|Fleet Air Arm|
1914 (As the Royal Naval Air Service)
|Allegiance||Queen Elizabeth II|
Approx. 174 aircraft
|Part of||Naval Service|
|Engagements||Second World War
Operation Musketeer (Suez Crisis)
|Rear Admiral, Fleet Air Arm||Rear Admiral Keith Blount OBE RN|
|Commodore-in-Chief||HRH Prince Andrew, Duke of York|
Sea King HC4
of the British Armed Forces
|History and future|
The Fleet Air Arm (FAA) is the branch of the British Royal Navy responsible for the operation of naval aircraft. The Fleet Air Arm currently operates the AgustaWestland Merlin, Westland Sea King, and AgustaWestland Wildcat helicopters and the BAE Hawk. Helicopters such as the Lynx and Westland Wasp have been deployed on smaller vessels since 1964, taking over the roles once performed by biplanes such as the Fairey Swordfish.
The Fleet Air Arm was formed in 1924 as an organisational unit of the Royal Air Force which was then operating the aircraft embarked on RN ships – the Royal Naval Air Service having been merged with the British Army's Royal Flying Corps in 1918, to form the Royal Air Force – and did not come under the direct control of the Admiralty until mid-1939. During the Second World War, the Fleet Air Arm operated aircraft on ships as well as land-based aircraft that defended the Royal Navy's shore establishments and facilities.
British naval flying started in 1909, with the construction of an airship for naval duties. In 1911 the Royal Navy graduated its first aeroplane pilots at the Royal Aero Club flying ground at Eastchurch, Isle of Sheppey under the tutelage of pioneer aviator George Bertram Cockburn, but in May 1912 naval and army aviation were combined to become the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). The Naval Wing of the RFC lasted until July 1914 when the Royal Navy reformed its air branch, under the Air Department of the Admiralty, naming it the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).
By the outbreak of the First World War, in August 1914, the RNAS had more aircraft under its control than the remaining 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, along with deployment along the Western Front. In April 1918 the RNAS, which at this time had 67,000 officers and men, 2,949 aircraft, 103 airships and 126 coastal stations, 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. 1924 was a significant year for British naval aviation as only weeks before the founding of the Fleet Air Arm, the Royal Navy had commissioned HMS Hermes, the world's first ship to be designed and built as an aircraft carrier. Over the following months RAF Fleet Air Arm Fairey IIID reconnaissance biplanes operated off Hermes, conducting flying trials.
On 24 May 1939 the Fleet Air Arm was returned to Admiralty control under the "Inskip Award" (named after the Minister for Co-ordination of Defence who was overseeing Britain's re-armament programme) and renamed the Air Branch of the Royal Navy. 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 worldwide strength of the Fleet Air Arm was 59 aircraft carriers, 3,700 aircraft, 72,000 officers and men, and 56 Naval air stations.
During the war, the FAA operated fighters, torpedo bombers and reconnaissance aircraft. Following the Dunkirk evacuation and the commencement of the Battle of Britain, the Royal Air Force soon found itself critically short of fighter pilots. In the summer of 1940, the RAF had just over 800 fighter pilots and as personnel shortages worsened; the RAF turned to the Admiralty to ask for help from the Fleet Air Arm. Fleet Air Arm crews under RAF Fighter Command were either seconded individually to RAF fighter squadrons or, as with 804 and 808 Naval Air Squadrons, as entire squadrons. The former providing dockyard defence during the Battle of Britain with Sea Gladiators.
In the waters around the British Isles and out into the Atlantic Ocean, operations against enemy shipping and submarines in support of the RN were mounted by RAF Coastal Command with large patrol bombers and flying boats and land-based fighter-bombers. The aircraft carrier had replaced the battleship as the Fleet's capital ship and its aircraft were now strike weapons in their own right. The top scoring fighter ace with 17 victories was Commander Stanley Orr, the Royal Marine ace was Ronald Cuthbert Hay with 13 victories. A number of Royal Marines served as FAA pilots during the war.
Notable Fleet Air Arm operations during the war included the Battle of Taranto, the sinking of the Bismarck, Operation Tungsten against the Tirpitz and Operation Meridian against oil plants in Sumatra.
After the war the FAA needed to fly jet aircraft from their 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 the high speeds flown by jet aircraft. The FAA took on its first jet, the Sea Vampire, in the late 1940s. The Sea Vampire was 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 being woefully outpowered during the Korean War. Nevertheless, jets were not yet wholly superior to propeller aircraft and a flight of ground attack Hawker Sea Furies downed a MiG-15 and damaged others in an 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 another solution was sought. This was partly overcome by the introduction of a Royal Navy idea to angle the flight deck away from the centre line so that the aircraft landing had a clear run away from the usual forward deck park. An associated British invention, intended to provide more precise optical guidance to aircraft on final approaching the deck, was the Fresnel lens optical landing aid. Another Royal Navy invention was the use of a steam-powered catapult to cater for the larger and heavier aircraft (both systems were adopted by the US Navy).
