It’s hard to imagine a time when giant hydrogen-filled balloons were the main air transport, such has been the pace of jet aircraft development.

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Yet less than 100 years ago airships were the norm across the world.

And RAF Pulham in Norfolk was one of the main bases in England from where airships would regularly fly sorties during the first world war to stop German U-boat submarines targeting British shipping in the North Sea.

Over the weekend the Pennoyer Centre in Pulham St Mary staged an exhibition of 60 images taken by the Royal Naval Air Service’s official photographer George Hamilton Wakefield which attracted hundreds of fascinated visitors keen to learn more about the history of the flying machines, known affectionately as the “Pulham Pigs”, which were once a common sight floating across East Anglia’s countryside.

The original prints, which document the early years of the air station at Pulham, were found in London by the Owens family – relatives of the photographer, who was based in Norfolk from 1919 to 1926.

The centre’s chairman Sheila King and Nick Walmsley, a board member of the Airship Heritage Trust, also presented a slideshow of photos and gave a talk about the role of the airship in the area.

The Pulham base, at Upper Vaunces Farm which is now agricultural land, was opened in 1916 and was home to 3,000 service personnel and 2,000 civilians and was one of three airship bases across the country – the other two being Howden in Yorkshire and Cardington in Bedfordshire.

Giant hangars were built at the bases to house the airships and these were needed as the R34, which made the first east-west air crossing of the Atlantic between the UK and USA in 1919, measured 643ft long and 92ft high.

The airship flew at speeds up to 40mph using a gas less dense than the surrounding atmosphere, while underneath the balloon was a gondola which contained the crew who were responsible for steering the airship and controlling the power through a Fiat or Rolls Royce engine.

On some airships, a separate engine car was provided on the outside of the airship which held another crew responsible for providing power.

Instructions were relayed from the main gondola to the engine car through a telegraph system, though crew members could climb a ladder and walk through the airship’s underbelly to reach the other cars.

The Pulham airfield was home to the airships until 1928, when it became a radar station before becoming the agricultural land of today.

Mrs King said: “I think the exhibition has been fantastic. It is the distances people have travelled to get here.

“I think airships really resonate with people. Perhaps it is because of the history of them or perhaps it is because they have vanished and they want to find out more.”

dominic.bareham2@archant.co.uk

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