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History of Naval Aviation of the Royal Navy and the Commonwealth



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In the early part of the 20th century the British Royal Navy used balloons and airships for reconnaissance. After the failure of the Royal Navy's airship Mayfly in 1911, the naval minister, Winston Churchill, began arguing for the development of military aircraft. 

In 1912 the government formed the Royal Flying Corps. The British Royal Navy was given the airships owned by the British Army. It was also given twelve aircraft to be used in conjunction with its ships. The first flight from a moving ship took place in May 1912. The following year, the first seaplane carrier, Hermes, was commissioned. The Navy also began to build a chain of coastal air stations. 

In January 1914 the government established the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). Within a few months the RNAS had 217 pilots and 95 aircraft (55 of them seaplanes). 

By the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the RNAS had more aircraft under its control than the Royal Flying Corps. The main role of the RNAS was fleet reconnaissance, patrolling coasts for enemy ships and submarines, attacking enemy coastal territory and defending Britain from enemy air-raids. The leading war ace in the RNAS was Raymond Collishaw with 60 victories. 

The RNAS was severely attacked for its failure to prevent the Zeppelin bombing raids. In February 1916 there was a change of policy and the Royal Flying Corps were given responsibility of dealing with Zeppelins once they were over Britain. The RNAS now concentrated on bombing Zeppelins on the ground in Germany

The RNAS also had fighter squadrons on the Western Front. Popular aircraft with these pilots included the Bristol Scout, the Sopwith Pup and the Sopwith Camel. 

When the RNAS had 67,000 officers and men, 2,949 aircraft, 103 airships and 126 coastal stations when it was decided to merge it with the Royal Flying Corps to form the Royal Air Force in April 1918.  The Royal Navy did not regain its Fleet Air Arm again until 1938.

The First Flights in the British Empire

The race to be the first to fly a heavier-than-air aircraft in the British Empire was officially recognised to won by New Zealand in 1903, followed in 1908 by Britain and then by both Canada and Australia in 1909 - Flights that caught the interest of the armed services of the United States and the British Empire. 

In 1896 the British Empire may have witnessed the first powered flight, by Bill Frost who is said to have set off in a "flying machine" from a field 
in Pembrokeshire in Wales and stayed in the air for 10 seconds. He even applied to register a patent for his invention - a cross between an airship and a glider - in 1894 (see these pages Bill Frost's Flying Machine, Lawrence Hargrave Timeline for details and the archives of the Sunday Times). 

However, the first acknowledged powered take-off flight was in New Zealand, and achieved on 31 March 1903, when Richard Pearse flew his homebuilt craft 150 yards. This was regarded as the sixth powered take-off in the world. A few months later on 17 December 1903, in the United States Orville Wright made the first powered airplane flight in history. 

The first officially witnessed flight in Europe was made in France, by Alberto Santos-Dumont, of Brazil. His longest flight, on 12 November,  1906, covered a distance of about 220 m (722 ft) in 22.5 sec. However, the first official powered flight in Britain was not until 5 October 5 1908 when Samuel Cody makes a flight covered a distance of 500 yards at
Laffans Plain, Aldershot, England

Then as early as 1909, Britain funded the construction of an Airship for naval duties . That same year, in 1909 the first successful heavier-than-air flights by a British subject anywhere in the British Empire was in Canada by J.A.D. McCurdy. He flew his "Silver Dart," at Baddeck, Nova.Scotia, Canada on 23 February, 1909 for half a mile over the ice-covered surface of Baddeck Bay. The next day McCurdy flew four miles in a complete circle returning to his starting point. These flights were recognized by the Royal Aero Club of the United Kingdom as the British Empire's first Flight. 

Meanwhile, the first steps towards aeroplane aviation at sea began on 14th November, 1910 in the United States when Eugene B. Ely conducted the first successful takeoff from a ship. 

