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Royal Thai
Air Force
Museum

All text and photographic
material
on this site is
© Peter Lewis
1999, 2001
unless otherwise acknowledged

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Thailand Aviation

The Thai people are proud of their history and their status as the only Southeast Asian country that has never been annexed by a European colonial power. This distinction was largely achieved by maintaining a delicate balancing act between British and French influence during the nineteenth century. The military history of Thailand reflects this power structure.

Aviation activity began in Thailand with demonstration flights by an itinerant Belgian aviator in a Henri Farman during 1911. This sparked interest, and later that year three Thai Army officers were sent to France to train as aviators and aviation engineers. They spent two years acquiring these skills. On their return, they brought with them eight Breguet and Nieuport aircraft, and the Thai Army Aviation Section was set up. The Don Muang airfield was established in 1914 and has been the centre of Thai aviation ever since.

The French influence increased soon after this, as units of the Thai army operated in France during World War 1. A number of these men underwent training at French aviation units and then saw combat against the Axis powers. During the 1920s further purchases of French and British aircraft were made. The Don Muang workshops carried out repair work, assembled and manufactured new aircraft to overseas design, and also developed a few indigenous designs.

Little civil aviation activity appears to to have been carried out over this period. The first so-called 'Airways' appeared in the early 1930s, such as the Anglo-Siam organisation which operated charter and air-taxi work with a small fleet of de Havilland Puss Moth aircraft. With European governments and manufacturers concentrating their resources on their own rearmament programs later in the 1930s, the Thai Government turned to the USA for their aircraft re-equipment program.

The Air Force Division was renamed the Royal Thai Air Force in 1937, and early in 1941 entered combat to defend its own country's borders for the first time. A dispute which broke out between Thailand and the French Government of Indochina lasted for some months until a truce was arranged. The RTAF was active both in air combat and in support of its ground-based forces.

Faced with relentless Japanese political and military pressure, the Thai Government entered World War 2 as an ally of Japan in 1942. Japanese forces were stationed throughout the country. Both they and the Thai military operated Japanese equipment.

I have received a most interesting letter from Santi Vibul who was at Don Muang during the hostilities, and describes his experiences here.

When Japan finally surrendered in 1945, the Allied forces that entered Thailand were mostly American in origin, and the American influence within the country increased from this time.

The RTAF was able to replace its prewar and Japanese aircraft with British and American equipment during the late 1940s. The rising threat of communist activity within Asia saw an American Military Aid Program deliver further military aircraft to Thailand, with the first jet aircraft arriving during 1957. With Thailand sharing borders with Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar (Burma), the Vietnam war was seen to pose a real threat so re-equipment with American aircraft was given high priority.

As part of the Thai Government development plan, two of the major internal airlines were taken over and merged into one State airline during 1951. Thai Airways International was established in 1960 with assistance from the Scandinavian airline SAS. This airline has taken advantage of Thailand's central location to establish routes throughout Asia and through to Australasia, North America and Europe.

General aviation seems to have been slow to develop within Thailand, though there does seem to be some commercial helicopter activity. This is probably due to a combination of high costs, generally low incomes, and Government concerns about security issues within what has historically been a politically unstable area of the world. Certainly there is little or no tourist-related aviation activity visible at such famous resorts as Phuket and Chiang Mai.

Page updated 1May2005