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2016 – Sir Alan Cobham

Sir Alan Cobham

When Sir Alan Cobham was born in England in 1894, ascent by balloon  and gliding  were the most common forms of flight in late Victorian London. By the time he died in 1973, supersonic travel was an everyday event and man had walked on the moon.


When Alan first left school aged 15, he was apprenticed to a clothing wholesaler in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Building and flying kites on Streatham Common gave young Cobham his first taste of ‘the air’. Following a visit to Brooklands to see an air display, and bitten by the aviation bug then sweeping the country, he ambitiously attempted to construct a prize-winning man-powered ‘aviette’. The prize eluded him, but Cobham’s bicycle with wings was a well intentioned first attempt to get off the ground.


The outbreak of war in August 1914 saw Cobham, along with seemingly half the nation’s young men, eager to enlist in the British Army. A teenage summer spent working with horses on an uncle’s farm led to an immediate transfer to France as a veterinary assistant. As the war dragged on, Cobham became aware of the greater dependence being placed on motorized transport – and on airplanes. Despite his lack of formal education, he successfully transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, applied for pilot training, and ended the war as a flying instructor in the fledgling Royal Air Force.


The end of hostilities saw the demobilization of some 22,000 pilots, many of whom, untrained for anything but flying, hoped to find employment in civil aviation. Cobham determined to forge a career in the air via a different route. In 1919, along with two ex-Service colleagues, he bought a war-surplus Avro 504K training machine, had it converted into a three-seater, then embarked on a tour of southern England towns and villages, giving joyrides to those willing to risk life and limb in return for a small payment. Initially, profits were healthy and the Berkshire Aviation Company grew into Britain’s first aerial touring joyriding company, gradually extending its operations as far north as Scotland.


The following year, continual periods of bad weather, which took their toll on passenger flying, forced Cobham to join the Aircraft Manufacturing Co (Airco). As photographic pilot, his task was to position an aircraft so that a cameraman could take commissioned aerial views of towns and sporting events. Airco, however, became another casualty of the post-war cancellation of military equipment contracts and was soon forced into liquidation, leaving the aspiring young aviator facing the bleak prospect of unemployment.


The combined failures of both the Berkshire Aviation Co. and Airco in 1920 left Alan Cobham at the lowest ebb in his career. By then aged 26, what at first seemed another false dawn proved a blessing in disguise.


Geoffrey de Havilland took Cobham on as chief pilot for the new de Havilland Aeroplane Hire Co, flying to European trouble spots to bring back press photographs, and dropping cans of film by parachute to cinemas up and down the country- an early example of the airdrop mission!


He gained valuable long term experience undertaking extended charter flights – similar to today’s AMC-managed Civil Reserve Air Fleet-carrying wealthy patrons over Europe and the Middle East, sometimes for weeks at a time.


Cobham established himself alongside other famous racing aviators after winning the 1924 King’s Cup Air Race in a prototype DH.SO. In 1924, on learning that the Director of Civil Aviation, Sir Sefton Brancker, was planning to sail to India to assess the locations for landing sites along possible future air routes to Australia, Cobham raised extra funding, which then allowed Brancker to charter an aircraft with Cobham as pilot. Together, they investigated the viability of setting up airship routes to the Far East. The conclusion was that the airplane, not the airship would eventually win the day. Many of those airstrips continue to operate today a fast-jet bases for the Indian Air Force – a prime example of the base opening mission.


With his return from India, Sir Alan became the first aviator to successfully conduct a round-trip flight to India, and was acclaimed as a triumph by the media. Cobham, now enjoying new­ found fame, and enthused by the possibilities of long-distance air travel by airplane, then organized and carried out, within 18 months, similar first-time round-trip flights to South Africa and Australia – pioneering the concept of global reach by airpower.


Unsurprisingly, he found himself in great demand, and a six-week de Havilland sales tour across the northern United States and Canada proved him an accomplished public speaker.

In 1926 Cobham flew from Rochester (Kent, UK) to London (UK), via Australia, and landed finally on the River Thames in front of the Houses of Parliament before an audience of one million. He was knighted immediately.