History of the first Naval Aviation service of the Royal Navy, the  Royal Naval Air Service

From its roots in the work of  Bill Frost, Samuel Cody and others in the early 1900s, the origins of Naval aviation stem from early experiments that took place around 1908. In 1911, the Royal Navy graduated it's first aeroplane pilots, Lieutenants Longmore (from Australia), Gregory and Samson. Later Lieutenant Arthur Longmore, as a pilot in the Royal Naval Air Service, flew an aircraft to the world's first water landing using pontoon shaped airbags. 

In May, 1912, the British naval and army aviation corps were combined to become the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Although there were some early advantages in the amalgamating the individual service wings, the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corp lasted until July 1914 when the Royal Navy reformed its air branch, naming it the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). 

The Service comprised three flights of four aircraft plus three reserve aircraft per squadron. That same year Arthur Longmore , RNAS, first tested the dropping of torpedoes from aircraft. 

At the beginning of the war the RNAS was engaged in north-sea patrols, and until February 1916 was also responsible for the Air Defence of Britain and was the pioneer of Strategic bombing, the first raid being mounted on German territorials six weeks into the war, against the Zeppelin hangers at Düsseldorf.

In addition the RNAS continued its naval patrols from coastal air stations, and from ships, reconnaissance aircraft flying from ordinary warships and ultimately vessels converted to aircraft carriers. 

In 1917, a Sopworth Pup piloted by Squadron Commander E. H. Dunning, RN, conducted the first landing on the worlds first aircraft carrier, HMS Furious. 

On the 1st April 1918, the RN once again lost its Air Service, the Royal Navy and Army air wings were merged once again, this time to form the Royal Air Force (RAF). 

In 1918, when the Great War ended, this service was the largest air force in the world, with over 126 coastal air stations. 

The RAF starved the Royal Navy's Fleet air arm through the diversion of scarce resources to its own requirements throughout the 1920-30s. This was not a very satisfactory arrangement and in 1924 the Admiralty introduced the title of 'Fleet Air Arm'.However, with war looming, the RN in 1937 successfully argued the revision of the Service to full Admiralty control as the Fleet Air Arm. 

The History of the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm

 In 1937, The Naval Air Branch, later known as the Fleet Air Arm, was returned eventually to Admiralty control. 

At the onset of the Second World War, the Fleet Air Arm consisted of 20 Squadrons and 232 aircraft on strength.

World War 2 gave a new impetus to naval flying which gradually changed
 naval tactics from a ship versus ship conflict to aircraft versus ships, with devastating effect. The crippling of the Italian Fleet in Taranto Harbour by Swordfish biplanes carrying torpedoes in a night attack in 1940 was undoubtedly the most notable Fleet Air Arm success of the war, although the FAA served in almost every theatre of the second world war, taking part in the Battle of France, low countries and the Britain, Battle of Atlantic, Russian convoys, Invasion of Madagascar, North Africa, Libyan Desert campaigns, invasion of Sicily, Italy, and Southern France, D-day Normandy invasion, Battle of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and the invasion of Japan. The FAA was also instrumental in sinking the greatest tonnage of enemy shipping, and was one of the main weapons against the U-Boat. FAA aircrew were also adept at aerial combat and had many air aces, and received numerous honours including two Victoria Crosses, and many Distinguished Service Orders (DSO), Distiguished Service Crosses, Distinguished Service Medals (DSM)s and Mention in Despatches.

 By the end of the World War 2 the strength of the Fleet Air Arm was: 59 aircraft carriers, 3,700 aircraft, 72,000 officers and men and 56 air stations all over the world. The aircraft carrier had replaced the battleship as the Fleet's capital ship and its aircraft were strike weapons in their own
 right. However, piston engined aircraft were reaching the limits of their development. The hoverfly, the first operational helicopter, had already been introduced to the Fleet Air Arm, and the Sea Fury together with the Firefly, bore the brunt of the next conflict - the Korean War. From the Fleet Air Arm's point of view the light Fleet carrier had more than proved its worth. The  squadrons had brought their efficiency to new heights and the experience would serve in good stead for a new generation of jet aircraft about to come into service on the larger strike carriers.

