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Brief History of the Army Air Corps

By SPP Reporter

The Army Air Corps in its present form has only existed since 1957; however, an earlier AAC existed during World War II, (as will be seen later) and Army flying has of course been going on since the formation of the Air Battalion RE and later the RFC until its absorption into the RAF. Between the wars the RAF had certain Army officers on exchange with their squadrons, and at the outbreak of war Army co-operation was carried out by squadrons equipped with Westland Lysander aircraft. The need for a purely artillery aerial observation post was seen by several RA officers during the 1930s and the success of some trials at Larkhill on the feasibility of using light, un-armed aircraft for the observation of artillery fire led to the formation of D Flight which was an RAF controlled unit based at Old Sarum. It was formed in time to take part in the landings in France and came back just before Dunkirk. It was equipped with 3 Taylorcraft D (which was the original form of the various marks of Auster which was the prime Army aircraft for 25 years thereafter) and a Stinson 105.

The concept of Air Observation Post (Air OP) having been accepted in principle, the Flight was expanded into the first Air OP Squadron – 651 Air OP Sqn RAF – which went to North Africa immediately, and later 652 to 662 Squadrons were formed and served in all the theatres of World War II. These Squadrons all had RA officers as OC and pilots, RAF Adjutants and Equipment Officers, and RA drivers and signallers with RAF technical groundcrews. The original task of the Squadrons was observation of artillery fire, but later such tasks as photographic reconnaissance, liaison (ie passenger) flying, message and supply dropping, casualty evacuation and every sort of battlefield reconnaissance were added. After the war there were formed Auxiliary Air OP Squadrons (ie TAVR units) with the numbers 663 to 666 which were allocated through the UK on a regional basis, but these were disbanded in 1957 with the rest of the R Aux AF. Air OP Squadrons remained RAF units until 1957, when they were taken over by the Army.

The Glider Pilot Regiment, which with the Parachute Regiment and SAS formed the Army Air Corps, was formed in 1941 and, although it was based upon RAF stations and the gliders were pulled by RAF aircraft, was entirely Army. Squadrons were composed of officers and senior NCOs as pilots with a few groundcrews. When the gliders had landed the pilots fought as infantry until withdrawn to return to their bases for the next operation. The Regiment took part in the invasion of Sicily, the landings in France and the Arnhem and Rhine Crossing battles as well as other operations. The Regiment was reduced to one Squadron after the war and upon that Squadron’s disbandment the pilots were either posted back to their parent army unit or given retraining on Austers and posted to special flights called Light Liaison Flights, formed within the Air OP Squadrons (although some of these flights including 1903 which served in Korea were independent of any squadron). Until the final disbandment of the Regiment in 1957 the liaison flights were the means by which Arms other than RA came into Army flying.

With the formation of the AAC again in 1957, the Air OP (RA) officers, and the officer and soldier pilots of the Glider Pilot Regiment were all posted into Light Aircraft Squadrons AAC, and about 40 officers and 20 soldiers were transferred from their original arms into the AAC. Later more transferred until the permanent cadre as it was known comprised about 70 officers and 30 Warrant and Non-Commissioned officers, all pilots. Pilots of all Arms having attended flying courses served in AAC squadrons and flights. The technical groundcrew RAF were replaced by REME aircraft tradesmen, but to assist in this transition, some naval artificers and technicians were attached to the AAC. Some units contained personnel of all three Services.

Training pilot Air Op was carried out by 227 OCU which (later 43 OTU) at Andover. This unit later moved to RAF Middle Wallop and became known as the Air OP School and then the Light Aircraft School. Glider pilots were trained at Glider Training Schools at Thame, Netheravon and other places until the 1950s when they were also sent to the Light Aircraft School for their powered flying course. The Light Aircraft School expanded and took over the entire Station as the Army Air Corps Centre in 1958 and since then has carried out all Army flying training with the exception of flying instructors who are still trained at the Central Flying School. Since 1970 soldiers have been trained as Air Gunners and Air Observers. Since 1974 such personnel have been known as Aircrewmen.

The helicopter first came into Army use with the formation of the Joint Experimental Helicopter Unit to test the Whirlwind and Sycamore helicopters for the RAF and Army. This unit was based at Middle Wallop and served in the Suez campaign. When it was disbanded the Army started the helicopter’s use with the Skeeter, later replaced by the Sioux and Scout, both used in AAC flights; these slowly replaced the Auster, a fixed-wing liaison flying capability being maintained by the flights of Beaver aircraft in each theatre. Today Squadrons are, in the main, equipped with Lynx and Gazelle helicopters.

Groundcrew were provided by the RA for all AAC units until 1964, when the RAC took over the provision of about half the total. In 1964 certain RAC, RA, RE, R Signals and Infantry units were allocated air troops of three helicopters each which were designed to operate as part of the parent unit for all purposes. This was known as the Integration Scheme, whereas AAC Squadrons were reduced to small headquarters to support their divisional HQs, and to command the brigade and divisional flights and the integrated air troops.

The Integration Scheme was prevented from expanding to its full size by financial stringencies. In 1969, all aircraft, with the exception of four RAC air squadrons, were grouped into squadrons, one for each brigade and one for the divisional HQ to form a Divisional Aviation Regiment. In 1973 the use of ‘aviation’ in titles ceased, since the organisation was largely AAC manned. Later the four RAC air squadrons were absorbed into the AAC.

Since 1973 the AAC has recruited its own groundcrew. Their predecessors, RA and RAC soldiers, usually served only one tour and their replacement caused a considerable training load. Today AAC soldiers undergo basic military, driver and groundcrewman courses, which include specialist fields such as arming and refuelling aircraft. On completion of their training they are posted to operational units.

The AAC have RN and RAF aircrew serving on exchange within its units, the AAC hold reciprocal posts. This is also the case with foreign defence forces, such as the US Army, Australian Army and Canadian Airforce. These long standing inter-service and country relationships, happily still remain.

For officers, entry to the AAC is either by a direct commission following training at Sandhurst, or by transfer from another regiment or corps having passed the Army Pilot Course. Officer and NCO potential pilots of the AAC and other Arms and Services must first pass aircrew selection tests before acceptance for flying training. Non-aircrew officers carry out a wide range of administrative duties. AAC groundcrew and other trades are either recruited directly or transfer to the Corps from elsewhere. Aircraft technicians pass through the REME trade training structure and serve under their own aircraft engineering officers in AAC and dedicated REME units.

The Army Air Corps is relishing new challenges. The Apache AH1 has proved itself to be a genuine battle winner in Afghanistan and we will shortly see it receive a significant upgrade. The Corps is also fielding the new Wildcat helicopter, a state-of-the-art surveillance platform, at our new base at Royal Navel Air Station Yeoovilton.

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