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A History of Air Support Engineering

Royal Engineers and Early Aviation

In 1862 two Royal Engineers officers, who had seen balloons being used in the American Civil War, drew the attention of the War Office to the potential use of balloons for observation. These officers demonstrated balloons to the army, but it was only in 1878 that the War Office directed Captain James Templer RE, an army reservist and experienced balloonist, to set up a small unit of Royal Engineers which became known as the School of Ballooning.

At Woolwich
Initially the School of Ballooning was based at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. In 1878 the school constructed and flew a hydrogen-filled balloon of 10,000 cubic feet (280 m3) capacity. By 1879 the unit had a total of 5 balloons.

At Chatham
In 1882 the School of Ballooning moved to the School of Military Engineering at Chatham where they discovered that Goldbeater’s skin was superior balloon fabric than the material they had used previously – in particular it was easier to stow for transport.

At Aldershot
In 1890 the School moved to Aldershot where a section of the Royal Engineers had been formed to use balloons operationally. The School of Ballooning was renamed the Balloon Factory in 1897. In 1899 the Factory increased production to supply balloons for use in the Boer War. The Factory
began experiments with “dirigible balloons” (airships) in 1902.

At Farnborough
The Factory moved to a site at the edge of Farnborough Common in 1904-1906. A 72 feet (22m) high airship shed was built at the site. In 1906 Colonel John Capper took up command of the
School of Ballooning. In 1912 the Balloon Factory was renamed the Royal Aircraft Factory (RAF).

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