The story behind Iron Maiden’s Empire of the Clouds- R101Airship

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.The story behind Iron Maiden's Empire of the Clouds- R101Airship

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.

The story behind Iron Maiden's Empire of the Clouds- R101Airship

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 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.

R101 Airship Wreckage

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.

R101 Memorial, Cardington, Bedfordshire, England

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.Rock n Metal 90x90 Logo

Hopefully flying into a City near you!

Got anything thing to say about this Post?, then hell, chime in with a comment below. Talk soon…

P.S. Want to read more stories like this? Try this one –  Guns N Roses Nightrain -The Story Behind The Song. 



  • Darren says:

    This is my kind of website – Rock and Metal!

    Awesome idea, putting together a site full of collectables and information for these genres of music.

    What a really interesting article covering Iron Maiden’s inspiration for the song “Empire of the Clouds”. While the Hindenburg disaster is well documented, I’d never heard of the R101 Airship tragedy. I’ve always found those old airships fascinating and would have loved to fly in one – but maybe not one filled with hydrogen.

    Thanks for sharing this piece of history on the airship disaster and tying it in beautifully with Bruce’s inspiration for a classic rock song.

    • Pete says:

      Darren, nice to have you here & thanks for being part of this post.

      The Airship R101 would of never come to my attention had it not for being an avid Iron Maiden fan. What I love about Iron Maiden is that they always make songs about a piece of history. They’ve invoked curiosity and flights of imagination like no other band in this form of music. Another example being the Rime of the Ancient Mariner which is a favourite poem of mine. I would be completely oblivious to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s works if it were not for Iron Maiden.

      Same as the song The Trooper, I would know very little of The Battle of Balaclava and the Charge of the light brigade if I had not investigated the subject after hearing the lyrics. In fact, just lately you can read about this piece of history on Iron Maiden’s Trooper beer printed on the side of the bottle.

      And just like you, my only image of an airship disaster was of the Hindenburg which is well documented with the fact is was caught on film. The Airship R101 slipped silently into the past until Bruce brought the fatal flight into my & many more fans imagination. I spent hours watching the old footage to learn more about the impressive and gargantuan R101 airship that took off from Cardington in Bedfordshire, England.

      I think a lot can be learnt from this fatal and unsavoury event to shape the future of aviation. It’s good to see that Bruce himself is an investor and believer in airships as a force today. I think hydrogen airships have instilled fear into everyone who thinks of them. We now know that airships can take flight using non combustible gases and it’s one form of transport to, if you will excuse the pun… really take off.

      Thanks again Darren

      Very best


  • SJB says:

    Om my goodness! The Titanic fits inside?? How crazy is that? I learned so much from this article. I am astonished to find out that some passengers even survived! There were dining rooms and smoking decks! I still can’t believe it! How interesting! Thanks so much for this! I learned a lot!

    • Pete says:

      Hey SJB

      The sheer size of the Airship R101 was gargantuan in scale. Also unbeknown to many people it was an Airship that gets few mentions in the history books as no camera’s were present unlike during the Hindenburg Airship disaster. The R101 was at the time like the Titanic, a luxury passenger vehicle that may have paved the way for this form of transport to be still around today. Sadly though, because of the terrifying consequences of using hydrogen filled Airships these modes of transport were abandoned in the interests of public safety.

      I hope one day we will see Airships get a revival using a safer form of gas, and like a Cruise Liner or Ferries we use to travel across the seas, Airships will carry passengers aloft in style and become a part of the holiday experience.

      Glad you’ve got something out of this little history lesson. Nice to see you here.

      Take care now,


  • Mary says:

    Fantastic article! You definitely gave new insight to the song. It’s obvious that you know your stuff LOL.
    The website is laid out very well and, even though I’m not a metalhead, I found it a good read. You have everything from books to collectibles to clothes. Keep up the good work!

    • Pete says:

      Thanks Mary, for visiting my post today, Glad you’ve enjoyed it here.

      Rocknmetalcollectables is taking form nicely and I hope to scale up over the coming weeks & months bringing more historic lessons related to this form of music.

      Historical stories in music are all abound in our cd collection, So I like to source them out and find out their meaning. This one is an example of more to come. In fact, I want to investigate Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, also an Iron Maiden Song and bring it to light here on this Blog.

      Will keep chipping away!

