Cobham Aviation

Operator Profile


Narrative Summary

Sir Alan Cobham was a noted pilot who undertook a succession of record-breaking long distance flights in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1932 he formed National Aviation Displays Ltd which operated a collection of up to 14 aircraft for barnstorming and joyriding around the country. This operation was very successful and introduced a large number of people to aviation.

Cobham’s experience with flying aircraft heavily laden with fuel from undeveloped airstrips caused him to be become very interested in the idea of in-flight refuelling. Using this system, an aircraft could take-off at relatively light weight, greatly boosting its take-off performance in one of the most hazardous phases of flight, and then top-up with fuel once airborne. In early 1934 he brought up the ‘crossover’ aerial refuelling concept invented by RAF officer Richard Atcherley and began to refine it into a practical system. After initial aerial refuelling experiments with two D.H.9s, in September 1934 he embarked on a non-stop England-to-India flight with an Airspeed Courier refuelled at regular intervals along the route. Unfortunately the Courier experienced a mechanical failure and he was forced to land in Malta and abandon the attempt. Soon afterwards, Cobham founded Flight Refuelling Ltd (FRL) to concentrate on the development of aerial refuelling systems. Initial experiments used aircraft from National Aviation Displays, which was closed down at the end of 1935, but FRL soon obtained its own dedicated aircraft. Some aircraft were configured as tankers and others as receivers. By 1939 FRLs looped hose refuelling system was practical enough to be regularly used to top up Imperial Airways flying boats departing on the transatlantic service.

During World War 2 FRL concentrated on aircraft modifications, including the development of an extra long range version of the Avro Lancaster for the RAF ‘Tiger Force’ that was intended to operate against Japan, following the end of the war in Europe. Although the Japanese surrender meant these aircraft were never used, the experience allowed FRL to modify and operate a fleet of Lancaster and Lancastrian aircraft to ferry fuel into the besieged city of Berlin during the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49. These aircraft operated from FRLs new base at Tarrant Rushton.

In the meantime, FRL resumed development of the looped hose aerial refuelling system and from 1945 began testing it using converted Avro Lancasters as tanker aircraft. In 1946 a series of successful hook-ups with Lancasters of British South American Airways (BSAA) led in the following year to a contract for FRL to provide aerial refuelling from a base in the Azores to BSAA aircraft flying non-stop to Bermuda. This resulted in 21 out of 22 flights being successfully refuelled. Between February and March 1948 FRL Lancasters also conducted refuelling experiments with a BOAC Liberator 2 flying the North Atlantic route. In early 1949 FRL developed a completely new in-flight refuelling system known as ‘probe and drogue’, which later became the system adopted by many air forces worldwide. On 7th August 1949 a converted Meteor 3 jet fighter with an in-flight refuelling probe in the nose was able to stay airborne for more than 12 hours by taking on fuel from a Lancaster tanker. The Royal Air force and USAF quickly adopted the new system and generated plenty of conversion work for FRL.

With the withdrawal of the Lancaster tankers in the early 1950s, FRL ceased to operate its own aircraft. However conversion and modification work continued and during the 1960s it produced numerous Meteor target drones, and its replacement in the 1970s the Sea Vixen D.3. FRL subsequently became involved in purpose-built target drones and UAV launch systems.

In the 1980s FRL began to explore the opportunities for operating aircraft under contract to government agencies. In 1983 it won the contract for managing and staffing the Royal Navy’s Fleet Requirements and Air Direction Unit (FRADU) at Hurn Airport, taking over from Airwork Ltd. The FR Aviation (FRA) division was formed in 1984 to perform this task. Under the contract several Dassault Falcon 20s were leased and subsequently purchased to replace the Canberras then in service. The first examples entered service in 1985. The Hawker Hunters used by FRADU remained the property of the Navy but were flown and maintained by FRA personnel. The Hunters were replaced by Hawks from 1994. FRADU itself was disbanded in 2013, but in the meantime FRA had obtained contracts to support operation of the Falcon 20s from Hurn (Bournemouth) and Teesside Airports for operational readiness training of UK and European military forces.

FR Aviation also provides Oil Spill response aircraft under contract to cover the North Sea production areas, and a separate Flight Inspection division provides calibration services for electronic air traffic navigation aids.

Flight Refuelling changed its name to Cobham in November 1994, to better reflect its actual activities.

