The Royal Flying Corps

On 13 April 1912 the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was formed by Royal Warrant and came into being a month later in May when the Air Battalion was absorbed into the Military Wing of the new Corps.

The RFC was to consist of several different elements. A Military Wing administered by the War Office and a Naval Wing administered by the Admiralty. A Central Flying School would be available to the personnel of both Wings in order to teach the pilots the skills required for operational flying.

The Military Wing of the RFC was commanded by Major F. Sykes and initially consisted of three squadrons. No. 1 Squadron was formed from No. 1 (Airship) Company of the Air Battalion and remained an airship company. No. 3 Squadron was formed from No. 2 (Aeroplane) Company of the Air Battalion and No. 2 Squadron was formed from a nucleus of aeroplane pilots at Farnborough. Further squadrons were formed over the course of the next year with No. 4 Squadron being created in August 1912 and No. 5 Squadron established in July 1913.

The Naval Wing was smaller in size being formed from the naval aviators based at Eastchurch. It was commanded by Commander C.R. Samson and did not establish squadrons until it separated from the RFC in 1914 when the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was established.

The Central Flying School

The primary role of the Central Flying School (CFS) was to provide advanced flying training for qualified military pilots. The School was to be financed equally by the War Office and Admiralty for the training of both, army and naval personnel. There was plenty of work to be done. At the time of its establishment in May 1912 there were only eight naval and 11 army officers qualified to fly.

The War Office was to be responsible for the administration of the School, and, as a compromise, to ease inter-service rivalry, the School's Commandant would be a naval officer. Captain G. Paine, who had previously commanded the naval flying school at Eastchurch, was appointed. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, ordered Paine to learn to fly before taking up his new post. Paine achieved this at Eastchurch in ten days under the instruction of Lt Longmore.

In early May, Paine began to organise the School. The choice of site had already been made and construction had started. The site, near the village of Upavon in Wiltshire, was not popular. Lieutenant Joubert de le Ferte who attended the school early in 1913 noted that it 'is a collection of weather board huts on a windswept hill. It must be awful in cold weather. Much wind and rain.' A correspondent of the Aeroplane magazine observed that

'Taking its bad points first, the school has been located on the top of a mountain, where it is open to every wind that blows,…. One may expect that those aviators who survive the gorges and ridges, the upward and downward remous [turbulence], the arctic frigidity and saharic parchedness of the Upavon School will develop into aviators of unsurpassed hardiness.'

The School opened its doors for the first course on 17 August 1912 with eight of its expected complement of 25 aircraft. To make matters worse the weather was very poor in August and September. As an officer on the first course, and future Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir John Salmond recalled of that first day, 'it was a very wet day with wind and rain scurrying over the downs and making the windows of the wooden mess rattle.'

Among the notable pupils on the first course was Lieutenant Robert Smith–Barry who would later become known for establishing the Gosport system of flying training for pilots during the First World War.

Salmond was also struck by another figure attending the first course. 'There were several people there, and it is interesting to realise how strong a personality will leap across and hit one immediately. For in the corner, sitting rather apart, was a dark glowering man with a parchment coloured face and a light behind his eyes, whom I was soon to know as Trenchard, and it was not long before I knew what that fire meant.'

Major Hugh Trenchard would go on to become General Officer Commanding, the Royal Flying Corps in 1915 and later Chief of the Air Staff in 1918 and again from 1919 to 1929. He is regarded by many as 'the father of the RAF'.

The CFS courses were to last four months with the primary object of providing advanced training in flying and in technical subjects. Officers would sit several examinations before graduating. These included practical exams in flying, map-reading and engine maintenance as well as written exams on the theory of flight, internal combustion engines, formation of troops, meteorology, signalling and aerial reconnaissance.

The ten army pilots on the first course had all qualified for their Royal Aero Club certificate, but none of the five attending naval officers had done so. One of these was Captain Charles Erskine Risk, who undertook his first flight under the guidance of one of the four instructors, Capt J. Fulton, on the 22 August. This lasted 15 minutes.

