Guest features explore engineering-related themes and are updated every 6 months, past features appear at the bottom.

Flexing Fledgling Wings at Farnborough

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.

The designer of the SE5a, HP Folland, was one of a number of engineers who went on to leading roles in the British aircraft industry. Folland went on to work for the Nieuport and General Aircraft Company and then Gloster; before setting up Folland Aircraft Ltd in 1937.

Whilst at Farnborough, Folland was involved in a pioneering project to create a radio-controlled aircraft; arguably one of the first steps towards today’s drones, or Unmanned Aerial Systems. Developed under the title Aerial Target the aircraft was intended for use against German airships and as a flying bomb. It may be no coincidence that the V-1 flying bomb project of the Second World War had the cover name Flakzielgerät, a target for anti-aircraft guns!

Farnborough’s Aerial Target was controlled by a radio system developed by Professor AM Low; six examples were built and sent for testing at the RFC experimental works at Feltham, but the machine was not used in operations. 

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.

A survey of the work carried out at Farnborough*gives an idea of its wide-ranging contribution to aeronautical engineering during the First World War, which included:

  • Metallurgical problems of all-metal fuselage construction
  • Evolution of the first practical aeroplane compass
  • Streamlined bracing wires (RAFWires)
  • Variable camber wings and flaps and the initial investigations into the essentials of stability and control
  • Development of aircraft stressing methods
  • Bomb sights
  • Instruments
  • Navigation instruments
  • Variable pitch propellers
  • Techniques to recover aircraft from spins
  • Development of tool steel for aircraft valves
  • Special light alloys for pistons, cylinder heads and cylinder barrels
  • Supercharged aero-engines
  • Oleo undercarriages
  • Automatic remote control of aircraft
  • Inspection methods and services for aircraft and engines

Farnborough has been synonymous with aeronautical excellence for over a century; such work continues with the company Qinetiq, which retains a wind tunnel and other facilities at the site. The Farnborough Air Sciences Trust works to preserve Farnborough’s aeronautical heritage and maintains a museum on the site.

Archives, Royal Air Force Museum

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    *CF Caunter; A historical summary of the Royal Aircraft Establishment: 1918-1948; RAE Report 2150A; 1949