History Behind The Card: Army Dirigible “Beta.”
Card #74 of 75, W.D.& H.O Wills, Aviation series 1911, Capstan Navy Cut – Black-back issue
- Major-General Sir John Edward Capper born December 7, 1861 in Lucknow, British India (now just India) – May 13, 1955 in Eastbourne, East Sussex, England, Great Britain;
- Colonel James Lethbridge Brooke Templer born May 27, 1846 in Greenwich, Kent, England, Great Britain – January 2, 1924 in Lewes, Sussex, England, Great Britain.
Before I began writing this Pioneers of Aviation blog, I had no idea that 1) monoplanes were being flown successfully at the same time as biplanes, and 2) that aside from zeppelins, that dirigibles were being built as viable flying machines after the advent of the aeroplane.
I really thought that aeroplanes took the air out of the dirigible industry. While it’s true that they did, in the still early days of 1910/11 (and beyond), aeroplanes were still so much in their infancy that no one was sure if it would truly catch on as a viable flying device.
As such, before I started this blog, I had purchased cards from the Wills’s Aviation series… the first 50 cards were from 1910, with a 75-card and 85-card series published in 1911.
Card No. 74’s Army Dirigible “Beta” surprised me… as I thought the series’ first 25 cards had dealt with the past of aviation (non aeroplanes)… so why was the Beta deemed important enough to be included in a more “modern” series of 1911 cards?
The Beta, aka Beta 1, was a non-rigid dirigible built by Great Britain’s Army Balloon Factory in 1910 for the express purpose of experiments.
Dirigibles were, as of 1910, still a fairly new aviation concept (which I didn’t realize), and were called the “dirigible balloon” or “airship”.
From 1904-1906, Britain’s Army Balloon Factory was part of the Army’s School of Ballooning under the command of Colonel James Templer.
The school was moved from Aldershot to the edge of Farnborough Common in provide it with adequate space to inflate the new dirigible invention.
Although the Wright Brothers first flew in December of 1903, they kept their flight a secret.
By January of 1906, however, when full details of the Wright Brothers’ system of flight control had been published in l’Aerophile, people still hadn’t grasped just how important this discovery of heavier-than-air flight really was.
On September 13, 1906, aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont made a public flight in Paris with the 14-bis aeroplane, becoming the first non-Wright Brother to fly an aeroplane.
As such… the Army Balloon Factory could be excused for moving its balloon/dirigible facility.
While the school’s command changed with the move to Farnborough with Templer out and Colonel John Capper in, the Army Balloon Factory not only kept up with the new trend of dirigibles, it also experimented with Samuel Franklin Cody’s war kites and aeroplanes designed by Cody and J. W. Dunne. In October 1908, Cody made the first aeroplane flight in Britain at Farnborough.
Here’s the interesting stuff: in 1909, Britain’s Army work on aeroplanes was halted, as the Army Balloon Factory was renamed the Balloon Factory as it came under civilian control led by Mervyn O’Gorman.
In 1912, the Balloon Factory was renamed something you might recognize: the Royal Aircraft Factory, aka the RAF.
Interesting stuff… but still nothing about Beta… what happened to Alpha, by the way?
Uh… this is just a guess because there was no Army Dirigible “Alpha”.
The Beta is considered to be a rebuild of “Baby” which was also known as British Army Airship No. 3… featuring a new envelope.
Before that… Nulli Secundus II was a rebuild of 1907’s Nulli Secundus No. 1, which was also designated as British Army Dirigible No. 1.
Ergo, Beta… the second letter of the alphabet, IS the second Army dirigible… with Nulli Secundis being the non-named Alpha.
So… the airships are:
British Army Dirigible No.1
- Nulli Secundis;
British Army Dirigible No. 2
- Nulli Secundis II, rebuilt from Nulli Secundis – but still actually the “Alpha” airship.
British Army Dirigible No. 3
- Beta, rebuilt from Baby;
- Beta II, rebuilt from Beta (and Baby);
- HMA No. 17, simply a rename from Beta II.
If Beta and Beta II were designated as Army Dirigible No. 4 or 5, I don’t know. But they were both rebuilds of Baby, Army Dirigible No. 3.
So, per above, we know that Beta 1 (at the time of its issue in 1911, Card No. 74 did not know there was going to be a Beta II, and that’s why the dirigible is simply called Beta) had used the gondola of British Army Airship No.3 aka Baby, using a new envelope made of a rubberized fabric.
