Royal Aircraft Factory (R.A.F.)

Early History
Major Military Aircraft
Minor Military Aircraft
Single Aircraft, Prototypes or Designs only

The Royal Aircraft Factory (R.A.F.) was responsible for the design of most Royal Flying Corps aircraft in the early years of the First World War. Originally established to experiment with observation balloons, the Factory began to design its own aircraft early in 1911, although official permission to do so didn't come until late in 1913. The R.A.F. gained an unjustified reputation for producing poor aircraft during 1916, when its aircraft were indeed becoming outdated, but it responded with the S.E.5, one of the best British fighters of the war. In 1917 the Factory lost many of its best designers, and no further original aircraft were produced.

Early History

The organisation that for a brief period was known as the Royal Aircraft Factory has a much longer history than is generally appreciated. The British Army first experimented with flight, in the shape of observation balloons, in 1863. Fifteen years later the War Office employed Captain James Lethbridge Brooke Templer, already an experienced free ballooner, to build the Army's first balloon. By August of 1878 Templer had built his first balloon, the Pioneer, and this and his own balloon Crusader soon became known as the School of Ballooning.

In 1879 the Royal Engineers established the first permanent ballooning establishment – the Balloon Equipment Store at Woolwich. The School and the Store moved to Chatham, Kent in 1882. 1891 saw the creation of the Royal Engineer's Balloon Section, the first operational aircraft unit in the British Army. The School, Store and Section were soon all based at Aldershot, where in 1897 the School was officially renamed the Balloon Factory.

The move to the famous site at Farnborough was made over the winter of 1904/5, when space began to run short at Aldershot.

The Balloon Factory became interested in powered flight in 1906, the year in which the Wright Brothers were finally awarded a patent for their control methods.

The Factory's first successful powered flight came on 10 September 1907, when the airship Nulli Secundus took to the air for the first time. This success increased the public awareness of the factory, and on 1 April 1908 it became His Majesty's Balloon Factory.

The first heavier-than-air flight took place late in 1908 and involved an aircraft designed by an expatriate American, Samuel Franklin Cody. He had been involved with the Balloon Factory since 1904, as first demonstrating his own system of man-lifted box kits. In April 1906 he was employed as Chief Kite Instructor, but he became involved in the airship project and began work on his own heavier-than-air craft. Work on the successful aircraft, British Army Aeroplane No.1, began in November 1907 but progressed slowly. Only in September 1908 was Cody ready to make his first flight trials. After a series of short hops, on 16 October 1908 Cody made a flight of just over a quarter of a mile, the first sustained powered heavier-than-air flight in Great Britain. The flight ended in a crash, from which Cody escaped unhurt, and rather typically the British press focused on the crash and ignored the achievement.

Worse was to come. The fledgling British aircraft industry was already opposed to the military getting involved, and over the winter of 1908-09 a subcommittee of the Committee of Imperial Defence decided that all heavier-than-air experiments at the Balloon Factory should end. Dunne and Cody were both fired – Dunne reverted to the sick-list, but Cody was allowed to continue operating privately at Farnborough.

On 25 July the committee's decision was made to look impressively short-sighted, when Louis Blériot flew across the English Channel, landing at Dover. That autumn the War Office increased its aviation budget from £6,000 to £36,000, and appointed Mervyn Joseph Pius O'Gorman as the new Superintendent of the Factory. A well qualified mechanical engineer, O'Gorman retained that post until 1916.

Right from the start O'Gorman believed that the Balloon Factory would eventually return to the field of heavier-than-air aircraft. The first breakthroughs came late in 1910. On 10 October the Balloon School's remit was enlarged to include aeroplanes, and one week later the Balloon Factory was given the task of maintaining those aircraft.

A chance meeting at the Olympia Motor Show in November 1910 was to have important repercussions for the entire British aircraft industry. As a result of it the young Geoffrey de Havilland was employed by the Balloon Factory as a designer and test pilot, and after a successful flight test early in 1911 his own Farman-type pusher biplane was purchased by the War Office (becoming the F.E.1). De Havilland would play a major part in the design of most pre-war R.A.F. aircraft, leaving to design a series of wartime aircraft for the Aircraft Manufacturing Company (Airco), and eventually setting up his own independent company. 