Key Dates

1932    National Aviation Displays Ltd first formed
24 September 1934    start of long-range flight to India supported by experimental in-flight refuelling
29 October 1934    Flight Refuelling Ltd (FRL) established
1939    Looped hose refuelling system introduced into commercial service
18 August 1940    Luftwaffe air raid on Ford aerodrome destroys most of FRL aircraft fleet.
7 August 1949    Probe and drogue refuelling system demonstrated
8 October 1984    FR Aviation division formed
1985    Flight Refuelling Ltd renamed FR Group
November 1994    FR Group renamed Cobham plc

Current Status

In the United Kingdom, Cobham Aviation Services provides operational readiness training, including electronic warfare training, mission rehearsal and target towing for the UK Armed Forces. It also provides an Oil Spill response aircraft under contract to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAFF), later renamed DEFRA. Cobham Flight Inspection provides navaid calibration services throughout the UK and Europe.

Future Plans

The Falcon 20s must be due for replacement in the near future.


Special Markings

Pre-war FRL aircraft operated in a natural metal/silver dope colour scheme with FLIGHT REFUELLING LTD titles on the fuselage, except for the Harrow, which retained its RAF camouflage pattern with military markings deleted. Post-war FRL aircraft operated in similar markings.

The Dassault Falcon 20s initially operated in a white colour scheme with dark and light blue fuselage cheatline extending up the tail fin. FR AVIATION titles appeared on the forward fuselage and the logo of 2 linked speedbirds was shown on the fin and behind the cockpit, all in dark blue. This scheme was later modified to have the rear fuselage and fin in dark blue with a white rudder, a revised dark blue FRA logo on the forward fuselage and linked speedbirds in white on the fin. This scheme was replaced by an overall dark blue colour scheme with a white fuselage cheatline that extended up the leading edge of the fin. The FRA and speedbird logos appeared in white on the forward fuselage and fin respectively. The current colour scheme sees the FRA logo replaced by COBHAM and the speedbirds deleted from the fin.

The oil spill Dornier operates in a white colour scheme with red nose and tail fin. ‘Oil Spill Response’ titles appear on the fuselage sides in black. A small white COBHAM logo appears under the cockpit.

Aircraft Serial Numbers

Aircraft operated by Flight Refuelling Ltd/FR Aviation/Cobham Aviation carry United Kingdom civil aircraft registrations, eg. Falcon 20 G-FRAO. (Although the Falcon 20s initially operated with United States registrations for legal reasons, e.g. N900FR).

Fleet List

All-Time List of Serials/Registrations

Unit/Base Codes

Coding system not used


Aircraft Designations

None – Manufacturers designations used

Current Aircraft Inventory

Aircraft Type Total Del’d Total Active Still on Order Role
Beech Super King Air 200 2 2 0 Flight Calibration
Beech Super King Air 350 2 2 0 Flight Calibration
Dassault Falcon 20 17 12 0 EW Training
Diamond DA42 Twin Star 1 1 0 Flight Inspection
Dornier Do 228-200 3 1 0 Oil Spill Response

All-Time Aircraft Used List

All-Time Table of Aircraft Used

Aircraft NOT Used

No false reports known.

Aircraft Losses and Incidents

None known.


Main Headquarters

Cobham plc, Brook Road, Wimborne, Dorset, BH21 2BJ, United Kingdom.

Organisational Structure

The UK flight operations today of Cobham plc are divided into Cobham Aviation Services and Cobham Flight Inspection Ltd. The former includes the Cobham Helicopter Services (formerly FB Heliservices Ltd) which runs the Defence Helicopter Flying School at Shawbury, and Cobham Special Mission (formerly FR Aviation Ltd) which provides electronic warfare and aggressor training services.

(Another subsidiary, Cobham Aviation Services Australia, operates a charter airline and the delivers contractor maritime surveillance services for Coastwatch and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority).

Current Unit Assignments

Cobham Aviation Services:
6 x Falcon 20 at Teesside Airport, County Durham
6 x Falcon 20 at Bournemouth Airport, Dorset
1 x Do 228-200 at Bournemouth Airport, Dorset
Cobham Flight Inspection:
2 x Beech Super King Air 200, 2 x Beech Super King Air 350 and 1 x DA42 Twin Star at Teesside Airport, County Durham

Historical Unit Assignments

To be added.

All-Time Flying Units List

Not applicable.

Air Bases

Current Air Bases

All aircraft are currently based at Bournemouth Airport and Teesside Airport.

