The Northrop Gamma was as close to a one-size-fits-all
aircraft as you would come by in the mid 1930's. It is pretty incredible to ponder the
rapid development in aircraft and engines in the short three decades since the
made their world's first powered flight in 1903. Airspeeds went from 30 miles per
hour to more than 200 miles per hour. Engines went from 12 horsepower to nearly 1,000
horsepower in that timespan. The Northrop Gamma appeared in more than a dozen different
versions including an air racer, a military bomber, a trainer, a high altitude weather
research platform, a military attack airplane, and a seaplane. It was one of the first
production designs to incorporate a completely enclosed cockpit - a welcome feature to
pilots in cold weather. This story by Don Berliner gives some good background on the
Northrop Gamma's colorful history.
Northrop Gamma - The Plane That Had It All
Equally at home on floats, skis or wheels, this Northrop Gamma carried
explorer Lincoln Ellsworth into previously untouched Antarctic regions.
DC-8's, 707's and 747's skim the top of the atmosphere in comfort,
thanks to the work of Tommy Tomlinson and this Gamma Model 20.
A speed pilot's dream come true, the Northrop Gamma shone as a military craft, a scientific
instrument, sport job deluxe, and even as a mail and passenger carrier.
By Don Berliner
There are military airplanes and commercial airplanes, and scientific airplanes, and
sport airplanes. And there is at least one airplane which earned its place in the sun
by being all these things and by looking so great that it could easily have attracted
the world's attention by just sitting on the ramp, motionless. The Northrop Gamma was
It began as a speed pilot's dream come true; eventually it led to an Army bomber and
to fast, comfortable high altitude passenger travel. Along the way, it pioneered flight
in the Antarctic and set a fistful of transcontinental speed records. To do all this,
it had to combine what were then the latest technical ideas with such radical concepts
as wind-tunnel-designed wing fillets and large split flaps.
The beginning was February, 1932, when Frank Hawks decided his Travel-Air Mystery
Texaco 13 wasn't fast enough and asked the manufacturers to come up with something better.
It was to be financed by his employers, Texaco. Famed designer John K. Northrop played
the major role in planning, and it was his brainchild that the Northrop subsidiary of
Douglas set to work on. Designing began in May, 1932, and the first Gamma, named Sky
Chief, was test flown on Dec. 3, 1932.
It was long and it was sleek and it was metal from cowl to tail cone. The elaborate
wing-fuselage fillets eliminated all the troublesome interference problems encountered
by other low-wing airplanes and actually reduced the total drag. It was possible to place
the wing completely under the fuselage, which allowed for much greater space inside.
Older planes had been forced to clutter up their cargo space with bulky wing spars, but
now there was plenty of room for freight or passengers on planes like the Gamma or, later,
But what really counted was how quickly you could get from where you were to where
you wanted to be. Frank Hawks showed how fast his big silver bird could do its job by
flying from Los Angeles to New York (no simple trick in those days) at an average speed
of 180 mph for the 2450 miles. Power for NR-12265 was a 14-cylinder Wright R-1510 Whirlwind,
rated at 700 hp at sea level. The fame achieved in this and other speed runs was just
what Texaco wanted, being worth far more than the plane's original purchase price of
The Sky Chief was flown by Hawks for more than a year, then sold to boat builder/racer
Gar Wood in 1934. An accident during the 1936 Bendix Trophy Race from New York to Los
Angeles finally destroyed the ship when it exploded in flight and sent pilot Joe Jacobson
home in a parachute.
By any standards, the Gamma was a success, so nothing could be more logical than to
build more. The second Gamma (Model 2B) went to Arctic explorer Lincoln Ellsworth in
1934. He and pilot Bert Balchen tried flying it to uncharted regions of the Antarctic
that year. However, the plane was damaged when it became stuck in the ice and had to
be returned home. Finally, on Nov. 23, 1935, Ellsworth and Canadian pilot Herbert Hollick-Kenyon
took off from an island in the Weddell Sea and headed for Admiral Byrd's pioneering base
at Little America. Their trip became one of the classics of exploration, as fierce weather,
aggravated by radio failure, forced them to land repeatedly, finally making it to within
25 miles of their goal and then finishing the trip with a six-day sled ride.