On 26 April the Factory was renamed again, this time as His Majesty's Aircraft Factory. The Factory was still not meant to design new aircraft, but O'Gorman easily sidestepped this restriction. The factory already had de Havilland's F.E.1 to experiment on, but O'Gorman also gained permission to make a number of 'improvements and modifications' to a wrecked Blériot XII. Eventually just about the only part of the original aircraft to be retained would be the engine.

This system of deception allowed the Factory to resume work on new aircraft, but it still didn't have official permission to do so, even after it was finally renamed as the Royal Aircraft Factory on 11 April 1912. Official permission to design new aircraft finally came on 14 November 1913. 


In March 1911 O'Gorman presented a paper to the Institution of Automobile Engineers in which he divided all current aircraft into three classifications:

'S' Class (Santos-Dumont): aircraft whose main wings were preceded by a smaller wing, with the propeller at the rear (Canard pushers)

'B' Class (Blériot): What we would consider as a standard piston engined aircraft – a tractor aircraft with the propeller in front of the main wing and a small tail at the rear.

'F' Class (Farman): Pusher aircraft with the main wing at the front, the tail plane at the rear, but the propeller on the rear of the main wing.

As the Aircraft Factory was not meant to be involved in the production of aircraft, most of its designs were officially experimental, producing the B.E., F.E. and S.E. classifications.

These classifications were named after the pioneers who had first made them famous, and didn't indicate any direct connection between that aircraft and its namesake. The F.E.1, or Farman Experimental 1, was designed by Geoffrey de Havilland, while the S.E.1 was the designation given to his 'repaired' Blériot XII

By the end of 1911 the system had been expanded to include six catagories:

B.E. (Blériot Experimental) – General purpose tractor biplanes
R.E. (Reconnaissance Experimental) – Reconnaissance tractor biplanes
B.S. (Blériot Scout) – Single-seat tractor scouts
F.E. (Farman Experimental) – Pusher biplanes
S.E. (Santos Experimental) – Canard biplanes
T.E. (Tatin Experimentan) – Pusher Monoplanes with the propeller at the very rear, behind the tail

The S.E.1 was the only Santos Experimental, and S.E. replaced B.S. as 'Single-seat Experimental'.

Later additions to the system included:

A.E. (Armed Experimental)
C.E. (Coastal Experimental)
N.E. (Night-flying Experimental)

One of the least valid criticisms levelled against the R.A.F. during the First World War was based on the retention of this system, which was said to mean that combat pilots were flying in experimental aircraft.


Hostility to the R.A.F. had never entirely faded away, and it revived dramatically in 1916. It was led by Noel Pemberton Billing, the founder of Supermarine, who had been elected to Parliament in March 1916. Some of his criticism was justified, but he exaggerated both the failings of the B.E.2c and the abilities of the German Fokker monoplane, and completely ignored the real problem – the lack of suitable synchronisation gear for Allied aircraft. His attacks forced the Army Council to create the Burbidge Committee, which on 12 May 1916 recommended that the Factory continue on roughly its existing lines.

Hardly surprisingly this didn't satisfy Billing, and his pressure forced the Government to appoint a second committee to investigate the entire R.F.C. The Bailhache Committee's findings can hardly have pleased him either, but it did suggest that the Factory should not become a manufacturing establishment, one of the key concerns of the private industry. Nevertheless the constant abuse directed towards it meant that many key staff began to leave the Factory during 1917. The R.A.F. doesn't seem to have been officially ordered to stop working on new designs, but after the S.E.5 none reached production.

The last aircraft to be designed by the R.A.F. was the A.E.3, an armoured two-seat pusher of March 1918. The establishment found a new role as a research centre. On 1 April 1918, with the formation of the Royal Air Force, a whole new area of confusion opened up, and in June 1918 the original R.A.F. was renamed the Royal Aircraft Establishment. It retained that name until 1988, when it became the Royal Aerospace Establishment, before in 1991 it was merged with a number of other research centres to become the Defence Research Agency. This only lasted until 1995 when another merger created the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, which itself only survived until 2001, when it was split into a private (QinetiQ) and public side (Defence Science and Technology Laboratory). QinetiQ still has a large base at Farnborough, and carries out aeronautical research.

Major Military Aircraft
B.S.1/ S.E.2

Minor Military Aircraft
A.E.3 Ram

Single Aircraft, Prototypes or Designs only

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (3 April 2009), Royal Aircraft Factory (R.A.F.) ,

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