Isle of Man ATC in the 1930s
& IOM aviation in the years before
Island Images
IOM ATC Index
 ATC in the 1940s
1902 - 1919   Aviation arrives in the Isle of Man
 
In 1902 the first aerial vehicle was to be seen in the Isle of Man when a Royal Navy gas balloon measuring 60 ft high by 45 ft diameter, was flown from Peveril Square in Douglas for a free flight ending in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. There was to be no further aerial activity until July 1911 when a temporary aerodrome was established in Nobles Park, Douglas  for demonstration flying by two early flying machines, a Farman and a Bleriot. In the event only the Farman actually took to the air. In August 1912 the Nobles Park aerodrome was activated again when Gustave Hamel conducted demonstration flights in a Morane Saulnier, including the island's first 'Air Mail' flight, from Douglas to Peel!
 
Farman Biplane
Bleriot Monoplane
 
In August 1914 an aerodrome was established on Queen's Promenade, Douglas, with a Bleriot monoplane using the beach for takeoff and landing and an Avro 504 float plane operating from the water, being hauled up on to the promenade at the end of the day. Both these aircraft gave pleasure flights to the public which proved a great success. As with the previous visiting aircraft, they arrived to and departed from the island courtesy of the isle of Man Steam Packet. During World War One, great strides were taken in the development of aircraft and the first flight 'across the water' were made to the island, by Short 184 seaplanes operated by the Royal Navy. They operated from Lake Windermere in Cumbria and carried mail whilst also looking out for German U-Boat activity in the Irish Sea. After the war the first flight to the island by a Manxman was carried out by Captain Elgie Jefferson who flew a Bristol Fighter from Hooton Park in Cheshire, landing at Great Meadow near Castletown in January 1919 before continuing the next day to Stranraer, Scotland.
 
Avro 504 Float-plane
Royal Navy Short 184 Seaplane
 
In the Spring of 1919 the Queen's Promenade aerodrome was active again for pleasure flying with Avro 504s and in July of that year Captain Howard Pixton made what is regarded as the first commercial flight to the island. Using an Avro 504 float plane he flew copies of the 'Daily News' from Windermere for sale to holidaymakers. Flights continued for two weeks and passengers could be carried for the price of 10 guineas. The following year there was more pleasure flying from Douglas beach but after objections and a petition signed by 20 people, permission was withdrawn and there was to be no more flying from the island until 1925 during the TT races when a de-Havilland DH9 flew copies of the 'Motorcycle News' over, landing on Douglas Head. This became a regular event over the next few years.
 
Avro 504s on Queen's Promenade in 1919
 
1928 - First flights at Ronaldsway
 
The first use of Ronaldsway as an aerodrome occurred on June 5th 1928 when Captain Olley, flying an Imperial Airways Handley Page HP27 Hampstead, G-EBLE, landed in a large field on Ronaldsway farm bringing in the 'The Motorcycle' for TT visitors. The Hampstead was a large three motor biplane and after delivering the papers, was made available for pleasure flying from Ronaldsway. The aircraft had a wingspan of 75 ft and at 60 ft in length could carry up to 14 passengers in its cabin. As was usual in those days, the pilot and mechanic sat outside and braved the elements! During TT the following year Ronaldsway was used again for both 'The Motorcycle' and also the 'Daily Mail' during the TT race period, the latter being flown in by a DH61 Giant Moth. The Summer of 1929 also saw the arrival of Sir Alan Cobham who was touring Great Britain to promote aviation. He arrived at Ronaldsway in DH61 Giant Moth G-AAEV 'Youth of Britain' on August 2nd from Blackpool, and carried out a series of demonstration flights, mainly to young people from the island. He also encouraged the establishment of a permanent aerodrome for the Isle of Man. In April 1933 two famous aviators visited Ronaldsway, Amy Johnson, flying DH60G Moth G-ABVW 'Jason 4' and her husband Jim Mollison, flying DH80A Puss Moth G-ACAB 'Desert Cloud'.
 
Handley Page HP27 Hampstead G-EBLE
de-Havilland DH61 Giant Moth G-AAEV
 
1933 - Regular air Services to the Isle of Man
 
In March 1933 Blackpool and West Coast Air services was established with a main base at Blackpool Aerodrome and operated charter services to Ronaldsway using a DH83 Fox Moth. By August they were operating scheduled services with one daily flight from Liverpool and two from Blackpool using a twin engine de-Havilland DH84 Dragon G-ACGU. These services stopped for the winter in September but in 1934 four other companies were operating to Ronaldsway, Midland & Scottish Air Ferries, Hillman Airways, Northern Airways and Railway Air Services. Towards the end of 1934 Captain Olley of Olley Air Services acquired Blackpool & West Coast with Captain Higgins as chief pilot and secured the landing rights at Ronaldsway, a temporary aerodrome license was issued to Ronaldsway at the start of 1934 pending improvements to the airfield and facilities. 
 
