The 100th anniversary of Naval Aviation was celebrated on the 1st May 2009, this took the form of a short service at the Eastchurch Memorial to Pioneer Airmen.
At this a plaque was unveiled and blessed, prior to being installed at the 24th July 2009 unveiling of the new Naval Aviation Memorial erected on the by-pass, this takes the form of a depiction of one of the early aircraft in outline
The Royal Navy decision to declare 2009 as the Centennial Year of Naval Aviation is of interest as the following describes. (Air Commodore W. Croydon CBE RAF (Retd) has kindly given permission to quote from his book ‘Early Birds’, a short history of flight on Sheppey, to help summarise how this came about)
“On October 16th. 1908 at Farnborough, S. F. Cody made the first flight in Britain in Army Aircraft No.1 but being an American it did not qualify as a British record.
Although by this time, the advances being made in aviation were obvious, in early 1909 the British Government acted upon the recommendations of the Committee of Imperial Defence. These were to: …Continue experiments on developing navigable balloons (Dirigibles) and rigid airships. Experiments with aeroplanes was to be discontinued and their development left to private enterprise.
As a result no Government funding was made available for aircraft development; the Army were to continue with dirigibles and the Navy were to build one rigid airship.
The Royal Navy’s involvement with aviation started when the Admiralty placed an order for building a rigid airship on the 7th May 1909.(The Centenary of which will be celebrated next year.)
During 1910 (Sir) Frank McClean, the owner of Eastchurch airfield, offered to loan aeroplanes to the Royal Navy to train officers in the art of flying fixed wing aircraft. At first the offer was rejected. There was no money and the Navy was wedded to the construction of its rigid airship, the Mayfly. However when it was made clear that the offer included training four officers at no cost to the Admiralty, there was reluctant acceptance. McClean provided the airfield and aircraft, Horace Short offered the ground instruction and George Cockburn undertook the flying instruction. He gave up a year of his free time to undertake this task.
Officers applying were told that they would be given six months leave of absence but must forego any prospect of commanding a ship. They had to be unmarried and were to pay for any damage to their machines. Two hundred applied.
The four selected were Lt.Charles Rumney Samson RN, Lt. Arthur M. Longmore RN, Lt. E. Louis Gerrard of the Royal Marine Light Infantry and Lt. Reginald Gregory RN. Their course of instruction was successfully completed with only two minor crashes. Twelve Naval technical ratings were also taught, free of charge (by Short Bros.), to service the machines.
In 1911 Lt.Samson persuaded the Admiralty to purchase two Shorts aircraft and formally establish a Flying School at Eastchurch. He became the first Commanding Officer.
Lt. Longmore made the first water landing in Sheerness harbour in a Short’s aircraft fitted with floats. On the 10th January 1912 Lt. now Commander, Charles Samson took off from a platform on H.M.S. Africa, anchored off Sheerness.
The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) with a Naval and Military wing together with a Central Flying School was formed on 13th. April 1912. However the envisaged integration between the two services proved difficult. The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was formed out of the naval wing of the RFC on the 1st July 1914 with its Headquarters at Eastchurch”.
The First World War started on the 4th. August 1914. The exploits of the Sheppey Squadron RNAS during that conflict are a separate story. The RNAS and the RFC were amalgamated on the 1st April 1918 to become the Royal Air Force. The Royal Navy eventually took control of all naval flying with the formation of the Fleet Air Arm on the 1st. April 1924.