Helicopers of the Royal Navy

History of Helicopters in the Fleet Air Arm

Originally formed as the Royal Naval Air Service in 1910,

Naval Aviation had a slow beginning. An order was placed for His Majesty’s Airship No.1 in 1909, however it was not until 1911 that a first flight was attempted… during which the airship broke her back. One the Isle of Sheppey four officers were being taught how to fly by members of the Royal Aero Club (a few others were undergoing tuition at their own expense) however Lt Charles Samson RN, two other naval officers and an officer in the Royal Marines qualified in May 1911. About that same time the British Army created the Air Battalion at Farnborough. That autumn the Naval Flying School was created, and opened its doors on land at Eastchurch now owned by the Admiralty to further students. In the Spring 1912, the Air Battalion became Military Wing the Royal Flying Corps and, shortly afterwards a Naval Wing was created (with Samson, now a Cdr, in Command). 

It was not until July 1914 that Naval Wing broke away from Military Wing and gave itself the name the Royal Naval Air Service. The RNAS and RFC never really saw eye-to-eye during WWI, and a decision was made, on the recommendation of Field Marshall Smutts to merge the two air arms and create an Independent Air Force in April 1918. The Air Ministry managed maritime aviation up until 1938… providing all the aircraft and a number of pilots. Naval officers who wished to fly were seconded to the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Air Force (formed in 1924)… and held rank in both the RN and RAF (not always equal status!). In 1938 The Inskip Report recommended that naval aviation should be given back to the Admiralty, effected in 1939 and Naval Air Branch was established (the title Fleet air Arm was dropped and not used again, officially, until 1953… but the shortened version ‘Fleet Air Arm’ remained in common use.)

Since the 1970s, rotary wing aviation has eclipsed that of fixed wing with the Fleet Air Arm, following the major re-organisations announced in the UK 1957 Defence White Paper, which essentially retired the main carrier fleet, and the 1966 Defence White Paper which cancelled the replacement large strike carrier, CVA-01. The Fleet Air Arm provides maritime attack and combat air support for the fleet and its task groups. Anti-submarine, AEW, SAR and replenishment tasks are conducted plus helicopter assault and support for the Royal Marines, together with the comprehensive training necessary to complete these missions. Some training and other second line duties are carried out by civilian contractors or in joint civilian-military teams.

From 1 Oct 1999 the Commando Helicopter Force joined with the support and battlefield helicopters of the Army Air Corps and the Royal Air Force in the new Joint Helicopter Command (JHC). JHC is unified under Commander-in-Chief, Land. The RN contributes aircraft (plus about 1,000 personnel) from 845, 846, 847 and 848 Squadrons plus other aircraft from an attrition reserve. The FAA also contributes 705 Squadron to the tri-service Defence Helicopter Flying School.
The main FAA operational shore bases are HMS Heron (RNAS Yeovilton, tail code VL) and HMS Seahawk (RNAS Culdrose, tail code CU). A SAR detachment was based at Prestwick (HMS Gannet, tail code PW) in Scotland, until Mar 2016

Fleet Air Arm assets, bases and personnel are the responsibility of Flag Officer, Naval Aviation (FONA).