A hanger capable of housing a DH Dragon was erected together with a wooden traffic office, the hanger not lasting long, being blown down in February and subsequently replaced by a larger structure in March. A holding company, Isle of Man Air Services was created to run the aerodrome and other airlines had to pay to use the facilities. Blackpool & West Coast now had four Dragons in service: G-ACGU, G-ACNA, G-ACPY and G-ADCR. In 1936 the airline introduce four engined de-Havilland DH86 'Express' airliners and with the Irish Airline, Aer Lingus Teoranta starting services from Dublin, Ronaldsway was becoming a hub for routes across the Irish Sea.
 
 
Ronaldsway in the 1930s courtesy of the Terry Farragher Collection
Blackpool & West Coast DH84 Dragon G-ACPY 
refuelled by Shell - 1934
Railway Air Services DH89 Dragon Rapide
G-AEBX 'Star of Scotia' - 1936
 
Airport Buildings - 1936
 
DH86 Express G-ADVJ with 
DH89 Rapide G-AEAK - 1937
1938 Aerial view of Ronaldsway
 
 
 
 
Hall Caine Airport, Ramsey
Hall Caine Aerodrome Diagram
Hall Caine Airport with Spartan Cruisers and a DH Dragon
 
In 1934 a rival to Ronaldsway was established at Close Lake, just to the west of Ramsey on the St Jude's road, named after the famous Manx author Sir Hall Caine. Services commenced in April 1935 operated by United Airways using three engined Spartan Cruiser monoplanes. One service per day operated Blackpool - Hall Caine - Carlisle and return and three others Liverpool - Blackpool - Hall Caine and return. From May 1935 Northern & Scottish commenced a weekly service from Glasgow building up rapidly until it became twice daily by July. A series of airline amalgamations took place by the end of the year resulting in a new company, British Airways Ltd being formed. In the summer of 1936, Northern & Scottish (operating on behalf of British Airways) were operating Glasgow services twice a day, Liverpool and Blackpool twice or three times a day and once a day to Belfast and Carlisle. Aircraft used were Spartan Cruisers, Dragons and Dragon Rapides, with occasional visits by an Armstrong Whitworth Argosy which could carry up to 28 passengers. Both passengers and mail were handled and there is a mention in 'Manx Aviation in War & Peace' that on the 12th September 1936, 28 flights were handled, carrying 69 passengers, 612 lb of Mail and 1,375 lb of baggage. Despite such a busy season in 1936, airline operation had ceased by the following year, the last scheduled flight leaving on the 2nd August 1937, the aerodrome remaining open for private flying until the outbreak of war in September 1939. Although M/F W/T radio was installed at Hall Caine for airline message handling, there was never any ATC service offered.
 
Google Earth image of the area occupied
by Hall Caine Airport
Oblique Google Earth view of the site occupied by Hall Caine
Airport, with Ramsey behind
 
Spartan Cruiser
Armstrong Whitworth Argosy
 
Hall Caine in 2014
 
Further south, in the London area, commercial air traffic was becoming much busier and it was decided that something had to be done to improve safety when aircraft were operating in conditions of poor visibility - Air Traffic Control was about to start in great Britain.
 
 
November 19th 1933 - First UK Air Traffic Control Service established at London Croydon
 
Due to the ever increasing danger of aerial collisions in bad weather, the first UK Air Traffic Control service was introduced at Croydon Airport, London. An irregularly shaped 'Controlled Zone' based on geographical features came into operation when visibility dropped to below 1000 yards or cloud was below 1000 ft - in the 'Q' code used for the W/T (morse) communications of the day this was 'QBI'. 
 
Standard routes were also defined over south east England, mainly following railway lines and using the 'right hand traffic' rules , i.e. every aircraft flew to the right hand side of a line feature which would hopefully allow opposite direction aircraft to pass well clear.
 
Click for map of Croydon Controlled Zone and air routes
 
If 'QBI' was in force, pilots had to obtain permission by wireless before entering the zone or land clear at another airfield and wait for the weather to improve. Departing aircraft captains would report in person to control for any departure restrictions before taxiing to the departure point on the airfield and awaiting a light signal from the 'lookout man' when cleared for take off by the controller. 
 
Croydon ATC 1935
Croydon ATC 1937
 
'Lookout Man' Croydon Airport 1937
 
After becoming airborne the pilot or wireless operator would pay out the long trailing aerial required for the Medium Frequency radios used and make contact with control, reporting when level at his assigned altitude and when he estimated clear of the controlled zone. Direction finding (D/F) bearings would be available to assist navigation of both inbound and departing aircraft and control would plot positions of aircraft based on D/F bearings from Croydon, Lympne and Pulham. Each station would report a 'bearing line' on a transmission and by plotting these on a map a position could be obtained for the aircraft. The controller would mark aircraft positions on his map using coloured flags and information on conflicting flights together with suggestions on altitudes or routes to be flown would be transmitted to pilots.
 
