The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Royal Flying Corps

The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was the over-land air arm of the British military during most of World War I.


Origin and Early History

Formed by Royal Warrant on May 13, 1912, the RFC superseded the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers. By the end of that year, it had 12 manned balloon and 36 biplane fighter aircraft. The RFC was intended to have had separate military and naval branches. The Royal Navy however was not keen on having naval aviation under the control of an Army corps and formed its own Royal Naval Air Service.

The RFC's motto was Per Ardua ad Astra.

The RFC's first fatal crash was on July 5, 1912 near Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain. Killed were Captain Eustace B. Loraine and his observer Staff-Sergeant R.H.V. Wilson. An order was issued after the crash stating "Flying will continue this evening as usual", thus beginning a tradition.


RFC and RNAS aircraft used during the war included:

Many technological advances took place. Planes became faster and more maneuverable, so they could attack enemy positions as well as scouting them. The invention of the interrupter gear allowed machine guns to be fired between the propeller blades.

World War I

The RFC was responsible for manning observation balloons on the Western front. For the first half of the war, the French air force vastly outnumbered the RFC, and accordingly did more fighting. Despite the primitive aircraft, aggressive leadership by commander Hugh Trenchard led to many brave fighting exploits and many casualties - over 700 in 1916, the rate worsening thereafter.

The RFC's first casualties of World War I were before the Corps even arrived in France. Lt Robert R. Skene and Air Mechanic Ray Barlow were killed on August 12 1914 when their, probably overloaded, plane crashed on the way to rendezvous with the rest of the RFC near Dover. Skene had been the first Englishman to do a loop in an airplane. Following the rendezvous, the RFC made a mass crossing of the English Channel with 60 machines.

The RFC's first action of the war was a two plane reconnaissance on 19 August 1914. The mission was not a great success. In order to save weight each plane carried a pilot only instead of the usual pair of pilot and observer. Because of this, and poor weather, both of the pilots lost their way and only one was able to complete his task.

The RFC's first victory was nearly a week later on August 25th when Lt C.W. Wilson and Lt C.E.C. Rabagliati forced down a German Etrich Taube which had approached their aerodrome while they were refueling their Avro. Another RFC machine landed by the German one and the RFC observer chased the German pilot into some nearby woods.

Early in the war RFC aircraft were marked with Union Jacks on the wings. The aircraft were often fired upon by ground forces because the markings were mistaken for the crosses on German aircraft. To prevent this the RFC adopted the familiar rondel marking from the French, though with the colours in a different order.

One of the initial uses for RFC aircraft was spotting for artillery fire. The results of the artillery fire were easy enough for the pilot to observe, the problem was communicating any necessary corrections to the firing battery. The standard method was for the flier to write a note and drop it to the ground where it could be recovered. The RFC experimented with using radio transmitters in their aircraft. Unfortunately the transmitters of the time weighed 75 pounds and filled an entire seat in the cockpit. This meant that the pilot had to fly the aircraft, navigate, observe the fall of the shells and transmit the results by morse code by himself. Also, the radios in the aircraft could not receive so the pilots could not be sent any instructions or questions from the ground. This work was originally done by a special Wireless Flight which was attached to No. 4 Squadron RFC. Eventually this flight was expanded into No. 9 Squadron under Hugh Dowding.

A more unusual mission for the RFC was the delivery of spies to behind enemy lines. The first such mission took place on the morning of September 13 1915 and was not a success. The plane crashed, the pilot and spy were badly injured and they were both captured. (Two years later however the pilot, Captain T.W. Mulcahy-Morgan, escaped and returned to England.) Later missions were more successful. In addition to delivering the spies the RFC was also responsible for keeping the spies supplied with the carrier pigeons that were used to send reports back to base. In 1916 a Special Duty Flight was formed as part of the Headquarters Wing to handle these and other unusual assignments.

Eleven RFC members received the Victoria Cross during World War I.

Before the Battle of the Somme (1916) the RFC had 421 aircraft, with four kite-balloon squadrons and fourteen balloons. These made up four brigades, which worked with four British armies. The RFC drew on men from across the British Empire including South Africa, Canada and Australia. Some Americans joined the RFC before the USA became a combatant.


In 1917, the American, British, and Canadian Governments agreed to join forces for training. Between April 1917 and January 1919, Camp Borden in Ontario hosted instruction on flying, wireless, air gunnery and photography, training 1,812 RFC Canada pilots and 72 for the United States. It now hosts the largest training wing of the Canadian Forces. Training also took place at several other Ontario locations.

During winter 1917-18, RFC instructors trained with the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army on three airfields accommodating about six thousand men, at Camp Taliaferro near Fort Worth, Texas. Training was hazardous; 39 RFC officers and cadets died in Texas. Eleven remain there, reinterred in 1924 at a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery where a monument honours their sacrifice.


Towards the end of World War I, on April 1, 1918, the RFC and the RNAS were amalgamated to form a new service, the Royal Air Force. The RAF was under the control of the Air Ministry. By 1919 the RAF had 4,000 combat aircraft and 114,000 people.

Some members of the RFC

Militarily prominent

Otherwise prominent

In fiction

External links


Last updated: 08-27-2005 17:28:33