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Army Air Corps (AAC)

The Army Air Corps (AAC) is the smallest of the 3 combat arms in the British Army, but its fleet of helicopters makes it one of the most potent. Providing firepower from the skies, it has a unique role to play on the modern battlefield by delivering hard-hitting support to ground forces during the key stages of a battle.

The AAC operates alongside the other Combat Arms of the Infantry and Royal Armoured Corps. Combat Arms are those forces that use fire and maneuver to engage with the enemy with direct fire systems. The forces providing fire support and operational assistance to the Combat Arms are called Combat Support Forces. Army Aviation as a whole is an amalgam of military capability drawn from the following Regiments and Corps: Army Air Corps, Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Royal Logistic Corps, Adjutant General's Corps

Army Aviation has 5 roles defined. Offensive Action is the application of firepower and maneuver in order to defeat the enemy. Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) is the use of Army Aviation to gather information using optical and electronic devices. Control and Direction of Firepower is the use of Army Aviation to observe enemy forces and engage with other weapon systems such as fighter ground attack, main battle tanks, artillery and mortars, land based rocket systems and naval fire support platforms. Command Support is providing the capability for commanders to move around the battle quickly. Movement of Personnel and Materiel is support to specialist operations, helicopter evacuation and delivery of vital equipment.

The AAC can trace its roots back to the Glider Pilot Regiment and beyond to the formation of the Royal Flying Corps. The Army's first flights took place in balloons, which were used operationally for the first time during the Boer War. Kites followed, before the first fixed winged aircraft were developed at the beginning of the 20th century.

Flying in the British Army began officially in 1878, when the first gas-filled man-carrying tethered observation balloons were purchased by the War Office. Among the technical developments of the industrial revolution was a much improved artillery field gun and more powerful ammunition. This allowed a commander to fire an artillery barrage on the enemy reserves, instead of focusing entirely on the immediately apparent, in an attempt to neutralize them before they could be committed. However, for this barrage to be effective it was necessary to see where it was falling and to direct it onto the target. Sending artillery observers out to a convenient viewing point to direct the gunfire was slow and not very effective.

Man-carrying balloons had been around since the end of the eighteenth century and had been developed over many years to become relatively effective observation platforms. However, their use on the battlefield was considered too cumbersome. Then, in the Confederate Wars of America and the Franco-Prussian War, the balloons were used to great tactical advantage. This resulted in their introduction to the British Army.

The most technical arm of the British Army by the late 19th century was the Corps of Royal Engineers, and they were given the responsibility for operating the balloons. The first tethered observation balloons were purchased, and the balloon school and sections opened, in 1878. During the next ten years, the balloon sections developed their techniques. A section was deployed successfully on an Army expedition to Bechuanaland and at the close of the century a number of sections operated with great, even decisive, effect in the Boer War. The use and value of the balloon section as a war fighting support unit was now well established.

The limitations of balloons led to the exploration of the kite as alternative. A tethered kite required wind to get aloft but was very unstable. Experiments began to develop a man-carrying kite. Mr Samual Franklin Cody, a horseman and showman, was touring the UK with his very popular stage and circus show. Born in Iowa in 1864 and poorly educated, Cody had become fascinated and learned the art of kite making as a boy from Chinese immigrants. At various venues around the country, between performances of his shows, Cody met up with other kite-flying enthusiasts and through this he learned of the Army and Navy requirement to develop a man-carrying kite. Fired up by the idea, he experimented and created a man-carrying kite system which resulted in the procurement, by the Royal Engineers, of the Cody War Kite. These worked most effectively and Cody was taken on as the Army Kite Instructor.

The early 20th century brought new innovations. In 1901 the Germans had successfully flown their first powered airship, and there had been some work at Farnborough to assemble a large, sausage shaped balloon to make a British version. Cody was enrolled to the project and his engine was fitted in a boat-shaped hull under the balloon. Nulli-Secondus, the first British airship, flew from Farnborough to London and powered flight in UK was born. In December 1903 the Wright Brothers made the first powered, manned flight of an aeroplane and the race was on to develop this type of machine. Cody obtained a French engine and attempted to fit it to one of his kites, but this proved unsuccessful and instead he started to build a machine similar to the Wright flyer.

