Cardington is however indelibly linked with one of British aviation's greatest disasters. It was inside the immense interior of Hangar 1 that the R101 airship was constructed in the late 1920s, and from the airfield outside, she set off on her maiden voyage in 1930 - a journey that was destined to end in disaster.
At the time of its completion, the R101 was the largest man-made object ever to fly and was intended as a symbol of Britain's engineering prowess. For her maiden voyage, which was scheduled for 28 September 1930, it was decided that she should fly the Secretary for Air, Lord Thomson, and several other dignitaries to Karachi and back. On his return, Thomson would then be able to trumpet the superiority of British technology to Commonwealth heads of state at the Imperial Conference, due to take place in London on 20 October 1930. Technical setbacks and adverse weather conditions meant that her maiden flight had to be delayed several times. With the conference date rapidly approaching, Thomson grew ever more impatient, and official pressure was brought to bear on the crew and technical staff. Despite the fact that several of them had grave reservations about her worthiness for such a long flight, at 6.24pm on 4 October 1930, the R101 set out on her maiden voyage under the command of Flight Lieutenant H. Carmichael Irwin.
On board were 54 crew and passengers, including Lord Thomson and Sir Sefton Brankner, the Director of Civil Aviation. In the early hours of 5 October, after flying over Beauvais, north-west of Paris, the R101 suddenly dived twice, and then crashed in flames, killing 48 of the people on board. They now lie buried in a communal grave in Cardington Cemetary, across the field from the giant hangar where the R101 was constructed and from where they left on the ill-fated voyage.
The hangars and the airfield have long been reputed to be haunted by crewmembers of the R101. Security guards patrolling the site at night have encountered all manner of inexplicable phenomena, while their dogs often behave very strangely around the giant hangars. Even in daylight, the hangars can give off an oppressive and eerie aura.
The disaster is renowned in spiritualist circles for another reason. Several days after the disaster, a group of people gathered at the National Laboratory for Psychical Research in London to attend a seance with the medium Eileen Garrett. Their intention was to contact Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had died three months before. However, instead of the spirit of Conan Doyle, Garrett reached the dead captain of the R101, who went into a great deal of technical detail about the ship and the cause of the crash. When news of the seance appeared in the press, it caused a sensation. Several military officials took an interest, among them Major Oliver Villiers, who attended several further seances with Garrett. At these meetings, Irwin and other passengers and crew came through to provide details of the final moments of the R101. Villiers was so convinced that he had communicated with Irwin that he presented the evidence he had gathered at the seances to Sir John Simon, who was heading the investigation into the disaster. Simon, however, rejected it because testimony from the dead was inadmissible in a court of law.
Perhaps the last word, though, should go to Major G.H. Scott, another crewman who perished in the disaster. In the course of one seance, he announced, "Villiers, it's all too ghastly for words. It's awful. Think of all the lives, experience, money, material. All thrown away. What for? Nothing."