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During the initial era of air travel how do the pilots/Navigation officers would communicate with ground stations?

Do they use radio communication? Or Telegraph was used?

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Given that telegraph requires wires, I doubt that they used that. –  Simon Jun 5 '14 at 7:44
given that radio was available before planes I'd say radio –  ratchet freak Jun 5 '14 at 7:48
@ratchet freak: I'm pretty sure that the earliest planes did not have radio, including at least some WW1 fighters. –  RedGrittyBrick Jun 5 '14 at 7:59
then they could have used light signals (it's still the radio backup today) –  ratchet freak Jun 5 '14 at 8:21
Well, obviously they used pigeons. –  Vitaly Mijiritsky Jun 6 '14 at 17:49

4 Answers 4

up vote 20 down vote accepted

Radio was not widely used until the 1930s, before that, mostly light signals were used. Early ground support aircraft in WW I could drop little notes which were pencilled by the observer, stuffed in a small capsule to which a streamer was fitted, and that was dropped as closely as possible to the troops which should get that message. This method was still used in WW II, when most aircraft had radio, because only specially equipped ground troops had compatible receivers.

The first regular flights by night were 1921 for the air mail connection between Omaha and Chicago, and electric flood lights were positioned along the flight path. When Lufthansa opened the first night connection between the Reich and East Prussia in 1926, they posted burning oil drums along the way to mark where the pilot had to fly. Communication the other way (air to ground) was not possible on those flights.

The first air-to-ground radio communication used morse signals, and this is the origin for these strange three-letter names for things like local air pressure at the ground (QFE) or pressure corrected to sea level conditions (QNH). There was a whole lot more of those, including some to order coffee before landing, but they are no longer necessary. Read all about it here.

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Order coffee before landing - that sounds mighty useful. –  Burhan Khalid Jun 5 '14 at 10:53
Radio telegraphy was used for artillery spotting in WW1. –  DJClayworth Jun 5 '14 at 18:25
@DJClayworth I'm sure I recall reading about some form of air to air visual communication protocol which allowed spotter to relay information from an aircraft without radio. But I've no idea of the source. Some form of Morse probably. –  Chris H Jun 6 '14 at 9:35

While radio was available (meaning it existed) it did not exist in a form usable by early aircraft.

If you are talking early-early travel, not commercial travel, communication was not necessary. Navigate to the destination, circle the (farmer's) field to check for livestock, then land. Communication with other aircraft was not necessary as there usually were no other aircraft.

As things progressed, morse code became practical. This was when cockpit crews required both hands to count.

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A little more detail might be helpful. –  DJClayworth Jun 5 '14 at 18:24

Up until World War One, there was no radio communication between air and ground, or between planes. Communication from ground to air was done by means of light signals.

From 1915 onwards aircraft were used as artillery spotters which involved Morse code wireless signals one-way, (from the aircraft to the ground). There was no communication from ground to air, and the air-to-ground communication was limited to simple codes. The only form of air-to-air communications was signals such as 'wing-waggling'.

Air-to-ground and air-to-air spoken radio communication became common between the wars, and was widespread in major air forces at the start of it.

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Military aircraft frequently used radiotelegraphy (Morse code) well into WWII, if not 'til the end. The binary nature of it (on/off constant amplitude signal*) gave greater effective range and more resistance to degradation by static than radiotelephony (voice). Most aircraft had voice radios for communication with nearby friendly aircraft and bases, but relied on Morse code at long ranges.

* shades of digital transmissions today!

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