Back at Farnborough, Cody continued to develop his machine and became the first man in the UK to build and fly his own powered aeroplane. Wilbur Wright was in France with a number of other enthusiasts. A few Officers and other well-to-do gentlemen went to France, learned to fly with them and purchased their own machines. By 1910 there were a small number of aeroplanes owned and operated by Army Officers who managed to persuade the War Office of their importance as aerial platforms for observation and reconnaissance.

A certain senior General stated words to the effect that the aeroplane would never be of use in war, but common sense prevailed and aeroplanes were purchased. The training of army pilots began at Larkhill. The Bristol Aeroplane Sheds are still hidden in the trees. Netheravon was established as the first operational Army airfield for troops maneuvering on Salisbury Plain, and Upavon was opened as The Central Avery Flying School. The Balloon and Kite Sections and Companies of the Royal Engineers were joined by the aeroplanes and it was decided to create an Air Battalion. Aviation was here to stay and on 13 May 1912, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was born.

Over the next 6 years the RFC and the aeroplane became a vital part of the battlefield scene. Communications, observation and reconnaissance, artillery gunfire control, air-to-air combat and bombing were developed. During the later part of 1916, and into 1917, Germany sent Zeppelins across the North Sea and carried out bombing raids. The resulting panic within the political community resulted in the feeling that something had to be done and that German attacks had to be defeated. The RFC was fully committed, with nearly 20,000 aeroplanes deployed to France. There were only 2 Squadrons in UK, but unfortunately their machines were not the most up-to-date. Attacking a Zeppelin was not easy and while there were some successes, they were few and far between. The decision of the politicians was to form an Air Force to defend our skies. In order to equip them for the task, the assets of the RFC were handed over to the Royal Air Force (RAF), which came into existence on 1 April 1918.

With the creation of the RAF the Army lost all of its aviation capability at a stroke. It was agreed that there would be Army Cooperation Squadrons within the new RAF, to assist with the specialist tasks such as observation and reconnaissance and artillery gunfire control. However, in the years following the Great War, the RAF was reduced from nearly 20,000 aeroplanes in 1918 to less that 1,000 in 1935. Getting aviation support just at the moment it was required became impossible, and it was gradually ignored.

With the rush to re-arm and re-equip during the late 1930s, The Royal Artillery petitioned for and acquired their own integral aviation support. The RAF were reluctant to allow the Army to have its own aircraft and the Army did not have the technical means to support them anyway, so a compromise was the formation of the Air Observation Post (AOP) Squadrons. The Army commanded and controlled them and the RAF supplied and maintained, with RAF fitters working under Artillery Commanding Officers and pilots. This proved to be a highly successful arrangement and a series of new Squadrons were formed. They operated in all theatres throughout the war.

After the Germans invaded Belgium and France in 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill realized that, to get back onto the European mainland, it would be necessary to create an Airborne Division. Training parachutists would be a lengthy process and building the means to carry them would be difficult, as there were no troop carrying aeroplane. The United Kingdom's entire production effort was already building battleships, tanks, aeroplanes and artillery.

In spite of the difficulties it was decided in 1941 that parachute training would go ahead. Elements of the furniture industry were seconded to the aeroplane manufacturers and directed towards building large wooden troop and vehicle carrying assault gliders that could be towed into battle behind bombers. The RAF was busy fighting the Battle of Britain so it was unable to provide aircrew. It was quickly appreciated that the aircrew of an assault glider needed to be infantry trained so that they could be of use immediately after landing, so it was decided to train soldiers as pilots and the Glider Pilot Regiment (GPR) was born. In 1942, an Army Air Corps (AAC) was created to administer this newly formed Airborne Division. The GPR played a major role in every airborne operation of World War II, and elements also took part in the Burma campaign. The GPR was significantly involved in the combat landings in Normandy on 5-6 June 1944 in support of Operation Overlord and in the massive airborne assault into the Netherlands in September 1944 as part of Operation Market Garden.

After World War II, the conscripts of wartime returned to civilian life. The AOP Squadrons were reduced in number and the GPR reduced to just one Squadron. Gliders were no longer required as a means of transport so the surviving members of the GPR carried out liaison and reconnaissance and observation duties as Light Liaison Flights alongside their AOP counterparts. During the Korean Campaign the AOP and GPR Flights came together and formed a highly successful aviation combination.

