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.