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Fleet Air Arm History

From the early pioneering experiments of intrepid Naval Aviators in wood and fabric bi-planes, hurling themselves from temporary structures on the upper decks of warships, to the challenging demands of modern warfare, the men and aircraft of the Royal Navy’s Air Arm and their courageous, can-do attitude have become legendary. The history of Naval aviation is one of the most remarkable stories of the past hundred years. The ability to rise above the sea and look over the horizon, to stay airborne for long periods and to carry crew and weapons was to be a turning point in Naval thinking and the genesis of an exponential development in technology that was to radically shape history.

Although the term Fleet Air Arm did not actually come into being until 1924, the Admiralty was investigating kites and ballons for spotting as early as 1903, the first Naval aviator completed his flying training in 1910 and the first launch from a Royal Navy battleship was achieved by January of 1912. From those early formative years of Naval aviation to current operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, Naval personnel and aircraft have played a leading role.

The timeline below is continually being updated and supplemented with photographs, official reports and first-hand accounts. It is not intended to be a definitive history of the Fleet Air Arm, more a series of snapshots covering some of the key events in the history of Naval Aviation. Please contact us if you have images or items which you believe should go onto the timeline.

1903

12MarAdmiralty investigates kites for spotting

Cody Kite
Samuel Cody demonstrating his man-lifter kites to the Royal Navy
Naval personnel helping Samuel Cody assemble one of his man-lifter kites at Woolwich


Samuel Franklin Cody, an American, was an early pioneer of manned flight, most famous for his work on the large kites known as Cody kites. A large exhibition of the Cody kites took place at Alexandra Palace in 1903. His exploits came to the attention of the Admiralty and a series of Naval Kite Trials were held.


On Woolwich Common on the 12 and 13 March 1903, Cody flew his eight ft. black silk ...

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1909

7MayAdmiralty signs tender for its first aircraft


In 1908 the Committee of Imperial Defence set up a sub-committee to examine 'Aerial Navigation'. It looked at captive balloons, kites, rigid and non-rigid dirigibles and aeroplanes. One of the members of the sub-committee was Captain RHS Bacon, Director of Ordnance and Torpedoes in the Admiralty. On 21 July 1908 Captain Bacon submitted to the 1st Sea Lord Admiral Sir John Fisher a proposal that Vickers ...

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1910

21JunFirst Serviceman to gain Aviator Certificate is from the Royal Navy


Lieutenant George Cyril Colmore RN was the first serviceman to gain a Royal Aero Club Aviator's Licence, qualifying at his own expense. He made his first flight on 19 June 1910, flying Frank McClean's Short S.27 (Shorts' works no. S.26) for 11 miles in 20 minutes; the following day he passed the tests for the Aviator's Certificate #15, which was awarded at the Royal Aero Club's committee meeting ...

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1911

1MarFirst flying training Course at the Royal Aero Club, Eastchurch.

Francis 'Frank' McClean
Admiral Sir CC Drury


In November 1910 the Royal Aero Club, at the instigation of Francis McClean, offered the Royal Navy the use of its airfield at Eastchurch along with two aircraft and the services of its members as instructors in order that Naval officers might be trained as pilots. The Admiralty accepted and on 6 December the Commander-in-Chief responsible for the protection of the entrance to the port of London, ...

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25AprFirst batch of flying certificates for Navy pilots

Cdr Samson
Lt Wilfred Parke


Royal Aero Club certificates gained at Eastchurch, by Lieutenant Charles Rumney Samson, certificate #71, and Lieutenant Arthur Murray Longmore, certificate #72, flying Short Biplanes. At Brooklands, Lieutenant Wilfred Parke gained certificate #73 in a Bristol Biplane (died in an air accident, 15 December 1912).


Image of Cdr Samson copyright FAA Museum.


Image Lt Wilfred Parke RN, seen here ...

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2MaySecond batch of RN & RM flyers gain certificates

Lieutenant Eugene Gerrard RMLI qualifying for his pilot's certificate
At Eastchurch, flying Short Biplanes, Lieutenant Reginald Gregory gains Royal Aero Club certificate #75, and Lieutenant Eugene Louis Gerrard, RMLI, certificate #76.

