MH R&D Golden Years 1917 – 1939

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Alan Smith is Martlesham Heath Aviation Society’s Consultant Archivist. He writes here about the crucial role of the research, development and testing at RFC/RAF Martlesham Heath – from its opening in January 1917 during World War 1 to the start of World War 2 in September 1939, when the R&D work was evacuated elsewhere for the duration.
Read about Henry Tizard, Private Ventures and the airfield’s role in developing radar …


From its opening on 16 January 1917 until the outbreak of World War II on 3 September 1939, Martlesham Heath and the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough were the two most important research and development airfields in the country.

Martlesham Heath’s purpose was to test all British military and many civil aircraft types during this period – a total of over 450 types. Thus, all types of aircraft used by the Royal Air Force at the start of the Second World War had been tested at Martlesham.

Aircraft testing methods had been developed by Henry Tizard, later responsible for starting the serious development of radar in 1935 and later still the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser. The tests were later were adopted by many other countries. He even worked out an average temperature and pressure for Martlesham Heath, by which tests in all weathers could be standardised for accurate comparisons between aircraft on test.

The Air Ministry laid down the specifications for the type of aircraft they required for the aircraft industry to produce prototype aircraft to fit. Testing at Martlesham made sure the most suitable type could be selected by the RAF for production.

Henry Tizard was also responsible for saving the airfield from being handed back to its owners. It had been proposed to move the testing to the Royal Naval testing airfield at Grain and Port Victoria. Tizard pointed out that aircraft would be getting bigger and heavier, needing a longer landing and takeoff area. This was not possible at Grain and Port Victoria because of the built-up area but Martlesham had room to expand.

The Air Ministry was also responsible at that time for civil flying and all types needed to be tested for a Certificate of Airworthiness. This was usually done by Martlesham Heath based pilots, often at Martlesham Heath.

As well as aircraft produced to Air Ministry specifications, aircraft companies would also produce an aircraft which they considered to be superior to that of the specification. These were known as Private Ventures and were produced at their own expense. If adopted a full production contract would be issued to the company.

It is little-known that both the Hurricane and the Spitfire started life as Private Ventures. Both designers believed they could design an aircraft superior to the one specified by the RAF. When the prototypes were built and flown this improvement was shown and a new specification and orders for large production numbers were issued.

In the 1930s Martlesham Heath was also involved in the development of airborne radar, providing a base for the aircraft they used and as practice targets.

Blenheim Aircraft also came to Martlesham Heath to be fitted with IFF (Identification friend or Foe) and early airborne radar for night fighters.

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