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Fleet Air Arm

This article refers to the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm. Many navies through the world operate a Fleet Air Arm of their own, covered under the article on that navy itself.

The Fleet Air Arm is the operational group of the Royal Navy responsible for the operation of the aircraft on board their ships. Fleet Air Arm currently operates BAe Sea Harriers and Westland Commando helicopters. Smaller, attack helicopters such as the Westland Wasp and Lynx have been deployed on smaller vessels since about 1960, taking over the roles once performed by fragile biplanes such as the Fairey Swordfish.

Table of contents
1 History
2 Squadrons
3 Operational Aircraft


The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was first established in January 1914. By the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the RNAS had more aircraft under its control than the 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. The leading RNAS WWI ace was Raymond Collishaw with 60 victories. 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.

In 1937 the Naval Air Branch was returned to Admiralty control, and soon renamed the Fleet Air Arm. At the onset of the WWII Second World War, the Fleet Air Arm consisted of 20 Squadrons with only 232 aircraft. By the end of war the strength of the Fleet Air Arm was: 59 aircraft carriers, 3,700 aircraft, 72,000 officers and men and 56 air stations all over the world. 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 faced the difficultly of basing jet aircraft from their carriers. Jeu engines of the era were considerably less powerful at low speeds than propeller aircraft, but prop aircraft could not fight effectively with the jets in combat. The US Navy, when faced with similar problems, built much larger carriers with powerful catapults to launch the aircraft. The FAA instead continued with high-powered prop aircraft for a time, leading them to be woefully outpowered during the Korean War. Nevertheless the high quality pilots put the planes to good use, in one instance a flight of Hawker Sea Fury's downed a MiG 15.

Although jets were soon introduced using a catapult system similar to the US, a more "natural" solution was looked for. This led to the introduction of the Hawker Harrier VTOL aircraft, which could be operated effectively from any size of ship. Fighting in the armed forces during the 1960s led to the outright cancellation of all Royal Navy aircraft carriers, but through a slight-of-hand a new series of cruiser-sized carriers were built and mounted the Harrier. Today the Harrier forms the basis of the RN's strike forces.

Helicopters also became important combat vehicles in their own right starting in the 1960s. At first they were employed on the carriers alongside the fixed-wing aircraft, but as time went on they were also deployed on most smaller ships as well. 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, whereas Lynxes played a significant attack role against Iraqi patrol boats in the Gulf War and Commandos assisted in suppressing rebel forces in Sierra Leone.

The Fleet Air Arm has a museum on the edge of Yeovilton airfield in Somerset.


Fleet Air Arm squadrons are named "No. # NAS", where No. is an abbreviation for the word Number; # is a cardinal number; and NAS stands for 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.

Present squadrons active in the FAA are:

Operational Aircraft

The FAA operate both fixed and rotary wing aircraft. The same designation system for aircraft used by the FAA as is used by the RAF.

Three different types of fixed wing aircraft are operated by the FAA, two for training, and one operationally. Pilot training is carried out using the Heron. Observer training is done in the Jetstream T2. By far the most famous of the fixed wing aircraft of the FAA is the Sea Harrier FA2. Its primary role is as a fleet defence fighter, but it can also carry out suppresion of enemy air defence missions using ALARM and bombing missions. It is capable of dropping laser guided bombs if another aircraft or a ground observer designates the target.

Today the larger section of the FAA is the rotary wing part. Its aviators fly four different types of helicopter, and within each type there are usually several marks which carry out different roles.

The oldest aircraft in the fleet is the venerable Sea King. The Sea King sees service in its HC4 form as a troop transporter for the Royal Marines; as the HAS5U in the search and rescue and utility roles; as HU5 specifically for search and rescue work, although it should be noted that the HAS5U's are often called HU5's as well; the HAS6 for anti-submarine warfare; the HAS6C for assault transport training; and the AsaC7 in the Airborne Early Warning role on board Britain's aircraft carriers.

Intermediate in age are the Gazelle and Lynx. Gazelle AH1's and Lynx AH7's, serve the FAA in observation and attack helicopter roles respectively. They are in squadrons that, along with the Sea King HC4's, are permenantly attatched 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 an anti-submarine role and and anti-surface ship role provided by the Sea Skua missile, which was most prominently used to decimate the Iraqi navy in the 1991 Gulf War. The Lynx was originally bought for surface combatants that were too small for the Sea King, but now equips all surface combatants of the Royal Navy.

The newest helicopter in the FAA is the Merlin HM1. This is being bought to replace the Sea King HAS6 is the anti-submarine warfare role, and also to equip some of the surface combatants of the Royal Navy. It is also one of the contenders to replace the Sea King AsaC7's in the AEW role on Britain's planned new aircraft carriers.