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A spectacular midday fly-past over the UK’s strike carrier, HMS Illustrious, in London, provided the highlight of celebrations to mark a remarkable 100 years of British naval aviation.

On the 7 May 1909 the Royal Navy Admiralty took the decision to order the navy’s first aircraft, His Majesty’s Air Ship 1. The decision proved to be a powerful turning point in the history of warfare and sparked what was to become a century of innovation and expertise. Despite its humble beginnings, the British Royal Navy’s air power has now evolved into a crucial weapon, capable of landing the most decisive of blows.

A century on and the role of naval aviation has never been more important. From flying search-and-rescue mission to the highly anticipated deployment of the world’s most advanced aircraft carriers – HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales – the core business of flying ships from sea entrusted to the fleet air arm has provided an invaluable contribution in both past and current conflicts all over the world.

The fledgling years

The true birth of British naval aviation was the launch of the HMA 1 also known as the Mayfly, a 66ft airship intended for aerial scouting missions. The airship, however, never made its first flight and broke in two while being moved from its hanger. Despite the failed attempt the decision to extend naval activity into the sky marked the dawn of a new era of global conflict.

“The core business of flying ships from sea entrusted to the fleet air arm has provided an invaluable contribution in both past and current conflicts all over the world.”

Within a few years the first naval air service was given its due recognition. In 1911 the first four naval aviators began training in Eastchurch, which later became the first Royal Naval Air Station.

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By GlobalData

The exploits of these first naval airmen included the first bomb drops (by hand), use of airplane-mounted machine guns and the first wireless air to ground communications.

By the time the first rumblings of World War One began, naval aircraft had already flown their first strike missions from ships against strategic targets both at sea and on shore. In 1914, the Eastchurch squadron carried out its first bombing raid over Belgium.

The success achieved during such raids proved the worth of this new form of warfare and through a process of trial and error, the HMS Argus – the first true aircraft carrier – was commissioned.

The carrier was less than a quarter of the size of the Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth Class due in service in 2014. But the future mammoth aircraft carriers still owe their most basic feature, a flat and uncluttered flight deck, to HMS Argus.

The world at war

In the 1930s the mounting threat of Hitler’s Nazi Germany led to a trend of rearmament. By the end of the decade the fleet air arm, which consisted mostly of biplane fighters, had been replaced by monoplanes and full control of the naval air branch had been given to the admiralty.

At the end of the decade Britain was at war, and the destruction of the Italian fleet in the harbour at Taranto marked the first naval attack by aircraft in history. By the end of the conflict the aircraft carrier (and the aircraft aboard) were rightly feared as the most potent strike weapon of the British Navy.

At this time air fleet arm consisted of 59 aircraft carriers, 3,700 aircraft and 7,200 officers. Men were posted to 56 air stations around the world.

Towards the end of World War Two the first helicopters, including Sikorsky R4, arrived on the scene as did jet aircraft, whose superior speed forced a revolution in landing techniques onboard aircraft carriers.

Post world wars – a new dawn

In 1952 the naval air branch was renamed the fleet air arm, the name it retains to this day. Under this new moniker the naval air fleet saw action during the Malayan Emergency, the Korean War and the 1956 Suez Crisis.

The latter, although ultimately an ill-conceived and unsuccessful invasion, was notable for the first helicopter assault made from sea as well as for the success of close air support to and from aircraft carriers by the jet-powered Sea Hawk and Sea Venom aircraft.

“In 1952 the naval air branch was renamed the fleet air arm, the name it retains to this day.”

The importance of the helicopter, however, was not fully evident until the 1960s and the development of efficient gas turbines. This period saw the introduction of the Westland Wessex and the Westland Wasp helicopters, equipped with radar for anti-submarine warfare as well as to deploy amphibious troop assaults.

To complement this new type of aircraft, the Royal Navy also introduced the first ships designed around helicopters – the Commando Carriers and Tribal Class Frigates.

The 1960s also saw the first vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) achieved by any aircraft with the honour going to the fleet air arms Hawker Siddeley Harrier.

The signature of the following decade was the trend towards fixed wing flying and the introduction of the Invincible Class aircraft carriers. Other notable events included the first trials of Royal Navy’s BHN7 hovercraft and the abolition of the navy rum ration.

