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 It was an outdated design even in 1912 but it managed to meet all of the tested criteria largely due to its very powerful 20hp Austro-Daimler six cylinder engine.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 It was withdrawn from service and presented to the Science Museum in November having only flown 2½ hours.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.