The story that inspired Iron Maiden’s track ‘Empire Of The Clouds ‘was taken from the R101 airship disaster which engulfed in flames and incinerated it’s victims one fateful night in France, October 1930. Tragically, 46 of the 54 passengers perished, 2 later died in Hospital bringing the fatality to 48.
Written by aviation enthusiast and Civil Airline pilot Bruce Dickinson who flew the bands Boeing 757 on the Somewhere Back in Time tour, the haunting lyrics tell the story of the Airship R101. It was, at the time, the biggest passenger vessel in the world, measuring a length of 777ft.
The airship boasted 2 decks with dining rooms and smoking lounges. The ‘Empire Of The Clouds’ lyrics recount the sheer size.
She’s the biggest vessel built by man a giant of the skies.
For all you unbelievers the titanic fits inside.
It was to take passengers across to India after an already successful transatlantic flight by airship R100 to Canada.
Airship R101 was to be the start of long-haul flights that would take passengers in a luxury travel service to link the British empire together.
Plagued by previous setbacks the Airship’s maiden voyage was soon to be it’s final.
Departing from its mooring mast at Cardington, England and unleashed to fly across to Karachi – then part of the British empire – India, the ship was set on a course towards Paris in intermittent rain.
By around midnight the passengers, having swigged back brandies and smoked their cigars, retired to bed.
Meanwhile, unbeknown to the sky bound occupants, the fabric on the nose of the airship had torn away on the ships bow. Hydrogen providing the uplift began to escape.
Shortly after 2.am the ship lost control and realizing it’s imminent crash the crew cut the engines. Although a soft landing estimated at around 13-18 miles per hour, the ship filled with hydrogen cells combusted into a raging inferno.
An inquiry concluded that was there a failure in the fabric and a loss of gas, amidst tornado force winds.
The calamity would bring the British airship program to an end. 7 years before the Hindenburg airship disaster as seen on Led Zeppelins Debut album cover.
The most memorable airship disaster is perhaps the Hindenburg, which is well documented on film footage, However for the R101 airship no cameras were present. When it silently crashed into a nearby woodland at Allonne near Beauvais, France on 5 October 1930, only 6 survivors lived to tell the tale.
Incidentally, Bruce owns a pocket watch from one of the survivors he bought at an aviation auction.
The other experimental airship the R100 was dismantled after the R101 disaster.
How Bruce Wrote The Song.
The genesis of the song began when Bruce had won an electric piano in a raffle. The gleeful recipient began tinkering away on his prize.
Looking around for inspiration on his bookshelf he saw the book Empire of the clouds, written about Britain’s aircraft.
Also fueling his mind for ideas was the model of the airship R101 he’d built as a child.
He thought it would make a good song title. Since the R101 Airship was a link in the British empire amongst the clouds.
So ‘Empire Of The Clouds’ developed into a rock opera masterpiece as bruce’s magnum opus took form into the longest track they’ve ever done.
The final track of the album is a first for the maiden catalogue, as it outflanks ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ in terms of length, spanning 18 minutes and 1 second.
The Future Of Aviation With Bruce.
Now 85 years after the Airship R101 explosion, Bruce is investing in hybrid air vehicles that set to change the future of aviation for the better. One project is the Airlander. It’s a take off – land anywhere aircraft. Like a helicopter but with far less limits, range and endurance. It will burn up 20% of the fuel and can be in the air for 3 weeks at a time.
As of August 25 , following the recovery of Bruce’s Chemotherapy & radiotherapy treatment for cancer of the head & neck, thankfully given the all clear, the band have announced that Iron Maiden will embark on a world tour in 2016. The singer, a qualified airline pilot will be flying the bands charted Boeing 747. Bigger than the 757 he flew across the globe on 2008’s Somewhere Back in Time tour.
Hopefully flying into a City near you!
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P.S. Want to read more stories like this? Try this one – Guns N Roses Nightrain -The Story Behind The Song.