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H.M. Balloon Factory

 

It was in the early 1860s that a Royal Engineer officer, Lieutenant George Edward Grover, first began to investigate the use of balloons for military purposes. It took Grover some fifteen years before he persuaded the War Office to carry out trials with free and tethered observation balloons, but in 1878 such a series of tests was carried out at Woolwich Arsenal, introducing aeronautics for the first time to the British Army. These experiments resulted in the first ever Air Estimate, when the War Office voted £150 to build a balloon designed by Captain J.L.B. Templer of the 2nd Middlesex Militia; the Pioneer.


Templer was, though unofficially, designated as instructor to the Corps of Royal Engineers in the art of ballooning, which duty he carried out with Pioneer and another balloon of his own. At Woolwich, a Balloon Equipment Store was set up under Captain R. P. Lee, R.E., beginning the RAF.


From these foundations there was formed, in 1890, a Balloon Section of the R.Es., now trans-ferred to new quarters at Aldershot; the Air Estimate had risen from the initial £150 to a figure of £4,300; and Major Templer was now 'Officer in Charge of Balloons'. In 1894, when the establishment's title was once again changed, he became the Balloon Factory's first superintendent. The Superintendent of the Balloon Factory at Aldershot, Lt.-Col. J. L. B. Templer, went to Paris to find out all about Santos-Dumont's airships. On his return, he extracted £6,000 from the Treasury to conduct, similar experiments in Britain. This covered the cost of the envelopes for two airships, but no engines, so work came to a temporary halt in 1904.


The outbreak of the Boer War in 1899 meant considerably increased production at the Factory.


The Man-lifting Kite Section had been formed in 1894 under Capt. B. F. S. Baden-Powell, but it did not come into prominence until 1906, when "Colonel" S. F. Cody was appointed Chief Instructor in Kiting. Until his death in an aircraft accident seven years later, this colourful figure with the goatee beard, and long hair sprouting from under an enormous Stetson hat, remained a dominant figure in British aviation, combining rare skill and courage with a flair for showmanship that was displayed not only in his personal appearance but in stunts such as crossing the' Channel in a small boat towed by several of his kites. Although unrelated, he traded on the publicity value of his famous namesake and fellow-American, Col. "Buffalo Bill” Cody, and was to be seen astride a richly-saddled white horse almost as often as on the pilot's seat of an aircraft.


In 1905 the Balloon Factory, together with the Balloon Section, R.E., was moved to South Farnborough.


In April 1911 the Factory changed its title again. It was now the Army Aircraft Factory, a shift of emphasis reflected in the year's Air Estimate of £85,000 for dirigibles and aeroplanes -and the R.E. Balloon Section closed down.


On April 11, 1912, the Army Aircraft Factory became the Royal Aircraft Factory.

 

 


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