All-Time Air Bases Used List

FRL was originally formed in 1934 and moved to RAF Ford, Sussex in January 1936. Flying operations ceased after its aircraft were destroyed in a Luftwaffe air raid in 1940. The company moved back to Ford in 1945. In-flight refuelling experimental flights were conducted from Staverton in 1945-1946 and a tanker aircraft was based in Santa Maria in the Azores in 1947. In 1947 flying operations moved to Tarrant Rushton, Dorset. In early 1948 tanker aircraft were based in Shannon, Gander and Goose Bay to support transatlantic flights. Later, defence contractor operations commenced from Bournemouth Airport, Dorset and Teesside Airport, County Durham.

More Information


In Cobham’s Company: Sixty Years of Flight Refuelling Ltd., by Colin Cruddas (Cobham plc, 1994)


To be added.


wikipedia: Cobham plc

Official Cobham plc Website

FRL Lancasters Refuelling

Cobham Aviation Services

Cobham Aviation Services aircraft

Flight Refuelling Ltd

Frog 1/96 Lancaster TK (conversion)

Fleet List
Cobham Aviation

This a fleet list for the UK-based aircraft of Cobham Aviation and its predecessors. (Australian aircraft will be listed separately).

Serial/Reg’n. Aircraft Type C/No. Prev. Identity Delivered Fate
G-EBMM Handley Page W.10 W.10-1 1934 (National Aviation Displays Ltd)
G-EBMR Handley Page W.10 W.10-2 1934 (National Aviation Displays Ltd)
G-ABXN Airspeed AS.5 Courier 7 1934 Impressed 12 June 1940
G-ABAJ Westland Wessex IV WA1897 OO-AGC 1935  
G-AFRL Handley Page HP.54 Harrow K7027 6 Mar 1939 w/o 18 June 1940
G-AFRX Armstrong Whitworth AW23 AW1251 3 Apr 1939 w/o 18 Aug 1940
G-AGUN Avro Lancaster B.I PP744 ? 24 Feb 1949 scrapped Jan 1950
G-AGWI Avro 691 Lancastrian C.Mk.3 1281 TX276 18 Jan 1949 scrapped 26 Sep 1951
G-AGWL Avro 691 Lancastrian C.Mk.3 1284 ? 18 Jan 1949 scrapped 26 Sep 1951
G-AHJT Avro Lancaster B.I S4VA/2505 LL809 13 Aug 1948 scrapped 25 Jan 1950
G-AHJU Avro Lancaster B.III VA.3094 LM681 25 Apr 1946 scrapped 26 Sep 1951
G-AHJV Avro Lancaster B.III LMOS/MVA30257 LM639 25 Apr 1946 scrapped 25 Jan 1950
G-AHJW Avro Lancaster B.III RSLB.127336 ED866 25 Apr 1946 crashed 22 Nov 1948
G-AHVN Avro Lancaster B.I D2285 ? 17 Jul 1946 scrapped 26 Sep 1951
G-AKDO Avro 691 Lancastrian Mk.10 KB729 CF-CMV 19? Scrapped Sep 1951
G-AKDP Avro 691 Lancastrian Mk.10 FM185 ? 1950 scrapped 1951
G-AKDR Avro 691 Lancastrian Mk.10 FM186 ? 1950 scrapped 1951
G-AKDS Avro 691 Lancastrian Mk.10 FM187 ? 1950 scrapped 1951
G-AKFF Avro 691 Lancastrian C.IV RY/LC/59110 TX284 28 Dec 1948 wfu Apr 1951, scrapped Sep 1951
G-AKFG Avro 691 Lancastrian C.IV ? TX286 28 Dec 1948 wfu Apr 1951, scrapped Sep 1951
G-AKTB Avro 691 Lancastrian C.II ? ? Apr 1949 wfu Apr 1951, scrapped 26 Sep 1951
N809P Dassault Falcon 20C 35 18 Dec 1991  
N900FR Dassault Falcon 20DC 223 N22FE Feb 1985 to G-FRAH
N901FR Dassault Falcon 20E 270 N37FE Jan 1985 to G-FRAI
N902FR Dassault Falcon 20DC 132 N2FE Jan 1985 to G-FFRA
N903FR Dassault Falcon 20DC 20 N5FE 22 Feb 1985 to G-FRAJ