FAA helicopters and Harriers continue to play a vital role in NATO and UN peacekeeping operations, especially in the Bosnian and Kosovan crisis. And, assuming that no politicians or future government cancel them, the Fleet Air Arm will look forward to the first conventional carriers to serve in the Royal Navy for more than two decades when the Future Aircraft Carrier enters service along with new aircraft sometime between
. However, there is some concern over whether the projected 2 carriers will be able to cope with the load the three Invincibles now carry, with one of the carriers being out of service for refits and upgrades some of the time.

An excellent summary of the history of flight from antiquity can be found at Lawrence Hargrave Timeline. The main online historical information including origins of the FAA, Battle honours, ships, squadrons and major battles is from the FAAOA History section 

The history of naval aviation and for the air forces for each Commonwealth country also includes a wealth of history and heritage information common to the Briritsh heritage of naval aviation and are well worth reviewing. Inparticular also see the excellent summary in the Australia's Museum of Flight Genesis of Naval Aviation'. A summary of the hstory of the Royal Naval Air Service in the Great War is detailed by the British website, with a wartime history of the RNAS, Aircraft of the RNAS,  RNAS Armoured Cars Squadrons, RNAS Airships and RNAS Ranks . 

For detailed information refer to the following publications: 

'Find, Fix and Strike! - The FAA at War 1939-45' by John Winton Published by BT Batsford, 1980: History of FAA operations in WW2. 

'British Naval Aviation - The Fleet Air Arm 1917-1990'  by Ray Sturtivant

Carrier Operations In World War II - Vol.1 The Royal Navy' by David Brown Published by Ian Allan Ltd, 1977 ISBN: History of RN carrier operations worldwide in WW2. 

'Fleet Air Arm Aircraft, Units And Ships 1920 to 1939' by Ray Sturtivant & Dick Cronin Published by Air Britain (Historians) Ltd, 1998 ISBN: 0 85130 271 8 * Brief history for each individual aircraft, plus unit and base histories. 

'The Squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm' by Ray Sturtivant & Theo Ballance Published by Air Britain (Historians) Ltd, 1994 ISBN: 0 85130 223 8 * Brief history for each, with aircraft types used, bases, CO's etc - fully indexed. 

'British Naval Aircraft Since 1912' by Owen Thetford Published by Putnam Aeronautical books, 1991 ISBN: 0 85177 849 6  Photo, spec and history for every type used by the FAA.

History of naval aviation and the Australian Fleet Air Arm

On November 12, 1894, Lawrence Hargrave, the  Australian inventor of the box kite, linked four of his kites together, added a sling seat, and flew 16 feet in his flying machine. On 5 December 5, 1909 George A Taylor is the first person to fly a heavier-than-air aircraft in Australia (a self built 'Langley like' glider) at Narrabeen Heads, New South Wales.  On December 9, 1909 Colin Defries made the first powered flight of a heavier-than-air machine (def: an aeroplane or airplane) in Australia, at Victoria Park Racecourse, in Sydney. On 16 July 1910, John Robertson Duigan flew his aircraft with a seven metre hop at his family's property near Kyneton, Victoria. This flight is acknowledged as the first of an Australian designed and built aeroplane. In 1911, an Australian, Lieutenant Arthur Longmore from Sydney was one of the first three British empire Naval officers to be trained to fly. He later helped organise the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and contributed to many "firsts" for naval aviation history. In 1918 the Australian Naval Board proposed to form its own naval air service. This failed proposal involved taking over a Royal Navy seaplane carrier. However, the aviation branch of the Royal Australian Navy was formed, temporarily, in 1925. 

