If you'd like to prove how long ago you took Air Force
flight training, ask one of today's pilots what a gosport is. Chances are it
isn't in his aviation lexicon. Those who took primary flight training during
World War II, however, know that the go sport was a primitive one-way
communication device your instructor used to get your attention when he
thought you were engaging in flight without your mind in gear.
The urgent need for an intercom between an instructor pilot
and a student was apparent to Wilbur and Orville when they tried to shout instructions
over the roar of the engine mounted directly behind them.
When the first mechanized war in the air began in 1914, the
British realized they needed an intercom in their training planes. They were
taking sixty percent of their combat losses because of pilot error and only
two percent as a result of enemy action. Students couldn't hear what their
instructors were shouting in those early open-cockpit, tandem-seat planes. The
students didn't understand the significance or the extent of their mistakes in
flight because the instructor's critiques were delayed until they were on the
Solving the Problem
Col. Robert Smith-Barry, commander of a "School of
Special Flying" at Gosport, England, solved the problem. Believing
communication in flight to be critical, he took a rubber hose and ran it
between the seats for instructor and student. He attached funnels to the hose.
These funnels were held in place over each pilot's mouth. The hose branched out
in front of each pilot, and the two ends were attached to each man's helmet
over the ears.
The device became known as the Gosport System. Students and
instructors, pilots and crew members could converse after a fashion despite
the engine's roar. Students developed confidence and skill faster. The British
were able to cut the number of training flight hours from 100 to forty through
this and other training improvements; accidents declined significantly.
The Aviation Section of the US Signal Corps, impressed with
the device and the British flight training system, sent Capt. Henry H.
"Hap" Arnold to San Antonio in August 1917 to choose a site for a
"Gosport-type" pilot training school. This field became Brooks Air
Various types of two-way and one-way "voice tubes"
were tested at Dayton's McCook Field. However, the Air Service was not impressed
with some of the tubes submitted. One type, manufactured in this country by A.
G. Spaulding & Bros., was "not considered suitable for use as an
intercommunicating device on either service or training types of
airplanes," according to a confidential report. "The voices did not have
sufficient volume, sounded metallic, and were very hard to understand."
The report added: "Considerable noise is picked up
through the mouthpiece . . . the amount varying with the position of the
mouthpiece, as, for example, when the mouthpiece is hanging down in the
cockpit and when it is being held up in the slipstream. This change of
intensity of the engine noise would be apt to prove very confusing to a pupil
receiving instruction in flying."
Don't Talk Back!
The report notwithstanding, the need for interpilot
communication overruled the disadvantages, and the devices were procured for
open-cockpit training planes. However, military flight instructors decided they
didn't want students to talk back or ask questions while airborne.
The gosport became a standard one-way system with a small
handheld funnel on the instructor's end attached to a rubber hose. The student
had a special cloth or leather helmet, which was connected to the hose by small
curved metal fittings attached over both ears. The supply manuals labeled the
system "Helmet and Speaking Tube Ear Piece Assembly."
The instructor could instruct, but the student could not
reply. When an instructor became disturbed about a student's performance, he
would wave the funnel in the breeze to emphasize a point. At the other end, the
student heard a roar in his ears that seemed like an engine wide open at ten
paces. This attention-getting method always worked. Ask anyone who took primary
flight training in the PT-17s and -19s.
When you graduated to the basic and advanced trainers, you
appreciated that the electronics of the day had progressed considerably. You
had an intercom system and could talk back, if you dared. The gosports
disappeared when the primary trainers were junked at the end of the war.
C. V Glines is a
regular contributor to this magazine. A retired Air Force colonel, he is a
free-lance writer, a magazine editor, and the author of numerous books. His
byline appeared here most recently with "Closing in on the Airfields"
in the January '89 issue.
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