This modified Gamma Model 2E was the prototype of the bomber version
supplied in quantity to the Chinese to use against the invading Japanese in the years
just before World War II.
This rare Model 2L Gamma was used as the flying test bed for the Bristol
Hercules sleeve-valve engine which was later to power such vital combat aircraft as the
Even without television, the world quickly became aware of such exploits, and the
Gamma was very much in the spotlight. The third one built (2C) was a basic Gamma, but
with enough modifications to make it an attack bomber for the U.S. Army. Designated the
YA-13, it was powered by a Wright R-1820 Cyclone engine which gave it an estimated top
speed of 207 mph. The YA-13 never got very far, as the single prototype was converted
into the XA-16 in 1935, with a new Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp as power. The
XA-16 remained one of a kind, too, although it led directly to the Northrop A-17, of
which more than 200 were built in 1935-37. It was one of the most widely used U.S. military
planes of the pre-World War II period.
The Gamma Model 2D certainly was one of the most significant airplanes of its day
and directly influenced the millions who travel high and fast and relaxed on DC-8's and
747's. Once owned by TWA President Jack Frye who used it as a personal transport, this
Gamma was turned into a flying laboratory for research into the conditions of sustained
high altitude flight.
Pilot D. W. "Tommy" Tomlinson and NX-13758 spent many hours cruising above 30,000
feet and discovered what is generally accepted today: that most of the bad weather is
below. Smooth, efficient flying results when the ship goes upstairs and there is a substantial
increase in true air speed as a properly-equipped airplane gets up into thinner air.
From the Gamma, TWA then moved to an Instrumented Douglas DC-1 and thence to the Boeing
Stratoliner, the first pressurized air liner.
With its long-range speed capabilities so readily apparent, it was not surprising
that such speed enthusiasts as Jackie Cochran wanted the Gamma. Hers was something different,
being powered by a 700 hp Curtiss Conqueror liquid-cooled V-12 tucked into a slim cowl.
It was her plan to fly it in the MacRobertson Race from England to Australia in 1934,
but the airplane was badly damaged on its delivery flight. The Model 2G was rebuilt with
a Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp in the nose. Jackie started the 1935 Bendix Race in it
but dropped out early because of severe weather.
Howard Hughes then took over Cochran's NR-13761 and proceeded to blast speed records
in all directions: Los Angeles to New York in January, 1936, at 255 mph; Miami to New
York in April, 1936, at 250 mph; Chicago to Los Angeles in May, 1936, at 215 mph.
Yet another Gamma got into the racing game: NC-2111 owned by publisher and physical
culture fadist Bernarr McFadden. Carrying the owner's name in huge letters along the
side, it was flown to third place in the 1935 Bendix Trophy Race at 202 mph by Russell
The largest number of Gammas built were Model 2Es, 51 of them came off the assembly
lines. For the most part, they were military versions, destined for the Chinese Air Force
which, in the mid-1930's, already was fighting what would become the Pacific half of
World War II. Armed with just three .30 cal. machine guns and carrying about 1000 lbs.
of bombs, they probably were at quite a disadvantage against the fast, maneuverable little
Japanese fighter planes.
Other Gammas mainly 2Es - went to a number of countries for a variety of reasons.
One that got as far as Sweden was SE-ADW Smaland, used by a predecessor of today's Scandinavian
Airlines System in night airmail flying until aileron flutter proved its undoing. At
least two found their way to Great Britain, one being a Model 2E used for experimental
purposes by the Air Ministry, and the sole Model 2L used by Bristol as a flying test
bed for its Hercules sleeve-valve engine.
Rumors aside, only one complete Gamma is known to be in existence: the ski-equipped
Polar Star, which is on display in the Smithsonian's Silver Hill, Md., facility. It is
in excellent condition, except for some dents and scratches acquired many years ago when
it was slithering around the ice. But that's what history is made of.
Specifications of the basic single-seat Gamma
Length 29' 9"
Wingspan 48' 0"
Wing Area 363 sq. ft.
Empty Weight 3500 lbs.
Normal Loaded Weight 7000 lbs.
Maximum Speed 215 mph
Cruising Speed 191 mph
Landing Speed 63 mph
Initial Rate of Climb 1000 fpm
Service Ceiling 20,000'
Absolute Ceiling 22,500'
Photos Courtesy of National Air & Space Museum
Posted October 13, 2018