In 1974, the fleet air arm was instrumental in the evacuation of British subjects from Cyprus during the Turkish invasion and also for the perilous rescue of 11 men from the Danish coaster Merc Enterprise.

Flight for life

The fleet air arm almost came to a complete end in the 1980s with the publication of the 1981 Nott review, a post-Cold War defence white paper that called for a massive reduction in naval capabilities and the scrapping of the aircraft carrier programme.

Within two years, however, war had broken out between England and Argentina over control of the Falkland Islands and both HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible were dispatched without delay.

“The importance of the helicopter was not fully evident until the 1960s and development of efficient gas turbines.”

The Falklands war once and for all proved the importance of the naval air arm as the Navy’s ship-based Harriers were to fly more than 1,200 missions destroying 23 Argentinean aircraft without loss.

The importance of the fleet air arm had been undoubtedly assured by the end of the 1980s with the commissioning of two brand new aircraft carriers HMS Illustrious and HMS Royal Ark.

The last surviving operational Royal Navy warship which took part in the Falklands conflict of 1982, HMS Exeter, retired from service on 27 May 2009.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire

The 1990s saw the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of conflict between the US and Iraq and a decade of war in the Balkans.

The newly commissioned Lynx helicopters have shown their value during the Iraq war, using Skua missiles to destroy 15 Iraqi patrol ships, at a hit rate of 93%.

In 1991, the fleet air arm was deployed to Bosnia and Herzegovina as part of United Nations and Nato peacekeeping force. A year later the air squadron was deployed to the former Yugoslavia, marking the start of a 13-year mission.

The middle of the decade saw the deployment of Sea Harriers of 800 and 801 naval air squadrons to prevent Serbian air attacks on the civilian population.

Modern warfare

The new millennium brought with it a decade in which the entire book of tactical warfare would have to be rewritten.

The US-led invasion of Iraq closely followed by the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan led the air fleet arm into unfamiliar territory. Far from the rolling waves, naval aircraft and personnel have adapted to fighting an increasingly dangerous and shifting insurgency on top of mountains and over a sea of sand.

“Naval aircraft and personnel have adapted to fighting an increasingly dangerous and shifting insurgency on top of mountains and over a sea of sand.”

The UK’s role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq began with the biggest amphibious assault to date. Sea Kings and Chinooks, supported by the Lynx and Gazelles of the UK Naval Air Squadrons flew continuously form HMS Ocean and Ark Royal to deliver both troops and equipment to the front line.

The naval air arm continued to operate throughout the Iraq war with special distinction given to the helicopter fleets, which flew countless successful logistic support, medical evacuations, surveillance and special forces operations right to the end.

In May 2009 the UK confirmed mission success and commenced the final withdrawal of forces from Iraq. Following this, the UK government has announced that it will increase its presence in Afghanistan. The conflict is now the largest current commitment of the fleet air arm.

The immensely demanding mountainous terrain has proven a tough task for the modern air fleet, comprised mainly of Harriers and Lynx and Sea Kings. To adapt to the new conditions innovation has been a necessity.

Naval Harriers are now capable of dropping small highly accurate bombs close to friendly troops. The Sea King 4 has also been fitted with more powerful engines and to cope with the thin atmosphere and have been given new armour, missile defence systems and new weapons to cope with the threat from the ground.

On the horizon

For 100 years the air fleet arm of the Royal Navy has maintained an exceptionally high standard of operations over some of the most difficult circumstances and terrain imaginable.

As we move further into the 21st century not much has changed. Commander-in-chief of the UK Naval Air Forces Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope placed the immense importance of the fleet in context at the centenary celebrations.

“The fleet air arm is currently delivering operational capability on all fronts. Over 80% of our squadrons are currently deployed in Afghanistan, the Arabian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, the Far East, the Caribbean and the North and South Atlantic,” said Stanhope. “The fleet air arm has never been in greater demand proving its versatility in land operations as well as at sea.”

This importance has been underlined by the 2007 order of by far the most advance aircraft carriers ever to have ruled the waves. HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales due for deployment in 2014 and 2016 respectively will provide all but an indomitable force that will maintain and enforce British sea air domination over the coming decades.