Risk flew again on the 27th. In his diary he recalls that he 'Firstly [took] one joyride in Avro with Fulton, ten minutes in air; then went for first lesson with Fulton in the "Short Sociable"….I first of all just held the control lever lightly, but after we had done half a circuit of the aerodrome, Fulton let go of the control column lever, I was so surprised that I pulled the lever slightly back and we shot upwards. Fulton put her straight again and then told me to try and take charge.' Risk passed the flying tests for his certificate on 12 September after what would appear from his log book to be approximately 2 hours and 50 minutes flying time.

Salmond has noted the urgency which was felt by those at the CFS in its early days. 'The work was exhilarating and interesting and there was a sense of urgency about it. As usual England had been asleep during the past years when America and France were striving to develop aeroplane flight and Germany had leaped ahead of both when the Kaiser and people had passionately supported the building of airships….Once again we had been outstripped by our continental neighbours and would have continued so, until some commercial profit from this quixotic invention became visible, had it not been for the war clouds looming on the horizon. Now they were visible for all to see, and England was alert and the government aware of the danger, put in its weighty official push. Our job at the Central Flying School was to turn out pilots to fill the squadrons that were now forming. We started at sunrise and finished at sunset with intervals for lectures and practical work in the shops.'

On 17 September Risk undertook an interesting exercise when he 'Ascended with a "Dictaphone" record and a parachute…. At 1000 feet, when over the sheds, I threw it overboard, and descended with a spiral volplané in the course of which I flew right around the parachute. I landed before the Dictaphone record touched the ground. The purpose of this was to execute a speedy and accurate landing.

Less than two months after passing his certificate, Risk was appointed as an assistant flying instructor, along with his fellow officer John Salmond, who wrote of the course ..'about half way through I was made an instructor in flying in place of one of the original four who left. As all pupils started from scratch almost at the same time, there was very little to choose between us, and my 'poacher turned game-keeper' position presented wonderful opportunities for cheerful backchat from both sides of the fence.' The speedy promotion of newly qualified pilots to instructors highlights the lack of qualified pilots at the time and reflects the air of urgency in building up the RFC as quickly as possible.

It was not only officers who attended the CFS. NCOs with technical knowledge were also sent for flying training. Risk records instructing Leading Seaman Brady who appeared to be doing well. So much so that Risk took Brady to practice solo straights.

' He started off all right, then began "chasing his tail" and then came straight for me whilst I was walking back towards the road. I had to duck suddenly and one wing went straight over my head. He then switched off, and then started off again. Chased his tail again and then had another go at me. Eventually he started off again and this time kept her straight, but as he gathered speed, so did he push his control lever forward, until he actually rubbed his front elevator on the grass. He then switched off, down came his tail and broke the two tail skids. Other damage was one strut of the landing carriage displaced and bolt broken, and two wires broken. His excuse was that he "was perfectly calm and collected, but suddenly he thought 'e had 'it something, so 'e switched off and down came the tail & broke the plurry tail skids'. Despite this slight accident Leading Seaman Brady did go onto pass his certificate in January 1913.

The early years

The newly formed Royal Flying Corps was severely lacking in both aircraft and pilots. No. 3 Squadron for example, was equipped with just seven aircraft from six different manufacturers and one of these belonged to one of its officers.

The issue of creating and supplying aircraft best suited to the needs of the Army had already been considered. In August 1912 a military aircraft trial took place at Larkhill. A prize of £4,000 was on offer to the manufacturer of the winning aircraft and the War Office reserved the right to then purchase any machine for £1,000.

The capability of the RFC was also determined by events at the Army Manoeuvres in 1912. In the autumn four RFC officers were killed and the aircraft involved were both monoplanes. This led to a suspension of monoplanes being used by the Military Wing.

Despite operating on a small scale the officers and men of the new Corps were driven by an enthusiasm for aviation and were keen to experiment. An early recruit to the RFC Frederick Burns recalls being posted to No. 2 Squadron on its move to Montrose

'Life in the Squadron was a complete change from that at the Depot: here it was that the actual aviation work was done…. We rose at in summer and 6.30am in winter. Breakfast came after the check parade and then we paraded for work at or 9am. The interval before work parade was spent in cleaning the barrack rooms…In general the work was regulated to a great extent by the daylight, consequently, summer was a much busier time than winter, when the early morning flying practice and late evening work gave way to much indoor work and lectures, school, etc., which was an integral part of our training.'

