The Royal Thai Air Force has
decided to purchase Gripen jet fighters from Sweden. In the past, economic, technological,
and political issues affected the country’s choice of airplanes. It's
probably no different now; I just hope the people in charge know what they are
Thailand’s development of civil and military aviation began before
World War I; this means it has one of the oldest air forces in the
world. Rather than relying on Western aid, Thailand decided to go it alone and
rely on its own limited resources. This policy, while restraining development,
was dictated in part by her fear and mistrust of Britain and France,
who were her neighbors in Burma,
Malaya, and Indochina.
An airman during the Indochina conflict, Victory Monument. Bangkok.
The test for the fledgling air
force came in 1940 when Thailand
was confident enough to challenge France
in a military conflict in order to regain territory lost to France earlier. The Thai air force performed well during the conflict,
demonstrating both skill and determination. However, when WWII broke out soon
after, the Thais had to face the Japanese—a much superior force—alone, and so
decided to put into practice the adage, “if you can’t fight them, join them,”
and became an ally of their erstwhile enemy.
Here are some highlights of RTAF
history up to WWII; all photos were taken at the RTAF Museum
on Phaholyothin Road.
(Above) Prince Chakrabongse, Army Chief of Staff, was one of the
first Thais to fly when he took off from Pathumwan Racecourse (Royal Bangkok
Sports Club) in a Henry Farman biplane with French aviator Van Den Born. The date
was January 31, 1911.
(Above) First landing at Don Muang. As aviation developed, Pathumwan
Racecourse became too small. It was decided to relocate to Don Muang. On March
8, 1915, air force pilots flew to Don Muang for the first time.
(Above) Breguet 14 B2 Bomber (French) in service in RTAF between 1919-1937.
France has been a leader in aviation since the beginning, so Siam looked to that country to supply its needs. When Siam entered WWI on the side of the allies, it sent a contingent of airmen to aid in the war effort. Over 100 Thai pilots were trained in France but were too late to see action in the war, though many flew non-combat missions after the war was over before returning to their country.
(Above) The first Thai-designed and -built military aircraft, the
Boripatra two-seater biplane bomber. In service with the RTAF between 1927-1940.
(Above) The Corsair V93S, a two-seater fighter-bomber biplane which
served in the RTAF between 1934-1949. The insignia (mythical beast with green
body) identified the plane as belonging to Wing 2. The aircraft was one of two
types that were in service when Japan
on December 8, 1941. Initially 12 planes were procured from the American
manufacturers; subsequently the RTAF manufactured 100 of them for its own use.
The Corsair V93S saw action in the Indochina conflict
(Above) The Hawk 3 single-seat pursuit biplane, manufactured by the
Curtiss Aeroplane and Consolidated (USA), served in the RTAF between 1934-1949.
The insignia (Hanuman, white body) identified it as belonging to Wing 4. This
is the only Hawk 3 remaining anywhere.
(Above) The RTAF’s first air combat engagement took place during the
Indochina conflict on November 21, 1941, at
0800 hours. Five French Morane fighters bombed Nakhon Phanom province. The RTAF
launched three fighters (2 Hawk IIIs and 1 Corsair) to intercept and force the
French aircraft out of Thai airspace. The French lost one plane. (Note: Edward
M. Young in Aerial Nationalism—A History of Aviation in Thailand
has a slightly different version.)
(Above) Air battle over Ban Yang. During the Indochina
conflict (1940-1941) Flight Lieutenant Chalermkiat Wattanangkoon led a flight
of three Hawk IIs to reconnoiter the border. At Ban Yang near Aranyaprathet,
the flight met an enemy Potez 25 reconnaissance biplane escorted by two Morane M.S.406
fighters, which they intercepted. Flight Lieutenant Chalermkiat shot down the
Potez. (Again Young has a different account; his
comment: ‘one has to admire the audacity of two 200-mph Hawk II biplanes
attacking three 300-mph M.S.406s!’)
(Two photos above-top picture shows Japanese Nagoya in action, bottom shows American Hawk 75) On January 28, 1941, the RTAF dispatched
nine Ki-30 Nagoyas, escorted by three Hawk 75s, to bomb Pailin and Sisophon in
French Indochina. Thailand was perhaps the only country operating both Japanese and American aircraft just before WWII. This was the last air operation of the conflict. (Again Young has a different version.)
(Two photos above) Tachikawa two-seater advanced trainer, in service with
the RTAF between 1940-1949.
(Above) Air combat between Thai and Japanese fighters. On December
8, 1941 the Japanese sent 25 Otsu fighters to
attack Wattana Nakhorn Airbase in Prachinburi
Province. The RTAF sent
up three Hawk IIIs to intercept the Japanese, but were no match for them. All
three Thai planes were shot down and their pilots killed. (Young’s version: ‘At the airfield at Aranyaprathet, the
pilots of Fighter Squadron 43, from Wing 4, awoke to the sound of Japanese
aircraft flying overhead. Three pilots, Flight Lieutenants Chai Soonthornsing
and Chin Jiramanimai and Pilot Officer Sanit Pothivaekoon, ignored the pleas of
their fellow officers and took off in their Hawk IIIs to engage the Japanese. The
three pilots attacked the Japanese formation, but the more capable Ki-27s
quickly shot them down, with Major Hirose claiming one Thai airplane. All three
Thai pilots were killed.’)
(Above) Close-up of one of the Thai Hawk IIIs that was shot down.
(Two photos above)Americans and Thais in air combat. Battle over Lampang: On November 11, 1944,
nine P-51 Mustangs and seven P-38 Lightnings attacked Lampang. The RTAF sent
five Ki-27 Ota fighters to intercept. Although they fought courageously, all
five Thai fighters were shot down. (Young has a
(Above) David (Thai) and Goliath (US): Hayabusas and B-29s. On
November 27, 1944, the Allies sent fifty-five B-29s to bomb Bangsue marshalling yard in
Lieutenant Terdsak Worasap led a flight of seven Ki-43 Hayabusas to intercept,
shooting down one B-29. (Young has more details.)