In the beginning

Let us take a brief look at how it all started. The short and surprising answer to that is in the Camden Town Tearoom in North London in 1922.

However, in 1909, six years after the Wright brothers made the first powered flight, the Kite and Model Aeroplane Association (K&MAA) had been formed to cater for the rapidly increasing popular interest in anything that flew. The First World War that started in 1914 delayed progress and after it ended the London Aero Models Association (LAMA) took over the assets of the K&MAA in 1921. By then model flying was catching on throughout Britain and was far from being London-centric. It was at that Tea Room meeting in 1922 that the LAMA name was changed to the Society of Model Aeronautical Engineers (SMAE); it was F.J. Camm, brother of Hurricane designer Sydney, who thought of the title. ‘F.J.’ was a prolific author and edited a vast range of magazines under various ‘Practical’ titles, which became known affectionately as Camm’s Comics. Both Camm brothers were enthusiastic model flyers, as were several other pioneering names in British aviation like A.V. Roe, Sir Richard Fairey and Sir Frank Whittle.

Thus 2022 sees the Centenary of the world’s longest-established model flying organisation, now known more accurately as the British Model Flying Association.

100 years ago the Society of Model Aeronautical Engineers was registered during August 1922 and at the Royal Aero Club (RAeC) meeting on 22nd November 1922 under the Chairmanship of Lt. Col. J.T.C. Moore-Brabazon, they delegated the SMAE to be the organization responsible for the sport of model aircraft flying in the UK and today it has by far the largest membership of any of the RAeC’s twelve associations.

Pre-war Years

In 1927 SMAE Chairman Mr. F. de P. Green approached Lord Wakefield (of the Castrol oil company), who had supported the SMAE from its start, and suggested a trophy for the first model flying world championship. Sir Sefton Brancker (Director of Civil Aviation and at that time the SMAE president) was also involved in the initiation of what became the Wakefield Cup and established international model flying. The first Wakefield Cup contest took place in 1928 in the UK at RAF Halton in Buckinghamshire and won by Tommy Newell of the UK. Sir Sefton Brancker was killed in the R101 airship crash at Beauvais, France in 1931.

The Wakefield trophy for rubber models to the FAI F1B rules is perhaps the worlds’ most famous model flying event and still competed for every two years by over 30 nations.

In 1931 SMAE Treasurer E. W. (Ted) Evans, was the first to import balsa wood into the UK. Ted owned a model shop in Northampton which was the epicentre for Wakefield rubber model design of the Northampton club. He was one of the finest Wakefield designers of all time and built beautiful models such as his Jaguar.

In 1935 there were only 20 clubs affiliated to the SMAE but by the outbreak of war in 1939 there were 100. By that time de-centralised contests had been the norm for a couple of years, with clubs flying at their local sites on the same day, and results collated nationally. Centralised contests took place at some interesting venues; for example in 1939 the Albert Hall was used for an indoor duration competition and numerous contests were run on Fairey’s Aerodrome, later to become Heathrow Airport. From 1936 there was an SMAE stand at most of the major model engineering exhibitions, and that continues today.

In September 1939 the SMAE issued its newsletter Model Aircraft, perhaps not the best time to launch a periodical at the outbreak of WWII. It had “Official Journal of the Society of Model Aeronautical Engineers” on its masthead; paper rationing existed  by 1941 and the Aeromodeller editor had agreed to supply paper and handle its printing, copies going to every club. An SMAE Emergency Committee kept the Society running, despite blackout, bombs, petrol rationing and lack of transport. Competition flying kept the interest up and there are photos of contests at Epsom Downs with large piles of chalk in the background, placed to deter German glider-borne landings. In 1941 the Society launched a Fighter Fund, final contributions totalling £300 towards another Spitfire. The launch of the Area scheme improved regional involvement, the first being the NW Area, but the War delayed a wider spread of Areas, though by 1945 there were over 500 SMAE clubs and an estimated 500,000 model flyers in the UK.

After the War Model Aircraft magazine was bought out by Percival Marshall and made available at newsagents till 1965, when it was absorbed by Aeromodeller. Aeromodeller magazine first published in 1935, helping Britain to become air-minded and the outbreak of war encouraged this. During the war balsa was available only to military groups, like the RAF, the Observer Corps, the Air Cadets and official aircraft recognition schools. The rest of Britain’s model flyers made do with heavier and weaker obechi as a substitute. ‘Solid’ 1/72 non-flying scale kits were popular; plastic kits were then rare, though the Frog Penguin range first appeared in 1936, with moulded acetate parts.

Mr. F. de P. Green SMAE, an early Chairman with compressed air model


The Wakefield Cup


Post-war years

Shortly after the War control-line flying came to Britain, after becoming popular in the United States; import restrictions made it impossible to buy US-made spark ignition engines that larger models needed, but jazz musicians playing on the transatlantic liners were often persuaded to smuggle these in, along with nylon stockings and smart American shirts. Control-line flying didn’t need much space and even took place in Hyde Park and Regents Park, often with .60-size engines and long before silencers were available. Inevitably in 1948 came the first attempts to ban model flying in parks.

