This small Hampshire town is the birthplace of British aviation, being the site of both the UK’s first powered heavier-than-air flight, and the location where its first military aviation units were formed. In 1905, the Royal Engineers moved their Balloon Factory and Balloon school to a site on Farnborough common; these establishments both trained, and manufactured the equipment for, the Army’s observation ballooning units. The American showman and aviation enthusiast Samuel Cody had invented and sold a box-kite system to the Army for observation, and he was allowed to continue his researches into gliders and powered aircraft at the Factory. From September 1908 he performed a number of short hops on the common, culminating in a flight of over 1,600 feet on 16 October 1908 in his ‘Army Aeroplane no. 1,’ generally recognised as the first powered aeroplane flight in the UK.
In 1911 the Air Battalion Royal Engineers, the predecessor of the Royal Flying Corps (and so also of the Royal Air Force) was formed at Farnborough. The Balloon Factory was soon renamed the Royal Aircraft Factory, and was responsible for designing equipment for the Army’s air units, as well as conducting aeronautical research. During the First World War, the factory’s design role became a source of conflict with the aviation industry, and after the conflict, the Factory’s role was changed to be solely research. Reflecting the change, it was renamed the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), and for the next 80-odd years it was to be one of the world’s premier aerospace research centres. In 2001, much of the RAE site was privatised as part of the Qinetiq group spun off from the UK’s defence laboratories. The airfield itself is now owned by the TAG group and operated as a business airport, although the Farnborough Air Show (an industry and trade exhibition) is still held there biannually.