The Gamma was a further development of the successful Northrop Alpha and shared its predecessor's aerodynamic innovations with wing fillets and multicellular stressed-skin wing construction. Like late Alphas, the fixed landing gear was covered in distinctive aerodynamic spats, and the aircraft introduced a fully enclosed cockpit.
The Polar Star on display at the National Air and Space Museum
The Gamma saw fairly limited civilian service as mail planes with Trans World Airlines but had an illustrious career as a flying laboratory and record-breaking aircraft. The US military found the design sufficiently interesting to encourage Northrop to develop it into what eventually became the Northrop A-17 light attack aircraft. Military versions of the Gamma saw combat with Chinese and Spanish Republican air forces. Twenty Five Gamma 2Es were assembled in China from components provided by Northrop.
On June 2, 1933 Frank Hawks flew his Gamma 2A "Sky Chief" from Los Angeles to New York in a record 13 hours, 26 minutes, and 15 seconds. In 1935, Howard Hughes improved on this time in his modified Gamma 2G making the west-east transcontinental run in 9 hours, 26 minutes, and 10 seconds.
The most famous Gamma was the "Polar Star." The aircraft was carried via ship and offloaded onto the pack ice in the Ross Sea during Lincoln Ellsworth's 1934 expedition to Antarctica. The Gamma was almost lost when the ice underneath it broke, and had to be returned to the United States for repairs. Polar Star's second assignment to Antarctica in September 1934 was also futile — a connecting rod broke and the aircraft had to be returned yet again for repairs. On January 3, 1935, Ellsworth and pilot Bernt Balchen finally flew over Antarctica.
On November 23, 1935, Ellsworth and Canadian pilot Herbert Hollick-Kenyon attempted the world's first trans-Antarctic flight from Dundee Island in the Weddell Sea to Little America. The crew made four stops during their journey, in the process becoming the first people ever to visit Western Antarctica. During one stop, a blizzard completely packed the fuselage with snow which took a day to clear out. On December 5, after traveling over 2,400 miles (3,865 km) the aircraft ran out of fuel just 25 miles (40 km) short of the goal. The intrepid crew took six days to travel the remainder of the journey and stayed in the abandoned Richard E. Byrd camp until being found by the Discovery II research vessel on January 15, 1936. "Polar Star" was later recovered and donated to the SmithsonianNational Air and Space Museum where it resides to this day.
Northrop-proposed attack version to compete with Curtiss A-12 Shrike armed with 4x 0.30 cal machine guns in the wings, 1x 0.30 cal machine gun on a flexible mount for rear defence, and up to 1,100 lb (500 kg) of bombs under the wings, evaluated by USAAC in 1933
Cargo version used by TWA, three built, 710 hp (529 kW) Wright Cyclone engine. One aircraft was converted into an "Experimental Overweather Laboratory" studying icing, superchargers, radios, and turbulence at 20,000-35,000 ft (6,100–10,670 m), then used by USAAC under the designation UC-100. Another retired TWA aircraft was used by Spanish Republican air force for coastal patrol.
Two-seat version with the cockpits moved forward, used by the Spanish Republican air force for coastal patrol.
One aircraft exported to Japan with "Army-type" equipment (designation BXN2), studied by Nakajima, then passed to Manchukuo National Airways which used it for aerial reconnaissance over China and USSR.