      Thanks for the encouragement,

      Warmest wishes,


  • Alejandro says:

    Pete: your words are awrsome. Reading this words i can get perfectly inside the history. I am alejandro from argentina. I am waiting the iron maiden show here in buenos aires next march 15. I will go to the concert with a new concept of the empire of the clouds after you words. Reading the text and lisyent the song i feel into the ship. Sorry about my english. Thank you very much. And up the irons!

    • Pete says:

      Hi Alejandro! & thank you for visiting this post and leaving your comment here.

      I’m really pleased that you liked the Story Behind Iron Maiden’s The Empire Of The Clouds. It’s such a great historic song about the Airship R101, and that’s what I love about Iron Maiden, they write songs that give you a history lesson too.

      I am also very pleased for you that you are going to see Iron Maiden on March the 15th, & in just five days time! It’s going to be Awesome! Maybe you will see the Airliner Ed Force One when Bruce lands the Aeroplane at Buenos Aires Airport?

      I want to sincerely thank you for visiting my site and glad you liked it here.
      Have yourself a good time Alejandro, when you go and see Iron Maiden soon, & up the Irons!

      Oh & don’t worry about the English, I understood you perfectly!



  • Cheek Legend says:

    very informative blog, it is very rare to come across blogs that bring history to our attention. This article is a great reference for any studies related to the airships regime. i also adore the website which is well structured and awesome. It keeps me glued for a while since i am opening tabs to get more articles posted

    • Pete says:

      Hey There Cheek Legend!

      Thanks for coming here just now to RnMC.

      I love reading about history and this is even better when a favourite band of mine interprets it through music. But nowadays Iron Maiden Singer Bruce Dickinson is also investing a lot of time and money into the Airlander Project, which I will do a write up of an the near future. It’s basically modern day Airship technology that will take flight soon. I think it’s time we brought these forms of transport into modern day, as they are light, burn far less fuel and are, dare I say a safer form of flight.

      Thanks for joining this post and taking up your own time, Cheek Legend, glad you got something out of it.

      By the way, I’m using the Simple Catch theme which I think is mint

      Take care now,

      Very best,


  • Nancy says:

    Thanks so much for this info, I’m loving the book of souls album and in particular this track. I kept wondering about the origin of the story and you’ve answered all my questions. Thanks so much. Awesome site, filled with passion.

    • Pete says:

      Thanks Nancy, for coming here to rockn’metalcollectables & I’m glad you enjoyed reading about the R 101 Airship. As always, Iron Maiden have took a historical event & brought it into music form for us fans to lap up.

      Empire Of The Clouds is as majestic as it is tragic, from Bruce’s piano playing to the morse code signal in the guitar work before disaster plays out on the track. An absolute better of a song and one that will have its lofty place in their rich catalogue of music. Here’s to more Maiden epics!

      Cheers Nancy.

      Take care


  • Trevor Monk says:

    Great article.
    I grew up in cardington very close to the R101 memorial, my family have lived there for a few hundred years, The R101 is a much forgotten story nowadays but when the accident happened the whole country came to a stop in shock.

    My great Aunt worked on the ship, she cleaned the goldbeaters skins that were used for the gas cells to seal them and make them gas tight, the skins were in fact the linings of cattle guts, a messy smelly job but one that had to be done. she was also part of the team of hundreds that walked R101 out of Shed 1 many times. the same Shed Bruce’s Airlander now sits awaiting launch very soon.

    i run many pages on the R101 and cardington and over the years through facebook and twitter have tried to get the story out of the ship to more people, i even write poetry on it, literally spent years trying to get more people interested in this ship and her story, even run a live tweet session on the 4th and 5th of October as the flight took place right up to 2.10am, then along come Iron Maiden and nail the story perfectly in 1 song and create a whole new generation interested in her story. fantastic bit of music (titanic didn’t fit inside though 🙂 ) and has brought in so many people interested in this beautiful aircraft, her story is fascinating and her crew to me were all heroes, every one.

    Bruce’s watch i believe was from A V Bell, he is buried next to the memorial in Cardington. his story of how he escaped the burning ship whilst in an engine car is quite remarkable, if it wasn’t for a water ballast tank splitting and soaking him and his colleague neither would have escaped.

    Sam Church’s story is also a tragic one of many on that ship, in the last moments Sam was sent forward to drop a half ton of water ballast from the nose of the ship that could only be released locally, as he rushed to the nose the impact came, had he made it in time who knows what may have happened….. he miraculously survived the initial fire and gave valuable accounts of events but sadly later died of his injuries, another tragic story is that his family and fiancee once aware of the accident rushed out to see him, sadly he passed away before they got to him.

