Royal Aircraft Factory Aerial Target under construction at Farnborough, 1917 or 1918

THE BIRTH OF AVIATION

The First World War had a huge impact on engineering and engineers, not least in the field of aviation. Peter Elliott from the RAF Museum explores how the Royal Aircraft Factory, Farnborough developed.

The First World War saw British military aviation develop from a small number of squadrons flying unarmed aircraft for reconnaissance to large forces using aircraft designed for a wide range of specialist roles. The Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough played a key part in ensuring that the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Naval Air Service were equipped with aircraft, engines and weapons that met their changing needs.

The Factory grew from the Army Balloon Factory that had been at Farnborough since 1905. Its first aircraft designs appeared in 1911, with the RAF 1 engine in 1913. Aircraft design was in its infancy and not always successful – in 1912 a ban on monoplanes was introduced by the RFC following two accidents; although this was lifted the following year the structural integrity of aircraft was a major concern.

Farnborough tested the strength of aircraft structures using a very simple technique. To simulate the upward flexing of wings as they generated more lift, the aircraft would be turned upside down and sandbags placed on the wing surfaces. The loading would then be gradually increased until the structure failed.

The work of the Factory during the conflict covered the whole gamut of military aviation. Research and development covered engines, aircraft, wireless and weaponry. Wind  Channels(tunnels) were used to test aerofoil shapes – the RAF series of aerofoils were widely used in the inter-war years – and a Whirling Arm was used to test propellers. Perhaps the Factory’s most famous design was the SE5a fighter, which entered service in 1917 and was flown by a number of British pilots who became aces, notably Albert Ball and James McCudden, both of whom received the Victoria Cross.

After the formation of the Royal Air Force in April 1918 the Factory was renamed the Royal Aircraft Establishment, and continued to be at the forefront of aeronautical research and development until 1991 when it was merged into the Defence Research Agency.

The Museum is the latest guest feature on our Engineers at War exhibition site where you can read the whole article.

Engineers at War: from home front to battle front

Archives, Institution of Mechanical Engineering

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