CHAPTER XVII. WIRELESS IN AVIATION

In a previous chapter the various methods of signalling between the ground and the airman aloft have been described. Seeing that wireless telegraphy has made such enormous strides and has advanced to such a degree of perfection, one naturally would conclude that it constitutes an ideal system of communication under such conditions in military operations.

But this is not the case. Wireless is utilised only to a very limited extent. This is due to two causes. The one is of a technical, the other of a strategical character.

The uninitiated, bearing in mind the comparative ease with which wireless installations may be established at a relatively small expense, would not unreasonably think that no serious difficulties of a technical character could arise: at least none which would defy solution. But these difficulties exist in two or three different fields, each of which is peculiarly complex and demands individual treatment.

In the first place, there is the weight of the necessary installation. In the case of the dirigible this may be a secondary consideration, but with the aeroplane it is a matter of primary and vital importance. Again, under present conditions, the noise of the motor is apt to render the intelligent deciphering of messages while aloft a matter of extreme difficulty, especially as these are communicated in code. The engine noise might be effectively overcome by the use of a muffler such as, is used with automobiles, but then there is the further difficulty of vibration.

This problem is being attacked in an ingenious manner. It is proposed to substitute for audible signals visual interpretations, by the aid of an electric lamp, the fluctuations in which would correspond to the dots and dashes of the Morse code. Thus the airman would read his messages by sight instead of by sound.

This method, however, is quite in its infancy, and although attractive in theory and fascinating as a laboratory experiment or when conducted under experimental conditions, it has not proved reliable or effective in aeronautical operations. But at the same time it indicates a promising line of research and development.

Then there are the problems of weight and the aerial. So far as present knowledge goes, the most satisfactory form of aerial yet exploited is that known as the trailing wire. From 300 to 700 feet of wire are coiled upon a reel, and when aloft this wire is paid out so that it hangs below the aeroplane. As a matter of fact,when the machine is travelling at high speed it trails horizontally astern, but this is immaterial. One investigator, who strongly disapproves of the trailing aerial, has carried out experiments with a network of wires laid upon and attached to the surface of the aeroplane's wings. But the trailing wire is generally preferred, and certainly up to the present has proved more satisfactory.

The greatest obstacle, however, is the necessary apparatus. The average aeroplane designed for military duty is already loaded to the maximum. As a rule it carries the pilot and an observer, and invariably includes a light arm for defence against an aerial enemy, together with an adequate supply of ammunition, while unless short sharp flights are to be made, the fuel supply represents an appreciable load. Under these circumstances the item of weight is a vital consideration. It must be kept within a limit of 100 pounds, and the less the equipment weighs the more satisfactory it is likely to prove, other things being equal.

The two most successful systems yet exploited are the Dubilier and the Rouget. The former is an American invention, the latter is of French origin. Both have been tested by the British Military Aeronautical Department, and the French authorities have subjected the French system to rigorous trials. Both systems, within their limitations, have proved satisfactory.

The outstanding feature of the Dubilier system is the production of sine waves of musical frequency from continuous current, thus dispensing with the rotary converter. The operating principle is the obtaining of a series of unidirectional impulses by a condenser discharge, the pulsating currents following one another at regular intervals at a frequency of 500 impulses per second, which may be augmented up to 1,000 impulses per second. The complete weight of such an apparatus is 40 pounds; the electric generator, which is no larger than the motor used for driving the ordinary table ventilating fan, accounts for 16 pounds of this total. Under test at sea, upon the deck of a ship, a range of 250 miles has been obtained. The British Government carried out a series of experiments with this system, using a small plant weighing about 30 pounds, with which communication was maintained up to about 20 miles.

In the French system the Reuget transmitter is employed. The apparatus, including the dynamo, which is extremely small, weighs in all 70 pounds. A small alternator of 200 watts and 100 volts is coupled direct to the aeroplane motor, a new clutch coupler being employed for this purpose. By means of a small transformer the voltage is raised to 30,000 volts, at which the condenser is charged. In this instance the musical spark method is employed.

The whole of the high tension wiring is placed within a small space so as not to endanger the pilot, while the transformer is hermetically sealed in a box with paraffin. The aerial comprises a trailing wire 100 feet in length, which, however, can be wound in upon its reel within 15 seconds. This reeled antenna, moreover, is fitted with a safety device whereby the wire can be cut adrift in the event of an accident befalling the aeroplane and necessitating an abrupt descent. With this apparatus the French authorities have been able to maintain communication over a distance of 30 miles.