April 1, 1918 – British Royal Air Force is Founded

The British Royal Air Force, the oldest independent air force in the world, was founded in England only a relatively short time after the first successful flight by Wilbur and Orville Wright in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Orville Wright is at the controls of the “Wright Flyer” as his brother Wilbur Wright looks on during the plane’s first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Dec. 17, 1903.

As is the case behind many developments in science and engineering, the military immediately saw the potential for the use of this new technology for wartime. Military flying was pioneered by the French with their invention of the balloon, which was used for observation.

The British Admiralty also expressed an interest in reconnaissance, especially if the limitations of balloons could be overcome. Enter Samuel Cody, an American Wild West showman and early pioneer of manned flight.

Samuel Franklin Cody

Cody became interested in kites, and the possibility that they could be made large enough to carry a man inside. He developed a sophisticated system of flying multiple kites up a single line (later known as a Cody War-Kite), which was capable of ascending to many thousands of feet or of carrying several men in a gondola. The kites could be operated in stronger winds than balloons. His kites were soon adopted for meteorology, and Cody, who moved to Britain in 1890, was made a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society.

In December, 1901, Cody offered his design to the British War Office as an observation “War Kite” for use in the Second Boer War, and made several demonstration flights of up to 2,000 feet in various places around London. His exploits came to the attention of the Admiralty, which hired him to look into the military possibilities of using kites for observation posts. The Admiralty eventually purchased four of his War Kites.

The Cody Kite

In 1905, using a design resembling a tailless biplane, he devised and flew a manned “glider-kite”. Cody eventually managed to interest the British Army in his kites. In 1907, he created an unmanned “power-kite.” In that year, the Army also decided to back the development of Cody’s powered aeroplane, which became the British Army Aeroplane No. 1. He started testing the machine in late 1908. His flight of October 16, 1908 is recognized as the first official flight of a piloted heavier-than-air machine in Great Britain.

His contract with the Army ended in April 1909, but Cody continued to refine his aircraft with his own funds. He carried passengers for the first time in August 1909.

The Cody V machine, with a new 120 hp engine, won first prize at the 1912 British Military Aeroplane Competition Military Trials on Salisbury Plain.

(On August 7, 1913, Cody was test flying his latest design, the Cody Floatplane, when it broke up at 200 feet and he and his passenger, the cricketer William Evans, were killed.)

Meanwhile, the tide of German militarism was becoming more and more obvious, and the War Office decided that the old Balloon Section would be expanded into an Air Battalion.

At the end of 1911, the British Government to ask the Committee for Imperial Defence to investigate the state of naval and military aviation and how best to create an effective air force. They found that, in contrast to France and Germany, both of which were developing impressive air divisions, Britain had only around 11 flying men in the Army and only 8 in the Navy.

The Committee recommended that Britain establish a dedicated flying corps to consist of a Naval and a Military Wing, together with a Central Flying School, for the training of both Army and Navy pilots, and a Reserve.

The recommendations were duly accepted and King George V signed the Royal Warrant establishing the Royal Flying Corps on April 13, 1912.

Ironically, in July 1914, at the onset of World War I, British General Douglas Haig is said to have told his officers (as quoted in Andrew Whitmarsh, “British Army Manoeuvres and the Development of Military Aviation, 1910–1913,” War in History, Vol. 14, No. 3 (July 2007), pp. 325-346):

I hope none of you gentlemen is so foolish as to think that aeroplanes will be usefully employed for reconnaissance purposes in war. There is only one way for commanders to get information by reconnaissance, and that is by the cavalry.”

Field Marshal Earl Haig (1861-1928), the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces during the First World War

A newspaper editorial at the time begged to differ, observing:

The Great War will put many theories to the proof, among others the views held as to the relative value of airships and aeroplanes, and the part they are fitted to play in war.” (both quotes from Reporting the Great War by Stuart Hylton, p. 17)

On November 29, 1917, an Act of Parliament establishing an Air Force and an Air Council received the Royal Assent. The Royal Air Force came into existence on this day in history, April 1, 1918, with headquarters located in the former Hotel Cecil. At that time the RAF was the largest air force in the world. The aircraft in use in 1918 when the RAF started included the Sopwith Pup, Bristol F2B Fighters, Sopwith Camels and Royal Aircraft Factory SE5’s.

Today, the British Air Force boasts 33,240 active personnel; 869 operational aircraft; 1,940 in the Royal Auxiliary Air Force; and 2,220 reserve personnel. As an online RAF brochure reports:

The Royal Air Force provides full-spectrum air and space power, professionally, effectively and efficiently. Outstanding people are at the heart of everything we do.”

Typhoons taking on fuel from a RAF Voyager tanker during Exercise Red Flag, 2017

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