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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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    $\begingroup$ Given that telegraph requires wires, I doubt that they used that. $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Jun 5, 2014 at 7:44
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    $\begingroup$ given that radio was available before planes I'd say radio $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2014 at 7:48
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    $\begingroup$ @ratchet freak: I'm pretty sure that the earliest planes did not have radio, including at least some WW1 fighters. $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2014 at 7:59
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    $\begingroup$ There was such a thing as wireless telegraph, but of course it's a form of radio that only carried Morse code instead of voice. $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2014 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ Well, obviously they used pigeons. $\endgroup$ Jun 6, 2014 at 17:49

5 Answers 5

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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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    $\begingroup$ Order coffee before landing - that sounds mighty useful. $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2014 at 10:53
  • $\begingroup$ Radio telegraphy was used for artillery spotting in WW1. $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2014 at 18:25
  • $\begingroup$ @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. $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Jun 6, 2014 at 9:35
  • $\begingroup$ Flying boats in airline service as late as 1950 or so, as well as in military service during WWII, were equipped with signal lights like those commonly seen on ships in war movies, used through the navigation dome above the cockpit (where the navigator took sun or star sightings to fix location). How effective they were from aircraft to aircraft is questionable, and they'd only have been visible from another aircraft at or above the same altitude in any case. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Oct 20, 2021 at 17:54
  • $\begingroup$ @ZeissIkon That was particularly popular on British airplanes and copied from naval traditions. Other nations used more modern means. $\endgroup$ Oct 20, 2021 at 18:20
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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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  • $\begingroup$ A little more detail might be helpful. $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2014 at 18:24
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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. It was used for air-to-air communication and short range air to ground, for example controlling interceptor fighters within the home country. Morse code remained in use for longer ranges, such as a bomber over a foreign country communicating with home.

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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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In World War 1 there were aircraft spark gap transmitters and the pilot could send messages in Morse code to receivers on the ground but he could not receive wireless (now called radio) signals. There was limited communication from ground to aircraft using the following three methods; Ground Strips. Lamp Signals. Poppet Panels. The pilot had to fly and watch for signals at the same time. Ground strips were white sheets 3 metres by 300 mm (10 feet by 1 foot) or larger. They were laid out as patterns or letters with a letter for such messages as 'Your (wireless) signal is weak' or, 'Repeat last (wireless) message' or 'I am not receiving your signal'. Lamp signals, used later in WW1, used 'Lucas' signalling lamps. The operator aimed the light beam at the pilot when he thought it would be visible to him and send the message in Morse Code. The Poppet Panel was a canvas shutter arrangement fixed to the ground and was worked by pulling a cord which made a white patch visible from the air. When the cord was released the panel showed a black patch. By pulling and releasing the cord the operator could send Morse Code messages to the pilot who had to fly with one hand, look over the side and write down the letters with his other hand. It was a difficult task.

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  • $\begingroup$ Source for this? $\endgroup$ Dec 31, 2015 at 2:00
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    $\begingroup$ @SMSvonderTann The source is three books written by WWI wireless operator, Bert Billings. He served in Gallipoli and Egypt then transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and trained pilots. The only copies of his books are in the Australian Army Signals Museum in Victoria and the War Memorial in Canberra. I have just submitted a 14,200 word article based on his books for publication. I am the former manager of the Signals Museum so have access to the books. Google the various communication systems that I have briefly described in my answer. You should find some additional information. $\endgroup$
    – Jim Gordon
    Feb 12, 2016 at 4:36
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    $\begingroup$ You might want to put that at the end of you post saying: "Source: " And the title of those books. $\endgroup$ Feb 12, 2016 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ @SMSvonderTann. Thanks for your advice but I don't see other postings referenced with sources. If you are interested in the subject do a thorough search on Ground Strips, Lamp Signals, Poppet Panels, Lucas' signalling lamps, with additional terms such as WW1, aircraft, artillery spotting, Hubert (Bert) Billings etc and you should find other sources of the same information. The only two copies of the three books by Bert Billings, apart from copies that members of his family have, are in the Australian Army Signals Museum in Victoria and the War Memorial in Canberra, Australia. They are My Story $\endgroup$
    – Jim Gordon
    Apr 6, 2016 at 12:40

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