    To finish, it would seem the story of the R101 has a new generation of fans interested in the story of this airship, she wasn’t as bad a ship as some have made out over the years if you look into the facts, she was a prototype that had just been cut in two and enlarged, she was meant to have a 24h test flight (which in my opinion was no way near enough before her maiden voyage) and that was cut to just 17 before the India flight, all flight tests were done in near perfect conditions. she was pushed into a flight that she was simply not ready for for political ends. a perfect storm of events led to her ultimate demise and the sad loss on many on board.


    Trev Monk

    • Pete says:

      Hi Trev, & thank you very much for providing a fascinating glimpse into your very own personal connections with the Airship R101.
      I’m stoked to have you here telling about how your great aunt worked upon the airship and how your family is rooted to Cardington, Bedfordshire near the memorial. I would love come down from Derbyshire one day and see the giant hangars and say a prayer for those lost souls that never got to the destination. This is on my to do list.

      Up til 2015 I was completely ignorant to these majestic vessels had it not been for Iron Maiden making a song about the R101, or its counterpart the R100. I then became fascinated with the untold story and even asked the older generation about it but no one seemed to offer any knowledgeable information.

      It’s a heroic story that sadly has been buried in the echelons of time until finally for me, and thousands of others have been etched into the consciousness to become sympathetic, touched and moved by this tale of semi triumph & tragedy.

      Cheers Trev, for enriching this post with human spirit and letting us know more about A V Bell, the man who once owned the pocket watch now in Bruce’s possession, and the surviving accounts of how him and his colleague escaped the fiery inferno that fateful night. Also of Sam Church the escapee, and the heart wrenching tale of him never seeing his fiancee before slipping away untimely before his wedding day.

      The past aside, and more positively, I’m glad that Bruce has continued the spirit of Airship aviation by having the Airlander inside the hallowed hangar as I can see much potential for a much, cleaner, greener & safer way to travel and lift freight from point to point.

      Thanks for the Titanic not fitting inside, to be honest I didn’t think the dimensions of the R101 would swallow up the Titanic. I certainly don’t want to mislead or confuse readers when I reiterated the lyrics from the song into my article. I would now ask readers to be a little forgiving if an appealing fact like this has been dispelled.

      Anyhow, I’m heading over to your Facebook & Twitter pages to seek out more info I will leave a link here for everyone to check out.

      They Are:


      Thanks again Trev, for joining this post and adding a sterling & valuable comment here today.

      Take care, & all the very best.


  • Heathguy33 says:

    Dude I love the way you have this website set up its totally rock and metal welcomy. Great information on the iron madien’s empire also. I never knew a lot of things you mentioned in this article. Each time I ask someone about it they either give me the run around or give me some kind of watered down version of what really happened. But you brought it all with this to the content and the video it’s all good stuff bro keep it up. I’ll be looking for more great post like this one from you in the near future. Thanks

    • Pete says:

      Hey there Heathguy. Thanks for chiming in here today. What’s rad just recently is the inclusion of Trev Monk’s story which adds a fascinating account into this tragic tale of airborne pioneering from family members who worked on the mighty vessel.

      His comment adds extra description from those who took part in the history of the Airship R101, & I was really stoked to have him come here and lend a valuable & telling story into the mix.

      I hope you’ve been enlightening here by the the post itself and everyone who comes here and joins in this discussion.

      Nice one.



  • Flavia says:

    Hi Iwas wondering what was the lyrics about when I came into your post..!
    I didn´t know about the airship story ..but now I ‘vve got the dimention of this song…
    Great job by Bruce, who is the best person to talk about air navigation stuff..It is clear that he is very passionate about.What can we say? It’s one of those epic Maiden ‘s songs that will last forever…
    Bruce is so incredible, as all the rest of Maiden is
    Thanks for your post. and keep the good blog alive!
    Up the Irons!

  • Tom seadon says:

    Not only is this a great song, but the true story and the way it’s told, or sung, is just awesome! The Hindenburg is known to just about everyone, but not the R101, and the detail that the song includes! Once you start to listen to it, it just captures the attention like a page turner novel! Iron Maiden is just so talented! Always loved their music!

    • Pete says:

      Thanks Tom.
      Although tragic, the story of the R101 is an amazing one. This disaster spelt the end for the development of floating airships and what a shame that is. Today the Aviation world could look a totally different now if we had this as a serious means of transport around the globe. Yep, I agree too, Iron Maiden did a sterling job in the honour of the R101 Airship. Thanks for getting involved with the discussion here, nice one!

Leave a Reply