Pioneer of British Military Aviation

Royal Flying Corps

The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was the air arm of the British Army before and during the First World War until it merged with the Royal Naval Air Service on 1 April 1918 to form the Royal Air Force.

Royal Flying Corps BadgeDuring the early part of the war, the RFC supported the British Army by artillery co-operation and photographic reconnaissance. This work gradually led RFC pilots into aerial battles with German pilots and later in the war included the strafing of enemy infantry and emplacements, the bombing of German military airfields and later the strategic bombing of German industrial and transport facilities.

At the start of World War I the RFC, commanded by Brigadier-General Sir David Henderson, consisted of five squadrons – one observation balloon squadron (RFC No 1 Squadron) and four aeroplane squadrons. These were first used for aerial spotting on 13 September 1914 but only became efficient when they perfected the use of wireless communication at Aubers Ridge on 9 May 1915. Aerial photography was attempted during 1914, but again only became effective the next year. By 1918, photographic images could be taken from 15,000 feet and were interpreted by over 3,000 personnel. Parachutes were not available to pilots of the heavier-than-air craft in the RFC – nor were they used by the RAF during the First World War – although the Calthrop Guardian Angel parachute (1916 model) was officially adopted just as the war ended. By this time parachutes had been used by balloonists for three years.

On 17 August 1917, South African General Jan Smuts presented a report to the War Council on the future of air power. Because of its potential for the 'devastation of enemy lands and the destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale', he recommended a new air service be formed that would be on a level with the Army and Royal Navy. The formation of the new service would also make the under-used men and machines of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) available for action on the Western Front and end the inter-service rivalries that at times had adversely affected aircraft procurement. On 1 April 1918, the RFC and the RNAS were amalgamated to form a new service, the Royal Air Force (RAF), under the control of the new Air Ministry. After starting in 1914 with some 2,073 personnel, by the start of 1919, the RAF had 4,000 combat aircraft and 114,000 personnel in some 150 squadrons.

Origin and early history

With the growing recognition of the potential for aircraft as a cost-effective method of reconnaissance and artillery observation, the Committee of Imperial Defence established a sub-committee to examine the question of military aviation in November 1911. On 28 February 1912, the sub-committee reported its findings which recommended that a flying corps be formed and that it consist of a naval wing, a military wing, a central flying school and an aircraft factory. The recommendations of the committee were accepted and on 13 April 1912 King George V signed a royal warrant establishing the Royal Flying Corps. The Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers became the Military Wing of the Royal Flying Corps a month later on 13 May.

The Flying Corps' initial allowed strength was 133 officers, and by the end of that year, it had 12 manned balloons and 36 aeroplanes. The RFC originally came under the responsibility of Brigadier-General Henderson, the Director of Military Training, and had separate branches for the Army and the Navy. Major Sykes commanded the Military Wing and Commander C R Samson commanded the Naval Wing. The Royal Navy, however, with different priorities to that of the Army and wishing to retain greater control over its aircraft, formally separated its branch and renamed it the Royal Naval Air Service on 1 July 1914, although a combined central flying school was retained.

The RFC's motto was Per ardua ad astra ("Through adversity to the stars"). This remains the motto of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and other Commonwealth air forces.

The RFC's first fatal crash was on 5 July 1912 near Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain. Killing Captain Eustace B. Loraine and his observer, Staff Sergeant R.H.V. Wilson, flying from Larkhill Aerodrome. An order was issued after the crash stating "Flying will continue this evening as usual", thus beginning a tradition.

In August 1912 RFC Lieutenant Wilfred Parke RN became the first aviator to be observed to recover from an accidental spin when the Avro G cabin biplane, with which he had just broken a world endurance record, entered a spin at 700 feet above ground level at Larkhill. Four months later on 11 December 1912 Parke was killed when the Handley Page monoplane in which he was flying from Hendon to Oxford crashed.