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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.


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

George Colmore
Lt George Cyril Colmore RN

George Cyril Colmore gained 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 on 21 June 1910. Report by RAC in Flight ...

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

Francis 'Frank' McClean
Francis McClean
Admiral Sir CC Drury
The first four naval pilots to qualify for their Royal Aero Club Certificate

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
Lt Arthur Murray Longmore RN

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 Lt Wilfred Parke RN, seen here hands-in-pockets with Samuel Cody, received ...

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2MaySecond batch of RN & RM flyers gain certificates

Lieutenant Eugene Gerrard RMLI qualifying for his pilot's certificate
Lt Eugene Louis Gerrard RMA
Lt Eugene Gerrard
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 Richard 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 1 ...

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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
Lieut A M Longmore RN

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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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 signed by King George V 13 April 1912. The Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers became the Military Wing of the Royal Flying Corps a month later on 13 May 1912. The headquarters and flying school of the Naval Wing were at Eastchurch, ...

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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

Flt lt Egbert Cadbury’s Aero Club Certificate 1343

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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30JulFirst RM NCO gains Aviator Certificate

Private John Edmonds, RMLI, gains Royal Aero Club certificate #262 at Eastchurch, flying a Short Biplane.

John Edmonds was born in Walworth, London on 4 December 1881, and by the age of eighteen he was earning a living as a slater's labourer.

On 29 June 1900, Edmonds enlisted in the RMLI at the age of eighteen and a half, and followed the usual recruit training at Deal, Kent until February ...

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25AugLt Wilfred Parke RN discovered how to recover from a spin

Lt Parke (seen here weighing-in with Samuel Cody)

On Sunday 25 August 1912, Lt Wilfred Parke RN flying an Avro G during Military Aeroplane Competition at Lark Hill with Lt Le Breton as passenger, discovered how to recover an aircraft from a spin. He was landing after completing a 4hrs endurance test, and attempted a impressive spiral engine-off landing... but his Avro Type G entered a spin at about 1000ft above the airfield.

A recovery technique ...

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3SepFirst RN rating gains Aviator Certificate

Thomas O'Connor
Leading Seaman Thomas O'Connor, Engine-room Artificer, gained Royal Aero Club Aviator certificate #286 at Central Flying School, Upavon in a Short Biplane.


1JanThe first RN Air Station is commissioned.

In a letter from the Admiralty to the Admiral commanding Coastguard and Reserves, classified SECRET, approval was given for the establishment of a 'regular chain of stations for naval aircraft along the coast of the United Kingdom within easy flight of each other.' 16 sites for hydro-aeroplanes were suggested and three for airships.

The first of these, RNAS Grain, on the Isle of Grain, Medway ...

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7MayHMS HERMES (a light cruiser) is commissioned as the experimental ship for operating aircraft at sea.

HMS HERMES (a Highflyer class cruiser) is commissioned after being converted to be the first British warship for operating seaplanes. The conversion involved fitting a stowage platform at the rear of the ship and a launching platform at the front. The aircraft took off using wheeled trolleys and were retrieved by cranes. Two seaplanes were carried during trials in 1913. The design arrangements were ...

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1OctAll Army airships transferred to Navy

In October 1913 it was decided to transfer all the airships belonging to the Military Wing to the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps and for the latter to be responsible in the future for the development of lighter-than-air craft. Airships remained under naval control until December 1919, when all units were transferred to the RAF, Coastal Area.

By the outbreak of World War I, the former Army ...

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15MayWinston Churchill visits Eastchurch

Churchill at Eastchurch

First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill (centre, facing camera), stands in front of Short Type S.38 Biplane (a.k.a. Short S.77), No. 66, of the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps, during a visit to Eastchurch, Kent.

No. 66, seen here with a Vickers Maxim gun fitted on the front of the gondola, was used for experimental gun and wireless installation tests at Eastchurch. On the extreme ...

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28JunNight Flying by a Seaplane

Sopwith Bat Boat

Summary of Report by Lieutenant A W Bigsworth on night flying in a seaplane (Longmore Papers, National Maritime Museum)

The flight occurred on 28 June 1914 at 11pm in a Sopwith Bat Boat No.118 fitted with a 50cp motor car electric headlight 4 volt lamp on the wing tip and a shaded 4 volt lamp in the bow of the boat. The flight which must have been one of the first night flights by a naval aircraft, ...

