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What is the Royal Air Force (RAF)?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 10 September 2016
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The Royal Air Force (RAF) is the aerial wing of the British armed forces. It maintains a fleet of aircraft and supporting personnel to accomplish its goals of defending the United Kingdom and its allies, supporting British foreign policy objectives, and being “a force for good in the world,” according to the its stated mission. Like many air forces around the world, its nature and goals have changed dramatically since its inception, with a much heavier emphasis on humanitarian work in contrast with its solely military objectives in the early 20th century.

The RAF was founded on 01 April 1918, succeeding the Royal Flying Corps. It went on to be one of the most distinctive, venerable, and famous air forces in the world. Its planes and pilots dominated the skies in the First and Second World Wars, playing a vital role in defending Britain from invasion while also offering offensive tactics. The RAF Fighter Command in particular has become iconic, thanks to the exploits of fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain.

Like other air forces, the RAF has an assortment of planes for various tasks, including transport aircraft, bombers, and fighters, and it also maintains helicopters, drones, stealth planes, and experimental aircraft. A staff of over 40,000 active personnel supports the RAF, with several thousand in reserves. Most planes and personnel are based in Great Britain, with a few on established overseas bases such as the Falklands.

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The motto of the RAF is per ardua ad astra, which translates as “to the stars through hard work.” The head of the command structure is the Air Force Board, which issues directives to commands, who in turn pass orders through groups, stations, wings, squadrons, and flights, respectively. RAF personnel, in addition to pilots, includes ground crews, chaplains, medical staff, engineers, legal personnel, intelligence officers, and air traffic controllers, among others. In addition to being involved in military operations, the RAF also assists with humanitarian operations ranging from evacuation to the delivery of supplies to people in need all over the world.

As is common with branches of the military, the RAF is organized along very strict lines, and there is a precise code of behavior which dictates everything from how people wear their hats to the correct method for ordering a tactical strike in the battlefield. Working for the RAF isn't all strict rules and arduous training, however; it also sponsors social clubs, sports teams, and a variety of other activities for its members for the purpose of building camaraderie and morale.

For those who like interesting tidbits of military history, by tradition, only commissioned officers in the RAF are saluted. Such salutes are actually salutes to the authority of the Queen's Commission, not the officers themselves, with the salutes being returned on behalf of the Queen.

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