In 1914 the government decided to establish the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). A message was sent to the Captains of all British ships to put forward the names of suitable men to form this new aerial force. Within a few months the RNAS had 217 pilots and 95 aircraft and also the airships which had been owned by the British Army.
Britain soon realised the threat was not going to be from the air but from the sea as Germany was building a large U-boat fleet that threatened the convoys supplying much needed food and materials to the UK. But they also found that if a convoy was protected by a blimp the U-boats tended to leave the convoy alone. The Admiralty decided to build a chain of airship stations, 100 miles apart, from Cornwall to Scotland. The blimp could fly as slow as the slowest ship but was also able to accelerate if a U-boat was sighted. The blimp could spot the U-boat before the U-boat spotted the blimp. Because of this 200 more blimps were ordered.
In August 1915 two Naval Officers arrived in the North East to find a suitable site for an airship station to protect the convoys using the North Eastern ports, of Hull, Grimsby, Goole etc.
They settled on a site three miles North of Howden, between the diverging roads to Bubwith and Spaldington. The area was very flat, mainly agricultural, and subject to flooding, cutting winds and frequent fog. The 1,000 acres selected was requisitioned by the Government under the Defence of the Realm Act and all the farmers and tenants were given orders to quit. By the end of September 1915, an Admiralty construction team had started work to build what was akin to a small town. Owing to the wartime censorship, no official mention of the airship station was made until after the war.
The airship station at Howden opened in 1916. Only 3 years later, the station boasted the largest airship shed in the world - soon to be the home of the R.38. She was the biggest airship of her kind at the time. By then, around 1,000 people worked at Howden, looking after 80 airships. In the summer of 1920, Howden airship station was a hive of activity, when staff received a message from London that all work must end. The end of World War 1 meant that the military no longer required the defensive post at Howden.
As quickly as the station had grown, it reduced in size again. Only a small team, the Rigid Airship Trial Flight team under Commander E. Masterman, remained at Howden after 1920 trialling rigid airships. Earlier in the year, a detachment of United States Navy personnel had joined them to learn how to fly the R.38. The Americans had decided to buy a British airship for their Navy. The R.38 was the only airship still being built in the country. The future of the British airship industry depended on a successful sale. After completion in 1921, the R.38 was moved from Cardington to Howden where she was to be based. On the flight she suffered damage to several of the frames and required extensive repairs. When her crew attempted a high-speed turn only a few days later, she broke in two over Hull's Victoria Pier and caught fire. 44 crew - 28 British and 16 Americans - were killed. Only 5 survived. Needless to say, the US Navy decided not to purchase an airship after all.
British production seemed doomed and Howden airship station was shut down and the Air Ministry decided to sell the station. For 4 days in April 1924, the new owners held auctions and nearly everything was up for sale. The following are just some of the items taken from the bulky sales catalogue: o 65 Airship engines o 65 Storage cylinders o 150 tons corrugated iron o Approximately 65,000ft of piping o 500,000 tons of concrete and rubble. The station's church was sold for £65 (roughly £3,000 today) and was taken down and re-built in Spaldington as a Methodist Chapel. Due to the fall in scrap metal prices at that time, it was decided not to sell the number 2 Double Rigid shed or the railway track. Howden had been the Allies largest airship station and was the last airship station to close in 1921.
In 1923 Cmdr. Burney with Vickers Ltd held talks with the Conservative government, and offered to provide an airline of six airships to service the Empire routes. But soon Ramsay Mac Donald (Labour) came to power and proposed two airships, one to be built by a private company, the R100 (G-FAAV) and one by the Air Ministry, the R101 (G-FAAW) at Cardington, Bedfordshire. The team that builds the best airship would get the contract.
Commander Burney formed the Airship Guarantee Company (subsidiary of Vickers) and brought Barnes Wallis back from Switzerland in charge of the design team. Neville Schute Norway (the author) was appointed the Chief Calculator. Burney bought Howden airship station, the Number 2 twin rigid shed and the Pilot railway.
The town's fortunes took an upward turn as a large labour force, mainly recruited locally (60% female) was needed not only to rebuild and run the station but to construct a giant airship. In 1926 Barnes Wallis and his family arrived at Howden and moved into the only white bungalow on the airship station.
With the R100 nearing completion, the airship was open at weekends to the public and excursions came from far and wide on all forms of transport. People would queue from the North Howden railway station all the way to the No. 2 shed for the opportunity of walking round the giant ship and sitting in the airship's dining room. Members of the airship design staff would act as guides.
Thousands of people attended the launch on 16th December 1929. After completing its flying trials, the R100 made a successful proving flight to Canada and back to Cardington in July/August 1930.
When the R101 crashed in Northern France, on its proving trip to India, airship production in Britain was suspended and finally it was decided not to build any more airships.
Howden Airship station was sold and unsuccessful efforts were made to keep the site as an airfield. In 1933 the No. 2 rigid shed and the 'Pilot' railway line were dismantled and sold for scrap.
The southern corner of the airship station now houses Boothferry Golf Course.
(Many thanks to Ken Deacon for this description of Howden's Airship Station 1915-1930 in his book of that title - available from Howden Civic Society free of charge).