Wilbur Wright, Model Railway Layouts and Air Traffic Control Signals
As told by George Englefield-Bishop
As I mentioned I was going to write next about a model railway until I saw the pics of Wilbur Wright's layout. Wilbur was an interesting character; he seemed to go out of his way to create the impression that he was more interested in his train set than matters RAF.
He usually to be found in his office toying with the latest addition to his rolling stock, he was also well known for haunting Tech Wing stores late at night for
materials to build his layout.
But first let me add what I know about the ATC HQ model 00 gauge railway that was the envy of Wilbur Wright. It was in a large room in the SW corner of the basement of Flying Wing HQ it was not assembled on 'tables fold flat' but, with SATCO's permission, on the large red and white painted boards that were stored there for use on the 'Signal Square'. The layout was owned by one of the OPs clerks and must have included just about every item Märklin listed in their catalogue, a lot of it was I think purchased direct from the factory and it would have been such a big order they may still have records. I would say at a guess it easily covered three times the area of Wilbur's and needed four people to operate it fully, it was also fully automated and could be safely operated in this mode, with any number of main line and goods trains all running at once, the trains on the main line for example would operate the signals as they approached a junction and these signals in turn would stop any approaching train until the main line was clear the signals reset and any trains stopped would automatically restart. The Engine Shed, Turntable, level crossing gates, coupling and uncoupling of rolling stock, the Marshalling yard and the making up of trains could all be operated or done by remote control. This 'Train Set' was a great favourite of visitors to the Tower and was proudly shown off by the SATCO almost as if it was his. It goes without saying that it also had all the usual line side furniture, landscaping, tunnels etc. whilst Wilbur was envious it was a friendly rivalry and they did cooperate unfortunately I don't Wilbur think he could match this chaps financial recourses, lets face it with enough money having the biggest was no problem. He had originally signed on for the maximum time and still had most of it to serve when he decided to 'buy himself out' it took a while for the RAF to decide how much this would cost and did not turn a hair at what must of us in those days would consider a small fortune, the only thing that worried him was getting his railway system back safely to England, he actually put off finalising the termination of his RAF service until a solution could be found. This happened in an unexpected way when a Sabre had an explosion whist in flight, it got down safely but with a hole in its fuselage, the 'Official' story was that it was a gas bottle had blown up but word got around camp that sabotage was suspected, whatever it was the plane was kept under wraps and arraignments were made for the hire of a 'Box Car' to take the entire plane back to the UK for forensic examination. Being in OPs he had forewarning of the Planes arrival and managed to persuade the pilot to take his railway as well as the Sabre, the additional weight was not a problem.
But these comments about Wilbur give, I think, a false impression, he had business contacts, I believe he was a partner but may be wrong, with a German manufacturer of Intacom equipment, he even managed to persuade the RAF to buy some, the firm had a name similar to UltraVox or AmpliVox but cannot remember exactly.
If it had not been for Wilbur Jever would not have had the Control Tower when it did, the base was on 48hr standby at this time and
the "control Tower" was in a large green caravan parked by the west end of Flying Wing HQ, because of the 48hr standby this had to be kept fully operational and
no equipment could be removed from it to equip another Control Tower.
Building the first floor extension over the existing office was apparently not a problem but finding the equipment for it was a different matter, presumably the budget
did not stretch that far. Wilbur solved this problem his own way, he commandeered a truck and a driver and did a tour of several RAF bases, it is said he bluffed his way onto these and "liberated" the stores needed using some rather "dodgy" requisition forms not revealing that he was from another base. By this means our nice new Tower got equipped, word of this new Tower got around and some while later the AOC decided he would like to see it, for a while Wilbur was extremely worried that some awkward questions might be asked but he was very relieved when it all went well in the end and everyone was congratulated on a fine job.
Because of the need to be mobile at short notice all sections on the base had too run periodic convoys exercises, and it must have been in '55 that Wilbur organised a Signals convoy that turned into a bit of a disaster, the very smart buildings that housed the main station transmitters and receivers were just big garages housing truck loads of transmitters, receivers and generating gear, all you had to do to get mobile was unplug them from the mains open the doors and drive away.
