire. The R-100 was built by a private company and had already made a number of successful flights including a round trip journey across the Atlantic.
The R-101 was built by the British Air Ministry and was behind schedule. The original idea of the competition was to prove that the Labor (socialist) government of Ramsay MacDonald could build a better ship faster and more efficiently than one built by the private sector. So far, the R-101 (the Air Ministry’s ship) was behind schedule and over-budget and the government bureaucrats were desperate to prove that they could still build a bigger and faster ship than the private company who built the R-100. Needless to say, the failure of the R101 was an enormous embarrassment for the government bureaucrats who were backing the R-101. After the accident, they imposed a news blackout on all technical information pertaining to the crash.
Two days after the crash, medium Eileen Garret had been brought to the National Laboratory of Psychical Research in London to hold a séance. The séance had been arranged by the skeptical researcher Harry Price in an attempt to contact the spirit of the recently deceased Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes novels. It was attended by Price, his secretary and a journalist who was to record the session in shorthand and publish an article about it in a national magazine. Price had a low opinion of mediums, considering most of them to be fakes, but he had a grudging respect for Eileen Garrett. He was also a vainglorious attention seeker and probably just wanted first dibs on a posthumous interview with Conan Doyle.
Instead of Doyle, however, they heard a different voice which spoke fast, urgently and brokenly. It claimed to be the captain of the ill-fated R101, Flight Lieutenant H. Carmichael Irwin. The stenographer had to struggle to keep up. What follows appears to be part of the raw transcript of the journalist’s hurriedly scribbled shorthand notes.
“Too much for her engine’s capacity. Engines too heavy. 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…It was this that made me on five occasions have to scuttle to safety. This exorbitant scheme of carbon and hydrogen is entirely and absolutely wrong… with the new carbon hydrogen, you will be able to get no altitude worth speaking about… explosion caused by friction in electric storm. Useful lift too small. Gross lift computed badly — inform control panel. And this idea of new elevators totally mad. Elevator jammed. Oil pipe plugged … Flying too low altitude and never could rise. Disposable lift could not be utilized. Load too great for long flight. Same with S.L. 8. (Note: the SL 8 was an obscure German airship) Tell Eckener. Cruising speed bad and ship badly swinging. Severe tension on the fabric, which is chafing. Starboard strakes started. Engines wrong – too heavy — cannot rise. Pressure and heat produced explosion. Never reached cruising altitude – same in trials. Too short trials. No one knew the ship properly. Weather bad for long flight. Fabric all waterlogged and ship’s nose is down. Impossible to rise. Cannot trim. You will understand that I had to tell you. Two hours tried to rise, but elevator jammed. Almost scraped the roofs of Achy. Kept to railway. From beginning of trouble I knew we had not a chance… 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… too heavy, too much over weighted for the capacity of the engines…”
The medium, herself (Eileen Garret) was in a trance at the time and remembered nothing of the message, but Price and the Journalist were a bit disappointed that Sir Arthur had not made an appearance as planned and at first resented the intrusion of this unwanted spirit. However, upon reassessing the results, they both realized that they had unwittingly been part of a dramatic moment in psychical history.
The magazine article created a sensation and was read by, among thousands of others, one William Charlton, a supply officer for the R101 who had known the airship and its personnel well. Charlton asked Harry Price for a copy of the séance report. After studying it he and his colleagues described it as “an astounding document” containing more than 40 highly technical and confidential details of what occurred on the airship’s fatal flight, and none of which had been released to the public.
One of the most impressive things to come out of this séance was the revelation about the “added middle section” which was done in total secrecy just before the launch, and apparently never tested before the maiden voyage. It had lengthened the ship by 46 feet and added another gasbag to improve lift. Another revelation was “this exorbitant scheme of carbon and hydrogen”, since this idea to mix hydrogen gas with the aerated fuel in the Diesel engines’ carburetors was a top government secret. It appeared very evident,” said Charlton, “that for anyone present at the séance to have obtained information beforehand was grotesquely absurd.” As a result of this experience, Charlton eventually became a spiritualist himself.
Eileen Garret was not exactly a mechanical whiz-kid. She never even learned how to drive a car, and people who knew her testified about her ignorance of the technical details of modern mechanical innovations. Furthermore, the séance took place only two days after the disaster, during the government’s news blackout, and long before any technical information was released about the dirigible. No one has ever uncovered any kind of secret relationship between her and any member of the development or flight crew, and Garret was never found to be guilty of fraud in her entire fifty year career of mediumship.
Ironically, Eileen Garrett, in a séance done months earlier had received a warning from a deceased aviator named Raymond Hinchliffe that the R101 was destined for disaster. She had attempted to pass this on to a key air ministry official, Sir William Sefton Brancker. However, Brancker disregarded the warning, and was later found among the dead.