Pilot training for RAN personnel began in 1925 following the decision to build the Australian seaplane carrier, HMAS Albatross and to establish the RAN Fleet Air Arm. But in January 1928 the fledgling Fleet Air Arm was disbanded and the RAAF again resumed control of the aircraft, providing pilots and maintainers. During the second world war many RAN and RANVR officers served with FAA squadrons. The Australian government was again asked to consider the formation of a Fleet Air Arm in 1944 with a proposal to transfer the carrier, HMS Hermes to the RAN but the plans were abandoned when the manning required proved to be too large. But it was not until 1948 that the RAN Fleet Air Arm was more firmly established. 

For informationm about Australia's involvement in pioneer aviation see the Lawrence Hargrave Australian Aviation Pioneer website. The main online naval aviation historical information is Australia's Museum of Flight with its Genesis of Naval Aviation in Australia 1918-21st century, and its Short History of the RAN Fleet Air Arm

History of Canadian Naval Aviation and Naval Aviation Branch

Canada was the first of the British Dominions to fly an aeroplane in 1909. However, when the World War I began August 4, 1914, the Canadian Forces had neither pilots nor aircraft. Yet later in the Great War, Canada produced a number of great aces in the Royal Naval Air Service, like Flight Lieut. Raymond Collishaw. The RFC training establishment of 1917-18 in Canada and Texas set the Canadian-based training precedent for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) of 1939-45 and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) training of today. 

However, it was not until 1945 when the Naval Aviation Branch of the Royal Canadian Navy was to have its dramatic resurrection from the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service which had been strangled at infancy at the end of the First World War. During the Second World War, Canada maintained a number of aircraft carriers, and many RCN and RCNVR officers served with FAA squadrons. Sadly, Aviation Branch of the RCN was no match for the Hellyer's grandplan for "unifying" the Army, Navy and Air Force in 1968. After the amalgamation, however, all Navy aircraft were turned over to the air force under the auspices of the Maritime Air Group. 

For history of the early history of Canadian military flying including for the RNAS see the Canadain Air force website History timeline. The most detailed account of post-war Canadian naval aviation is the publication Hands To Flying Stations; story of Canadian aviation by SE Soward.

History of New Zealand Naval Aviation

The first powered take-off in New Zealand was achieved on 31 March 
at Waitohi, near Temuka, when Richard Pearse flies his homebuilt 
craft 150 yards. His aircraft is powered by a two cylinder engine of 
his own design and construction. This is the sixth powered take-off in the world and regarded many as beating the Wright Brothers by 9 months.. 

Military aviation in New Zealand extends back to 1912 when two New Zealand Army Staff officers were sent to the UK to learn the science of flying. In 1913 the Imperial Air Fleet Committee in London presented a Bleriot monoplane named "Britannia" to New Zealand as the nucleus of a flying corps, where in the Great War airmen trained at Wigram

In 1915, the brothers Leo and Vivian Walsh fly the first flying-boat on 
Auckland Harbour, and later form the New Zealand Flying School 
to train flying-boat pilots. 

New Zealanders served in as RNZVR and RN in FAA squadrons throughout the war in 1939-1945. By 1944-1945 a number of squadrons were almost totally made up of New Zealanders. 

For a history of NZ military aviation review the "RNZAF past" website and also see the Navy history timeline and the Highlights of NZ Aviation in the Auckland International Airport website. 

History of Netherlands Naval Aviation and the Marineluchtvaartdienst (MLD) (Royal Netherlands Naval Air Service)

Netherlands is unique for non-British Empire or Commonwealth countries which during 1939-1945 maintained aircrew and squadrons in the FAA. 

Dutch naval aviation began in 1914 with the start of construction of the first seaplane base at De Mok.On August 18, 1917 the MLD was finally created by official decree. The emphasis for naval aviation was put on operations in the Netherlands East Indies (NEI), the first 2 naval aircraft arrived on the island of Java in 1919. On May 10, 1940, Germany invaded the Low Countries. All remaining MLD aircraft being ordered to fly to England. Dutch personnel formed No.320 and 321 squadron, RAF Coastal Command, in June 1940. Other MLD personnel served in the Fleet Air Arm with 860 and 861 squadrons, operating Swordfish torpedo bombers off 'MAC ships', merchant aircraft carriers. In the meanwhile, the MLD in the East Indies re-organised and expanded. 