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1JulThe Royal Naval Air Service is formed

RNAS badge ©Fleet Air Arm Museum
Flight Lieutenant or Observer Lieutenant
Flight Commander or Flight Observer
Squadron Commander or Squadron Observer

The Admiralty adopts the title Royal Naval Air Service for the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps.

The strength of the RNAS on formation is: 55 seaplanes and "shipborne" aircraft; 40 aeroplanes; seven airships; 111 officers and 544 men.

Extracts from Admiralty Circular Letter CW.13964/14 of 1.7.14 'Royal Naval Air Service - Organisation (Adm.1/8378)

The Royal Naval Air Service, forming ...

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28JulFirst aerial torpedo drop

Short Admiralty Type 81 Folder seaplane
Short seaplane, but it is not the actual aircraft that Longmore flew ©Fleet Air Arm Museum

The RNAS took delivery of the Sopwith Special floatplane which was specifically designed to drop a 14 inch torpedo in early July 1914, but it proved unable to take-off carrying the torpedo, so Squadron Commander Arthur Longmore, commander of the Calshot seaplane station which was carrying out the torpedo trials, suggested that one of the Short Folder Tractor biplane seaplanes should be modified for ...

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4AugWar Declared by Britain

Longmore's diary

On 28 June 1914, the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo led to a month of diplomatic manoeuvring between Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France, and Britain resulting in countries mobilising their forces and eventually on 1 August, Germany declared war on Russia and then 3 August on France. Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914. Subsequently more and more ...

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11AugAdmiralty requisitioned three cross-channel packets

HMS Empress
HMS Engadine
HMS Riviera

On this day 1914 Admiralty requisitioned three cross-channel packets

The Admiralty requisitioned three cross-channel packets from the South Eastern & Chatham Railway Co. Ltd for conversion as seaplane tenders. They were renamed HM Ships Empress, Engadine and Riviera.

Upon completion of the modifications on 1 September1914, HMS Riviera was assigned to the Harwich Force along with Engadine ...

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15AugFirst RNAS aircraft arrive in Orkney

On 15 August 1914, the first RNAS aircraft arrived in Orkney.

Three seaplanes and two aeroplanes were dumped in a field of still green oats belonging to the farm of Nether Scapa. At first the aircraft were covered over with an assortment of tents and marquees borrowed from a variety of sources in the nearby town of Kirkwall.

A severe gale in early November caused destruction to some of ...

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27AugThe first RNAS squadron is deployed to Ostend

Wg Cdr Samson
BE2 No.50  Image © FAA Museum

Eastchurch (Mobile) Squadron formed 8 August 1914 with 6 pilots. Bell-Davies, Dalrymple-Clark, Briggs, Sippe, Samson (Commanding Officer) and Beever. The squadron was equipped with Short S38, BE2a, TB8, Sopwith Tractor and DFW aircraft. It deployed to Ostend Racecourse on 27 August 1914 becoming the first RNAS squadron to deploy in WW1. It became No3 Squadron when it moved to St Pol 1 September 1914.

The ...

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3SepThe Admiralty given responsibility for the air defence of Britain

Dover Anti-Aircraft Corps RNVR Drop Redoubt B Crew

On 3 September 1914, it was decided by the Cabinet that as the Army had neither guns or personnel for anti-aircraft defences, the Navy were to undertake the anit-aircraft defence of the country.

The Navy had been so starved of personnel before the war that they also had none to spare but met the difficulty by raising a body of part-time volunteers for London, enrolling them in the Royal Naval ...

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9OctFirst Zeppelin destroyed in its base.

Zeppelin LZ25 (Z.IX) is destroyed in its shed at Dusseldorf by RNAS Sopwith Tabloid flown by Flight Lieutenant Reginald Leonard George Marix from Antwerp.

Report from Commander Spenser D A Grey to the Director of the Air Department, Admiralty, on the Raid on Cologne and Dusseldorf, dated 17 October 1914.

At about 11.30pm, Thursday the 8th October, the bombardment of Antwerp commenced from the ...

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31OctThe seaplane carrier HMS HERMES is sunk.

