The Black Sheds, the row of elderly aircraft hangars situated at the eastern edge of the Farnborough airfield, close to the runway’s final approach, have been an iconic feature at every airshow held at this historic Hampshire location. But the protected Listed Grade 2 structures have been standing there for a lot longer. In fact, they originally housed some of the earliest British military aircraft as squadrons were formed during the years that led up to World War I.
Close by, just behind the Black Sheds, alongside Farnborough Road and surrounded by a number of preserved classic British-built jets, is a large white building [also a Listed historic site] that was originally the headquarters of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). In April this year a double centenary was celebrated here, for it was on April 13, 1912, that the RFC and the Royal Aircraft Factory were officially created, paving the way for a new combined British military air arm and an official center for aviation research and development.
The RFC grew out of the previously fragmented activities carried out by the British Army and Royal Navy, supported by visionary individuals and small pioneering airplane companies. The Royal Engineers Air Battalion, based at Farnborough, and a Naval Wing, based at Eastchurch, would form the basis of the new joint air service, developing what had been a mix of enthusiastic and negative official views on aviation, but bringing, at last, government support for a cohesive organization that recognized the potential of air power. And with increasing aviation progress in other European countries, it was clear that more technical effort was needed if Britain was to be able to grow a home aviation capability that might supply the future needs of the army and navy.
Since the end of the 19th century the area around today’s show site has been involved in military aviation, first with the move of the army’s Balloon School and Balloon Factory from nearby Aldershot to Farnborough, and later as kites and airships were also built and test flown at what was then Farnborough Common. It was from the raised ground close to the Black Sheds that Samuel Cody made the historic first successful flight in the UK of a controlled, powered aircraft on Oct. 16, 1908.
Little did anyone realize at the time that over the next decade British air power and manufacturing would see massive expansion with the production and operation of more than 22,000 military airplanes. In 1914, the Royal Navy resumed control of its own air service, the RNAS, which was merged with the RFC in 1918 during the formation of the Royal Air Force.
World War I introduced the concept of air warfare–a third dimension over the battlefield–which has remained dominant in military strategy to this day. This was truly the dawn of military aviation, and Farnborough was at its heart, with the operational administration of early flying units and, in the Royal Aircraft Factory, a growing capacity to design, build and test not only engines and airplanes, but everything to do with equipping and operating them. While engine and aircraft production subsequently reverted to commercial manufacturers, the research and development continued after 1918, when the factory became the Royal Aircraft Establishment–the world famous RAE.
This year, on April 12, a replica BE2 returned to Farnborough’s skies and parked in front of the original RFC headquarters. The original BE2, which first flew 100 years ago, was designed by Geoffrey de Havilland and built at the Royal Aircraft Factory. The building, now the museum of Farnborough Air Sciences Trust (FAST), is located alongside the famous Black Sheds, where many early RFC squadrons were formed and based. Participating at the celebrations marking this centenary were representatives from the first three RFC air squadrons, which went on to become RAF Nos. 1, 2 and 3 Squadrons, and representatives from the RAF Odiham base, which is only five miles from Farnborough.
Later, an Army Air Corps Apache joined the BE2 and a DH Dragon Rapide in a fly-past over the former RFC headquarters. That building is now known as Trenchard House, in memory of Hugh Trenchard, “The father of the RAF.” Trenchard worked in an office there before taking the RFC squadrons to the Western Front in France. Local Member of Parliament and defense minister Gerald Howarth opened a new exhibition in the FAST Museum dedicated to the pioneering RFC and Royal Aircraft Factory activities during the 1912-18 period.
Providing a direct link with today’s RAF front line was Wing Commander Nick Tucker-Lowe, commanding officer of No. 2 (Army Cooperation) Squadron, based at RAF Marham operating Tornado GR4s. This unit, which begins another operational deployment to Afghanistan this summer, painted one of its Tornados with a special commemorative tail decoration featuring a BE2, the first aircraft type the squadron flew in May 1912 at Farnborough.
The FAST Museum is accessible from Farnborough Road and is open every weekend throughout the year. During the Farnborough International air show period it is closed while pre-booked events take place during the day, with limited access available after 4 p.m. during show week. For further information visit the FAST website: farnboroughairsciences.org.uk.