The SMAE, forerunner of what is known today as the BMFA, originated, surprisingly, at a meeting in the Camden Town Tearoom in North London in 1922. Before this, the Kite and Model Aeroplane Association had been formed in 1909 and shortly after WW1 the London Aero Models Association had revived and took over the assets of the K&MAA, but it was at the Tea Room meeting that the LAMA name was changed to SMAE and it became less London-centric.
Many of the trophies from those times are still competed for today, - KMAA Cup, Sir John Shelley Cup, Farrow Shield and the Model Engineer Cup, for example.
Model Engineer magazine carried a regular column on model flying, as did Practical Mechanics, founded by the man who thought of the title SMAE, F.J. Camm, Sidney’s brother.
SMAE chairman F. de P. Green approached Lord Wakefield (of Castrol oil), who had supported SMAE, and suggested a trophy for the first model flying world championship. Sir Sefton Brancker (Director of Civil Aviation and SMAE president then) 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 1929 in the UK and was won by Newell of the UK. Brancker was later killed in the R101 airship crash at Beauvais in 1931.
SMAE treasurer W.E Evans was the first to import balsa into the UK in 1931.
In 1935 there were only 20 clubs affiliated to the SMAE but the consititution was revised and by the outbreak of war in 1939 there were 100.
The Area scheme was launched in 1939 to improve 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. An SMAE Emergency Committee kept the Society running, despite blackout, bombs and lack of transport. By 1945 there were an estimated 500,000 aeromodellers in the UK.
During the War kits containing balsa were only supposed to be sold to RAF, Observer Corps and official aircraft recognition schools. Obeche was used 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.
For short while in 1946-47 another organisation sprung up, the Association of British Aeromodellers, supported to some extent by Aeromodeller magazine. The same sort of thing happened once or twice in later years, with the Model Pilots’ Association and the Model Flying Fields Association. They seemed happy to reap the benefits without actually doing the vital spadework that allows models to fly in the UK at all, but soon withered.
In 1947 the first R/C band of 27.66-28.00 MHz 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.
In 1948 came the first attempts to ban model flying in parks. Control-line flying took place in Hyde Park and Regents Park. The Nats that 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 dinner (at the Dorchester!) guests included Lord Brabazon, the president, the Minister of Civil Aviation, MPs and the lay press.
Fairlop airfield in Essex had been a major centre of model flying after the War and in 1949 the Nats 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 MoD sites. The headquarters were in Londonderry House in Park Lane, shared with the RAeC.
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.
In 1957 SMAE chairman Alex Houlberg was made MBE “for services to model aviation”. Also in the late 1950s the SMAE organised two Wakefield World Championships, both at Cranfield, and the Duke of Edinburgh became its patron in 1957. Membership by 1959 was 8,000 in 318 clubs. The same year Aeromodeller was considering the possibility of an all-R/C magazine.
The SMAE was also active within CIAM, the model flying commission of the Féderation Aéronautique Internationale, 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 the SMAE found the need for tech. Committees to effectively provide for the new disciplines of R/C and C/L, as well as F/F.
In 1961 the first Nats was held at Barkston Heath and the same year the SMAE ran the first World Indoor Championships, held at Cardington. The following year at RAF Kenley we ran the World R/C Aerobatic Championships, with 13 nations competing. The UK won the team event that year and since then there have been European and World Championships in the various free-flight, radio-control and control-line disciplines almost ever year, with our GBR teams competing at each one. The quality of models and flying skill required to fly at these events is ever increasing and it is a huge commitment for any pilot to maintain the skill necessary to be involved at this level.
The World C/L Championships were run at RAF Swinderby in 1966, one of the highlights being Bill Wisniewski’s use of a tuned pipe in Speed for the first time.
The office (unmanned) by now was in York; it moved to Electric Avenue, Brixton, three floors up a narrow stair. The newsletter, Model Flyer, was produced there on a hand-cranked Roneo machine, with the 3,500 envelopes addressed on a hand-operated Adrema machine with trays of metal address plates, several trays of which were dropped down the stairs during a move.
By the mid-70s the Nats was so big that it had to be split with F/F on a different holiday weekend from C/L and R/C.
In the early 1970s the first steps were taken towards recognition as a sport. Norman Chapman of the Three Kings club, past chairman Ray Favre and Martin Dilly led in this and soon found that two major hold-backs were the title – SMAE – and the words ‘hobby’ and ‘aeromodelling’! We drew analogies between various other sports and model flying disciplines, e.g. combat flying and fencing, figure skating and aerobatics, free-flight and orienteering, and obtained documentary evidence from numerous overseas nations that already funded model flying. After several years we got CCPR recognition (but they didn’t do funding!). In view of the difficulties the ‘SMAE’ image had caused, along with the inaccuracy of the name, a working title of The British Model Flying Association was adopted in the late 1980s.Then, in 1993, over 20 years since we first started negotiations, Sports Council recognition finally came. The fact that one of their reps. that year attended a F/F Nats in a strong wind perhaps emphasised the physical nature of that branch. We also used a largely visual presentation, showing model flyers in tracksuits and leaping about, and very much downplayed scale. That did the trick and all model flyers, - scale, competitive and recreational, benefitted. Just two examples; the BMFA’s insurance is under the general policy that covers all CCPR-recognised sports and, as model flying appears on the list of recognised sports, local authorities must consider providing suitable facilities for it.
Before this we had passed the material we had used in the successful CCPR bid to the Brazilian federation and they used it in their own successful bid; however their government questioned the physical side of F/F, so their military medical unit fitted an F1A flyer with a radio heart-lung monitor and had him towing, launching and retrieving a F/F glider. The trace convinced them and the BMFA has a copy.
In 1970 a TV presenter living near Norman Park, Bromley complained about noise from R/C power models and got up a petition. This led to Bromley Council attempting a total ban on model flying in the Borough in 1976. The SMAE London Area was involved in the objections to this and the case went to a public enquiry, for which we used a barrister at the high cost, for those days, of over £3000. Although the ban was upheld for i.c. R/C power flying, we did manage to retain flying rights for C/L and all non-i.c. aircraft. This was something of a landmark and showed that model flyers, acting together, had teeth.
In 1978 the SMAE moved into its own office premises in the same building as the BGA in Leicester, with a full-time office manager. Later, in 1992 what was by now the British Model Flying Association bought its own premises in Leicester, largely on the initiative of its chairman, Kath Watson. They were opened by its president Air-Vice Marshal Sir Bernard Chacksfield and today bear his name.
After the first UK model fatality, a hang glider pilot killed by an R/C slope soarer at Devil’s Dyke, a Code of Practice for shared use of slope sites was agreed by the BMFA and the BHGA.
In the early 1980s, in order to improve radio-control flying standards and to give non-competitive flyers something to aim for, the R/C Achievement Scheme was launched. Today many flyers, both BMFA members and others, have achieved the A , B or C standard.
Due largely to the hard work of former BMFA Chief Executive Graham Lynn, in 2013 the European Commission has accepted a definition of radio-controlled model aircraft flying that defines the activity as taking place for sporting, competitive and recreational purposes in line of sight of the pilot and excludes them from the restrictions applying to unmanned aerial systems used for military and commercial reasons.