Alan Cobham’s experience with flying aircraft heavily laden with fuel from undeveloped airstrips caused him to be become very interested in the idea of in-flight refuelling. Using this system, an aircraft could take-off at relatively light weight, greatly boosting its take-off performance in one of the most hazardous phases of flight, and then top-up with fuel once airborne. In September 1934 he embarked on a non-stop England-to-India flight with an Airspeed Courier refuelled at regular intervals along the route but unfortunately he had to abandon the attempt. Soon afterwards, Cobham founded Flight Refuelling Ltd (FRL) to concentrate on the development of aerial refuelling systems. By 1939 FRLs looped hose refuelling system was practical enough to be regularly used to top up Imperial Airways flying boats departing on the transatlantic service.
During World War 2 FRL concentrated on aircraft modifications, including the development of an extra-long range version of the Avro Lancaster. In early 1949 FRL developed a completely new in-flight refuelling system known as ‘probe and drogue’, which later became the system adopted by many air forces worldwide.
Conversion and modification work continued and during the 1960s it produced numerous Meteor target drones, and its replacement in the 1970s the Sea Vixen D.3. FRL subsequently became involved in purpose-built target drones and UAV launch systems some in collaboration with GEC Avionics.
Flight Refuelling changed its name to Cobham in November 1994, to better reflect its actual activities.
In the United Kingdom, Cobham Aviation Services provides operational readiness training, including electronic warfare training, mission rehearsal and target towing for the UK Armed Forces. It also provides an Oil Spill response aircraft under contract to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAFF), later renamed DEFRA. Cobham Flight Inspection provides navaid calibration services throughout the UK and Europe