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 1913. 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.

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.