The History of 200 Years of British Naval Aviation in a Nutshell


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The History of 200 Years of British Naval Aviation in a Nutshell


The first hot air balloon to fly from an RN carrier had to wait for more than a Century and a half from when Admiral Cochrane proposed the use of balloons


From 1903 the RN trialled man-carrying kites designed by Wild West Showman Cody, being towed by vessels from a whaler, a torpedoboat destroyer, cruisers, to battleships

1. 1807 to 1914 Origins and First Steps
The Official Fleet Air Arm Centenary was marked for 2009, suggesting a continuous history from 1909. These are arbitrary dates. The first consideration of employing aviation in naval warfare dates back to the Napoleonic Wars. One of the visionary Naval officers proposing the use of air power was a highly successful frigate captain, Cochrane, who was to inspire authors of Napoleonic era naval fiction and was to lead the navies of Chile, Peru, and Brazil in their fight for independence from colonial rule. As a frigate captain, Cochrane upset the French sufficiently to come to the personal attention of Napoleon who dubbed him “The Sea Wolf”. Naval officers were later involved in ballooning from the 1860s as observers during the American Civil War and then during the Boer Wars in South Africa when naval guns were sent ashore to aid the army and naval officers borrowed Army balloons to direct gun fire – the Naval Field Gun Competition, where RN and FAA teams compete to move field gun and limber across simulated obstacles derives from the Boer War experiences. In 1903 the Royal Navy began serious testing of man-carrying kites, as the first attempts were being made to achieve powered flight. That then involved Naval officers in the development of a powered kite by Cody that flew as the first British aeroplane in 1908. Therefore, the process of planning and employing naval aviation is more than two hundred years old. From 1909, the provision of British naval aviation has not been continuously by the Fleet Air Arm because there has been a battle for control with the Army, and then the Royal Air Force, where the RN has periodically lost control of its aviation assets. Although politicians tried to move all aviation under Army control with the Royal Flying Corps, the Royal Navy continued to train pilots at its own flying school and won the argument with the return of its aviators in 1914.


The first torpedo was dropped by an RNAS floatplane but most torpedo actions were conducted by wheel equipped aircraft


The highly effective Sopwith Pup was followed by the superlative Sopwith Camel




HMS Furious went through stages of conversion to eventually a full flight deck


HMS Argos became the first ‘flat iron’ carrier

2. 1914 to 1918 The Great War
The period of the Great War saw British naval aviators and aircraft manufacturers making huge advances in technology. The Royal Naval Air Service was founded one month before the outbreak of war and started with the first integrated aerial weapon system when a naval floatplane successfully dropped the first torpedo from the air. In one case, an RNAS floatplane launched its torpedo while taxiing in the sea, to sink a Turkish ship. The real exploits of naval aviators have inspired many authors of fiction. One naval aviator landed behind Turkish lines to rescue a downed comrade who strapped himself to wing struts for the flight to safety. From early in WWI, RNAS bombers and fighters were taking the battle to Germany, attacking port installations and airship factories, with an RNAS pilot destroying the first German airship over Belgium. Starting with a handful of pilots and engineers, the RNAS expanded into a considerable and advanced fighting force. During the course of the Great War, the Royal Navy had built the first aircraft carriers and pioneered this new type of warship to the point where it was capable of a first strike deployment, not just a useful adjunct to the resources available to a big gun battle fleet. The Admiralty enjoyed a productive relationship with commercial organizations, that had established aircraft factories, where the Army had to initially rely on the State-owned Royal Aircraft Factory that was producing frail unarmed aircraft as ‘scouts’. Where the Army’s RFC scouts still flew back to drop messages, the RNAS was already fitting wireless telegraphy sets to its reconnaissance aircraft. Ironically, this outstanding progress by British naval aviators was rewarded by the transfer of RNAS personnel and equipment to the newly formed Royal Air Force, during the last year of War. However, some naval pilots applied to return to the RN and were sent off to fly in the Russian Civil Wars on the side of the White Russians, coming home in 1923.


Several carrier aircraft served with changing undercarriage from floats to wheels, but a number were amphibious floatplanes


Even without control of its aircraft, the RN continued to experiment and one exciting series of tests was conducted on the autogiro with wheels and with floats


The great success of this period was the design and construction of the innovative ‘Treaty’ carrier HMS Ark Royal (III) on which all carriers came to be based

3. 1918 to 1937 The Years of Famine
During the period, from the formation of the RAF in 1918, until the creation of the Fleet Air Arm in 1937, the Royal Navy fought a long and, sometimes, bitter battle to regain control of British naval aviation. During this period, the development of aircraft carriers
remained with the Admiralty and the Royal Navy, aircraft, aviator training, and operational deployment was with the RAF, but the RN gradually regained control by placing naval aircraft on the Admiralty budget and insisting on an increasing percentage of naval aircrew being composed of RN officers. In 1937, it was not a total victory for the Royal Navy because the RAF retained control of flying boats and land planes for maritime patrol, placing these under Coastal Command. However, it provided a short period to prepare for the greatest conflict the world had ever seen. During this time, the FAA had to struggle to introduce aircraft that could fight on equal terms with land-based monoplanes. The main difficulty during this period was that the RAF had very little interest in naval aviation, a desire to become the only British military aviation force, a primary mission of strategic bombing, and a preoccupation with sending messages in the Middle East and the outposts of Empire. This provided the prototype for US foreign policy in the new millennium. RAF aircraft, sometimes flown by naval aviators, and festooned with goatskins of water and spare parts, dropped small bombs on tribal villages while the locals returned fire with flintlock rifles.


