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Royal Aircraft Establishment

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Royal Aircraft Establishment
Farnborough, Hampshire
Royal Aircraft Factory (RAF) c.1915
Coordinates51°16′46″N 0°47′17″W / 51.279475°N 0.787926°W / 51.279475; -0.787926
TypeResearch establishment
Site information
OwnerWar Office (1904–1906)
Ministry of Defence (1964–1991)
Controlled by British Army (1904–1906)
Site history
In use1904–1991
Battles/warsFirst World War
Second World War
Cold War

The Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) was a British research establishment, known by several different names during its history, that eventually came under the aegis of the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD), before finally losing its identity in mergers with other institutions.

The British Army Balloon Factory was established on Farnborough Common in the early 1900s. By 1912 it had come under civilian control and was the Royal Aircraft Factory (RAF) In 1918 it was renamed Royal Aircraft Establishment to prevent confusion with the newly created Royal Air Force.

The first site was at Farnborough Airfield ("RAE Farnborough") in Hampshire to which was added a second site RAE Bedford (Bedfordshire) in 1946.

On 1 May 1988 it was renamed the Royal Aerospace Establishment (RAE) before merging with other research entities to become part of the new Defence Research Agency in 1991.



In 1904–1906 the Army Balloon Factory, which was part of the Army School of Ballooning, under the command of Colonel James Templer, relocated from Aldershot to the edge of Farnborough Common in order to have enough space to inflate the new "dirigible balloon" or airship which was then under construction.[1][2] Templer's place was taken by Colonel John Capper and Templer himself retired in 1908. Besides balloons and airships, the factory also experimented with Samuel Franklin Cody's war kites and aeroplanes designed both by Cody and J. W. Dunne.[1] In October 1908 Cody made the first aeroplane flight in the United Kingdom at Farnborough.[3]

In 1909 Army work on aeroplanes ceased and the Factory was brought under civilian control. Capper was replaced as Superintendent by Mervyn O'Gorman.[1] In 1912 the Balloon Factory was renamed the Royal Aircraft Factory (RAF).[4] Its first new designer was Geoffrey de Havilland who later founded his own company. Later colleagues included John Kenworthy who became chief engineer and designer at the Austin Motor Company in 1918 and who went on to found the Redwing Aircraft Co in 1930[5] and Henry Folland – later chief designer at Gloster Aircraft Company, and founder of his own company Folland Aircraft. One of the designers in the engine department was Samuel Heron, who later went on to invent the sodium-filled poppet valve, instrumental in achieving greater power levels from piston engines.[6] While at the RAF, Heron designed a radial engine that he was not able to build during his time there, however upon leaving the RAF he then went to Siddeley-Deasy where the design, the RAF.8, was developed as the Jaguar.[7] Heron later moved to the United States where he worked on the design of the Wright Whirlwind.[8] Other engineers included Major F.M. Green, G.S. Wilkinson, James E. "Jimmy" Ellor, Prof. A.H. Gibson, and A.A. Griffith. Both Ellor and Griffith would later go on to work for Rolls-Royce Limited.[9]

In 1918 the Royal Aircraft Factory was once more renamed, becoming the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) to avoid confusion with the Royal Air Force, which was formed on 1 April 1918, and because it had relinquished its manufacturing role to concentrate on research.

During WWII the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment, which had moved from Felixstowe to a safer location at Helensburgh in Scotland, was under the control of the RAE. In 1946 work began to convert RAF Thurleigh into RAE Bedford. Engineers at the Royal Aircraft Establishment invented high strength carbon fibre in 1963.[10] In 1961, the world's first grooved runway for reduced aquaplaning was constructed.[11] In 1965, a US delegation visited to view the new surfacing practice and initiated a study by the FAA and NASA.[12]

On 1 May 1988 the RAE was renamed the Royal Aerospace Establishment.[13] On 1 April 1991 the RAE was merged into the Defence Research Agency (DRA), the MOD's new research organisation. Then, on 1 April 1995 the DRA and other MOD organisations merged to form the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA). The Bedford site was largely shut down in 1994. In 2001 DERA was part-privatised by the MOD, resulting in two separate organisations, the state-owned Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), and the privatised company QinetiQ.


The unit used various aircraft such as the: English Electric Canberra B.6 WK163 & B.6 WH953,[14] BAC One-Eleven Series 402 XX919, Hawker Siddeley HS.125 XW930,[15] and Douglas Dakota ZA947.[16] During February 1988 the last Westland Wessex left after 30 years of trials work.[17]

Royal Aircraft Factory


Aircraft Factory designs


Between 1911 and 1918 the Royal Aircraft Factory produced a number of aircraft designs. Most of these were essentially research aircraft, but a few actually went into mass production, especially during the war period. Some orders were met by the factory itself, but the bulk of production was by private British companies, some of which had not previously built aircraft.

