The RAF Air Cadets were formed as an essential part of the RAF, supplying better-trained and experienced personnel during times of war. It has since evolved into the largest air cadet organisation in the world.

Why and how the Cadets were formed

In 1859 schools around the country formed armed and uniformed units of adults and older boys with the purpose of protecting Britain in the event of an attack from overseas. By the turn of the century there were units in more than 100 schools and in 1908 the units were re-titled the Officer Training Corps (OTC). Many ex-cadets and officers served with distinction during the First World War.

By the 1930s the beginnings of today’s CCF (RAF) appeared in the form of OTC Air Sections. In Army uniform, but with an RAF armband, they trained very much like today.

Establishing an Air Defence Cadet Corps

The Second World War was on the horizon and if aircraft were to be used as a major combat strength, the RAF would need a serious amount of combat-ready pilots and competent support crew to keep them in the air.

Cadets around a table, waiting to enroll
New recruits for the East Ham Air Training Corps are enrolled shortly before the organisation came into being on 5 February 1941. 

That idea came from Air Commodore J A Chamier, now known as the father of the air cadets. He served in the army, the Royal Flying Corps and the RAF in 1919. With his love for aviation, he wanted to establish an air cadet corps, encouraging young people to consider a career in aviation - pretty exciting at a time when very few people ever got the chance to fly. His experience in World War I, where training time was very limited, convinced him that the sooner training began the better prepared and experienced a person would be in combat.

In 1938 the Air Defence Cadet Corps (ADCC) was founded by Air Commodore Chamier who was then Secretary-General of the Air League – an organisation made up of people who wanted to make the British public aware of the importance of military aviation.

Demand for places was high and squadrons were set up in as many towns around the UK as possible. Local people ran them and each squadron aimed to prepare cadets for joining the RAF or the Fleet Air Arm (the Royal Navy's aircraft division). They also helped form the diverse and expanding programme of activities that our cadets enjoy today.

Officers and Cadets looking at a machine gun magazine on the floor of an airfield
Air Training Corps (ATC) Officers and Cadets watching points in the loading of a machine gun magazine. A sergeant pilot also watches from the wing of his Spitfire. 7 August 1942.

During World War II, with many instructors being drafted into the RAF and squadron buildings being used by the military, cadets were sent to work on RAF stations. They carried messages, handled aircraft and moved equipment. They filled thousands of sandbags and loaded miles of belts of ammunition. They were invaluable.

By the end of the war, in just 7 years since the formation of the ADCC, almost 100,000 cadets had joined the RAF.

Cadet shaking the hand of a Sqn leader
Cadet Ronald Leslie Clark is congratulated by the C.O. of No.1288 (Enfield) ATC. Squadron after being sworn in as the 500,000th ATC Cadet.

The Air Training Corps and Combined Cadet Force

Towards the end of 1940, the government realised the value of the cadet force and took control of the ADCC. It reorganised and renamed it, and on 5 February 1941 the Air Training Corps (ATC) was officially established with King George VI as the Air Commodore-in-Chief.

During World War ll, the school-based OTC Air Sections were absorbed into the ATC. In 1948, the OTC was renamed the Combined Cadet Force and most of the original OTC Air Sections became CCF (RAF) units. This is the structure that exists today with some CCF (RAF) sections boasting a history of nearly 150 years of service.

Cadets parading past HM King George VI
HM King George VI inspecting members of the newly-formed Air Training Corps during a visit to RAF Halton in July 1941.

Today’s Air League

The founding organisation of the ATC is today a sector leading aviation and aerospace charity focused on changing lives through aviation. Its core purpose is to inspire people into the aviation industry from all backgrounds and to champion the British Aviation and Aerospace Industry. Each year many hundreds of people from disadvantaged backgrounds benefit from Air League support to help them start a career, build self-esteem and well-being, make them feel valued and realise what they can achieve.

The Air League aims to break down the perceived barriers to the aviation industry and through scholarships and outreach programmes, create a life-long impact on beneficiaries, many of which stay involved throughout their careers.

Find out more about the Air League

The present day RAF Air Cadets

The organisation has gone from strength to strength over the last few decades. Today, the Air Cadets is a modern and inclusive organisation that welcomes everyone to enjoy all that Air Cadet life has to offer.

Find out more about the Air Cadets

Cadets stand in formation facing an officer
Air Cadets from Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire form up on the Maitland Parade Square at RAF Halton, in celebration of the RAF’s 100th Anniversary.