On a rainy afternoon in 1926, Eileen J. Garrett, an Irish medium, was walking her dog through Hyde Park in London when she glanced up and saw a "strange, phantomlike" dirigible floating across the dark sky.
"I knew something terrible was going to happen," Mrs. Garrett later observed. But nothing happened. Then, two years later, while on another walk in the park, the medium saw what appeared to be the same dirigible, only this time it appeared to be covered in smoke and "dark, dense" clouds.
"It was wobbling, it gave off a thick smoke, was buffeted about and then disappeared," she recalled.
The vision was so real, Mrs. Garrett thought the aircraft was going to crash any second. "I rushed home to tell my husband about it," she said. "Imagine my surprise when there was nothing in the newspapers or on the radio - nothing at all."
Meanwhile, the construction of two dirigibles in England, the R-100 and R-101, was made public. One was to fly to India on its maiden voyage; Mrs. Garrett was certain that it would be the R-101 and that it would crash.
She sent a warning to Sir Sefton Brancker, director of civil aviation, begging him to postpone the flight until further tests could be made. Mr. Brancker laughed at her.
That same year, 1928, Mrs. Garrett conducted a seance during which a deceased pilot allegedly warned Ernest Johnston, navigator of the R-101, not to go on the maiden voyage because the ship would crash. Mr. Johnston did not take the message seriously.
In 1929, Mrs. Garrett saw a third vision of a dirigible in the sky over London, this time in flames. Once again, she implored Mr. Brancker to abort the mission. But Mr. Brancker declared the R-101 to be "safe as a house - except for the millionth chance."
On Oct. 4, 1930, the huge aircraft lifted off. The next day it crashed and burned in a French cornfield. Mr. Brancker was among the victims.
During a seance three months after the crash, the spirit of the dead captain of R-101, Flight Lt. H. Carmichael Irwin, supposedly revealed to Mrs. Garrett top-secret information about the airship, its testing and flight. The information was so confidential in nature that one of Mrs. Garrett's companions, spiritualist Harry Price, sent a transcript of the seance to Sir John Simon, chairman of the Court of Inquiry.
When the seance story appeared in the press, other military officers became interested, including Maj. Oliver Villiers, a close friend of Mr. Brancker.
Lt. Irwin allegedly communicated through Mrs. Garrett again, along with several others who had died in the crash, including Mr. Brancker, Maj. G.H. Scott, Wing Commander R.B. Colmore and Mr. Johnston, the navigator. The spirits claimed that a gas leak caused the ship to crash.
They said officials had known about the leak before launch but decided to proceed because the project was behind schedule and the crew had not wanted to appear "faint of heart."
Maj. Villiers appeared before Mr. Simon's committee and provided information revealed in Mrs. Garrett's seven seances. Nothing could be done, Mr. Simon explained, since testimony from the dead was unacceptable in a court of law.
Twenty-five years later, Maj. Villiers gave another copy of the seance records to author James Leason, who wrote The Millionth Chance: The Story of the R-101. For the rest of his life, Maj. Villiers believed that all the dead crew wanted was for the world to know the truth about what happened to their doomed aircraft.
Randall Floyd is a syndicated author living in Augusta.