Up to about 1913 the designation letters referred to the general layout of the aircraft, derived from a French manufacturer or designer famous for that type:

From 1913/4 onwards this was changed to a designation based on the role for which the aircraft was designed:

The B.S.1 of 1913 was a one-off anomaly, combining both systems: Blériot (tractor) Scout (fighter).

R.T. & T.E. were also used for strictly one-off prototypes.

Designs produced


Several aircraft were produced during the days as the Army Balloon Factory. These include the airships as well as the Cody and Dunne designs.

Subsequent Royal Aircraft Factory type designations are inconsistent and confusing. For instance the "F.E.2" designation refers to three quite distinct types, with only the same broad layout in common, the F.E.2 (1911), the F.E.2 (1913), and finally the famous wartime two-seat fighter and general-purpose design, the F.E.2 (1914). This last aircraft was the one that went into production and had three main variants, the F.E.2a, F.E.2b, and the F.E.2d. As if this wasn't enough, there is the F.E.2c; this was a generic description rather than a subtype proper, and refers to several one-off conversions of F.E.2b's that experimentally reversed the seating positions of the pilot and the observer.

The B.E.1 was basically the prototype for the early B.E.2 but the B.E.2c was almost a completely new aeroplane, with very little common with the earlier B.E.2 types apart from engine and fuselage. On the other hand, the B.E.3 to the B.E.7 were all effectively working prototypes for the B.E.8 and were all very similar in design, with progressive minor modifications of the kind that many aircraft undergo during a production run. The B.E.8a was at least as different from the B.E.8 as the B.E.7 was.

The S.E.4a had nothing in common at all with the S.E.4, while the S.E.5a was simply a late production S.E.5 with a more powerful engine.

Several early RAF designs were officially "reconstructions" of existing aircraft because the Factory did not initially have official authority to build aircraft to their own design. In most cases, the type in question used no parts whatever from the wreck, in some cases, not even the engine.

Royal Aircraft Factory B.S.1 in 1913





At the time of the "Fokker Scourge" in 1915, there was a press campaign against the standardisation of Royal Aircraft Factory types in the Royal Flying Corps, allegedly in favour of superior designs available from the design departments of private British firms. This slowly gained currency, especially because of the undeniable fact that the B.E.2c and B.E.2e were kept in production and in service long after they were obsolete and that the B.E.12 and B.E.12a were indisputable failures. Some of this criticism was prejudiced and ill-informed.[18]

Some aviation historians continue to perpetuate the resulting belittling of the important experimental work of the Factory during this period, and the exaggeration of the failings of Factory production types, several of which were described in sensationally derogatory terms.[19]

A modern, rather more "pro-factory" point of view, can be found in several of the volumes of War Planes of the First World War, by J.M. Bruce—MacDonald, London, 1965.


The first five Superintendents at Farnborough

The Superintendents of the School of Ballooning were James Templer (1878–1906) and John Capper (1906 – 1909). The following have served as Superintendents of the Royal Aircraft Factory / Establishment:



After the end of the First World War, the design and development of aircraft types ended – although work continued on general research and the development of missiles. Research included wind tunnel testing and other aeronautical research, areas which offered rare opportunities for women in STEM fields at this time with examples including Frances Bradfield who worked at the RAE for her entire career from 1919 to her retirement; Muriel Glauert (née Barker) joined in 1918 as a researcher working in aerodynamics and Beatrice Shilling who went on to invent Miss Shilling's orifice, to improve the engine performance of RAF Hurricane and Spitfire fighters during the Battle of Britain as part of wider work at the RAE on aircraft engine problems during World War II. Johanna Weber, a German mathematician who joined the RAE after World War II as part of Operation Surgeon to employ German aeronautical researchers and technicians and bring them to the UK, to prevent their technical knowledge falling into the hands of the Soviet occupying forces in Germany.

In 1930 the RAE developed the Robot Air Pilot, an autopilot that used a gyro and flight controls that functioned by compressed air.[20]

Aircraft that were developed or tested at the RAE included the Hawker Siddeley Harrier and Concorde.




  • RAE Target—Surface-to-surface missile project from the early 1920s.
  • RAE Larynx—1927 unmanned pilotless aircraft, surface-to-surface anti-ship missile.
  • Malkara missile



In the late fifties and through the sixties work proceeded at the RAE on several rocket projects – all of which were eventually abandoned

A model of the Miles M.52 undergoing supersonic wind tunnel testing at the RAE circa 1946

Space satellites


Current use of the Farnborough site

Reconstructed airship hangar at IQ Farnborough.

