The Fleet Air Arm is the branch of the Royal Navy responsible for the operation of the aircraft on board their ships. The Fleet Air Arm operates the AgustaWestland Merlin, Westland Sea King and Westland Lynx helicopters, as well as the Harrier GR7/GR9. Helicopters such as the Lynx and Westland Wasp have been deployed on smaller vessels since 1964, taking over the roles once performed by fragile biplanes such as the Fairey Swordfish.
The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was established in January 1914 under the Air Department of the Admiralty . By the outbreak of the First World War in August, it had more aircraft under its control than the Army's Royal Flying Corps (RFC). The main roles of the RNAS were fleet reconnaissance, patrolling coasts for enemy ships and submarines, attacking enemy coastal territory and defending Britain from enemy air-raids, along with deployment along the Western Front. In April 1918 the RNAS, which at this time had 67,000 officers and men, 2,949 aircraft, 103 airships and 126 coastal stations, was merged with the RFC to form the Royal Air Force.
On 1 April 1924, the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Air Force was formed, encompassing those RAF units that normally embarked on aircraft carriers and fighting ships. On 14 May 1937 the Fleet Air Arm was returned to Admiralty control under the Inskip Award and renamed the Air Branch of the Royal Navy. At the onset of the Second World War, the Fleet Air Arm consisted of 20 squadrons with only 232 aircraft. By the end of the war the worldwide strength of the Fleet Air Arm was 59 aircraft carriers, 3,700 aircraft, 72,000 officers and men, and 56 air stations. The aircraft carrier had replaced the battleship as the Fleet's capital ship and its aircraft were now strike weapons in their own right.
After the war the FAA needed to fly jet aircraft from their carriers. The jet aircraft of the era were considerably less effective at low speeds than propeller aircraft, but propeller aircraft could not effectively fight jets at the high speeds flown by jet arcraft. The FAA took on its first jet, the Sea Vampire, in the late 1940s. The Sea Vampire was the first jet credited with taking off and landing on a carrier. The Air Arm continued with high-powered prop aircraft alongside the new jets resulting in the FAA being woefully outpowered during the Korean War. Nevertheless, jets were not yet wholly superior to propeller aircraft and a flight of ground-attack Hawker Sea Furies downed a MiG-15 and damaged others in an engagement.
As jets became larger, more powerful and faster they required more space to take off and land. The US Navy simply built much larger carriers. The Royal Navy had a few large carriers built and completed after the end of the war but another solution was looked for. This was partly overcome by the introduction of an Royal Navy idea to angle the flight deck away from the centre line so that the aircraft landing had a clear run away from the usual forward deck park. Another Royal Navy invention was the use of a steam powered catapult to cater for the larger and heavier aircraft (both systems were adopted by the US Navy. The phasing out of the larger, heavier aircraft led to the introduction of the Hawker Siddeley Harrier VTOL aircraft, which could be operated from any size of ship. Defence cuts across the British armed forces during the 1960s led to the cancellation of all Royal Navy aircraft carriers, but a new series of cruiser-sized carriers, the Invincible class, were built and equipped with the Sea Harrier. Today the Harrier forms the basis of the Royal Navy fixed-wing strike forces.
Helicopters also became important combat vehicles starting in the 1960s. At first they were employed on the carriers alongside the fixed-wing aircraft, but later they were also deployed on most smaller ships. Today at least one helicopter is found on all ships of frigate size or larger. Wasps and Sea Harriers played an active part in the 1982 Falkland Islands conflict, while Lynx helicopters played an attack role against Iraqi patrol boats in the 1991 Gulf War and Commando Sea Kings assisted in suppressing rebel forces in Sierra Leone.
The Fleet Air Arm has approximately 6,200 personnel, which is over 15% of the Royal Navy's total strength. They operate about 200 combat aircraft and over 50 support and training aircraft. The Harrier GR9 strike aircraft, along with the Harrier T12 two-seat trainer variant are shared with the Royal Air Force as part of the Joint Force Harrier, naval pilots train to fly the Harrier at the Joint Force Harrier Operational Conversion Unit (20(R) Squadron) at RAF Wittering in Cambridgeshire.
Fleet Air Arm squadrons are named "# NAS", where # is a number; and NAS means Naval Air Squadron. The nomenclature used by the FAA is to assign numbers in the 700-799 range to training and operational conversion squadrons and numbers in the 800-899 range to operational squadrons. During WWII the 1700 and 1800 ranges were also used for operational squadrons.
