11/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated 4 days ago

Healthcare Hindenburg

Combatants on both sides of the health care debate should pause October 4th to observe a relevant anniversary. They should turn their eyes to a hillside in France where, nearly eight decades ago this Sunday, a fiery explosion killed 54. That disaster marked the end of one of the most dramatic and unequivocal head-to-head competitions between private enterprise and government ever waged.

In the late 1920s, England saw the need to knit its far flung dominions together by air. Airplanes being, at that time, unreliable in performance and limited in range, it was decided to use dirigibles -- ones bigger, stronger and more sophisticated than any that had gone before. To create them, the Labour government pitted socialism against capitalism to see which could build the better blimp.

Two airships were ordered: one built by a private company; the other by the government's own workshops. Both had to meet the same design criteria and performance standards; but how these were achieved was left up to their respective designers. "Let the best man win," was the attitude.


"There are still lessons to be learned from this peculiar experiment of government and private enterprise working in direct competition," wrote novelist Nevil Shute Norway in his autobiography, Slide Rule. Norway, before achieving world renown as an author, worked as an engineer on the private industry airship, designated R100.

Where R100's builders strove to show a profit -- economizing wherever possible and adopting only well-proven technology -- the builders of the government airship, R101, labored under no such constraint. They had the treasury at their disposal, and so could give wing to their imaginations, indulging in all manner of experiments with methods and materials. One example: Though R100's team had determined by calculation that their ship could be steered by the strength of a single man turning a conventional wheel, R101's team decided the same job could better be done by a heavy electric servo motor. Costs spiraled upward. Years ticked by.

By 1929, when R100 was ready to go, the government's ship still languished in its shed unfinished. When R100 flew, it flew faster than its stipulated speed. It voyaged successfully from England to Canada and back, upping pressure on the government to show what its craft could do. R101, upon completion, was slow, and so heavy that it could barely lift its own weight. It was cut in half, and a new bay inserted to allow it to carry more lifting gas.

The story of what happened next with R101 is complicated; but most historians believe political pressures were allowed to take precedence over engineers' advice and questions of safety. The ship, still plagued by problems, was ordered to perform.

On the night of October 3rd, R101 set off in bad weather on her maiden flight to India. She got no farther than France. At 2AM on the the 4th, the people of Beauvais were awakened by a gigantic fireball and explosion: the apocalyptic end to the government's airship, which, after slowly losing altitude had collided with a hill. The last radio message received from her said:

"After an excellent supper our distinguished passengers smoked a final cigar, and, having sighted the French coast, have now gone to bed."

Less distinguished than extinguished: All but six aboard had died.

So undone were the English by this tragedy that the private ship, R100 -- airworthy and blameless -- was ordered scrapped, her dissected corpse rolled flat by a steam roller.

No doubt history can be combed to find occasions where government's solution trumped one put forward by the private sector. But with R101's burning wreck freshly in mind, I think I'll take a pass on healthcare's public option.