Thursday, 9 December 2010

Karachi’s Airship Hangar

Karachi’s Airship Hangar: "

Owais Mughal


Most of our readers correctly guessed the title photo of this ATP Quiz. It was the hangar for airships located at present day Karachi airport.

If this generation doesn’t then I am sure a generation before ours definitely remembers this famous landmark of Pakistan which was called kala chapra (the black hangar).


This hangar was part of a 3-structure complex to house R101 and R102 type airships. The other two structures included a tall mooring mast to dock the airship and in the base of the mast was a hydrogen plant to refuel the airship.

The base of the mast contained buildings followed along the baseline in an octagonal shape. The hydrogen plant had enough gasometers to completely fill the R101 airship with 5.5 million cubic ft of gas.


The photo to the right shows the airship mooring mast at Karachi along with the octagonal base building which also housed the hydrogen plant for airships.



The construction on this hangar complex started in 1927 and complete in 1929. The size of this hangar was 859ft L x 200ft W x 170ft H. In 1920s Karachi airport area was nothing but a desolate desert. In contrast to that landscape this hangar appeared as such a visual magnanimity that for many years it was used as a visual marker for airplanes attempting VFR (visual) landing in Karachi. Due to the enormosity of this structure to its surroundings, local residents of Karachi started calling this hangar as kala chapra (black hangar) – The word ‘chapra’ (or ‘chappar’) has almost become archaic in Urdu used in Pakistan these days. It means a ‘shed’. Many current residents of the city who have seen this structure still recall it by its local name ‘kala chapra.’



The cost of building this hangar complex in 1928 came out to be 93000 British pounds.

Following photo is courtesy of PakistaniAviation.com. It is circa 1941 and credited to Brian Knight.


So why was this hangar and the adjoining mooring mast complex built in Karachi? It was part of a airship communication scheme of British Government in 1924 to connect far fetched areas of British Empire with a airship service. Big airplanes were not available then and those which were available were noisy, uncomfortable and not suited for long distance travel. The mode of transport which seemed to have best chance then were the airships. These offered quiet and comfortable journey for passengers and could lift heavy cargo too. The Imperial Airship Communications Scheme was thus developed to provide mail and passenger service from Canada at one end of British Empire to Cardington, Englad to Egypt in Africa to Karachi in then India. Another leg was proposed to connect India with Australia later on.

The home base of R101 airships was in Cardington, Bredfordshire England. The mooring mast at Karachi was exactly the same size and style as the one at Cardington (shown below) except for the octagonal building at the base of Karachi mast.



A 777ft long airship called R101 was developed for this service in 1927. The width of R101 airship was 131ft and height was 140ft. Airship mooring masts were erected at St Hubert in Canada, at Ismailia in Egypt and at Karachi which was selected as the terminus in then British India.


The length of the hangar in Karachi was kept 859ft so that it could fit the future R102 model of airships which was going to have a length of 822ft. The hangar however never got chance to host either R101 or R102 airships.

On October 4, 1930 the R101 flew from Cardington, England on its way to Karachi but on its maiden flight it crashed in France. This crash essentially put an end to R101 type airships and Imperial Airship Communication scheme of the British Government. Eventhough the airship program got cancelled, the hangar and mast complex survived for 30 more years.

Following is a colored photo from May 19, 1949. This photo is credited from here. It shows a portion of kala chapra and one can appreciate the size of this structure in this photo

In 1952, the Government of Pakistan decided to bring down the complex and sell the metal structure for scrap. The structure managed to survive till 1960 when it was finally brought down and steel was sold or used on Railway structures and bridges across Pakistan. This brought an end to the lifecycle of this unique piece of civil engineering in Pakistan.

Location of Black Hangar versus Isphahani Hangar?

One thing I am not sure myself yet is whether the present day wide-body Isphahani Hangar of PIA is located at exactly the same place where once this Black Hangar stood or is it in a different location. I know for sure the general vicinity of both hangars is Karachi Airport but don’t know if they shared the exact same spot. Our readers comments and citations are sought here. I’ll make the update once we confirm it either way.

Following image is a virtual depiction (credited here) of how the Karachi airship hangar complex should once have looked.


Trivia:

Karachi Airport has a railway station on Pakistan’s Main Railway track. The station today is simply called ‘Airport’. But for few years in the 1920s before Karachi airport was built, this railway station was called ‘Airship’.

Following photo of kala chapra is from the later days when Karachi Airport had been built and operational. Karachi airport’s runway is visibile in this photo. This photo too is courtesy of PakistaniAviation.com. It is circa 1941 and credited to Brian Knight.


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