Unit History: Fleet Air Arm
The Fleet Air Arm is the branch of the Royal Navy responsible for the operation of the aircraft.
The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was established in January 1914 under the Air Department of the Admiralty . By the outbreak of the First World War in August, it had more aircraft under its control than the Army’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC). The main roles of the RNAS were fleet reconnaissance, patrolling coasts for enemy ships and submarines, attacking enemy coastal territory and defending Britain from enemy air-raids. In April 1918 the RNAS, which at this time had 67,000 officers and men, 2,949 aircraft, 103 airships and 126 coastal stations, was merged with the RFC to form the Royal Air Force.
On 1 April 1924, the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Air Force was formed, encompassing those RAF units that normally embarked on aircraft carriers and fighting ships. On 14 May 1937 the Fleet Air Arm was returned to Admiralty control under the Inskip Award. At the onset of the Second World War, the Fleet Air Arm consisted of 20 squadrons with only 232 aircraft. By the end of the war the strength of the Fleet Air Arm was: 59 aircraft carriers, 3,700 aircraft, 72,000 officers and men and 56 air stations.
After the war the FAA faced the difficulty of flying jet aircraft from carriers. The jet aircraft of the era were considerably less effective at low speeds than propeller aircraft, but propeller aircraft could not effectively fight jets at their high speeds. The FAA took on its first jet, the Sea Vampire, in the late 1940s. The Sea Vampire was itself the first jet credited with taking off and landing on a carrier. The Air Arm continued with high-powered prop aircraft alongside the new jets resulting in the FAA’s being woefully outpowered during the Korean War. Nevertheless, jets were not yet wholly superior to propellor driven aircraft and a flight of ground-attack Hawker Sea Furies downed a MiG-15 and damaged others in a single engagement.
As jets became larger, more powerful and faster they required more space to take off and land. The US Navy simply built much larger carriers. The Royal Navy had a few large carriers built and completed after the end of the war but a more "natural" solution was looked for. This led to the introduction of the Hawker Siddeley Harrier VTOL aircraft, which could be operated effectively from any size of ship. Defence cuts across the British armed forces during the 1960s led to the outright cancellation of all Royal Navy aircraft carriers, but by sleight-of-hand a new series of cruiser-sized carriers, the Invincible class, were built and equipped with the Sea Harrier. Today the Harrier forms the basis of the RN’s fixed-wing strike forces.
Helicopters also became important combat vehicles in their own right starting in the 1960s. At first they were employed on the carriers alongside the fixed-wing aircraft, but as time went on they were also deployed on most smaller ships as well. Today at least one helicopter is found on all ships of frigate size or larger. Wasps and Sea Harriers played an active part in the 1982 Falkland Islands conflict, whereas Lynx helicopters played a significant attack role against Iraqi patrol boats in the 1991 Gulf War and Commando Sea Kings assisted in suppressing rebel forces in Sierra Leone.
In 2000 the Sea Harrier force was merged with the RAF’s Harrier GR7 fleet to form Joint Force Harrier. The Fleet Air Arm began withdrawing the Sea Harrier from service in 2004 with the disbandment of 800 NAS. 801 NAS disbanded on 28 March 2006 at RNAS Yeovilton (HMS Heron). 800 NAS is re-forming with the Harrier GR9. Once this is fully operational, 801 NAS will then reform with the Harrier.
The Royal Navy plans to replace the Harrier force with the STOVL F-35B Lightning II from 2012. These new aircraft will operate from the Navy’s new Queen Elizabeth class, which are expected to be almost three times larger than the current carriers and operate 48 F-35s.
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