Defence cuts across the British armed forces during the 1960s and 1970s led to the withdrawal of existing Royal Navy aircraft carriers, transfer of Fleet Air Arm fixed-wing jet strike aircraft such as the F-4K (FG.1) Phantom II and Buccaneer S.2 to the Royal Air Force, and cancellation of large replacement aircraft carriers, including the CVA-01 design. The last conventional carrier to be retired was HMS Ark Royal in 1978. A new series of small carriers, the Invincible class anti-submarine warfare ships (known as "through deck cruisers") were built and equipped with the Sea Harrier a derivative of the Hawker Siddeley Harrier VTOL aircraft. These carriers incorporated an upswept forward section of the flight deck that deflected the aircraft upward on launch and permitted heavier loads to be carried by the Harrier, for example in weaponry, and the system was used extensively in the Falklands War.
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 and 801 NAS were then combined to form the Naval Strike Wing, flying ex-RAF Harrier GR7 and GR9s. On 1 April 2010, NSW reverted to the identity of 800 Naval Air Squadron. The Harrier GR7 and GR9 retired from service in December 2010 following the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2010.
Two new Queen Elizabeth class carriers able to operate the F-35B short take-off and landing variant of the US Lockheed Martin Lightning II aircraft are under construction. In the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, it was announced that the carriers would enter service "from 2018". The current procurement plan is for a force of 138 F-35 aircraft, which are intended to be operated by both the RAF and FAA from a common pool, in the same manner as the Joint Force Harrier. With the introduction of the F-35, the Fleet Air Arm will eventually return to the operation of fixed-wing strike aircraft at sea. In 2013, an initial cadre of Royal Air Force and Royal Navy pilots and aircraft maintenance personnel were assigned to the U.S. Marine Corps' Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 (VMFAT-501), part of the U.S. Air Force's 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, for training on the F-35B. 809 Naval Air Squadron will be the first FAA unit to operate the F-35B and will be based at RAF Marham.
Helicopters also became important combat platforms since the Second World War. Initially used in the search and rescue role, they were later developed for anti-submarine warfare and troop transport; during the 1956 Suez Crisis they were used to land Royal Marine Commando forces, the first time this had ever been done in combat. Originally operated only from carriers, the development of the Westland Wasp in the 1960s allowed helicopters to operate on all ships of frigate size or larger. Wasps, Sea Kings and Wessex helicopters all played an active part in the 1982 Falklands War, while Lynx helicopters played an attack role against Iraqi patrol boats in the 1991 Gulf War and Commando Sea King HC4s as well as the Lynx HMA Mk 8 from HMS Argyll, assisted in suppressing rebel forces in the British intervention in the Sierra Leone Civil War in 2000.
The Fleet Air Arm has a museum near RNAS Yeovilton (HMS Heron) in Somerset, England at which many of the great historical aircraft flown by the Service are on display, along with aircraft from other sources. There is also a Fleet Air Arm museum inside the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) in Auckland, New Zealand. On display there is a full-size replica Fairey Swordfish, along with historic items and memorabilia.
In 1938, Admiralty Fleet Orders 2885 announced the formation of an Air Branch of the Royal Naval Reserve. Thirty three unmarried men signed up for eighteen months full-time flying training; however, before these first volunteers were able to gain their wings Britain was at war. At the end of hostilities in 1945 the RNVR(A) was 46,000 strong, with over 8,000 aircrew. Post war the RNVR(A) comprised 12 dedicated reserve squadrons, grouped regionally into Air Divisions. However, defence cuts in 1957 disbanded the five Air Divisions, and the following year the RNVR was merged with the RNR. The RNR Air Branch was commissioned at RNAS Yeovilton on 16 July 1980, and shortly afterwards 38 ex-regular aircrew began refresher training. Today the Air Branch comprises approx 250 ex-regular service Officers and Ratings, covering all aviation trades, tasked to support the Fleet Air Arm.
As of 1 December 2013, the Regular Fleet Air Arm has a reported strength of 5,000 personnel, which represents approximately 20% of the Royal Navy's total strength (excluding Royal Marines). The Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Aviation & Carriers), the professional head, who is also Rear Admiral Fleet Air Arm, is Rear Admiral Keith E Blount OBE, who relieved the previous incumbent, Rear Admiral R. G. Harding OBE, in May 2015.
