United Kingdom - Army Aviation History
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United Kingdom
Army Aviation

Narrative History:
The British army experience of military flying dates back to 1878, when the first experiments with observation balloons were carried out. This eventually led to the creation of the Royal Flying Corps, which was incorporated into the Royal Air Force (RAF) in April 1918. After 1918 all Army aviation was provided by the RAF.

The success of German glider forces in the opening stages of World War Two generated interest in creating a similar force in Britain. In 1941 Army volunteers began pilot training with impressed civilian sports gliders. In 1942 the Glider Pilot Regiment was officially established, to provide trained aircrew for military assault gliders. The Regiment took part in a number of major operations, including Sicily, D-Day and the Battle of Arnhem, using troop carrying Horsa and Hamilcar gliders. The glider units were disbanded in 1945, as the capability was no longer deemed necessary, with Glider Pilot Regiment personnel becoming light aircraft pilots.

At the same time, the concept of using unarmed light aircraft to observe and correct the fall of artillery fire had been developed. This was tested in Italy during the difficult Allied advance north in 1944. Eventually, 10 Air Observation Post (AOP) squadrons were formed, all flying Auster aircraft. Flown by Army pilots, but with RAF ground staff, these aircraft operated from any available small field, moving frequently to stay close to their gunners. Training was undertaken by 43 OTU at Andover, which also operated the first helicopters in British service.

After the war, the number of AOP squadrons was reduced to four, one each for the UK, Germany, the Middle East and the Far East. In 1949 five new RAuxAF squadrons were formed in the UK for AOP duties. During the early 1950s full-time units were heavily involved in the Malayan Emergency and in the Korean War. A Joint Experimental Helicopter Unit (JEHU) was established at Middle Wallop to investigate the Army's needs for helicopter support. In 1956 it was decided that Army should create an Air Corps for AOP and liaison tasks using light aircraft. This required the training of Army ground crews and support staff to take-over from RAF personnel. On 1 September 1957 the Army Air Corps was formally established. In the meantime the RAuxAF AOP units had been disbanded in early 1957.

During the 1960s the emphasis changed from light aircraft to helicopters with the Saro Skeeter, Westland Sioux and Westland Scout entering service. Some Scouts were equipped with SS.11 wire-guided anti-tank missiles, introducing an offensive capability for the first time. In the 1970s the Westland Gazelle replaced the Sioux and the Westland Lynx replaced the Scout. Fixed wing utility transport was performed by the DHC-2 Beaver. The lighter and more deadly TOW anti-tank missile was introduced in 1980, equipping the Lynx and Gazelle. The AAC was becoming less of a support arm and more of a fighting force, specialising in the anti-tank role.

The Falklands War of 1982 saw No.656 Sqn AAC deploy it's Gazelle and Scout helicopters in support of ground forces engaged in re-capturing the islands. One Army Gazelle was shot down during the conflict, with the loss of it's crew.

The end of the Cold War saw the start of a progressive transfer of units from Germany back to the UK. Germany had long been seen as the main theatre of operations for the AAC, and it had been expected to play a key role in blocking the advance of Warsaw Pact tank forces in any European war. In fact it's first major anti-armour operation occurred in an entirely different environment. Following the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, 1991 saw three AAC squadrons deployed in Saudi Arabia in support of 1 (British) Armoured Division. However, the speed of the Allied advance and the Iraqi collapse meant few anti-armour missions were actually flown. The AAC also subsequently deployed peacekeeping units in support of the United Nations in Bosnia and Kosovo.

As part of the post Cold War re-orientation of the AAC, September 1999 saw the formation of 16 Air Assault Brigade - intended as a rapidly deployable force, it encompassed 3, 4 & 9 Regiment Army Air Corps as well as the Parachute Regiment Battalions. A tri-service organisation called Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) was formed on 5 October 1999 to control and coordinate British military helicopter forces from the RAF, Royal Navy and Army Air Corps. In May 2000 the Apache attack helicopter was introduced into service, although bungled crew training plans meant that operational capability could not be achieved for several more years.

Operation 'Telic' - the liberation of Iraq and subsequent counter-insurgency operations - saw elements of 3 Regiment AAC deploy as part of 16 Air Assault Brigade. Hostilities commenced on 19 March 2003, with AAC units once again supporting the 1st Armoured Division during the short-lived ground campaign. In May 2003 the main force returned home, but five Lynx helicopters and an Islander remained in Basra, to work alongside British and other Coalition Forces assisting in reconstruction work and anti-terrorist operations. Southern Iraq was initially a relatively peaceful region, but from 2005 a significant increase in Iranian sponsored terrorist attacks has delayed the time when Iraqi Government forces are able to take on the task.

In May 2006 Apache and Lynx helicopters from 9 Regiment were deployed to Helmand province in southern Afghanistan as part of an ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) programme to facilitate reconstruction and security in the region. Attacks by Taleban terrorists, mainly based in neighbouring Pakistan, has meant that the initial emphasis is on increasing security in the region. The deployment is planned to last for three years.

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First Created: 19 July 2006 - Last Revised: 20 July 2006
Copyright © 2006 John Hayles.     e-mail: john@aeroflight.co.uk