HMS Hermes

HMS Hermes (launched 7 April 1898), a former cruiser, had been converted to a seaplane carrier for trials and subseequently paid off. She was was recommissioned 31 August 1914 and used to ferry aircraft to France. On 30 October, Hermes arrived at Dunkirk with one load of seaplanes. The next morning, Hermes set out on the return journey but was recalled because a German submarine was reported in the ...

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21NovRNAS attacked Zeppelin sheds at Friedrichshaven

Avro 504s before Friedrichshaven raid

Three RNAS Avro 504s from Belfort, France attack Zeppelin sheds at Friedrichshaven. The first strategic air raid in history. It was planned and prepared for in utmost secrecy and when the three pilots took off carrying four 20lb bombs each, none of them had ever dropped a bomb before.

No. 873 was flown by Flight Commander John Tremayne Babington; No. 874, was flown by Squadron Commander Edward ...

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9DecSeaplane carrier HMS ARK ROYAL commissioned.

The Royal Navy had conducted trials in 1913 with a modified cruiser, Hermes, to evaluate the ability of seaplanes to work with the fleet. They were successful enough that the Admiralty allocated £81,000 in the 1914–1915 Naval Programme to purchase a merchant ship for a more thorough modification than had been possible with Hermes to better accommodate seaplanes. A tramp steamer was purchased ...

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21DecFirst night bombing raid of WW1

Maurice Farman Shorthorn MF II
C R Samson

Squadron Commander Samson flew a Farman MF-II, No 1241, for the first British night bombing mission when it attacked a German artillery installation on 21st December, 1914 flying from St Pol, Dunkirk.

Samson's personal account of the night was published in an article in a Singapore based newspaper 17 years after the event. It is reproduced below.

How I dropped ...

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25DecFirst bombing raid by ship-borne aircraft. (Cuxhaven)

Seven ship-borne seaplanes (Three Short Improved Type 74 Folders, two Short Type 81 Folders and two Short Type 135 Folders), from the seaplane carriers HMS ENGADINE, RIVIERA and EMPRESS attack the double airship shed on a turntable at Cuxhaven - the first bombing raid by ship-borne aircraft.

The three channel steamers had been converted to carry aircraft; they were covered by cruisers and destroyers ...

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23JanAttack by RNAS aircraft on U-boats in harbour

RNAS aircraft attack a U-boat alongside the Mole at Zeebrugge.

The KING is pleased to give orders for the following appointments to the Distinguished Order to the undermentioned Officers in recognition of their services.

These Officers have repeatedly attacked the German submarine station at Ostend and Zeebrugge, being subjected on each occasion to heavy and accurate fire, their machines ...

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29JanWalney Island airship sheds bombarded by U21.

U21 front right in Kiel February 1914
Airship R9 imerging from the sheds at Walney Island

German submarine 'U21' was sighted at just after 14:15 hours on the 29th January 1915. The German submarine 'U21' surfaced and opened fire on the airship sheds that had been constructed on Airship Shed Road, Walney Island, off Barrow-in-Furness. (Known today as West Shore Road.) The rounds fell well short of their intended target and the U boat was driven off by the shore batteries.

Image of ...

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18MarFirst flight of an SS non-rigid airship at Kingsnorth

SSZ 37
SS with Be2c car

SS (Submarine Scout or Sea Scout) class non-rigid developed as a matter of some urgency to counter the German U-boat threat to British shipping during World War I.

The prototype SS airship was created at RNAS Kingsnorth and was effectively a B.E.2c aeroplane fuselage and engine minus wings, tailfin and elevators, slung below the disused envelope from airship HMA No. 2 (a Willows No. 4) that ...

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17AprHMS CAMPANIA is commissioned.

The record-braking Cunard liner originally built in 1893 was purchased by the Admiralty in November 1914. In comparison with the purchase and conversion of the Engadine, Empress and Riviera, she was capable of high speed and with her holds, had the capacity to stow aircraft below decks. She spent several months conducting trials. Below is the report of the first take-off 6 August 1915.

Report ...

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23AprSub Lt Rupert Brooke RNVR serving with HMS Ark Royal dies

Rupert Brooke

Sub Lt Rupert Brooke RNVR serving with HMS Ark Royal dies.