The Sea Gladiator was still a first line FAA fighter in 1939 and three Sea Gladiators (Faith, Hope, and Charity) became immortal in their defence of Malta


Intended as a dive bomber, the Blackburn Skua shot down the first German aircraft of WWII


The Fairy Fulmar was the first FAA monoplane 8 gun (wing mounted) Fleet fighter, also with a Vikers K gun on a flexible mount for the second crew member.


The surprising FAA ‘star’ was the Swordfish torpedo bomber that served through WWII. The version above was a late model with radar and underwing unguided rockets. The Swordfish was to the FAA what the Spitfire was to the RAF in terms of its iconic service.


HMS Victorious was part of the WWII Fleet Carrier force that served on well into the jet age – above in its post war configuration with 3D radar


CAM ‘suicide’ fighter carrier helped drive off


German Kondor long-range bombers


The MAC carrier was a merchant ship carrying cargo with a flight deck carrying Wildcat fighters and Swordfish bombers


The ‘jeep’ carrier design was developed from a captured German merchant ship adapted by the RN as a small convoy escort carrier

4. 1939 to 1945 The Days of Glory
The period of World War Two, from 1939 to 1945, was the glory days of British naval aviation. In the short period from the formation of the Fleet Air Arm in 1937, to the outbreak of WWII, the FAA had to race to catch up and correct the neglect of the inter-war years. It saw dramatic expansion of personnel, aircraft and carriers, pioneered the first strike capability for naval aircraft in attacking the Italian Fleet in port, provided fighter pilots to serve during the Battle of Britain alongside RAF pilots, and introduced important technical innovation that made the FAA the capital weapon of the Royal Navy, displacing the big gun which had been king of naval warfare for five hundred years. A little commented fact is that the first German aircraft to be shot down during WWII was killed by an FAA Skua dive bomber. The FAA pioneered the ‘Jeep’ carrier as a convoy escort, closing the ‘Gap’ in Atlantic convoys that was beyond the range of shore-based aircraft. As the war in Europe drew to a close, carriers were sent to join the US Fleet in the Pacific and the armoured decks of the British carriers enabled them to operate close to Japanese suicide bomber airfields where the soft decked US carriers were easy victims. A bi-plane naval air service in 1939, the FAA ended the conflict with high performance monoplanes, equal to contemporary land planes, and with the first generation jet aircraft and helicopters joining the Fleet.



The FAA entered the Transition period with jet fighters and helicopters being introduced. One pioneering FAA helicopter pilot was to found his own fleet of commercial helicopters and inspire on fictional book based on his successful efforts to extract all of his helicopters operating in Iran under the noses of the Revolutionary Guards.

800px-Fairey Firefly

Shortages of money and machines caused several aircraft to be reintroduced


One of these prop planes, the Sea Fury, was to achieve the first MiG15 kill by British aircraft in Korea


FAA Whirlwind helicopters proved important troop insertion aircraft during the Malaya Emergency

5. 1945 to 1953 Transition to Cold War
At the close of WWII, a greatly enlarged FAA was to suffer the severe cutbacks of peace. Britain was exhausted by six years of total and global warfare. The Exchequer was empty and the Empire dying. This time, the RN retained control of its aviation, but was forced to accept the cancellation of ships and aircraft, the delays in new construction, and suffered significant reductions in personnel. However, the FAA introduced the jet and the helicopter to naval aviation and began a series of innovations that were to be copied around the world. From 1945 to 1953 the FAA was going through a process of transition that saw it preparing to fight the Cold War. The period concluded with the Korean War and the victory in Malaya over Communist insurgents. At the same time, the RN was changing from a truly global navy to an anti-submarine force, operating in the North Atlantic to provide protection to convoys that would link North America and Europe in any new global conflict. That change increased efforts by the RAF to again take over all naval aviation, providing cover from land-based aircraft.


Turboprop Fleet Fighters/Torpedo bombers had a limited service life


The radar and rocket equipped jet fighter was introduced


Air-Air refueling was introduced


Aircraft became heavier and more powerful. The Sea Vixen was the first British jet to be designed without gun armament, carrying bombs, unguided rockets and radar directed missiles under wing, and having retractable unguided missile racks either side of the nose wheel – the retractable rack rockets were designed to be fired at massed Russian bomber formations, with the navigator/radar operator flying the aircraft and locking it on to the bombers during the attack phase.