Burns had enlisted as a boy to be trained as a sailmaker. The sail makers shop 'was staffed by a sergeant and three men. The work consisted of the making of fabric fuselage covers, covering planes, elevators, rudders etc., all kinds of canvas work, rope work, upkeep of canvas hangars, lorry covers and regimental tailoring.'

Another founding member of No. 2 Squadron was Lt Philip Joubert de la Ferte who arrived at Montrose in April. With Lt Gilbert Mapplebeck, he would undertake the first RFC reconnaissance sortie over enemy lines in 1914 and later rise to become Air Chief Marshal in the RAF serving as Commander in Chief of Coastal Command during the Second World War.

In April 1912, he did not share Burns' enthusiasm for Montrose. He recorded in his diary that he 'Arrived at Montrose at 10.30am after a most comfortable journey in a sleeper. Barrack awful to look at, but will be comfortable in time.'

Bad weather prevented Joubert de la Ferte from flying for the first few days, so he took the opportunity to play quite a few rounds of golf.

The weather had calmed a little by late April when Joubert travelled as an observer with a fellow officer but soon encountered inclement weather which was to hamper early aircraft operations as he noted

'A very strong wind blowing off the sea, but absolutely steady. Had one trip with Becke on a Maurice, but after standing still for five minutes over a railway line, we came back and did a stunt spiral from 5300'. It came to rain after lunch, and spoiled the golf.'

During the 1910s the science of flying was still very much in its infancy. The Royal Aero Club examination which was undertaken in order to qualify as a pilot was very basic. It was the subsequent flying which rapidly developed a pilot's knowledge of aeroplanes and aviation.

The first few years of the RFC existence were full of experimentation. Its pilots conducted trials testing various aspects of aircraft design including stability, strength, endurance and speed as well as examining the use of aeroplanes for air photography, artillery spotting, bomb dropping, wireless telegraphy and night flying.

The embryonic nature of flying was not without risk as Lieutenant George Carmichael serving with No. 3 Squadron at the time recalls

'This was a period of increasing air activity when all pilots, mechanics, designers and material constructors were learning from, sometimes, bitter experience. Ten fatal breakages in the air occurred and the RFC was not immune. Apart from initial strength failure showing the unsuitability of material, fractures occurred through vibration, and strains were met in bad weather flying and even through bad landings which were beyond foresight and calculation. Accidents were also liable from perished rubber petrol piping and frayed control parts which were concealed by the canvas.'

The fragile nature of the early aircraft is also revealed by Joubert when on the 25 September 1912 with his 'first morning on Vickers No.2 [he] taxi-ed about until the chassis collapsed, breaking the propeller'.

In March 1913 during a period of very fine weather the first night flight was made in bright moonlight by Lieutenant Cholmondley and in April Lt Carmichael approached his Commanding Officer to attempt landings on unclear nights. He recalls that

'The sergeant in charge of MT, Sgt Bullen, made me a little switch to fix on my dash board by which a Helloson cell could be made to light up the rev. counter or the compass, or both. On 11th June, it was a clear night and, although the moon was almost obscured on the horizon and the landscape black, it was just possible to distinguish the tops of the sheds and the plantations. We laid out four flares in line consisting of tins of waste rags and petrol, to mark the landing space, and opened the doors to show the position of the lit up sheds, and all went well according to plan. After a bit one's eyes got accustomed to the darkness and it became possible to distinguish some known land marks. The tricky part was the landing, as the ground was quite black and height above could only be judged by the flares. My little lighting switch worked well and altogether this trial night flight was a success. We decided, however, that the flares should be set out as an inverted 'L', marking the end of the landing space instead of simply the side.'

