A Brief History of the Royal Thai Air Force

In the early years of the twentieth century Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanart, Siam’s Army Chief of Staff, identified the need to acquire aircraft as part of the national defence program.

Of course, before any purchased aircraft could be used, pilots needed to be trained to handle the new machinery, so in January 1911 the Ministry of War sent three Army officers, Major Luang Saksalyavudh, Captain Luang Arvudhsikikom, and Lieutenant Thip Ketudat, to France to train with the Nieuport Company at Mourmelon-le-Grand.

The men were taught to fly and maintain their aircraft, returning to Siam in November 1913 where they gave a flying demonstration for King Vajiravudh from Sra Prathoom racecourse. Now the site of the Royal Bangkok Club, the racecourse served as the first base for the fledgling air wing.

The War Ministry formed the Army Aviation Unit, purchasing eight French-built aircraft: four monoplanes and four biplanes. The unit, supervised by the Army Engineering Inspector, relocated to a newly-constructed base at Don Muang, at that time well outside the Bangkok city limits, in early March 1914.

On 27 March, the Aviation Unit became the Army Air Corps. This date was recognised as the official birthday of the Royal Thai Air Force until 1997 when senior air force officials proclaimed 9 April as Royal Thai Air Force Day, relegating 27 March to Commemoration Day.

The most pressing difficulty in the early years was aircraft maintenance. Naturally, spare parts were not available locally and had to be imported, costly in terms of both time and money.

1919-1937-breguet-2-seater-bomber

A Breguet two-seater bomber, among the first made in Siam.

To reduce this reliance on foreign materiel, the air wing developed locally made products and even began building aeroplanes designed by locals. Thus, in May 1915, a Breguet biplane made from local products but with an imported engine, became the first aircraft built in Siam to take to the sky.

A contingent of the Army Air Corps was included in the Siamese expeditionary force that travelled to fight in France in the First World War, arriving in 1918 and training at French Army Flying Schools. Over 95 personnel qualified as pilots, but the war ended before they were able to utilise their newfound knowledge.

It was in 1918 that the air corps was again upgraded, becoming known as the Army Aviation Division. The unit remained under the control of the Army until December 1921 when it passed to the War Ministry and was renamed the Air Division.

In 1927, the Boripatra, the first aeroplane completely designed and constructed by the Air Division, took to the skies. Two Boripatra biplanes flew on a round trip to the Indian city of New Delhi, and later flew to Hanoi in Vietnam. That same year, the Air Division purchased two British-made fighters.

Local aircraft construction continued apace with a fighter, named the Prajadhipok, rolling off the lines in 1929 followed by a training plane in 1930.

1927-1930-boripatra

A Boripatra, the first aircraft completely constructed in Siam.

In 1935, the Air Division was renamed the Air Force Division and finally, in 1937, it became the Royal Thai Air Force and separated from the Army.

According to documents lodged with the League of Nations, in 1939 the air force consisted of 207 aircraft, divided into five air wings. Of these, only 128 were in commission in tactical units, the remaining 79 in training establishments. The latter were all First World War vintage.

Under Prime Minister Field Marshal Pibul Songgram, Siam forged closer ties with Japan, eventually purchasing around 93 modern aircraft from the Japanese.

The first real test of the capabilities of the Royal Thai Air Force came in 1940 with the outbreak of the Franco-Thai War. Thai airplanes attacked places such as Battambang in Cambodia and Vientiane in Laos, the Thais officially admitting the loss of seven planes during the brief border war.

In December 1940, three planes attacked three French warships that were shelling Trat, claiming a hit on one of the vessels. The daring 10 January 1941 raid by six bombers escorted by four fighters against Hanoi proved the immense value of the air wing, the fighters shooting down one French plane in a dogfight. The success of the attack is considered one of the major reasons for Japanese mediation that led to a resolution of the conflict.

1941-28-jan-painting

A painting depicting a Royal Thai Air Force plane in action against the French.

When the Japanese invaded Thailand in December 1941, the Thai air force went into action against far superior numbers, losing six fighters shot down before a ceasefire was arranged. Thailand then joined forces with Japan and declared war on the United States, Britain and her allies.

Between March 1942 and the end of the war the Thai air force lost a total of 24 aircraft. One crashed in bad weather, 16 were destroyed on the ground by Allied attacks and another seven were shot down. Thai fighter pilots shot down one U.S. B-29 bomber and one U.S. fighter, the former on 27 November 1944 in an air raid over Bang Sue Junction in Bangkok.

After the Second World War, the air force became reliant on purchasing hardware and equipment from overseas. A number of surrendered Japanese fighters bolstered air force numbers.

Hoping to modernize the air force, the Thai Purchasing Commission acquired trainers and transports in 1948, visiting the United States, Britain and Canada.

In 1950, the Joint United States Military Advisory Group (JUSMAG) arrived in Thailand, tasked with providing equipment, training and support for the air force.

During the Korean War in 1950 the first contingent of air force personnel, a logistical support corps, left for Korea in June 1951. That same year, the U.S. sent a quantity of aircraft to bolster the ranks of the Thai air wing. After the war ended in 1953, Thailand continued sending air force teams to South Korea until 1976.

In 1957, Thailand began receiving its first jet trainers, courtesy of the United States Military Assistance Program. A year later, the first jet combat aircraft arrived.

Thailand, as an ally of the United States, sent forces to support South Vietnam. Between 1965 and 1966, air force personnel helped train South Vietnamese pilots. Airmen also flew combat airlift missions and acted as forward air controllers. They were withdrawn from Vietnam in February 1972. This was the last occasion in which Thai air forces were called on to participate in a conflict away from home soil.

1960-1973-f-86

An F-86 supplied by the United States and which saw service from 1960 to 1973.

During the Vietnam War, Thailand had its own communist insurgency and on 11 April 1970, an air force jet was shot down in the mountainous region in Petchabun province. An air force helicopter sent to rescue the pilot was itself shot down, losing three men killed and five seriously injured.

Since then, the air force has seen action in the brief 1984 and 1987-1988 Thai-Lao border wars as well as against the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, losing a Thai reconnaissance aircraft shot down by Khmer Rouge forces just over the Cambodian border in April 1984.