Read CHAPTER IV of British Airships‚ Past‚ Present‚ and Future, free online book, by George Whale, on


The French and German military authorities began to consider airships as an arm of the Service in the closing years of the nineteenth century, and devoted both time and considerable sums of money in the attempt to bring them to perfection. Their appearance in the British Army was delayed for many years on account of the expense that would be incurred in carrying out experiments. In 1902, Colonel Templer, at that time head of the Balloon Section, obtained the necessary sanction to commence experiments, and two envelopes of gold-beaters skin of 50,000 cubic feet capacity were built. With their completion the funds were exhausted, and nothing further done until 1907.


In 1907 the first complete military airship in England was built, which bore the grandiloquent title of Nulli Secundus. One of the envelopes constructed by Colonel Templer was used: it was cylindrical in shape with spherical ends. Suspended beneath the envelope by means of a net and four broad silk bands was a triangular steel framework or keel from which was slung a small car. A 50 horsepower Antoinette engine was situated in the forward part of the car which drove two metal-bladed propellers by belts. At the after part of the keel were fitted a rudder and small elevators, and two pairs of movable horizontal planes were also fitted forward. It is remarkable that no stabilizing surfaces whatsoever were mounted. The envelope was so exceedingly strong that a high pressure of gas could be sustained, and ballonets were considered unnecessary, but relief valves were employed. The first flight took place in September and was fairly successful. Several were made afterwards, and in October she was flown over London and landed at the Crystal Palace. The flight lasted 3 hours and 25 minutes, which constituted at the time a world’s record. Three days later, owing to heavy winds, the ship had to be deflated and was taken back to Farnborough.


In 1908 the old ship was rebuilt with several modifications. The envelope was increased in length and was united to the keel by means of a covering of silk fabric in place of the net, four suspension bands being again used. A large bow elevator was mounted which made the ship rather unstable. A few flights were accomplished, but the ship proved of little value and was broken up.


This little airship made its first appearance in the spring of 1909. The envelope was fish-shaped and composed of gold-beater’s skin, with a volume of 21,000 cubic feet. One ballonet was contained in the envelope which, at first, had three inflated fins to act as stabilizers. These proved unsatisfactory as they lacked rigidity, and were replaced after the first inflation by the ordinary type. Two 8 horse-power 3-cylinder Berliet engines were mounted in a long car driving a simple propeller, and at a later date were substituted by a R.E.P. engine which proved most unsatisfactory. During the autumn permission was obtained to enlarge the envelope and fit a more powerful engine.


Beta was completed in May, 1910. The envelope was that of the Baby enlarged, and now had a volume of 35,000 cubic feet. The car was composed of a long frame, having a centre compartment for the crew and engines, which was the standard practice at that time for ships designed by the Astra Company. A 35 horse-power Green engine drove two wooden two-bladed propellers by chains. The ship was fitted with an unbalanced rudder, while the elevators were in the front of the frame. This ship was successful, and in June flew to London and back, and in September took part in the Army manoeuvres, on one occasion being in the air for 7 3/4 hours without landing, carrying a crew of three. Trouble was experienced in the steering, the elevators being situated too near the centre of the ship to be really efficient and were altogether too small.

In 1912, Beta, having been employed regularly during the previous year, was provided with a new car having a Clerget engine of 45 horse-power. In 1913 she was inflated for over three months and made innumerable flights, on one occasion carrying H.R.H. the Prince of Wales as passenger. She had at that time a maximum speed of 35 miles per hour, and could carry fuel for about eight hours with a crew of three.


In 1910 the Gamma was also completed. This was a much bigger ship with an envelope of 75,000 cubic feet capacity, which, though designed in England, had been built by the Astra Company in Paris. The car, as in Beta, 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 swivelling 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.

Originally the envelope was fitted with inflated streamline stabilizers on either side, but at a later date these were replaced by fixed stabilizing planes. At the same time 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. In 1912, having been rigged to a new envelope of 101,000 cubic feet capacity, the ship took part in the autumn manoeuvres, and considerable use was made of wireless telegraphy.