In the receiver station there was a very large truck that looked like something out of WW1, the type that had spoke wheels and solid rubber tyres and a cab you could literally walk around in. No one would blame Wilbur for putting this truck at the head of his convoy, you always put the slowest vehicle at the front and it certainly looked the part. There was no problem until Wilbur who had been leading the convoy, in a jeep he had acquired from some where, decided he wanted to go back down the line and see how things were going, this was when he made his mistake. He gave a direct order to the driver of this very ancient looking truck to "go as fast as you can" whilst he went back to inspect the convoy.
One cannot blame the driver for putting his foot down he was only doing as he was ordered, unfortunately this truck was a lot faster than it looked, I spoke to driver
afterwards and he said it would top 90mph. He was OK because he knew the route unfortunately the vehicle behind him was the slowest, soon got left behind and not knowing the route took a wrong turning and it and the following vehicles got thoroughly lost. By the time Wilbur returned from his tour of inspection the convoy had fragmented and gone off in several different directions, and reassembly was impossible. At least one vehicle was so badly lost it only got back three days later the crew half starved because they didn't have any money. For a while afterwards Wilbur went round like a character from Alice through the Looking Glass mumbling "O my court marshal". I do not know what if any action was taken but he seemed to survive. The worrying thing was that these trucks contained the station's main transmitter and receiver gear, luckily for Wilbur enough gear got back before it was needed so there weren't any serious problems on this score.
On 21Aug09 Dick Endecott adds the folowing to the tales:
For irrelevant reasons I was looking at the Jever website yesterday and noted the remarks about the model railway layout in the basement of FWHQ that apparently put Wilbur Wright's layout in the officer's mess attic well into the also-ran group.
My recollection is now a misty past one but is somewhat different from the one described on the website. My only need to go into this basement normally was to attend to a set of batteries that needed to be charged from time to time. I am not sure what they were for but they probably powered the VHF 4-channel radio in Wg Cdr West's office. The charger and batteries were in a damp (more accurately wet) room without any windows and light fittings that had crumbled into rust a long time previously.
As well as batteries and a charger the room and most of the rest of the basement was home to about 10 million mosquitoes. After 5 minutes checking SG and acid levels my face and hands would be covered in mozzy bites.
As I remember, the area to the south facing the airfield had small windows and a significant amount of natural light and was where one of the ops clerks had started to set up a model railway layout. I have been trying to remember the fellow's name for the past 24 hours but except that it probably began with 'M' it has escaped me. However what I do know is that he was a national-service man and his father was a serving wing commander. I suspect that his 24 shillings a week pay wouldn't buy much model railway and he probably received an allowance from his parents. Independent income was further evidenced when he was rejected by a young lady named Inge (pronounced like 'finger' without the 'f') and he could afford to drown his sorrows in the NAAFI bar and elsewhere.
There may have been two railway layouts running in parallel or series but neither can have been in a healthy environment.
On a different aspect I noted the remarks about Wilbur's efforts to scrounge the hardware he needed to equip the control tower without cannibalizing the Ford Koln truck that was used previously. In fact the hardware required that could not be drawn directly from stores was not great and could probably be requisitioned as essential spares if signed for by a high enough rank. Perhaps the most difficult parts to get was a rack of line amplifiers that boosted the speech coming from the radio receivers over phone wires to a level to drive the loudspeakers. These could have been bought in Tottenham Court Road at that time for about a fiver but, as they could be removed easily in a few minutes and replaced in the truck, it wasn't a practical problem.
I also noted some remarks about the infamous 'Ultravox' speech communication system. I think the person responsible for purchasing this was several steps higher up the line than Wilbur. I believe this kit was supplied to stations all over 2nd TAF and purchased by someone gullible enough to listen to a fast-talking German salesman. Stories came through to us at 'erk' level that on other stations Ultravox kit had been dumped in a corner and left to rot. There were two problems with Ultravox. One was that acoustic feedback between the microphone and the loudspeaker made working at high volume in noisy conditions impossible. We did a great deal of experimenting before attempting to install and discovered that it would just work if the unit was placed 2 inches above the work surface hence the wooden blocks you will note in my photos above. Naturally the instructions for setting up the kit were in German and the controls for balancing out the feedback could only be adjusted with the baseplate removed resulting in considerable time wastage and trial-and-error adjustment. The other very practical problem was that interconnection between two units required 5 wires. Use beyond the ATC building would have required 3 pairs of telephone wires so this was considered a no-no for various reasons (one reason being that I believe some wires carried a voltage of about 100V). I think we installed 4 units that all radiated from the SATCO's desk.