The War in the air

Page 2 – Early military aviation

The use of balloons

The first man-carrying balloon was invented by the Montgolfier brothers in 1783. The first military use of the balloon followed in 1794, by the French to observe the enemy during the Battle of Fleurus. The Mongolfiers used hot-air to fill their balloons but for practical use by the likes of the military hydrogen gas was used, as this provided for greater endurance and a degree of control over ascent and descent.

Aviation milestones

1794: First recorded military use of balloons during the Battle of Fleurus

1889: First balloon ascents in New Zealand

1903: Orville and Wilbur Wright complete the first successful powered flights, in the United States

1909: Frenchman Louis Blériot flies across the English Channel

1910: Joseph Hammond becomes the first New Zealand pilot to be awarded an aviator's certificate, firstly in France and then in Britain

1911: Vivian Walsh makes the first recognised flight in New Zealand; the first use of aircraft in a military role – by the Italians against the Ottoman Turks during the Libyan War

1912: Royal Flying Corps formed in Britain

1914: First military aircraft (a Blériot XI named Britannia) flies in New Zealand; William Burn becomes the New Zealand Army's first qualified military pilot

During the American Civil War (1861-65) both the Federal Army of the North and the army of the Confederate South used observation balloons, though with mixed results. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 the besieged city of Paris used balloons to observe the enemy and to send out mail (also pigeons to bring mail to the city). A few passengers also made their escape from Paris by this means.

A few years later the British Army established a Balloon Equipment Store at Woolwich in London, staffing it with a small team of officers with balloon experience, including Captain James Templer, an experienced and resourceful aeronaut. The unit conducted official trials with the balloons Crusader and Pioneer in 1878 and made its first manned flight the following year.

In 1884, three balloons were sent to South Africa to assist a force operating in Bechuanaland (now Botswana). Though they had limited success, another section went to eastern Sudan in 1885 under Templer's command. They proved useful in spotting enemy forces both there and in South Africa in 1899.

In 1891 the Balloon Section moved to Aldershot, Hampshire and three years later a balloon factory was established at nearby South Farnborough. Following experiments with man-lifting kites designed for observation purposes, prototypes devised by flamboyant aviation pioneer Samuel F. Cody were adopted for use when the wind was too strong for balloons. The development of kites continued in parallel with that of balloons into the 1900s.

During the South African (Boer) War (1899-1902), four Royal Engineers Balloon Sections acted as observers for the British forces, notably during the siege of Ladysmith (November 1899 - February 1900).

The arrival of the aeroplane

It was not until 1908, five years after the successful powered flight by the Wright Brothers, when Wilbur Wright astounded the aeronautical world with the first public demonstration of practical flying, in France. It was these demonstrations, more than any other event, that stimulated widespread development of aviation virtually overnight. Across the world, pioneering aviators began to regularly make and break records for distance, endurance and the crossing of natural obstacles.

The creation of international and national organisations for the promotion and administration of flying, such as the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, headquartered in France (but now in Switzerland), and the Royal Aero Club of Great Britain, produced a structure which encouraged more people to take part in aviation and learn to fly.

In 1909, Frenchman Louis Blériot flew across the English Channel in a symbolic act of aerial endurance. After one short flight, Britain could no longer consider itself safe behind the defences of the powerful Royal Navy and the English Channel.

Military aviation

Alongside the growing public mania for all things aeronautical, aircraft began to be utilised for military purposes. Most major armies began to develop an aerial capability. As a sign of things to come, the Italians used aircraft in reconnaissance roles and dropped small bombs on their Ottoman opponents during the Libyan War (1911-12). During the Balkan Wars (1912-13), the combatants used aircraft in a similar way. In Britain, the Royal Engineers created an Air Battalion in 1911. This consisted of two companies, one of fixed-wing aircraft based at Lark Hill on Salisbury Plain and one of airships at its Farnborough headquarters. 

In May 1912, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) came into existence, absorbing the Air Battalion in the process. Consisting of a Military Wing, a Naval Wing and a Central Flying School, the RFC concentrated on aeroplane development and gradually replaced their fleet of airships. A Military Aeroplane Competition held in August 1912 reflected a need for effective aircraft. From 32 entrants, Samuel Cody’s ungainly biplane was the winner, though this was more due to the nature of the tests and the system of judging than to the quality of the machine itself. The Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough supplied much of the early equipment for the RFC, including the slow but stable BE.2 aircraft. The RFC spent the next two years developing procedures and training for military operations, including by participating in British Army manoeuvres.

Just before the outbreak of war, in June 1914, the RFC held a ‘Concentration Camp’ on Salisbury Plain that was designed to simulate wartime conditions and promote training and discussions about operational effectiveness. In July, the British Admiralty regained full control of the RFC’s Naval Wing, which it reorganised into the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). The RFC was now the responsibility of the British Army and the RNAS the Royal Navy.

How to cite this page

'Early military aviation', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 9-Jul-2014