In 1927 circumnavigated Africa in a flying boat loaned by the Air Ministry. His eventual aim was to form an airline to operate to African destinations. Cobham-Blackburn Airlines was subsequently created in partnership with Robert Blackburn but Imperial Airways, with its vastly greater resources, had belatedly realized the potential offered in Africa and was politically empowered to take over their operations. Cobham’s aerial explorations in Africa were, however, not yet at an end. In 1931 he embarked on a survey of Lake Kivu and other waterways in the central region, flying a three-engine Short Valetta seaplane.


Following his return from Africa, Cobham hit  upon the idea of taking a large travelling air display around the British Isles. Capitalizing on his fame, Cobham branched out on his own, forming an air consultancy called Alan Cobham Aviation Ltd. Its first project was what he called his Municipal Aerodrome Campaign, a highly publicized tour of Britain, which, in 1929, resulted in 50,000 passengers being taken for flights.


Engaging a team of pilots, ground engineers and administrative support staff, he provided exhibitions featuring ‘thrills and spills’ at nearly 1,000 locations over the four years from 1932. Altogether, three million people paid to see Cobham’s Flying Circus, an adventurous million of whom took part in flights that veered from the sedate to the fast and furious and were guaranteed to test the strongest stomach.


By the mid-1930s, Sir Alan Cobham’s instinct for innovation told him that touring air shows had largely run their course. The time had come to use his first-hand aviation experience to find engineering solutions to overcome the challenges of long-distance flight.




During the 1920s and early 1930s, air-to-air refueling was only used to assist in setting flight endurance records. Sir Alan’s long-distance flights had required the laying-up of stores and fuel in many out-of-they-way places. Sir Alan knew that fewer take-offs and landings required to reach a destination would increase safety, range, and payload. Overcoming these limitations would help ensure that the airplane would become the preeminent means of delivering passengers and time-sensitive cargo to faraway destinations.


An instinctive entrepreneur, Sir Alan founded Flight Refuelling Ltd (FRL) in October 1934 to develop aerial refueling equipment suitable for both commercial and military use. He also envisaged his company providing aerial tanker services at key points along the world’s expanding air routes. These pre-positioned tankers would rendezvous with and extend the range of airliners without them needing to land – an early application of the air bridge concept for commercial aviation purposes. To prove that this was feasible, Sir Alan conducted what we would today call a “technology demonstration” flight from the UK attempting to reach India. A mechanical fault unrelated to aerial refueling forced his landing at Malta. Undaunted, the UK Air Ministry provided Sir Alan and FRL with a variety of obsolete aircraft so that research into aerial refueling could continue.


By 1939, the FRL had “perfected” the “looped hose” system: two aircraft would trail steel cables that would come into contact and become “intermeshed” (tangled, really). The tanker would wind in its cable, disconnect it from the receiver aircraft’s cable, and then attach a fuel hose to the receiver’s cable – which would be wound in and the hose connected to the fuel tank.

Modern aerial refueling practitioners likely find this method dangerously crude – and so did the interwar airlines! Only one commercial customer – Imperial Airways – was willing to engage FRL and that was only because it was under contract to fly mail, not passengers, from the UK to Canada. During the summer and fall of 1939 FRL supported sixteen non-stop transatlantic mail sorties by Imperial flying boats – which now could refuel in flight rather than land at sea and refuel from picket ships strung between Europe and North America. FLR aircraft flying from Ireland and Newfoundland would rendezvous with Imperial aircraft as they began and ended their transatlantic crossings –  another example of the air bridge concept. With the onset of winter weather and the outbreak of World War II caused both the airmail and the inflight refueling service to be suspended.


Shortly after the start of World War II, Sir Alan was able to convince the British service chiefs that his aerial refueling systems could extend the range of convoy patrol aircraft. Examples of his systems were also sent to the United States for evaluation by the Army Air Corps.

