In 1914 a huge airship appeared in the skies across Gosport. Gamma was making its way to the Royal Flying Cops field at Fort Grange and joined Delta and Beta to form the No. 1 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps. Gamma was moored in the moat of Fort Grange, which had always been empty of water.
Ronald Brown explains:
In 1907, Colonel John Capper R.E. became the Commandant of the Balloon Factory at Farnborough. On appointment he managed to squeeze £2,000 out of the War Office to continue work on army airship projects, at a time when Germany was spending more than £50,000 on airship development. Under his direction the airships Beta and the Nulli Secundus (Second to None) were made. In October 1909, the Balloon Factory came under civilian control and a consultant engineer named Mervyn O’Gorman was appointed as its Superintendent. Colonel Capper remained in control of the military side and under his direction a new army airship began to take shape. It started life as the Nulli Secundus II, an absurdity that was recognised at the time by “Punch”, with humorous remarks about “Second to None the Second”. This was covered up by renaming it, and so the giant of our story came into being, the “Gamma”.
This new craft had a capacity of 72,000 cu. ft. and was powered by a Green engine developing 80 h.p. Her twin propellers were mounted on swivelling axes to provide additional control over climb and descent. Apart from her size, the Gamma differed from previous British airships. Although designed in England, she had been built by the Astra Company in Paris. Her envelope was made of French cotton by Astra of Paris, and coated with a rubberized solution. The car was carried in a long framework suspended from the envelope. This portion of the ship was manufactured in England, together with the machinery. This consisted of an 80 horse-power Green engine driving swiveling propellers, the gears and shafts of which were made by Rolls Royce. The engine drove the propeller shafts direct, one from each end of the crankshaft. the envelope was fitted with inflated streamline stabilizers on either side, but at a later date these were replaced by fixed stabilizing planes. The Green engine was removed and two Iris engines of 45 horse-power were installed, each driving a single propeller. There were two pairs of elevators, each situated in the framework, one forward, the other aft. There was also a rudder, mounted at the aft-end of the framework of the control car.
Gamma made her maiden flight in February 1910. During her trials, in which she reached a speed of 35 m.p.h., the airship suffered a long succession of technical troubles. These faults were mostly concerned with engines, but eventually all was smoothed out and the Gamma went on to provide the Army with valuable experience in airship handling. Crews became adept in carrying out repairs in flight, and developed techniques for emergency landings without the aid of a ground crew. Several officers who later formed the nucleus of the Army and Navy units got their first taste of flying in craft such as this.
Ian Castle writes:
By June 1910, Gamma had a new car fitted with a shorter framework, 21 ft long and 16 ft wide; the forward and aft elevators were replaced with a box-like tail plane, and the inflated fins with fixed types…, it became known as the Gamma II, able to carry six people – crew and passengers (although nine were carried at the 1912 army manoeuvres) – as well as wireless equipment and enough fuel for an eight-hour journey.
The Green engine was removed and two Iris engines of 45 horse-power were installed, each driving a single propeller. There were two pairs of elevators, each situated in the framework, one forward, the other aft. There was also a rudder, mounted at the aft-end of the framework of the control car.
On the 22nd April, 1912, it flew from Farnborough around St. Paul’s Cathedral and back with six passengers. She also took part in the Army manoeuvres of 1912 in East Anglia, at which its radio transmitted for a distance of 35 miles.
On the first day of January, 1914, seven months before the First World War the airships were turned over to the Admiralty, by whom they were used mostly for patrolling at sea. During this period Gamma operated from Fort Grange airfield, Gosport.
An airman that observed the airship wrote the following on the back of a postcard:
Dear Mr. P.
This airship looks fine in flight. We see it very often,
and it is a fact that when we do, we nearly always have
German sausage for our breakfasts. Rotten stuff it is too.
The Gamma II became the “No. 18” Naval airship,but at the start of the War in August, 1914, she lay deflated in a shed at Farnborough, which was now a Naval Airstation. The end was near for Gamma, apart from a brief moment of glory when she flew at the Spithead Naval Review from the 18th to the 22nd July 1914, the Giant of Fort Grange was deleted by the Navy and broken up at the end of the same month. Delta and Beta, the other ships of the old No. 1 Squadron were to suffer the same fate not too long afterwards. It is interesting to note that during the First World War 213 airships were built for the Royal Navy, and these craft had a remarkable war record. They served as submarine scouts, patrol ships and escorts, and it is a fact that not a single surface vessel was lost while under escort by airships.
Gamma was designed and built at the Farnborough “Balloon Factory. She was officially called “Dirigible No. IIA”, though spectators called her the “Yellow Peril” due to the bright colour of its envelope. She was subsequently redesigned and reflown as the Gamma II in the latter part of 1912 was ultimately handed over to the British Navy in January 1914.
British Airships: Past, Present, and Future, by George Whale
British Airships 1905-30, by Ian Castle
The Giant of Grange by R. Brown
Early Aviation at Farnborough by P.B. Walker.
British Aircraft, 1809 – 1914 by Peter Lewis.