It had rectangular horizontal stabilizers fitted on both sides of the tail assembly. It had a fixed fin with a rudder mounted on the trailing edge below the tail.
A long uncovered framework suspended below the envelope held the 35 horsepower Green water-cooled engine, which drove a pair of 5′-9″ (1.75 meter) diameter two-bladed propellers.
An elevator was mounted on the front of this structure to provide pitch control. As first built, the engine drove a pair of propellers which could be swiveled to provide vectored thrust, but this arrangement was later replaced with a more conventional chain drive to fixed propellers.
Beta was first flown in April 1910 at Farnborough, after which the engine was removed to make some handling experiments, during which its gondola was damaged.
So they fixed it up… and took it up for a second test flight on April 8, 1910 staying aloft for about 70 minutes before landing safely.
I’m unsure why they decided to do this at night, but the Beta was taken up again on a flight beginning specifically at 11:39PM on June 3, 1910, flying from Farnborough to London and back to Farnborough returning on June 4, 2910 at dawn.
The next flight was done on June 12, 1910 with Captain W. P. L. Brooke-Smith at the helm, leaving Farnborough at 3:40PM and, flying against a 12 mph (19 km/h) headwind, reaching central London around 6PM. After circling St Paul’s Cathedral, Beta returned to Farnborough, after making a slight flight plan deviation to fly past Aldershot where British King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.
Under the command of Colonel John Capper, Beta was flown in the British Army maneuvers on Salisbury Plain in September of 1910 where it was used to observe “enemy troop” positions, and even dropped a map of the enemy positions to General Horace Smith-Dorrien.
In 1911 the first trials with radio communication were made after a return flight from Farnborough to Portsmouth.
(Did you know that the sandwich could have been called a portsmouth? The first Earl of Montagu was going to take the title of Earl of Portsmouth, but changed his mind at the last moment to instead honor the town of Sandwich in Kent, England where the fleet he was commanding happened to be offshore from. This Earl’s great-grandson, the 4th Earl of Sandwich John Montagu, did in 1762AD spent 24 hours at a gaming table… at at some point in between requested the establishment’s cook prepare a meal that would allow him to continue playing with one hand, while allowing him to eat with the other. While no one knows the cook’s name, the repast of cold, sliced beef presented between two toasted slices of bread became known as a sandwich rather than a portsmouth.)
Anyhow, while they were able to make contact between Beta and the ground, communication back and forth was less than convenient owing to the very loud noise of the dirigible’s engine… maybe next time they could place the radio further away from the engine?
Beta I specifications:
- Crew: 3;
- Length: 104 feet inches (31.7 meters);
- Diameter: 24 feet 4 inches (7.42 meters);
- Volume: 33,000 cubic feet ( 934.5 cubic meters);
- Powerplant: 1 × Green C.4, 35 horsepower engine;
- Maximum speed: 25 miles per hour (40.23 kilometers per hour);
- Endurance: 5 hours
Then what happened? Nothing special actually. The Beta continued its experimental flights until 1912, when it was decided to tear it down in a redesign to construct the Beta II.
The airship’s redesign included a new enlarged envelope, had its length increased to 108 feet (33 meters), providing the “balloon” with a capacity to 50,000 cubic feet (1,400 cubic meters).
The gondola was also rebuilt, and new Clerget 50-horsepower engine was added to power the craft’s dual four-bladed propellers.
The Beta II made many successful flights, participated in the 1912 army maneuvers, during which it was fitted experimentally with a machine gun.
On June 20, 1913 the Great Britain’s Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) was taken for a 30-minute flight in the Beta II.
It was used for the first experiments in mooring airships at a mast at Farnborough, and was also used for experiments with aerial photography.
In fact, it was during a royal inspection of Farnborough in 1913, that a photograph was taken of the royal party from the air (aboard Beta II). The photographic plate was parachuted to the ground where it was developed and printed in a mobile darkroom.
Perhaps in anticipation of the start of WWI, all airships were taken over by the RNAS in January of 1914, with the Beta II officially designated as HMA No. 17.
HMA stands for His Majesty’s Airship… and by 1914, His Majesty was King George V.
During December 1914 and January 1915, HMA No. 17 it was based at Firminy near Dunkirk as part of the Dunkirk Squadron and was used for artillery spotting. It was then used for training at RNAS Kingsnorth.
The dirigible, in all its many incarnations and name changes was finally retired by the RNAS in 1916, with its gondola now part of the collection of the Science Museum in London, Great Britain. And yes, it is on display.