In a height reconnaissance the pilot lost his way, and running out of petrol drifted all night, but was safely landed. When returning to Farnborough the rudder controls were broken and the ship was ripped. In this operation the framework was considerably damaged. When repairs were being carried out the elevators were removed from the car framework and attached to the stabilizing fins in accordance with the method in use to-day.


In 1910 it was arranged by a committee of Members of Parliament that the Clement-Bayard firm should send over to England a large airship on approval, with a view to its ultimate purchase by the War Office, and a shed was erected at Wormwood Scrubs for its accommodation. This ship arrived safely in October, but was very slow and difficult to control. The envelope, moreover, was of exceedingly poor quality and consumed so much gas that it was decided to deflate it. She was taken to pieces and never rebuilt.


About the same time, interest having been aroused in this country by the success of airships on the Continent, the readers of the Morning Post subscribed a large sum to purchase an airship for presentation to the Government. This was a large ship of 350,000 cubic feet capacity and was of semi-rigid design, a long framework being suspended from the envelope which supported the weight of the car. It had two engines of 150 horse-power which developed a speed of about 32 miles per hour. The War Office built a shed at Farnborough to house it, and in accordance with dimensions given by the firm a clearance of 10 feet was allowed between the top of the ship and the roof of the shed. Inconceivable as it may sound, the overall height of the ship was increased by practically 10 feet without the War Office being informed. The ship flew over and was landed safely, but on being taken into the shed the envelope caught on the roof girders, owing to lack of headroom, and was ripped from end to end. The Government agreed to increase the height of the shed and the firm to rebuild the ship. This was completed in March, 1911, and the ship was inflated again. On carrying out a trial flight, having made several circuits at 600 feet, she attempted to land, but collided with a house and was completely wrecked. This was the end of a most unfortunate ship, and her loss was not regretted.


Towards the end Of 1910 the design was commenced of the ship to be known as the Delta, and in 1911 the work was put in hand. The first envelope was made of waterproofed silk. This proved a failure, as whenever the envelope was put up to pressure it invariably burst. Experiments were continued, but no good resulting, the idea was abandoned and a rubber-proofed fabric envelope was constructed of 173,000 cubic feet volume. This ship was inflated in 1912. The first idea was to make the ship a semi-rigid by lacing two flat girders to the sides of the envelope to take the weight of the car. This idea had to be abandoned, as in practice, when the weight of the car was applied, the girders buckled. The ship was then rigged as a non-rigid. A novelty was introduced by attaching a rudder flap to the top stabilizing fin, but as it worked somewhat stiffly it was later on removed. This ship took part in the manoeuvres of 1912 and carried out several flights. She proved to be exceedingly fast, being capable of a speed of 44 miles per hour. In 1913 she was completely re-rigged and exhibited at the Aero Show, but the re-designed rigging revealed various faults and it was not until late in the year that she carried out her flight trials. Two rather interesting experiments were made during these flights. In one a parachute descent was successfully accomplished; and in another the equivalent weight of a man was picked up from the ground without assistance or landing the ship.


The Eta was somewhat smaller than the Delta, containing only 118,000 cubic feet of hydrogen, and was first inflated in 1913. The envelope was composed of rubber-proofed fabric and a long tapering car was suspended, this being in the nature of a compromise between the short car of the, Delta and the long framework gear of the Gamma. Her engines were two 80 horse-power Canton-Unne, each driving one propeller by a chain. This ship proved to be a good design and completed an eight-hour trial flight in September. On her fourth trial she succeeded in towing the disabled naval airship N a distance of fifteen miles. Her speed was 42 miles per hour, and she could carry a crew of five with fuel for ten hours.

On January 1st, 1914, the Army disbanded their Airship Section, and the airships Beta, Gamma, Delta and Eta were handed over to the Navy together with a number of officers and men.