Squadrons active in the FAA are:
Culdrose (HMS Seahawk) is near Helston in Cornwall and Yeovilton (HMS Heron) is near Ilchester in Somerset.Their satellites or relief airfields are at Predannack and Merryfield respectively.
Squadrons that were active at some point can be found in the Squadron List.
In 1938 Admiralty Fleet Orders 2885 announced the formation of an Air Branch of the Royal Naval Reserve. Thirty three unmarried men signed up for 18 months full-time flying training, however, before these first volunteers were able to gain their wings Britain was at war.
At the end of hostilities in 1945 the RNVR(A) was 46,000 strong, with over 8000 aircrew. Post war the RNVR(A) comprised 12 dedicated reserve squadrons, grouped regionally into Air Divisions. However, defence cuts in 1957 disbanded the five Air Divisions, and the following year the RNVR was merged with the RNR.
The RNR Air Branch was commissioned at RNAS Yeovilton on 16 July 1980, and shortly afterwards 38 ex-regular aircrew began refresher training. Today the Air Branch comprises approx 250 ex-regular service Officers and Ratings, covering all aviation trades, tasked to support the Fleet Air Arm.
The FAA operates fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft. The FAA uses the same designation system for aircraft as the RAF.
Four types of fixed-wing aircraft are operated by the FAA; three for training, and one operationally.
Observer training is done in the Jetstream T2.
The most famous of the fixed-wing aircraft of the FAA was the Sea Harrier FA2. Its primary role was as a fleet defence fighter, using AMRAAM missiles, but it also carried out strike and Suppression of Enemy Air Defence missions using bombs. It has been replaced in FAA service by the Harrier GR7/GR9, which is a dedicated ground attack variant.
Today the larger section of the FAA is the rotary-wing part. Its aviators fly four types of helicopter, and within each type there are usually several marks/versions which carry out different roles.
Pilots designated for rotary wing service train at are sent to the Defence Helicopter Flying School, RAF Shawbury. The School is a tri-Service organisation consisting of civilian and military instructors (including Naval instructors and a Naval Squadron) that take the student from basic flying through to more advanced flying such as instrument flying, navigation, formation and captaincy.
The oldest aircraft in the fleet is the Westland Sea King, which performs missions in several versions. The Sea King HC4 serves as a medium-lifter and troop-transporter in support of the Royal Marines. The HAS5U model operates in the search and rescue and utility roles, while the Sea King HU5 is designed for search and rescue work (although the HAS5Us are often called HU5s as well). The HAS6C is used for assault transport training; and the ASaC7 operates in the Airborne Early Warning role on board Britain's aircraft carriers.
Intermediate in age is the Westland Lynx. The Lynx AH7s serve the FAA in the observation and anti-armour helicopter roles, but are mainly a light-lift helicopter. Along with the Sea King HC4s, they are part of the Commando Helicopter Force, which provides support to 3 Commando Brigade of the Royal Marines.
The surface combatants of the Royal Navy have their helicopters provided for the most part by the Lynx HAS3 and HMA8 aircraft. These Lynxes have primarily an anti-submarine warfare role and anti-surface vessel role. They are able to fire the Sea Skua anti-surface missile, which was used to combat the Iraqi navy in the 1991 Gulf War. It can be armed with Stingray air-launched torpedoes and depth charges for anti-submarine warfare, as well as a machine gun. The Lynx was originally envisaged for surface combatants that were too small for the Sea King, but now equips most surface ships of the Royal Navy.
The newest helicopter in the FAA is the AgustaWestland Merlin HM1. This has now replaced the Sea King HAS6 in the Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) role, and is deployed on aircraft carriers in addition to some of the other surface ships of the Royal Navy. The EH101 airframe is also one of the contenders to replace the Sea King ASaC7s in the AEW role on Britain's planned new aircraft carriers.
In 2000 the Sea Harrier force was merged with the RAF's Harrier GR7 fleet to form Joint Force Harrier. The Fleet Air Arm began withdrawing the Sea Harrier from service in 2004 with the disbandment of 800 NAS. 801 NAS disbanded on 28 March 2006 at RNAS Yeovilton (HMS Heron). 800 and 801 NAS were then combined to form the Naval Strike Wing, flying ex-RAF Harrier GR7 and GR9s.
The Royal Navy plans to replace the Harrier force with the STOVL F-35B Lightning II from 2014. These new aircraft will operate from the Navy's new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, which are expected to be almost three times larger than the current carriers and operate about 40 aircraft and helicopters.