The FAA operates fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft. It uses the same designation system for aircraft as the RAF. Three types of fixed wing aircraft are operated by the FAA for training purposes: pilot training is carried out using the Grob Tutor while, from March 2011, observer training is done using four Avenger T.1 Beechcraft King Air 350ER. The third type is the Hawk T1/1A, which is used to simulate enemy aircraft for training purposes including AEW Fighter Control, air to air combat and ship attack.
Today the largest section of the FAA is the rotary wing section. Its aviators fly four types of helicopters, and within each type there are usually several marks/variants which carry out different roles. Pilots designated for rotary wing service train at the Defence Helicopter Flying School, RAF Shawbury. The School is a tri-Service organisation consisting of civilian and military instructors (including Naval instructors and a Naval Air Squadron) that take the student from basic flying through to more advanced flying such as instrument flying, navigation, formation and captaincy. The oldest aircraft in the fleet is the Westland Sea King, which performs missions in several variants. The Sea King HC4 serves as a medium lifter and troop transporter in support of the Royal Marines. The HU.5 model operates in the Search and rescue role and the ASaC7 variant operates in the AEW role. Intermediate in age is the Westland Lynx. The Lynx AH.9A serves the FAA in observation and transport roles. Along with the Sea King HC4s, they equip the RN Commando Helicopter Force, which provides airborne support to 3 Commando Brigade of the Royal Marines.
To replace the Sea King in the Commando role, the Fleet Air Arm received the Merlin HC3/HC3A fleet previously operated by the RAF. These aircraft were transferred to the Royal Navy in September 2014 and will be fully navalised and redesignated as HC4s/HC4As, under the Merlin Life Sustainment Programme (MLSP) that was placed on contract in December 2013.
The surface combatants of the Royal Navy have their helicopters provided for the most part by the Lynx HMA8 aircraft. The Lynxes primarily have anti-submarine warfare and anti-surface vessel roles. They are able to fire the Sea Skua anti-surface missile, which was used to combat the Iraqi Navy in the 1991 Gulf War. It can be armed with Stingray air launched torpedoes and depth charges for anti-submarine warfare, as well as heavy calibre machine guns. The Lynx was originally envisaged for surface combatants that were too small for the Sea King, but now equips most frigates and destroyers of the Royal Navy. The Fleet Air Arm is introducing a total of 28 AW159 Wildcat HMA.2 helicopters to replace the Lynx HMA.8 in use in the Ship's Flights of the Royal Navy's escorts – this will perform a range of roles including anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare and airborne surveillance.
The AgustaWestland Merlin is the FAA's primary Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) helicopter, having replaced the Sea King HAS.6 in the role. It is presently being upgraded from HM.1 to HM.2 standard and is deployed with various ships of the Royal Navy.
Currently the Fleet Air Arm is an all rotary wing force. However, the introduction of the F-35B Lightning II will see a restoration of fixed wing, front-line operations. An initial order of 48 airframes was made in 2012 to equip the air wings of the planned two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, with the operation split between the FAA and the Royal Air Force, as was the case with Joint Force Harrier. 809 Naval Air Squadron was announced as the second UK unit to fly the F-35B, the first being 617 Squadron RAF, and will be the first Fleet Air Arm unit to operate the aircraft. It is understood that at least two further frontline squadrons will stand up in the future alongside 809, 617, 17(R) Test and Evaluation Squadron and an RAF-numbered Operational Conversion Unit, creating a front-line fleet of four squadrons in addition to the OCU and OEU. Under the Strategic Defence and Security Review of November 2015, the UK Government made a commitment to buying 138 F-35B, with at least 24 available for carrier use by 2024.
There is a project to replace the Sea King ASaC7 in the Airborne Surveillance and Control (ASaC) mission. Known as 'Crowsnest', the Assessment Phase for this project is under contract and involves competitive proposals for implementing the ASaC capability in a platform based upon the new Merlin HM2 helicopter. The Main Gate for the project is in 2017, a £269 million agreement in early 2017 was made by the MOD.
MOD DE&S signed a £30 million contract for the Boeing Insitu ScanEagle on 20 June 2013, to provide small, unmanned surveillance aircraft to equip RN warships and RFA ships. The Royal Navy's first UAV entered service with 831 Maritime Unmanned Aerial System (Mar UAS) Flight in December 2013 and is based at RNAS Culdrose.