N904FR Dassault Falcon 20DC 151 Jan 1985  
N905FR Dassault Falcon 20DC 213 Jan 1985  
N906FR Dassault Falcon 20DC 214 1985 to G-FRAO
N907FR Dassault Falcon 20 224 17 Apr 1985 to G-FRAM
N908FR Dassault Falcon 20 207 8 Apr 1985 to G-FRAP
N909FR Dassault Falcon 20 209 8 Apr 1985 to G-FRAR
G-FFRA Dassault Falcon 20DC 132 N902FR 28 May 1992  
G-FRAA Dassault Falcon 20F 385 ? Apr 1987  
G-FRAB Dassault Falcon 20F 356 ? 1987  
G-FRAC Dassault Falcon 20F 254 ? Apr 1987  
G-FRAD Dassault Falcon 20E 304/511 9M-BDK ? Apr 1987  
G-FRAE Dassault Falcon 20E 280/503 ? Sep 1987  
G-FRAF Dassault Falcon 20E 295/500 N911FR 1 Sep 1987  
G-FRAH Dassault Falcon 20DC 223 31 May 1990  
G-FRAI Dassault Falcon 20E 270 N901FR 17 Oct 1990  
G-FRAJ Dassault Falcon 20DC 20 N903FR 24 Apr 1991  
G-FRAK Dassault Falcon 20DC 213 N905FR 9 Oct 1991  
G-FRAL Dassault Falcon 20DC 151 N904FR 17 Mar 1993  
G-FRAM Dassault Falcon 20DC 224 13 May 1993  
G-FRAO Dassault Falcon 20DC 214 N906FR 23 Oct 1992  
G-FRAP Dassault Falcon 20DC 207 N908FR 12 Jul 1993  
G-FRAR Dassault Falcon 20DC 209 N909FR 2 Dec 1993  
G-FRAS Dassault Falcon 20C 82/418 31 Jul 1990  
G-FRAT Dassault Falcon 20C 87/424 31 Jul 1990  
G-FRAU Dassault Falcon 20C 97/422 31 Jul 1990  
G-FRAV Dassault Falcon 20C 103/423 30 Jul 1990  
G-FRAW Dassault Falcon 20C 114/420 31 Jul 1990  
G-FRBA Dassault Falcon 20C 178/459 OH-FFA 16 Jul 1996 wfu Dec 2011
G-FPLB Beech Super King Air 200 BB-1048 ? wfu May 2011
G-FPLD Beech Super King Air 200 BB-1433 15 Jul 2002  
G-FPLE Beech Super King Air 200 BB-1256 20 Feb 2009  
G-COBH Beech Super King Air 200 BB-944 D-ICFI 5 Jun 2009 wfu May 2011
G-COBI Beech Super King Air 350 FL-424 D-CFIA 3 Feb 2010  
G-COBM Beech Super King Air 350 FL-124 D-CFIS 5 Jan 2010  
G-COBS Diamond DA42M Twin Star 42.MN020 ? 30 Jan 2012  
G-MAFE Dornier Do 228-200 8009 21 Dec 1992 wfu 10 Feb 1998, later scrapped
G-MAFI Dornier Do 228-202K 8115 10 Feb 1998  
G-OMAF Dornier Do 228-212 8112 10 Feb 1998  
G-MAFF Britten-Norman BN-2T Islander 2119 1982 w/o 21 Feb 1985
G-FCAL Cessna 441 441-0293 19 Mar 1996  
G-FRAX Cessna 441 441-0207 4 Sep 1987  
G-FRAZ Cessna 441 441-0035 14 Sep 1987  

Additional information is welcome

All-Time Aircraft Used List
Cobham Aviation

Aircraft Type Quantity Service Entry Out of Service Origin
Handley Page W.10 2 19?? 19?? UK
Airspeed AS.5 Courier 1 1934 1940 UK
Westland Wessex IV 1 1935 19?? UK
Handley Page HP.54 Harrow 1 1939 1940 UK
Armstrong Whitworth AW.23 1 1939 1940 UK
Avro Lancaster B.I 3 1946 1951 UK
Avro Lancaster B.III 3 1946 1951 UK
Avro Lancastrian C.II 1 1949 1951 UK
Avro Lancastrian C.3 2 1949 1951 UK
Avro Lancastrian C.IV 2 1948 1951 UK
Avro Lancastrian C.10 4 1950 1951 UK
Dassault Falcon 20 22 1985 current Fedex
Beech Super King Air 200 4 2002 current USA
Beech Super King Air 350 2 2010 current USA
Diamond DA42 Twin Star 1 2012 current Austria
Dornier Do 228-200 3 1992 current Germany
Britten-Nor,am BN-2T Islander 1 1982 1985 UK
Cessna 441 3 1987 19?? USA