Flying on Instruments in WWII

[Webmaster's note: A recent (2005) inquiry prompted this discussion of the state of instrument flying during WWII from Ben Bennett.]

We were taught to fly instruments, both in the Link trainer and in an airplane. However the instrument aids on the ground were lacking, and very crude compared to now.

In the United States, we had a series of radio ranges aiding us to get into a particular field. There was a north, east, south and west leg. Sometimes the north leg would lay northwest, but it was still called the north leg. The radio signals were sent out with an A (dit dah) on one side and an N (dah dit) on the other [of the leg]. If you were flying on the right side of the leg you got an A (dit dah) and an N on the other side, but right in the middle you got a solid tone. [The solid tone was created by the overlapping of the A and N.] There were splashers on the legs to let you know you were approaching the cone or center of the range and splashers on the other side to let you know you had passed the cone and were approaching the field.

There was a method of finding the radio range, and you would fly out the North leg make a 45 degree turn, fly a minute then a 180 degree turn, hit the range or the solid tone and another 45 degree turn and you are heading south on the north leg of the radio range. You start letting down (losing altitude) hit the splasher where you are supposed to be at a certain altitude, in a few minutes hit the cone at a certain altitude, and now you ore on the south leg of the radio range, hit the splasher at 500 feet and now you start looking for the field. If you don't see it by 300 feet you pull up and get out of there. There was no ILS [Instrument Landing System]. That came after the war. The radio compass could be tuned to a commercial radio station in a town or city, and you could follow the arrow. That would help you find a town or city then you could find the radio range.

In England where it was overcast almost every afternoon and you are low on fuel, because you have been in the air 10 hours you called a "Darkie Station" which was a radio station on the ground (all over England) with a receiving radius of 10 miles. You would call, "Hello Darkie, Hello Darkie, this is Splashboard O Oboe, I need a heading to station 106." Darkie had all the headings to every field from their particular station, and they would give you, "Splashboard O Oboe take a heading of 273 degrees for 7 minutes." You then flew that heading and time and let down through the overcast, and there was your field.

The big trouble was letting down through the overcast with 1500 other heavy bombers, 1000 fighters, and the other planes that were in the sky. The British had a weather landing system especially at night that was very effective. They had a circle of lights around their field with a search light pointing straight up. You got into the circle of lights and it steered you into a funnel of lights that you entered at 500 feet. Ahead of you was a red, green, and yellow light. Stay in the green you were good, yellow a little high, and red bad (too low). I have used this and it was very effective and you could get below the normal 300 feet visability.

We got away with many things in combat. If you survived you got good at formation flying and instrument flying. You had to: there was no alternative but death, and taking a crew with you.

There you have, it the history of instrument flying.