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.
|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
|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
|Flight Refuelling Ltd renamed FR Group
|FR Group renamed Cobham plc
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.
The Falcon 20s must be due for replacement in the near future.
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).
Coding system not used
None – Manufacturers designations used
Current Aircraft Inventory
|Still on Order
|Beech Super King Air 200
|Beech Super King Air 350
|Dassault Falcon 20
|Diamond DA42 Twin Star
|Dornier Do 228-200
|Oil Spill Response
All-Time Aircraft Used List
Aircraft NOT Used
No false reports known.
Aircraft Losses and Incidents
Cobham plc, Brook Road, Wimborne, Dorset, BH21 2BJ, United Kingdom.
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
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.
In Cobham’s Company: Sixty Years of Flight Refuelling Ltd., by Colin Cruddas (Cobham plc, 1994)
To be added.