Gosport Tube

Robert Smith-Barry, centre row fourth from left attending a course at the Central Flying School 1912

Robert Raymond Smith-Barry took over No.1 (Reserve) Squadron at Grange in Gosport in 1917 using Avros and Farman Longhorns and Shorthorns. He established a mess at Alverbank, Stokes Bay which was rented from the owner, Mrs. Platt. He got rid of the Longhorns and Shorthorns using Avros, B.E.s and Moranes with Bristol Scouts in three Flights to train new pilots in the elements of flying. This was later changed to six Avros, six Sopwiths (fitted with dual controls) and six Bristol Scouts. Smith-Barry reorganised each flight so that it was a self contained unit, each having Avros, Sopwiths and Scouts. This enabled instructors to train their pupils right through from start to finish.

The problem of the instructor communicating with the trainee pilot, whilst in the air, was one which baffled Smith-Barry at first. In 1912 a primitive speaking and listening tube known as the ‘Audiophone’ could be bought for three and as half guineas and some aircraft were fitted with this appliance. They proved to be of little use. Smith-Barry bought a set of electrical gear and wired it up at Alverbank. Smith-Barry played the piano in one room and his sergeant listened in another. They changed places and repeated the experiment. It seemed to work well so they fitted it into an Avro, however the engine noise meant that neither could hear the other.

As the electrical system had proved to be a failure Sidney Parker, a young pilot working as an flight commander instructor with Smith-Barry, began experimenting with the tubes fitted to some aircraft. This device consisted of a hollow tube like a stethoscope into which the instructor could speak directly to his pupil in the pilot’s seat, the tube ending in earpieces in the trainee’s helmet.

A former parlourmaid at Alverbank recounted how Smith-Barry and his instructors trailed tubes and wires from room to room, testing their voice levels and getting cross if the domestic staff dared move or even tiptoe round the tangle of primitive-looking equipment.

Smith Barry with his wife Kitty and with Lieutenants Moore (left) and Parker (right) at Alverbank, Stokes Bay Gosport. Alverbank was used by Smith-Barry as an extension to the Officers’ Mess of Grange airfield. He conducted his experiments on the Gosport Tube at the house.
Smith Barry with his wife Kitty and with Lieutenants Moore (left) and Parker (right) at Alverbank, Stokes Bay Gosport. Alverbank was used by Smith-Barry as an extension to the Officers’ Mess of Grange airfield. He conducted his experiments on the Gosport Tube at the house.

The electrical experiments had failed [wrote Parker in his memoirs], and so I began examining the useless speaking-tube system with which the machines were fitted. For the purpose of economy a single tube was used and was provided at each end with ear pieces for listening and a funnel for speaking into. The article was useless, the sound of the voice being drowned by engine-noise. I thought that if two separate tubes were used with ear pieces at one end and a speaking funnel on the other they might be more efficient, and I had two sets made up for a test.



It was a beautiful Sunday morning that I tried out one set with a pupil I was teaching and we were delighted that we could hear what each other said as though we were speaking without engine noise.

The successful test flight for the Gosport Tube took place over the Solent on 20th June 1917 and the equipment was immediately put in to use at Grange. The speaking tube was an immediate success and all machines were fitted with it. For the first time the instructor could communicate with the trainee, explaining in full detail what was going on at all times, without having to use hand signals.

In his ‘NOTES ON TEACHING FLYING: Instructor’s Courses at No.1 Training Squadron, Gosport. 1917 Part I’
Smith-Barry wrote:
Telephones:
For dual control, speaking tubes are now being fitted (the Gosport Tube). Up to now it has been necessary to stall the machine to make a momentary conversation possible. This has, however, given a useful indication of the state of the pupil’s nerve, as those who are unlikely to prove suitable for scouts generally cling to the side with an unintelligent expression, instead of conversing fluently and with confidence.

This simple device, which became known as the ‘Gosport Tube’, was in use with air forces all over the world until the 1950s.

Blue Plaque to Smith-Barrie on Alverbank
Blue Plaque to Smith-Barrie on Alverbank


Sources:
Pioneer Pilot: the Great Smith-Barry who taught the world how to fly F.D. Tredrey
A History of Gosport Airfield: The Gosport Diaries. Unpublished.

Links:
http://www.rafmuseumstoryvault.org.uk/sheet/gosport-tube
https://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Visit/Museum-Exhibits/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/196872/gosport-tube/