During the Korean Campaign, the United States Army made most effective use of the helicopter. Therefore, following the armistice in Korea, a decision was taken to form a Joint Experimental Helicopter Unit (JEHU). This unit formed at Middle Wallop in 1955 and proved highly successful in providing integral support to the Army. Then in 1956 it was decided that a Support Helicopter Flight from the JEHU would be deployed to Cyprus to assist the British Military in defeating EOKA guerillas there. Also in 1956, the JEHU ceased to be experimental and deployed on board HMS Ocean to the eastern Mediterranean to assist in the Suez Crisis. On arrival they carried out the first amphibious airborne assault by ferrying Marines to the dockside at El Gamil, Egypt. As the number of troops on the ground grew, they quickly completed the operation. The landing was completed within 2 hours and the whole operation was completed and position firm within 6.

The value of the helicopter was proven but the Army was, at that stage, technically ill-equipped to maintain such a force. It was decided to give the Support Helicopter role to the RAF. However, it was also decided that the Army's aviation assets, in the form of the remaining AOP and GPR elements with their Auster aeroplanes, should be reformed into what became the Army Air Corps (AAC). On 1 September 1957, the AAC joined the Order of Battle of the Army with the primary roles of providing support in the form of observation and reconnaissance, artillery fire control, limited movement of men and materials and liaison. A number of additional roles soon evolved such as Forward Air Control and radio relay, and the AAC soon established itself as an indispensable supporting arm. The Auster had insufficient passenger carrying capacity for the liaison role and so at the start of the 1960s the AAC acquired the six-seat DeHavilland Beaver.

In order for the AAC to integrate fully with those it supported, and to operate from field locations, it was necessary to acquire a light observation helicopter. The Saunders-Roe Skeeter was the first light helicopter. Seventy five were purchased and in order to integrate fully, flights of 3 helicopters each were established in many of the frontline units. Unfortunately, the Skeeter lacked power and suffered from the same passenger seating problem as the Auster. It was therefore decided to purchase the Westland Scout helicopter. Due to various technical problems in the development of the Scout, 15 Alouette II helicopters were purchased for liaison and casualty evacuation duties.

By 1969, the AAC operated the Sioux, Scout, and Alouette II helicopters and the Beaver aeroplane. The Bell 47 Sioux, a more powerful observation helicopter, was procured as the performance of the Skeeter precluded its use in hot and high locations. Supervision and maintenance of the various Flights spread throughout the Army was becoming a problem so it was decided to centralize the Flights into Brigade Squadrons within Divisional Regiments. The World War II AOP Squadron numbers were dusted off and the beginnings of the AAC Regimental system took shape. Each Division in the British Army had an AAC Regiment and there were also several other Flights providing support to other specialist organizations or remote locations.

After 1957, the AAC played a significant part in numerous major operations and campaigns. The AAC made important contributions during the Malayan Emergency in the 1950s and early 1960s, in Borneo in 1962, in Northern Ireland from 1969, in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the late 1970s, in the Falkland Islands in 1982, in Kuwait in 1990-1991, and the various Balkan conflicts through to the 1990s. Elements of the AAC also performed important functions in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s.

During this time, the AAC has also made sure to stay ahead of technological trends. In order for the AAC to remain a modern, significant fighting force it acquired the Apache attack helicopter which first became operational in 2005. Designed to hunt and destroy tanks, the Apache attack helicopter has significantly increased the operational capability of the British Army. The AAC had previously used the Scout and then the Lynx helicopters to perform the anti-tank function. The AAC also began investigating the procurement of the Wildcat helicopter, an improved variant of the Lynx, in the mid-2000s. The Wildcat was expected to formally enter service in 2014.

In July 2012, the British Army released a plan for its Army 2020 initiative. Under the plan, the AAC would experience some changes. 1 Regiment, Army Air Corps was to merge with 9 Regiment, Army Air Corps, in order to bring the new Wildcat force under a single headquarters based at Yeovilton, with the consolidation to occur not before October 2015.

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Page last modified: 09-10-2012 14:04:38 ZULU