For for a history of Dutch naval aviation see the Militaire Luchvaart Museum history page (in dutch). Also Aerofiles Netherlands Naval Aviation Narrative history.

History of Indian Naval Aviation

History of South African and East African Naval Aviation

Although military aviation was still in its infancy at the time that the Union Defence Force (UDF) was formed, the South African Defence Act (1912) made provision for the establishment of the South African Aviation Corps (SAAC) as part of the Active Citizen Force (ACF). In August 1912 the Commandant-General of the Citizen Force, Brig Gen C.F. Beyers, was sent to England and Europe by General Smuts to observe and report on the use of aircraft in military operations. In April 1914 six of the initial ten pupils were appointed as probationary Leutenants in the ACF and sent to England to undergo further training at the Central Flying School at Upavon. On the outbreak of war in August 1914, the South Africans were granted permission to join the newly formed Royal Flying Corps (RFC). They were to participate in the first aerial reconnaissance and artillery spotting missions over France during the closing months of 1914. In January 1915 the South African pilots were appointed in the Permanent Force an recalled to the Union to
help man the SAAC established on 29 January 1915 for service in German South West Africa. 1920 saw the establishment of the South African Air Force (SAAF). In 1939-1945 on the operational front, the SAAF provided a valuable protection service for Allied shipping along South Africa’s coastline from the very outset of the war. By the end of the war in August 1945, a total of some 15 000 coastal reconnaissance sorties had been flown by the SAAF along South Africa’s coastlines. 

Throughout 1939-1945 South Africans (along with East Africans including from Kenya) served with FAA squadrons across the world. 

For information on the early history of aviation see the History of the SAAF webpage. 

For military information - South Africa Department of Defence website and the history of the South African Navy (SAN) (and the former SDF, and RNVR (SA) which merged to form the South African Naval Forces (SANF) 

History of Naval Aviation in the United States

On Dec. 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, N.C., Orville Wright made the first powered airplane flight in history. In 1910 a place was made in the organisational structure of the US Navy. Captain W I Chambers was designated as officer in charge of aviation matters, and in 1911 the first naval officers reported for flight training and on May 8, 1911, the Navy officially purchased its first airplane--an A-1 Triad. 

American Glen Curtiss built and flew the first practical seaplane in January, 1911. He later built the sturdier flying boat and developed the first true amphibian aeroplane. The United States tested the first successful aircraft catapult as early as 1912 although the concept wasn't used until the later stages of the first World War. 

In 1922, the Navy received its first experimental aircraft carrier--the USS Langley. See this website for summary of American Naval Aviation. 

A series of detailed online publications and other material about US Naval Aviation has been produced by the Naval Aviation History Branch -US Department of the Navy - Naval Historical Center. The following is a Chronology of Significant Events in Naval Aviation of the United States. Also see United States Naval Aviation 1910-1995 which is also available online at the Naval Historical Center website. 


Naval Aviation Chronology 1898-1916 (60K)

Naval Aviation Chronology 1917-1919 (68K) 

Naval Aviation Chronology 1920-1929 (84K) 

Naval Aviation Chronology 1930-1939 (64K)

Naval Aviation Chronology 1940-1945 (180K)

Naval Aviation Chronology 1946-1949 (52K) 

Naval Aviation Chronology 1950-1953 (52K) 

Naval Aviation Chronology 1954-1959 (84K) 

Naval Aviation Chronology 1960-1969 (100K) 

Naval Aviation Chronology 1970-1980 (184K) 

World War 2 Naval & Military Chronology - Month-by-month across all Theatres
Royal Navy and World War II in World War 2 by Naval History website

The War at Sea : A Chronology

Armed Forces of the World Detailed clickable map of all the countries of the world produced by the Information Resource Centre, Canadian Forces College.