Plotting D/F Bearings - Croydon 1937
Radio Operator - Croydon 1937
 
Even in these early days experiments were taking place using 'blind landing' radio aids, the most successful being the German designed 'Lorenz' system. 'Communications Areas' were established over southern England within which pilots could contact a control agency by radio and obtain information on other aircraft together with advice on avoiding aerial collisions, e.g. a change in altitude.
 
 
8th July 1937, Air Traffic Control Service Established at Ronaldsway - 'GJE' on 363Khz
 
Only three and a half years after ATC started at Croydon Airport, Air Traffic Control was established at Ronaldsway Airport. This was due to the large number of commercial flights operating to the Isle of Man. Whereas in the UK, the preferred mode of long distance travel for most was by the extensive railway network, travel to the island involved a lengthy and often rough boat journey across the Irish Sea. Air travel for those who could afford it was much faster and more comfortable.
 
Map of Internal Air Routes 1936
'Flight' article - 'Radio for Ronaldsway' 1937
 
 
Ronaldsway first 'Control Tower'
 
The first ATC Watch Office at Ronaldsway. Located next to the airport terminal at Derbyhaven with the direction finding station close by. The radio receiving aerials were adjacent, but the 70' high transmitter aerials were further to the west. Signals to aircraft and other ground stations would be passed on colour coded message slips to the W/T operators in the room behind the control office for transmitting by Morse Code. Replies would be similarly passed on message slips. 
 
The 1937 Ronaldsway Watch Office
Mobile Marconi D/F Station
Ronaldsway Radio Room 1937
 
Final permission to land or take-off would be given by Aldis signalling lamp or a coloured very pistol signal. Initially the colours used varied from location to location, but a standard set of signals was agreed and can still be used today. If no signal was observed, pilots could still land provided that the proposed landing area was clear of other aircraft. After landing aircraft had to move clear of the landing area as soon as possible with all turns being made to the left.
 
Aldis Signalling Lamp - 2012
Demonstrating that some things never change in ATC!
 
 
The Controlled Zone
 
A 'Controlled Zone' was established on the 8th July 1937 comprising a circle 10 miles around Ronaldsway to a height of 3000 ft. Control only came into action in 'QBI' - i.e. poor weather conditions.  The principle was one aircraft inside the zone at a time, arriving and departing aircraft could be assigned levels to fly and expected times to enter the zone. If QBI was not in force, aircraft could arrive overhead the airfield to observe the ground signals square, which would give them the information needed as to landing and circuit direction. As the airfield was grass, with no delineated runways, the 'Landing Tee' was pivoted to rotate with the wind and pilots would always land into wind. In light winds the Tee would be fixed in one direction to avoid confusion if it drifted around.. Pilots would join the visual circuit keeping a good lookout for other aircraft and touch down once the landing area was clear of other aircraft. Unless otherwise instructed all turns were to be made to the left.
 
Signals Square at Manchester Barton
Signals Square at Ronaldsway - 1950s
 
Although the zone was 'Controlled' in QBI conditions, this really only extended to regulating aircraft entering and leaving the zone. Once cleared inside, it was up to the pilot how he conducted his flight. D/F bearings would be passed as requested and it was up the him to decide what headings to fly and what was a safe height to descend to. In low cloud at Ronaldsway it would be likely that a pilot would obtain bearings until he was indicated overhead the D/F station and then set a course to let down over the sea until he was visual with the surface, obtaining regular bearings and using time to estimate his position. The controller or his assistant would stand outside the watch office and listen for the aircraft engines and a message would be passed to the pilot, e.g. 'engines east'. Once visual with the surface further D/F bearings could be passed to 'home' the aircraft back towards the airfield.
 
 
The Isle of Man and Manchester Communications Area
 
A new 'Communications Area' was established over the northern Irish Sea, jointly administered by Ronaldsway and Manchester Barton. A purpose designed brick control tower had been built at Barton in 1933 and is still in use today. Positions of aircraft would be plotted on a map based either on position reports from the pilots or on ground based direction finding bearings. A frequency of 363 KHz was used (by both Ronaldsway and Barton), using W/T - wireless telegraphy by means of Morse Code. (Speech Radio Telephony had been used by aircraft previously, but was largely abandoned by this time due to congestion on the very limited frequencies available). Radio equipped passenger aircraft would carry a wireless operator as it would not have been practical for the pilot to both fly the aeroplane and operate the radio. Direction finding bearings were available to assist pilots in navigation, but this would be a time consuming process as bearings were manually obtained at the ground stations before being re-transmitted to the aircraft. To keep messages short, the 'Q' code was used, most regular phrases needed being covered by a three letter code starting with the letter Q. Some of these are still used everyday in modern ATC, such as QNH - the pressure to set on an altimeter to indicate vertical distance above mean sea level and QDM - the heading to steer to reach the airfield in zero wind conditions. 
 
