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Army Aviation History

Since the beginning of military campaigns commanders have sought to obtain an advantage over their enemy and being in possession of the highest hill or vantage point could provide this. During classical times lookout posts were built on cliffs or other strategic high points where advance warning of the enemy's movements could be gained.

From the 1700s the ability to direct fire from artillery pieces placed on high ground became the deciding factor in many conflicts. For the British Army of the late Victorian era it was the Royal Engineers (RE) who first took to the air by hoisting military observers in kites, airships (dirigibles) and balloons. The first operational flights using balloons took place during the Second Boer War (1899-1902).

In 1906 a military balloon school was established under command of Colonel John Capper RE, following his return from the Second Boer War. Based at Farnborough Common the open spaces of Laffans Plain were highly suitable for the development and operation of airships and aeroplanes. The first British Army airship, Dirigible No1, named Nulli Secundus (Latin meaning 'Second to None') made her first public appearance on 5th October 1907. She was piloted by Colonel Capper with an entrepreneurial American named Samuel Franklin Cody in charge of the engine. The airship was flown from the new balloon factory base at Farnborough to London, circling St Paul's Cathedral. Unfortunately they did not have the power to return home due to an 18mph headwind and  landed at Crystal Palace. The airship was dismantled and returned by road where she was rebuilt as Nulli Secundus II. Although the instability of Nulli Secundus made her unreliable other more successful airships followed on successive years including the Beta, Beta 2, Delta and Epsilon.  

On 17th December 1903 Orville Wright made the world's first in powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, United States of America (USA), in the Wright Flier I. Colonel Capper had travelled to the USA to visit the Wright Brothers and look at their famous aeroplane. He knew at once that the British Army needed to procure its own aircraft and learn to fly. On 16th October 1908, British Army Aeroplane Number 1, designed by Samuel Cody, took off from Farnborough. Fitted with a 50 horse power Antoinette engine from Nulli Secundus it was the first sustained aeroplane flight in the UK, flying a total distance of 400yds. The aircraft hopped, dipped and crashed but this did not matter as the British Army was now airborne.

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