With the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force aboard HMS Ark Royal, on his way to the landing at Gallipoli, Rupert Brooke developed sepsis from an infected mosquito bite. He died on 23 April 1915 aged 27 in a French hospital ship moored in a bay off the island of Skyros in the Aegean. As the expeditionary force had orders to depart ...

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25AprLandings at Gallipoli

The British Government was deeply concerned about the part Turkey was taking in the war in support of Germany, with which it had signed a treaty on 2 August 1914. On 13 January 1915 the Admiralty was directed to "prepare for a naval expedition in February to bombard and take Gallipoli Peninsula, with Constantinople as its objective"

The Royal Naval bombardment began on 19 February with some ...

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17MayZeppelin LZ39 attacked in the air

Flight Commander Arthur Wellesley Bigsworth in Avro 504B No. 1009 attacked the Zeppelin LZ39 over Ostend on 17 May 1915. He managed to cripple the airship by dropping four 20lb bombs damaging five of her gas cells, although the airship managed to regain its base. For this feat Bigsworth was awarded the DSO. This was the first night-time attack on a Zeppelin.

Bigsworth trained as a Mercantile ...

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26May'Coastal airships' introduced

Coastal Airship C-1 ©Fleet Air Arm Museum
The prototype of a new class of “Coastal” airships began flight trials. Designed at RNAS Kingsnorth, she was fitted with a duplicated twin-cockpit from an Avro 510 seaplane. This gave a four-cockpit car with a propeller at each end, one a ‘puller’, the other a ‘pusher’

7JunFlight Sub Lieutenant Warneford is awarded the Victoria Cross for destroying LZ37 near Ghent.

Flt S/Lt Rex Warnford of No.1 Naval Aeroplane Squadron flies Morane MS3 Type L Parasol to destroy Zeppelin LZ37 near Ghent. He is awarded the first FAA Victoria Cross.

No. 1 Naval Aeroplane Squadron, 8th June 1915, official report by Flight Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Warneford to Wing Commander AM Longmore (Air 1/672)

I left Furnes at 1:00 am on 7th June 1915 on Morane No. 3253 under orders to ...

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11JulRNAS aircraft assist in the sinking of the Konigsberg

German cruiser SMS Konigsberg after attack ©Fleet Air Arm Museum
Curtiss F Flying Boat

On 3 September 1914, at high tide, hiding from British warships, Königsberg passed over the bar at the mouth of the Rufiji and slowly made her way up the river. Coast watchers were stationed at the mouth of the river and telegraph lines were run to ensure the Germans would not be surprised by British ships searching for them. In doing so, his ship would occupy a disproportionate number of British ...

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1AugRoyal Naval Air Service command formalises

WW1 RNAS Cap Badge

Admiralty Weekly Order No 1204/15, dated 29 July 1915 (Adm 1/8408)


1. The Royal Naval Air Service is to be regarded in all respects as an integral part of the Royal Navy and in future the various Air Stations will be under the general orders of the Commander-in Chief or Senior Naval Officer in whose District they are situated.
2. The Commander-in Chief or Senior ...

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6AugFirst flight of a seaplane from a ship underway

A seaplane takes off from HMS Campania
Sopwith Schneider c1917
The first flight of a seaplane from a ship underway, using take-off trolleys took place 6 August 1915 using a Sopwith Schneider No.1559 flown by Flt Lt William Welsh from HMS Campania (picture shows a later launch from Campania of another type of seaplane).

12AugFirst successful airborne attack by torpedo carrying seaplanes

At the end of May 1915, HMS Ben-my-Chree sailed for the Dardanelles, where her aircraft were mainly involved in spotting for naval artillery in support of the Gallipoli Campaign. One of Ben-my-Chree's Short 184 seaplanes, piloted by Flight Commander Charles H K Edmonds made the first ever aerial torpedo attack on 12 August, when she successfully launched a single 14 inch (360 mm), 810 lb (370 kg) ...

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3NovFirst take-off of wheeled aircraft from warship

Bristol Scout
Flight Sub Lieutenant H Fowler RNAS took off in a Bristol Scout No 1255 from HMS Vindex and so performed the first take-off by a wheeled aircraft from a British warship.

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