Fleet Air Arm Museum
Yeovilton (UK) Europe's premier naval aviation museum.

The Ship Names of the Fleet Air Arm. An inventory of the Seaplane Carriers, Aircraft Carriers and Aviation Support Ships with an outline of their Battle honours. 

IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM the multi-branch national museum of the history of war and wartime life from 1914


The Royal Marines Museum (UK) is dedicated to the preservation and presentation of all aspects of Royal Marines history for the education and enjoyment of the general public.

Shearwater Aviation Museum of Maritime Military Aviation (Canada) Home of the Canadian Swordfish

Naval Aviation Museum of Australia/Museum of Flight ANAM (Australia

American National Museum of Naval Aviation




The Royal Air Force Museum, Britain's National Museum of Aviation, celebrates the story of aviation from before the Wright Brothers to the RAF of the 21st Century with one of the world's finest collections of legendary aircraft and associated exhibits. The Museum stands on 15 acres of the historic former Hendon Aerodrome at RAF Hendon, one of the oldest aviation centres in the country. 

(USS YORKTOWN) Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum

INTREPID Sea-Air-Space Museum


USS FORRESTAL Carrier Museum



NAVAL MUSEUM OF ALBERTA CALGARY, ALBERTA, CANADA An excellent site showcasing the Naval Museum of Alberta located in Calgary. Good stories and photos, many featuring aspects of naval aviation. The Museum commemorates the prairie men and women who served in the Royal Canadian Navy since its formation in 1910. It is dedicated to the memory of Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray, VC, DSC, MiD, RCNVR; the Royal Canadian Navy's only recipient of the Victoria Cross in World War II.

Naval Museum of Manitoba

UNITED STATES NAVAL AND SHIP BUILDING MUSEUMWelcome to the United States Naval & Shipbuilding Museum. Located in historic Quincy, Massachusetts, USNSM is home to USS Salem (CA 139), the world's only preserved heavy cruiser. We are located in the former Quincy Fore River shipyard, once one of the nation's largest shipbuilding enterprises.

US Naval History Information Center The finest online naval history information, includes the World Aircraft Carrier Lists And Photo Gallery and the The Canadian Navy Technical information and hundreds of photos of the Canadian Navy from 1910 to the present day, and NavSource Photo Archives Over 4,000 photos of US Navy surface combatants (offsite link) .

The Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum is a non-profit, charitable organization founded and operated by volunteers. The Museum is dedicated to preservation of the history of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan and honoring those airmen who trained and served, and especially those who died while serving their country in the conflict of 1939 - 1945. This is the only Museum in Canada dedicated solely to this goal and we think it is fitting that it is located in Manitoba where so much of the training was carried out.

Canadian war museumThe Canadian War Museum (CWM) is an affiliated museum of the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The CWM has its own collections, its own programmes and its own staff.

Alex's Royal Navy Page Aircraft Carriers of the Royal Navy. Service and class technical details of all RN Aircraft Carriers. Part 1 - 1920-1939 Furious, Hermes, Eagle, Courageous & Ark Royal classes.  Part 2 - 1940-1949 Illustrious, Implacable, Colossus & Majestic classes.  Part 3 - 1950-2000 Audacious, Centaur, Invincible & Ocean classes

HG&UW World Aircraft Carrier Lists And Photo Gallery from 1913 to 2000
The World Aircraft Carriers Lists are a comprehensive, detailed listing of all the world's aircraft carriers and seaplane tenders, from the start of naval aviation into the 21st century. Every carrier and seaplane tender ever built or planned is listed, with complete technical data, historical sketches and photographs for virtually every ship. There are nearly 1000 high-quality photos linked to the espective ship histories. This is perhaps one of the most comprehensive websites for information about the ships used by the Fleet Air Arm and the Commonwealth. Includes a Master list of RN Carriers and an extensive list of links to other web resources. 

Created: 3-04-2001, Last Modified 3-06-2005


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