The former RAE Farnborough site is (as of 2011) occupied by:

The National Aerospace Library (NAL), located in the former Weapon Aerodynamics building (Q134 Building), has a collection of over 2,500 technical reports produced by the RAE.[22]

Historic structures


The historic Farnborough factory site houses three major wind tunnels, the 24 ft (7.3 m) low-speed wind tunnel (Q121 Building), constructed during the early 1930s, the No. 2 11 ft 6 in (3.51 m) low-speed wind tunnel (R136 Building) and the 8 ft × 6 ft (2.4 m × 1.8 m) transonic wind tunnel within R133 Building, which was originally commissioned in the early 1940s as a 10 ft × 7 ft (3.0 m × 2.1 m) high subsonic speed tunnel but converted during the mid-1950s. A smaller 2 ft × 1.5 ft (0.61 m × 0.46 m) transonic tunnel is housed in R133 Building, while R52 Building contains the remaining 4 ft × 3 ft (1.22 m × 0.91 m) low turbulence wind tunnel. R52 Building had previously housed two early 10 ft x 7 ft low-speed tunnels in separate bays, which were replaced by the No. 1 11.5' and 4ft x 3ft tunnels respectively. The former remains in operation at the University of Southampton.[citation needed] R52 building also previously contained a 5 ft (1.5 m) open jet low-speed tunnel, originally built as a sub-scale prototype for the larger 24-ft tunnel, but subsequently modified for use as a noise measurement facility. Both Q121 and R133 are now Grade I listed buildings.[23][24]

To the west of the Farnborough site is the 5-metre pressurised low-speed wind tunnel, which was commissioned in the late 1970s. This facility remains in operation by QinetiQ, primarily for the development and testing of aircraft high lift systems.[citation needed]

Fictional appearance


The hero of Nevil Shute's 1948 novel No Highway is an eccentric "boffin" at Farnborough who predicts metal fatigue in the United Kingdom's new airliner, the fictional "Rutland Reindeer". The Comets failed for just this reason in 1954, although in the case of the Comet I the problem was in the metal structure around the navigation windows, while the point of failure in the Reindeer aircraft was in the structure of the rear empennage/fuselage joints. A film version of the novel, No Highway in the Sky, appeared in 1951, starring James Stewart as the protagonist. Stewart prepared for the role by shadowing Fred Jones OBE, a co-founder of the RAE Accident Section. Jones later was head of Structures Section (formerly Airworthiness Section) from 1957 to 1980.

See also



  1. ^ a b c Walker, P; Early Aviation at Farnborough, Volume I: Balloons, Kites and Airships, Macdonald, 1971.
  2. ^ Colonel Templer and the birth of aviation at Farnborough, May 2007, Royal Aeronautical Society, p 13
  3. ^ Colonel Templer and the birth of aviation at Farnborough, May 2007, Royal Aeronautical Society, p 3
  4. ^ Colonel Templer and the birth of aviation at Farnborough, May 2007, Royal Aeronautical Society, p 12
  5. ^ Flight International
  6. ^ "World News: S.D. Heron". Flight International. Vol. 84, no. 2836. 18 July 1963. p. 80. Archived from the original on 4 November 2012. Retrieved 18 August 2011.
  7. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2 December 2010. Retrieved 2 December 2010.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  8. ^ "Wright Whirlwind J-5A-B Radial Engine". Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Retrieved 18 August 2011.
  9. ^ World Encyclopedia of Aero Engines, 5th edition" by Bill Gunston, Sutton Publishing, 2006, p. 209
  10. ^ "The history and uses of carbon fibre". BBC. 9 January 2013. Retrieved 3 May 2015.
  11. ^ "Grooves for braking on airfield runways". New Scientist, 28 September 1961. 28 September 1961. Retrieved 5 February 2017.
  12. ^ McGuire, R.C. (January 1969). "REPORT ON GROOVED RUNWAY EXPERIENCE AT WASHINGTON NATIONAL AIRPORT". Internet Archive. Federal Aviation Administration. Retrieved 5 February 2017.
  13. ^ "Airscene: Aircraft and Industry: United Kingdom". Air International. Vol. 35, no. 1. July 1988. p. 5. ISSN 0306-5634.
  14. ^ Hall 1992, p. 90.
  15. ^ Hall 1992, p. 91.
  16. ^ Hall 1992, p. 96.
  17. ^ March 1989, p. 88.
  18. ^ John Lloyd Aircraft of World War I 1958 Ian Allan publisher, Surrey, UK
  19. ^ Jane's Fighting Aircraft of World War I Military Press, New York 1990—ISBN 0-517-03376-3.cn
  20. ^ "Robot Air Pilot Keeps Plane on True Course" Popular Mechanics, December 1930
  21. ^ Farnborough Business Park
  22. ^ "National Aerospace Library" Archived 2 February 2011 at the Wayback Machine RAeS Retrieved: 27 January 2011.
  23. ^ Historic England. "Building Q121 at former Royal Aircraft Establishment site (Grade I) (1259589)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 10 December 2023.
  24. ^ Historic England. "Building R133 at former Royal Aircraft Establishment site (Grade I) (1259586)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 10 December 2023.
  • Hall, A. W. (1992). RAF Today. London, UK: Bison Books. ISBN 0-86124-313-7.
  • March, P. (1989). Royal Air Force Yearbook 1989. Fairford, UK: Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund.