The R101 Airship

As time goes by, there are a diminishing number of people who remember the British Empire as a functioning reality. When I was a child, May 24th was Empire Day but there was no celebration of it. I just remember two thirds of the World Atlas being marked in red to indicate the extent of British dominion.

Holding the Empire together needed the latest technology and one form of transport that interested the Government was the airship. So in 1925 it created the Imperial Airship Scheme. Under this two prototypes, the R100 and the R101, were developed. Private enterprise built the R100, while the Air Ministry was in charge of the R101.

The R100 was a success, flying to Canada before the R101 was even ready. But it had petrol engines and the R101 people felt that explosive petrol in a hydrogen airship made for a potentially lethal combination. So they opted for diesel engines, which were safer but much heavier, causing problems with the airship’s lifting capacity. As an afterthought, the designers added a central section to increase the quantity of hydrogen and provide more lift. But this was only one of sundry design problems with the R101 which were not sorted out adequately, because the Air Ministry insisted it depart on time for its inaugural flight to India.

I mention this airship because it made famous one of the most preposterous women ever to come out of Ireland. Her married name was Eileen Garrett and she had the power of prediction. On three occasions, in 1926, 1928 and again in 1929, she had visions of a Zeppelin getting into trouble over central London, giving off fire and smoke. At the time she thought she was seeing the real thing, except there was no coverage of a disaster in the papers. Finally she realised it was a premonition and contacted the Air Ministry to warn them. But Sir Sefton Branker, the Director of Civil Aviation, ignored this crank – but not before she had confirmed it was the R101 and not the R100 that would be destroyed.

On 4th October 1930, the R101 left on its maiden voyage to India, heading first for Paris. At 6.30 the following morning, in inclement weather, it crash landed in France close to Beauvais with the loss of 48 lives, including Sir Sefton Branker’s. This disaster marked the end of the British airship scheme – but not before an official Court of Inquiry was held.

Two days after the crash, Eileen Garrett was the medium at a seance organised by the psychical researcher, Harry Price. Price knew a journalist writing a story about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Homes, who had recently died. Unbeknown to Eileen Garrett, the aim of the seance was to get in touch with the spirit of Sir Arthur so that the journalist could interview him. So the seance began, but instead of Conan Doyle communicating from the ‘Other Side’, Flight Lieutenant H C Irwin, the Captain of the R101, came through to Mrs Garrett to tell what had gone wrong on that tragic flight.

Irwin declared, “For heaven’s sake give this to them. The whole bulk of the dirigible was entirely and absolutely too much for her engine capacity. Engines too heavy… useful lift too small… Tried to rise, but elevator jammed..oil pipe plugged… flying too low altitude and could never rise…load too great for long flight….cruising speed bad and ship badly swinging…severe tension on the fabric which is chafing…never reached cruising altitude, same in trials. No-one knew the ship properly… weather bad for long flight. Fabric all waterlogged.. Almost scraped the roofs at Achy.”

Irwin gave technical details for forty minutes and Price’s secretary did her best to take them down in shorthand. When it was over, Price realised that this message from the dead Captain would make a remarkable revelation for the press and, being a self-publicist of the first order, Price issued the story, making Eileen Garrett a well-known name in the process. Price sent one copy of his report to Sir John Simon, Chairman of the Court of Inquiry, and another to the Air Ministry. But, inevitably, this mere ‘spirit’ testimony was not regarded as valid evidence before the Court.

Following the press coverage, a Mr Charlton of the Royal Airship Works in Bedford contacted Price for a copy of the original report and concluded it was ‘an astounding document’ complete with expert observation about construction defects that only someone with first hand knowledge of the the R101 could have known about. He concluded it really was Irwin who had communicated at the seance.

Flight Lieutenant William Wood, an airship pilot and friend of Irwin, was equally impressed by Mrs Garrett’s use of terms such as ‘strakes’ and ‘gross lift computed badly’. It was later confirmed that the fuel injection had not functioned properly and the air pump had failed, just as Irwin had claimed, and both Charlton and Wood found forty references indicating confidential and technical knowledge coming from the mouth of Mrs Garrett.

But the most impressive part of the message was “Almost scraped the roofs at Achy”. This hamlet, not far from Beauvais in France, was a tiny railway stop not to be found on any normal maps of the time. Harry Price only found it on a large-scale map used by railway staff, but Captain Irwin would have had a copy. And there it was in Mrs Garrett’s message.

