Nulli Secundus I, circa 1907
Standing in the centre Colonel John Capper and Mr Charles Rolls at the Gordon Bennett Balloon Race, Paris, 1906
Nulli Secundus moored at Crystal Palace
Royal Airship Factory Beta I being launched, September 1910
Air Mechanic 3rd Class Frederick Burns, 1917
With the development of the internal combustion engine the possibilities in linking the engine to flight were quickly recognised. The Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont had been experimenting with petrol engine driven airships since 1898. In 1900, Count von Zeppelin launched his first airship, the LZ1, powered by two Daimler engines. In light of the limitations of balloons, such experiments with dirigibles (being power steered or directional airships) interested those 'air-minded' individuals in the British Forces.
In January 1902 Col James Templer of the Balloon Section, Royal Engineers visited Santos-Dumont in Paris and compiled a report on his (non-rigid) airships. He recommended to the War Office that research should be undertaken. Consent was given to experiment with non-rigid airships, but progress was slow and the construction of Britain's first airship, the 55,000 cubic feet 'Nulli Secundus' did not begin until 1904. It did not fly until 1907, seven years after the first Zeppelin flight.
The first long distance flight by 'Nulli Secundus' was made on 5 October 1907, with Col John Capper and Mr Samuel Cody flying from Farnborough to London. She flew over the city and circled the dome of St Pauls. The airship then turned south to return to Farnborough but increasing wind in excess of 16mph meant that she was unable to do so and she was moored at Crystal Palace. A few days later her skin was slashed to prevent her from slipping her moorings in high winds. In stark contrast in Germany the Zeppelin LZ4, at over 400 feet in length and with a cubic capacity ten times that of 'Nulli Secundus', had just completed a voyage of ten hours covering 240 miles.
A second smaller airship named 'Baby' was built, making her maiden flight in May 1909. The airship however suffered from engine and stability problems so she was rebuilt, enlarged and renamed 'Beta'.
The launching and mooring of airships was labour intensive and sometimes problematical. An early RFC recruit, Boy Frederick L. Burns witnessed the launch of 'Beta' and recorded his impressions in his memoir.
'Beta' would have a longer and more successful career than 'Nulli Secundus'. In June 1910,'Beta' piloted by Col Capper conducted a return night flight to London from Farnborough. It also participated in the Army Manoeuvres of that year.
In January 1911 she was used in the first demonstration of wireless telegraphy from a British airship when Major Lefroy made and received wireless communication with a ground station. He reported limited success when the
'Petrol pipe on engine burst when half-a-mile from Balloon Factory. I at once informed ASX (Aldershot W/T Station) of this and told him to try and get me now that the engine was not running. He at once started up and I got very loud signals and read: 'All your signals good, but….' And then the engine was off again so I lost the rest. Quite impossible to hear signals (when engine running so close) without any special device such as a sound proof helmet – could not even hear the test buzzer and barely hear the spark gap'
By May 1911 the Navy's first rigid airship, the 'Mayfly' had been built. Unfortunately she was wrecked in September before ever flying and all naval experimental work ceased. However, the rapid development of German airships meant that the Admiralty refocused its efforts in developing and constructing airships.
Three more airships would be built by the Army with the last, 'Eta', completed in August 1913 but shortly after this the Royal Navy was assigned control of airship development. It was also decided at this time that No.1 Squadron (RFC), formerly No.1 Company (Airships) of the Air Battalion would transfer to the Navy, which effectively ended the Army's involvement with airships.