Lt Carmichael also conducted trials of spotting for the artillery

'we experimented with 'J' Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, using their 13pdr guns and also 18pdr field Battery and also with a howitzer battery using their much heavier 4.5inch shells, all of course firing for the shells to burst on percussion. The howitzer (Shells) were, naturally, the easiest to see. From the air we tried flags, Lucas and later the Aldis signalling lamp and coloured Very lights. The flags were clumsy to use and difficult to see; the lamp was awkward to use and it was not easy for the pilot to keep a steady course while his observer held the lamp beam on the battery, but it was possible, with practice. The Very Lights proved the most successful, and a code using red for right green for left etc., was worked out and agreed with the gunners. This system was practised and used considerably, even during the war right up to the Spring of 1915.'

The Military Wing was focused on building a reconnaissance force which could work well with the troops on the ground. Meanwhile the Naval Wing was developing its defensive role so that by early 1913 the Admiralty was able to set up a chain of six airship sites along the UK's coastline. An offensive role was also being considered with the use of aircraft as long range bombers against enemy targets.


The Committee for Imperial Defence, convened to conduct a review of military flying in December 1911, let it be known that a military aircraft trial would take place during 1912. The aim of this was to determine what aircraft would best suit the needs of the Army. A prize of £4,000 was on offer to the manufacturers of the winning aircraft.

The trials were to be very exacting to the point of being unrealistic, considering the rudimentary character of early aeroplanes. Testing the aircraft's performance in a number of competences, the War Office reserved the right to then purchase any machine for £1,000. The tests would include the aircraft's ability to carry a load of 350lbs for 4 ½ hours; attain a speed of 55mph; take off from long grass, clover or harrowed land in 100yards without damage and climb to 1000ft at a rate of at least 200 feet per minute and land on rough ground, including ploughed land and stopping within 75 yards.

32 aircraft entered although only 24 participated in the competition.

Flying began on 2 August 1912 and continued for three weeks. The surprise winner was Samuel Cody's biplane popularly known as the 'flying cathedral' due to its size. It was an outdated design even in 1912 but it managed to meet all of the tested criteria largely due to its very powerful 20hp Austro-Daimler six cylinder engine. The Royal Flying Corps felt compelled to purchase the machine, and took delivery of the first aircraft in November 1912. The second aircraft was delivered in February 1913. In April of that year, after some modifications the first aircraft broke up at 500ft and crashed to the ground killing its pilot.

Lt Joubert de La Ferte heard of this crash while stationed at RFC Montrose and was moved to write 'Harrison was killed this morning at Farnborough on the trials Cody. The machine broke up in the air. Our dance put off in consequence. This is the fourth trials machine that has killed a man.' The second aircraft was at this time undergoing repair following an accident in March. It was withdrawn from service and presented to the Science Museum in November having only flown 2½ hours.

The most successful aircraft to fly at the competition was the Royal Aircraft Factory's B.E.2 designed by Geoffrey de Havilland. Although it participated in all the trials it was unable to compete because of a conflict of interest: the Superintendent of the Royal Aircraft Factory, Meryyn O'Gorman, was one of the judges. The B.E.2 however went on to prove itself by far the best machine at the competition. It was eventually ordered in large numbers by the RFC and saw operational service during the early part of the First World War. It continued to be used as a training aircraft throughout the conflict.

In a time of war

Two years after the formation of the RFC the Commanding Officer of the Military Wing, Col Sykes, decided to hold an exercise to examine the readiness of the Corps should a war take place. Commonly known as the Netheravon Concentration Camp, the Camp brought nearly all of the units in the RFC together.

The Camp would not only examine the aviation aspects of the Corps such as bombing, reconnaissance and aerial photography but trial mobilisations were also conducted with planned convoys for stores and equipment. Tests of the organisation's supply, maintenance, wireless communication and meteorology capabilities were all conducted under realistic conditions.

Lt Carmichael recalls the exercises that he conducted

'such as reconnaissance, locating a free large toy balloon, reporting possible landing places, testing height and speed, and landing distance needed over an imaginary hedge represented by tape at 20 feet stretched across poles,…Lectures and personal interchange of knowledge and experiences were also of great value. I was required to give a lecture on artillery observation and the procedure agreed with the Gunners…We all felt that we had profited by the time, and experience gained.'

As the camp broke up and the squadrons returned to their bases in July 1914, the exercise was deemed to have been a great success in preparing the RFC for any eventual mobilisation, which would come all too soon.