In 1947 at the urging of the SMAE the first R/C band of 27.66-28.00MHz was allocated by the GPO, with a licence required. The first Nationals took place the same year at Gravesend airfield with 685 entries in the six F/F contests. The Nats the following year were at

Sywell airfield, near Northampton and entries were much higher, with 1744 competitors. 456 people competed in the Sir John Shelley Cup for F/F Open Power alone. For the first time there was a control-line aerobatic contest for the Gold Trophy.

In 1948 the SMAE became a company limited by guarantee. At that year’s awards dinner (at the Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane, London, guests included Lord Brabazon - SMAE president, the Minister of Civil Aviation, MPs and the lay press. Model aircraft events had quite a high profile; the then Queen and Princess Margaret visited the Northern Heights Gala at Hawker’s airfield at Langley in 1948, well-known test pilots judged events at the All-Herts Rallies and the Dorland Hall model aircraft exhibition in 1947 was co- sponsored by the Daily Express and Aeromodeller magazine.

By the end of World War II there were well over 600 airfields in the UK, many of them now disused and Fairlop airfield in Essex had become a major centre of model flying. In 1949 the Nationals took place there, with the first R/C contest attracting 42 entries, of whom 9 actually scored points. The same year the SMAE provided insurance for flying on MoD sites. The Society’s headquarters were in Londonderry House in Park Lane, shared with the Royal Aero Club.

In 1951 the SMAE C/L Championships were at Wembley Stadium and the Shell Film Unit covered a C/L display at the Festival of Britain on the South Bank. Contestants’ accommodation for the Wembley event was in the Camden Town deep shelter, built during the War.

The SMAE Chairman Alex Houlberg was made an MBE “for services to model aviation” and in 1957 and the Duke of Edinburgh became our patron.

In 1958 the SMAE organised World Championships at Cranfield in Bedfordshire for Wakefield F1B and Free Flight Power F1C and again in 1960. We also organised no less than six Indoor World Championships in an airship hangar at RAF Cardington in Bedfordshire in 1961, ‘68, ‘72, ‘76, ‘78 and ‘82. Cardington is one of the best on only a very few indoor flying sites in the world but sadly no longer available to us. In 1962 we ran the R/C Aerobatics World Championships at RAF Kenley, with 13 nations competing.

The Leicester office, Chacksfield House opened in 1989 and was named after the then SMAE President, Air Vice-Marshal Sir Bernard Albert Chacksfield, KBE, CB who was a senior Royal Air Force officer in the 1950s and 1960s. This was our first more permanent office, we having previously either shared or rented offices in various locations from Brixton S.E London, to York and Leicester.

Ground based Tx with push button for rudder. Pilot scratching his head wondering why the rudder does not move.

The KK Phantom kitted in 1948 was many flyers first introduction to C/L flying

Phil Smith (Bournemouth MAC designer for Veron kits) receives the Queens Cup from Her Majesty the Queen at the Northern Heights Gala on Langley Airfield (near Heathrow) in 1948

The 21st Century

As we progressed through the first two decades of the 21st century, model flying advances continued at a pace. The widespread use of materials like carbon fibre, the availability of ready to fly models, laser cut kits, jet turbine engines, multi rotor models and sophisticated radio control equipment all made major steps forward and continue. Successful entry to the sport of model flying has never been easier and so accessible to all.

Our membership by 1959 was approximately 8,000 with 318 clubs. In the same year Aeromodeller was considering the possibility of a dedicated all R/C magazine. By 2015 BMFA membership had topped 35,000 with nearly 800 Affiliated Clubs.

On the international scene the BMFA is active within CIAM, the model flying commission of the Féderation Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), which is air sport’s world body, and it was Henry J. Nicholls and Ron Moulton who initiated its technical committees. Around the same time, in the 1950s, the SMAE found the need for Tech. Committees to effectively provide for the new disciplines of radio-control and control-line, as well as free-flight.

The BMFA is a leading member of the EMFU (European Model Flying Union), established by our CEO David Phipps in early 2017 to concentrate the strength in our numbers across Europe to represent model flying to the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

In recent times we faced the challenge of complying with the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) changing requirements for model flying. However, with the size and strength of our organisation the BMFA have represented us with the result that model flying in the UK can continue largely unchanged. Model flying continues to evolve with such classes as ‘multi-rota/drones’ and there is also large interest in vintage and classic models of yesteryear. The BMFA Achievement Scheme, delivered nationwide via the network of affiliated clubs sets standards for safe flying.

With such a rich heritage and much to be proud of and look forward to we encourage everyone to contribute to making our in Centenary in 2022 a time to celebrate and enjoy. Many clubs have long histories, at least one was established over 100 years ago. Now is the time for clubs and members to start planning how to celebrate our 100th anniversary and promote the joys and benefits of model flying as a sport.