CHAPTER XXXVIII. The Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service
The year 1912 was marked by the institution of the Royal Flying Corps. The new corps, which was so soon to make its mark in the greatest of all wars, consisted of naval and military "wings". In those early days the head-quarters of the corps were at Eastchurch, and there both naval and military officers were trained in aviation. In an arm of such rapid - almost miraculous - development as Service flying to go back a period of six years is almost to take a plunge into ancient history. Designs, engines, guns, fittings, signals of those days are now almost archaic. The British engine of reliable make had not yet been evolved, and the aeroplane generally was a conglomerate affair made up of parts assembled from various parts of the Continent. The present-day sea-plane was yet to come, and naval pilots shared the land-going aeroplanes of their military brethren. In the days when Bleriot provided a world sensation by flying across the Channel the new science was kept alive mainly by the private enterprise of newspapers and aeroplane manufacturers. The official attitude, as is so often the case in the history of inventions, was as frigid as could be. The Government looked on with a cold and critical eye, and could not be touched either in heart or in pocket.
But with the institution of the Royal Flying Corps the official heart began to warm slightly, and certain tests were laid down for those manufacturers who aspired to sell their machines to the new arm of the Service. These tests, providing for fuel capacity up to 4.0 miles, speeds up to 85 miles an hour, and heights up to 3500 feet, would now be regarded as very elementary affairs. "Looping the loop" was still a dangerous trick for the exhibiting airman and not an evolution; while the "nose-dive" was an uncalculated entry into the next world.
The first important stage in the history of the new arm was reached in July, 1914, when the wing system was abolished, and the Royal Naval Air Service became a separate unit of the Imperial Forces. The first public appearance of the sailor airmen was at a proposed review of the fleet by the King at a test mobilization. The King was unable to attend, but the naval pilots carried out their part of the programme very creditably considering the polyglot nature of their sea-planes. A few weeks later and the country was at war.
There can be no doubt that the Great War has had an enormous forcing influence upon the science of aviation. In times of peace the old game of private enterprise and official neglect would possibly have been carried on in well-marked stages. But with the terrific incentive of victory before them, all Governments fostered the growth of the new arm by all the means in their power. It became a race between Allied and enemy countries as to who first should attain the mastery of the air. The British nation, as usual, started well behind in the race, and their handicap would have been increased to a dangerous extent had Germany not been obsessed by the possibilities of the air-ship as opposed to the aeroplane. Fortunately for us the Zeppelin, as has been described in an earlier chapter, failed to bring about the destruction anticipated by its inventor, and so we gained breathing space for catching up the enemy in the building and equipment of aeroplanes and the training of pilots and observers.
War has set up its usual screens, and the writer is only permitted a very vague and impressionistic picture of the work of the R.F.C. and R.N.A.S. Numerical details and localities must be rigorously suppressed. Descriptions of the work of the Flying Service must be almost as bald as those laconic reports sent in by naval and military airmen to head-quarters. But there is such an accomplishment as reading between the lines.
The flying men fall naturally into two classes - pilots and observers. The latter, of course, act as aerial gunners. The pilots have to pass through three, and observers two, successive courses of training in aviation. Instruction is very detailed and thorough as befits a career which, in addition to embracing the endless problems of flight, demands knowledge of wireless telegraphy, photography, and machine gunnery.
Many of the officers are drafted into the Royal Flying Corps from other branches of the Service, but there are also large numbers of civilians who take up the career. In their case they are first trained as cadets, and, after qualifying for commissions, start their training in aviation at one of the many schools which have now sprung up in all parts of the country.
When the actual flying men are counted in thousands some idea may be gained of the great organization required for the Corps - the schools and flying grounds, the training and activities of the mechanics, the workshops and repair shops, the storage of spare parts, the motor transport, As in other departments of the Service, women have come forward and are doing excellent and most responsible work, especially in the motor-transport section.
A very striking feature of the Corps is the extreme youth of the members, many of the most daring fighters in the air being mere boys of twenty.