Unfortunately, aerial refueling was not used by the Allies to prosecute the bombing campaign against Nazi Germany. However, near the war’s end, the RAF equipped its “Tiger Force” – in preparation for its deployment to the Far East to assist with the invasion of Japan – with aerial refueling capabilities. The atomic bombings forced Japan’s surrender before Tiger Force was needed to deploy.


After the war, in 1948, FRL was the first British private contractor to join Operation ‘Plainfare’ during the Berlin Airlift – another CRAF-like mission – to which the company provided twelve aircraft. These aircraft carried more than 27,000 tons (7 million gallons) of critical cargo: domestic heating oil and fuel. Sadly, seven FRL employees died in service to the Berlin Airlift when their converted Lancaster bomber crashed in November 1948.


That same year, the US Air Force first began installing FRL’s ‘looped hose’ MR equipment onto their KC-29 tanker fleet. In March 1949, four Boeing KC-29Ms tankers enabled a single Boeing B-S0A bomber – “Lucky Lady II” – to fly around the world non-stop. This was the first demonstration of the US Air Force’s Global Reach and Global Power for America capability.

Almost immediately thereafter, however, the US military asked if a more flexible, automatic system, capable of refueling single-seat fighters might be available. Six months later, FRL demonstrated to a USAF delegation the world’s first probe-and-drogue refueling system, allowing a Lancaster tanker to fuel a Meteor jet, enabling a world endurance record of 12 hours and 3 minutes on 7 August 1949. This single act fundamentally changed the future direction of military airpower.


The Korean War saw the first use of probe-and-drogue refueling of combat aircraft during wartime. Carrier-launched, twin-engined North American Savage tankers used internally carried hose and drum units, while US Navy and Marine Corps tactical aircraft began using the “buddy” stores systems to share fuel. In May 1952 12 USAF F-84E fighters returning from North Korean targets were refueled via probe-equipped wing tanks by KB-29T tankers. This was the first USAF combat mission to include aerial refueling, and those aerial refueling systems were designed, developed and manufactured by Sir Alan Cobham’s Flight Refueling company.




The US Air Force found its newly gained and hard won status as an independent service under political threat in the 1947. The US Navy – seizing on the production delays of the B-36 intercontinental bomber – pressed its own claims to be the major means of delivering an atomic attack. What then became a burning inter-service issue prompted the USAF to immediately and reliably extend the range of its B-29 bomber force — or risk losing a vitally important strategic mission. Accordingly, orders were placed for air refueling equipment – FRL’s “looped hose” system that allowed the USAF to dramatically demonstrate its Global Reach and Global Power. This resulted in the December 7, 1948 flight of Lucky Lady II from Carswell AFB, Texas to carry out a mock atomic attack against the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Lucky Lady II dropped a dummy 10,000 lb bomb at Pearl and then returned to base after a 9,400 miles round trip enabled by KB-29M tankers equipped with Sir Alan’s aerial refueling systems. Two months later, Lucky Lady II circled the globe in 94 hours. These demonstrations provided proof that the USAF could meet its obligations and, in doing so, sealed the fate of the USN’s projected supercarrier, USS United States.

Aerial refueling continued to be a source of great American inter-service rivalry. This was largely resolved when the Boeing-designed “boom” system capable of delivering high fuel flow rates was chosen to equip Strategic Air Command’s B-52 bombers. The US Navy and Marine Corps, faced with operating from ships at sea, opted to remain with the probe and drogue system.

Subsequently, probe and drogue aerial refueling has been adopted by many US military rotary wing platforms.


With continuous development of the probe and drogue refueling system, Cobham’s equipment was to prove of fundamental importance in the defense of both the United Kingdom and the United States throughout the Cold War and beyond. Today, using either (or both) the British ‘probe and drogue’ method invented by Sir Alan’s Flight Refueling in 1949, or the American ‘boom’ system introduced by Boeing, the transfer of fuel in flight – the vital link as foreseen by  Sir Alan Cobham – is a commonplace feature undertaken by major air forces throughout the world. Sir Alan was truly an aviation pioneer who changed the future application of air power by perfecting and productionizing aerial refueling concepts and technologies.