This sounds a pretty convincing case of spirit communication, but there are always sceptics to assure us there was nothing remarkable in the Irwin message to suggest his spirit had survived his bodily death. But together with her other manifestations, Eileen Garrett went on to be regarded as one of the most important mediums of the twentieth century.

Born in 1893 in Ireland, Eileen was orphaned as both parents committed suicide within a fortnight of her birth. So Eileen was brought up by her aunt and uncle. Her aunt was unkind to her, and beat her. But Eileen was strong in character if not in health. From the earliest age she could see coloured auras around people, which she called ‘surrounds’, and she made friends in her home with three invisible children consisting entirely of light. Her aunt chastised her for such revelations, but Eileen persisted, and was beaten for being a liar and an ill-mannered child.

In revenge, one day young Eileen drowned some ducklings on the pond, and saw what she called “a gray smoke-like substance, rising in spiral form” from each body. So in the name of science she killed crows and rabbits to see if they did the same. But she was soon appalled by her own cruelty and became protective of animals ever after.

As a consequence of this killing spree, she was sent away to school in Dublin but, even here, was regarded as difficult and eccentric, with her nonsense about being able to see through her fingertips and the nape of her neck, and hearing music through her feet and knees. As psychiatrist Dr Jan Ehrenwald later said of this period of her life, “…her attitude to her aunt and teachers had undoubtedly a slight paranoiac colouring, whilst her claims to possess psychic or supernormal faculties may easily be regarded as symptoms of megalomania. The reported suicide of both parents would then complete the picture of a schizophrenic or paraphrenic psychosis with ideas of grandeur in an abnormal individual”.

Because of her tuberculosis, Eileen was sent to England at the age of sixteen, for the better climate, and quickly she married an older man. Although they were unhappy together, she bore two sons who both died of meningitis and another who died shortly after the birth. Again she saw the smokey substance rise in a spiral from their bodies. With her premonitions, visions, seeing auras and ability to project herself from her own body, her husband thought she was mentally disturbed and had a psychiatrist examine her. Not surprisingly, the couple divorced.

Eileen had married three times by the age of 23, always knowing it would not last. She had one daughter, Babs, who survived into adulthood. During this period of intense psychic experiences, she worried about her sanity, To cap it all, she discovered she could go into a trance. And while still unconscious, a 14th century Arab soldier called Uvani spoke through her mouth. He became her spirit guide and was anxious to prove his independence of Eileen and to show that we all survive after death. She was appalled that a spirit could invade her mind and know the details of her private life. Later, another spirit manifested through her. Abdul Latif, a 17th century Persian doctor who was concerned with healing. It seemed the line between schizophrenia and being a successful medium was very thin.

Her earliest and most important mentor was Hewat Mackenzie, founder of the British College of Psychic Science. Over five years, he trained her rigorously in mediumship, helping her conquer any schizophrenic tendencies and assisting her to develop a well-integrated personality. As a spiritualist, he saw Uvani as an independent spirit appearing through her. But despite all the supernatural experiences Eileen had over many years – including speaking with and seeing ghosts, and providing thousands of messages from the dead – she denied that Uvani was an independent entity, regarding him instead as an integral part of her own subconscious. Despite the evidence she produced, she harboured great doubts about the survival hypothesis.

Eileen had the intelligence and determination to investigate her abilities scientifically. She subjected herself willingly over many years to research by curious scientists. There is no doubt, her spiritual phenomena were remarkable. She wrote several books about her mediumship and her life.

After several engagements as a medium in the United States, Eileen Garrett finally settled in New York in 1941. It was through the generosity and stunning wealth of Eileen’s friend, Mrs Francis Payne Bolton, – who, like Rockefeller, had a stake in the Standard Oil Company – that she was able to establish the Parapsychology Foundation in 1951. This had a research library, provided grants for researchers, published journals, funded international conferences and undertook its own parapsychology research. It still exists in New York today, and is one of the reasons why Eileen Garratt remains well-known, thirty eight years after her death.

In 1957, under its research programme, she submitted herself to the Jungian psychologist, Dr Ira Progoff, for analysis. After speaking to her spirit guides at length when Eileen was in trance, Dr Progoff concluded that Eileen’s spirit controls were not the meaningless products of a deranged mind, nor spirit entities as such, but (and I quote) “symbolic forms of dramatisation by which large principles of life are made more articulate in human experience and by which our intimations of the meaning in life are made more specific”.

I confess to finding this interpretation indecipherble, but rejection of the spirit hypothesis was satisfactory to Eileen and fitted in with her own beliefs. For others who witnessed the supernormal knowledge of Uvani and Abdul Latif, this interpretation most certainly would not do.

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