IN 1941 LIEUTENANT COMMANDER CHARLES COKE RN finished a tour of duty as Air Signals Officer on the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal – where part of his duties were directing fighters from the carrier to intercept enemy aircraft during the Norwegian Campaign in 1940.
Soon after he was discussing what and where his next job might be and remarked that some kind of formal training could be useful for future Fighter Direction Officers.
His idea struck a note with the Admiralty.
His next posting was to establish a training school and its teaching syllabus at HMS Heron (also known as Royal Naval Air Station, Yeovilton). He devised a three-week training course of theoretical and practical exercises.
However one of the problems that he encountered was a large one. The Fleet Air Arm – the Royal Navy’s air component – didn’t sufficient aircraft available for his training school.
So he devised an ingenious solution.
Civilian tricycles of the type used by ice cream vendors were brought to the Air Station and were fitted with a wooden screen, curtain, aircraft compass and radio equipment and a metronome to govern the speed at which the ‘pilot’ of the trike – following instructions from the student Fighter Direction Officers (FDOs) and using their compass – pedalled to intercept the target.
The wooden screen on the front of the tricycle was designed to limit vision so that the ‘enemy’ could only be seen when the target had been successfully acquired after following the directions given and using their navigation skills.
The students were based in the airfield control tower and using a polar grid – a series of concentric circles centred on a common point and with a series of lines passing through it denoting angles – computed the compass direction and speed to bring about a successful intercept. This information was communicated to the ‘pilots’ who pedalled accordingly.
The first course was run in July 1941. (1)
It seemed likely that a various scenarios were practised – although the more often described appears to be for two tricycles – one playing the enemy and the other a Royal Navy aircraft – being used.
WRNS (members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service) were also trained and there appears to have been much competition between the men and women ‘pilots’. (2)
(1) https://ethw.org/The_Beginnings_of_Naval_Fighter_Direction_-_Chapter_5_of_Radar_and_the_Fighter_Directors – retrieved 26 August 2019
(2) https://issuu.com/navynews/docs/199708/17 – retrieved 26 August 2019