30MayRN officer pays for his own flying training

Richard Bell Davies
Lieutenant Bell Davies, at Hendon, gains Royal Aero Club certificate #90, flying a Farman Biplane. He had paid 50 Pounds to the Grahame-White Flying School for his training, plus a 25 Pound deposit against damage. Lt Bell Davies would have a distinguished career in aviation. Squadron Commander Bell Davies was awarded the DSO on 23 January 1915 and the Victoria Cross on 19 November 1915.

24SepHMA-1 Mayfly breaks her back

Mayfly with broken back
Mayfly with broken back
Mayfly emerges from shed
HMA1 breaks her back
HMA1 breaks her back


HMA-1 was the first British rigid airship but she never flew. On September 24 1911, buffeted by strong winds, she broke in two as she was being moved from her shed at Cavendish Dock in readiness for full trials.


From Flight magazine 17 December 1910


According to advices from Barrow, the work of erecting the naval airship has now been completed, and as soon as the weather takes a favourable ...

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18NovNaval pioneer takes off from the water.

Oliver Schwann
Cdr Oliver Schwann experiments with floats on his own Avro plane
Cdr Schwann's Avro Type D taxiing for trials at Barrow 1912
Oliver Schwann's aircraft; HMA1 visible in background ©Fleet Air Arm Museum
Air Vice Marshal Sir Oliver Swann KCB, CBE, RAF


Commander Oliver Schwann RN bought an Avro Type D landplane (at his own expense with support from friends) for £700 and fitted floats to it. Schwann's group experimented with floats, skids, engine position and balancing. Experiments were conducted next to the hangar in Barrow-in-Furness where HMA No.1 was being built. Despite not having qualified as a pilot, on 18 November 1911 after many attempts, ...

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1DecFirst take-off from land and landing on water

Longmore after the landing


In 1911, Lieutenant Arthur Murray Longmore and aircraft engineer Oswald Short installed streamlined air bags on the undercarriage struts and under the tail of an Improved S.27 No.38 to enable the aircraft to land on water. On 1 December 1911, Longmore used the aircraft to become the first person in the United Kingdom to take off from land and make a successful water landing when he landed in the ...

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1912

10JanFirst aircraft launch from a British warship

A flying-off platform was constructed over the foredeck and forward 12-inch (305 mm) gun turret of the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Africa, and Lieutenant Charles Rumney Samson took off from it using an Improved Short S27 No38. The aeroplane took 100ft before leaving the trackway.

29Feb1st Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill quizzed in Parliament about hydro-aeroplanes

Adams on his modified Curtiss Biplane
Adams' landing on Lake Windermere
Picture in Manchester Guardian January 1912


Hansard's for 29 February 1912 records the following exchange in Parliament.


Mr. JOYNSON-HICKS asked the First Lord of the Admiralty whether his attention has been called to the successful experiments now being conducted on the South Coast of France with hydro-aeroplanes; whether the experiments have established the fact that these machines can rise from and alight upon the sea; and whether ...

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13AprRoyal Flying Corps constituted

Wright Brothers hangar at Eastchurch


The Naval Air Organisation and the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers are merged to form the Royal Flying Corps with Naval and Military Wings, constituted by Royal Warrant. The headquarters and flying school of the Naval Wing were at Eastchurch, Isle of Sheppey.


When the first Naval Flying School was established at Eastchurch in December 1911, all officers and men were borne on the books of ...

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2MayFirst launch of an aircraft from a ship under way


Improved S27 No 38 was one of four naval aircraft to take part in the 1912 Fleet Review at Weymouth, the others being a Short S.41 tractor biplane, a Deperdussin monoplane and a Nieuport monoplane. It was flown by Commander Samson and Lieutenant Gregory. A display of the possibilities of naval aviation was made in the presence of King George V, including a demonstration of the use of aircraft for ...

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15JulAdmiralty promulgates details of the Naval Wing of the RFC


Admiralty promulgates details of the composition of the Naval Wing of the RFC. Men were required to volunteer for four years' service in the Royal Flying Corps followed by four years in the Reserve of the RFC. Personnel would be borne on the books of HMS President.


An officer selected for the Royal Flying Corps who had obtained or subsequently obtained at his own expense, the Certificate of ...

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