Communications Areas & Controlled Zones 
January 1938
The Isle of Man & Manchester
Communications Area 1938
 
Manchester Barton 1930s Control Tower in 2013
Liverpool Speke Airport 1930s Control Tower in 2009
 
As the controllers had no authority to issue compulsory instructions within the area, information on conflicting known flights would be passed together with 'suggestions' as to how the conflict could be resolved. Most pilots, if flying 'blind' in cloud would have been only too pleased to accept the suggestions!
 
The controllers didn't communicate directly with aircraft, messages from pilots were received by radio operators and transcribed onto paper message slips, colour coded according to the message type, before being passed to the controller. After considering his actions, the controller would write his reply onto another message slip and pass it to the radio operator for transmission to the aircraft.
 
 
Adcock Direction Finding Station at Red Gap, Castletown
 
A second direction finding station was established in the late 1930s to the west of Ronaldsway, using the 'Adcock' system which gave more accurate bearings during the hours of darkness. This needed to be located away from the airfield due to the four 100 ft high radio masts needed. These were arranged in a square with a quite large building in the centre, housing the wireless equipment and plotting table. This building still exists in 2012.
 
Site of the the Adcock D/F Station - 2009
D/F Operators Building
 
 
 
Adcock Direction Finding station at Pulham
Marconi-Adcock Direction Finding Receiver
 
 'Flight' Diagram of working a Controlled Zone in QBI
(Click either image below for full diagram)
Controlled Zone around aerodrome 'XEP'
'Q' codes used and instructions issued
 
A typical flight to Ronaldsway in QBI conditions
 
Some sets of message slips have survived from the 1930s and we can follow the flight of Dragon Rapide G-AFFF from 
Glasgow Renfrew to Ronaldsway on the 14th June 1939.
 
 
 ATC Watch Log entry for 14 June 1939
showing 'QBI' in force
 
The weather was poor at Ronaldsway so the Controlled Zone was in operation (QBI). Each slip represents a message sent using Morse Code between the aircraft and a ground station. Extensive use was made of the 'Q Code' to shorten transmissions.  There were 33 messages in total to get one aircraft into land! The 'ATC Diary' entry for the day indicates that QBI had been in force from 07:55. If I've worked this out correctly. pink slips are for arrival and departure messages, white slips for 'general' messages from and to the W/T station and green slips are for Air Traffic Control messages.
 
Follow the Flight
 
ATC & M/F D/F message slips for just one aircraft to enter the Controlled Zone and be 'homed' into Ronaldsway
 

ATC Developments 
Even in this period ATC was becoming overloaded with traffic and it was suggested that medium frequency radio 'beacons' were set up to allow suitably equipped aircraft to obtain their own bearings to stations using on board direction finding equipment. The equipment was bulky which meant that it was only really practical in the airliners of the day. At Croydon Airport a 'Lorenz' radio beam system was installed in 1936 to enable aircraft to approach the airport in poor visibility and descend on a safe path until the airfield appeared ahead (hopefully!) The 'beam' could be followed either aurally (through the pilots headphones or by using a special instrument. This was the for-runner of today's Instrument landing Systems. (ILS)
 
'Flight' diagram from 1935 showing the principle of the Lorenz system
 
 
 
Advert for a Lorenz receiver and indicator, made by Smith's
 
 
Wartime
On the 1st September 1939 as Nazi Germany invaded Poland, an Air Ministry air traffic controller arrived at Ronaldsway to assist in training the local staff in requirements for wartime operation. Signals now needed to be encoded before sending via radio and pilots needed to be issued with the 'colours of the day',  recognition Very lights to be fired if challenged by a fighter aircraft or a ship. With war declared on 3rd September, civil air services were cancelled and all aircraft ordered to the UK for possible impressment into military service. However, the importance of the Isle of Man air route was recognized and a limited service was re-instated from November 1939, using Dragon Rapides. All flights had to be authorized in advance, but there were often occasions when they were challenged by ships. Special routes had to be  followed into the Liverpool area to avoid the protecting barrage balloons and anti-aircraft defences. The Rapides still had civil registrations but were now painted in camouflage and had the passenger windows blacked out. Photography was forbidden.
 
Preserved DH89 Dragon Rapide G-AGJG
in wartime camouflage
 
 
Some ATC Log Book entries from September to December 1939 (click for larger)
2nd September 1939
20th November 1939
22 December 1939
 
ATC in the 1940s
 
An Island Images webpage © Jon Wornham