The Phantom introduced mach 2 fighter performance


The Gannet provided twin engine (driving a contra-rotating props) turboprop AEW


HMS Ark Royal became the last fixed wing, fast jet carrier of the era

6. 1945 to 1982 Withdrawal From Empire
From 1945, Britain scrambled to abandon its Empire. WWI had cost Britain the best of a generation and reduced its gold reserves to pay for the Great War. The financial disaster of the Depression saw Britain moved off the Gold Standard and that effectively ended the British Empire, but it was to struggle on through WWII and its people were to perform magnificently. By 1945, there could be no further pretence, but there was a question of how the withdrawal from Empire should be conducted. It became a messy process, where the Royal Navy and the FAA were called upon to help in a series of incidents, while Britain progressively withdrew from its overseas bases and its global responsibilities. Even HMY Britannia was pressed into withdrawal service, evacuating Britons from Aden, in one case putting close inshore at night to recover some Britons who had missed the original evacuation point, with only the light weapons of her embarked Royal Marines for covering fire. While the rearguard of Empire was being fought, the FAA was introducing helicopters and combat jets to carriers built for piston-engine aircraft that were lighter and operated at lower landing speeds. In addition to learning to handle these new machines during the critical take off and landing phases of flight, FAA crew were learning how to develop new tactics to exploit the new opportunities offered by vertical take off and landing and of high speed jet flight.



Invincible new 10

HMS Invincible, HMS Hermes and the Sea Harrier were vital to liberating the Falkland Islands


Atlantic Converyor was a latter day MAC ship but the lawyers prevented her being equipped with anti-aircraft guns and missiles.


The lack of AEW cost the Atlantic Conveyor and radar pickets. The Sea King was quickly modified to carry AEW radar to make up for the loss of the Gannet which could not fly off the current carriers

7. 1982 to 2004 The First Energy Wars
Through the transition to Cold War, and withdrawal from Empire, the FAA was continually squeezed by politicians. After a failed attempt by Government to plan the replacement of all manned aircraft with missiles, the RAF argued that the Royal Navy would never operate beyond the range of RAF air cover and did not need its own aviation. Then the first energy war broke out in 1982, as Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands to seize potential offshore oilfields and the rich fishing grounds. Without aircraft carriers and manned aircraft, the Task Force sent from Portsmouth would have been unable to eject the Argentine bandits and liberate the Falkland Islanders. Government was forced to reassess the future of the RN and FAA, voting new funds for ships and aircraft. The Falklands War has been followed by a succession of conflicts where energy supplies have been at least part of the trigger for war and the FAA has been called upon to respond.


The first F-35 STVOL advanced fighter has been handed over to the FAA

HMSPrinceofWalesSTOVL RearSide

The new carriers are under construction but may not be operational with all aircraft before 2020

HMS Queen Elizabeth bridge sets sail 1

The new carriers are being built in sections at several yards before being shipped to a yard in Scotland for final assembly

8. 2004 onwards and upwards The Future
One hundred years of tentative steps towards naval aviation by British sailors has been followed by one hundred years of dramatic progress and innovation, against a background of political warfare to remove aviation assets from the Royal Navy. During that second hundred years, British naval aviators have been called upon to defend Britain in two World Wars, a global conflict through proxies, a host of smaller conflicts and the withdrawal from Empire. On every occasion the Fleet’s aviators have risen to the challenge magnificently, largely against the parsimony of politicians who have sadly neglected the service. The question now is whether British naval aviators can look forward to another hundred years of outstanding achievement. The work to construct two new large fixed-wing carriers and a fleet of aircraft-capable ships promises a large part of that new future, reinforced by commitments to new helicopters and supersonic fighters. Even here, it is not all good news because the weak Coalition Government sold off the Sea Harrier Fleet at bargain basement prices to the US DOD and the RAF again demonstrated its lack of commitment to maritime patrol when it agreed to the vandalistic scrapping of a fleet of new maritime and intelligence Nimrods that were about to enter service and had already been paid for. Against that, stands an uncertain international environment where Britain is due to be divided up into a series of new Landes within a Federal European Union, its military capability being transferred to a new European military force. There is also an increasing probability that many tasks performed by manned aircraft will in future be performed by remote piloted aircraft and intelligent Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Some of these new unmanned aircraft will be piloted by crew located in a bunker thousands of miles away. Others will be launched from ships and controlled by pilots aboard the vessels, or by computers. What we can be reasonably sure of is that Britons will continue to contribute to innovative naval aviation.


Nano Air Vehicle (Hand)

The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle is taking over many roles previously performed by manned aircraft. The US Navy is engaged in extensive testing of a range of UAVs, from hand-launched micro UAVs, through catapult launched larger machines, to carrier launched UAVs that can refuel in the air and to large machines like the Global Hawk (above) that take off from airfields ashore. The Royal Navy is also looking at a similar range of UAVs, but they may not necessarily be operated by the Fleet Air Arm. The control of maritime air patrols is a growing issue and has presented considerable difficulties in dealing with pirates. In home waters, anti-terror operations could involve five government agencies, a commercial contractor and a number of charities.

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