A Fleet Air Arm flying squadron is formally titled Naval Air Squadron (NAS), a title used as a suffix to the squadron number. The FAA assigns numbers in the 700–799 range to training and operational conversion squadrons and numbers in the 800–899 range to operational squadrons. Exceptions to the 700-799 include operational conversion squadrons which also hold some form of operational commitment where they are then titled 800-899. During WWII the 1700 and 1800 ranges were also used for operational squadrons.
Squadrons active in the FAA are:
|700X Naval Air Squadron||UAV||Scan Eagle RM.1||RNAS Culdrose||Remotely Piloted Aircraft System shipborne flights||Provides HQ function for ScanEagle flights and serve as evaluation unit for any future UAV systems selected by the Royal Navy|
|RPAS future trials unit|
|703 Naval Air Squadron||Fixed-wing||Tutor T.1||RAF Barkston Heath||Elementary flying training||Part of the Defence Elementary Flying Training School|
|705 Naval Air Squadron||Rotary||Squirrel HT.1 and HT.2||RAF Shawbury||Basic and Advanced Single Engine helicopter training||Part of tri-service Defence Helicopter Flying School alongside 660 Squadron AAC and 60 Squadron RAF|
|727 Naval Air Squadron||Fixed-wing||Tutor T.1||RNAS Yeovilton||Pilot grading and Air Experience/Elementary Flying Training|
|736 Naval Air Squadron||Fixed wing||Hawk T.1/T.1A||RNAS Culdrose||Air combat simulated training||Formerly FRADU|
|750 Naval Air Squadron||Fixed-wing||Avenger T.1||RNAS Culdrose||Observer grading and training|
|809 Naval Air Squadron||Fixed-wing||Lightning II||RAF Marham||Carrier-borne fighter/strike||To reform in April 2023.|
|814 Naval Air Squadron||Rotary||Merlin HM.2||RNAS Culdrose||Anti-submarine warfare||To merge with 829 NAS in 2018|
|815 Naval Air Squadron||Rotary||Wildcat HMA.2||RNAS Yeovilton||Small ship flights|
|820 Naval Air Squadron||Rotary||Merlin HM.2||RNAS Culdrose||Anti-submarine warfare|
|824 Naval Air Squadron||Rotary||Merlin HM.2||RNAS Culdrose||Conversion Training (Merlin ASW)|
|825 Naval Air Squadron||Rotary||Wildcat HMA.2||RNAS Yeovilton||Conversion Training (Wildcat)||Formed by merger of 700W NAS and 702 NAS in August 2014|
|829 Naval Air Squadron||Rotary||Merlin HM.2||RNAS Culdrose||Small ship flights||To merge with 814 NAS in 2018|
|845 Naval Air Squadron||Rotary||Merlin HC.3/HC.3A||RNAS Yeovilton||Medium lift||Part of CHF|
|846 Naval Air Squadron||Rotary||Merlin HC.3/HC.3A||RNAS Yeovilton||Medium lift||Part of CHF|
|Conversion Training (Merlin Cdo)|
|847 Naval Air Squadron||Rotary||Wildcat AH.1||RNAS Yeovilton||Battlefield reconnaissance and support||Part of CHF|
|849 Naval Air Squadron||Rotary||Sea King ASaC.7||RNAS Culdrose||Airborne surveillance||Amalgamated with 854 NAS and 857 NAS in 2015
To convert to Merlin Crowsnest in 2018
|Royal Navy Historic Flight||Fixed-wing||number of historic aircraft||RNAS Yeovilton||Heritage education and public display|
|Maritime Aviation Support Force (MASF)||Rotary & fixed-wing||RNAS Culdrose||Flight Deck activities, Logistic and Catering Support, Operations, Engineering Support, even medical assistance||Technical support|
|1710 Naval Air Squadron||Rotary & fixed-wing||HMNB Portsmouth||Specialist aircraft repair, modification and scientific support||Technical support|
An additional flying unit of the Royal Navy is the FOST Helicopter Support Unit based at HMS Raleigh in Cornwall. This unit is not part of the Fleet Air Arm, but is directly under the control of Flag Officer Sea Training, operated by a civilian contractor.
Some 64 naval pilots and 9 observers have reached flag rank in the Royal Navy and 4 Royal Marines pilots general rank in the Royal Marines. Four of these admirals with pilot's 'wings' were air engineering officers (test pilots) and two were supply officers; two of the non-executive officers reached four-star rank: a supply officer, Admiral Sir Brian Brown (1934–), and a Royal Marine, General Sir Peter Whiteley (1920–).
Two new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, the largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy. These will enter service from 2018, transforming the Royal Navy’s ability to project our influence overseas. (p. 30)
14 September 2016
809 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) has been resurrected as the first Royal Navy formation to fly the UK’s Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.
See table 4a page 18 and table 4b page 20
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