Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Training as an Air Signaller

In August 1954 I became an Aircrew Cadet at RAF Swanton Morley.  Basically, I was an AC2, the lowest form of RAF life, but I wore brass Albatross badges on my arms.  Commonly known as shite hawks.  The camp at Swanton Morely was built to a design used in the run up to WW2.  The living accommodation was made up of 3 H-blocks, each containing dormitories and toilet facilities.  We lived about 20 to a room, each with our own “bed space”, which we were required to keep clean and tidy.  Immaculate in fact. 

The No 1 Air Signaller’s School was organised into 3 wings, each containing entries.  A new entry, containing about 30 cadets, started every 3 weeks.  My entry was DE119, the 119th Direct Entry flight.  After DE122 they changed the designation to AS; don’t ask me why, but there is an enormous department in the Air Ministry dedicated to changing things.  Or so they say.

The Basic section of the year-long course consisted of ground school.  There was lots of marching and slinging rifles around of course - but the chief thing was morse.  The morse code was the main method of wireless communication in aviation, especially military aviation.  We spent a couple of hours every day sending and reading the morse code.  The aim was to be proficient at 25 words a minute by the end of the year.  The instructors were elderly gents, ex-RAF usually, who did nothing but send morse to rooms full of struggling students.  The trick, as with typing, was to stop thinking about what you were doing - stop reading it.  We also learnt how to use the radios carried in the aircraft used by Swanton Morley. 

The radios were the R1155 (receiver) and the T1154 (transmitter).  These radios were developed during WW2 and were very widely used.  With them, we worked to a plan given to us on take off.  Radio stations had to be contacted and messages sent.  Some of the ground stations were “real”, others were sited at Swanton Morley and solely for the use of the Air Signaller cadets.

Avro Anson

The first flight was in an Avro Anson.  This meant that a staff signaller could supervise you and check that you were safe on your own.  After that, all the flights except the last one were in the Percival Prentice.  This small aircraft had a pilot and a cadet.  The cadet sat in the back and couldn’t see ahead, or see the pilot.  The pilot could only be contacted by the intercom which was OK most of the time.  There were 18 airborne exercises that had to be completed.  The first and the last was in an Anson.  The bulk of the exercises were in the Prentice and lasted two hours.  We flew a triangular track over eastern and central England at about 2000 feet. 

In theory, as you completed each item of the exercise, you wrote up your wireless log, on which you were assessed.  However, with up to 30 cadets in the air it was dog-eat-dog, and your logging tended to get behind.  Often you would be landed and taxing in and still be busy writing.  The instructors would leap onto the wing of the aircraft and snatch your log off you.  They were also very hot on people who sent their take-off message before they got airborne!

Generally there were two flights each day, one before lunch and one afterwards.  30 small aircraft would take off in waves.  The cadets didn’t do much sight-seeing; they were too busy trying to establish contact with the ground stations.  On one occasion there was a very strong wind, and the pilots flew into it and remained more or less stationary over Swanton Morley. 

I was excused the last flight, the check flight in the Anson, because I was still recovering from an operation to remove my appendix.  My marks were good enough for this – so I got my wings and was promoted to sergeant.