Wireless Fitters Course - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Wireless Fitters Course

When I returned from leave I found that Sparky Wale and I were now part of course Ground Special 22, GSp22 for short. The Ground Special courses were specifically aimed at new recruits who were considered likely to cope with the syllabus by dint of their civilian technical experience or other qualifications. Sparky Wale and I were the odd ones out because we were regular airmen; all our fellow students were National Servicemen who had only just completed their recruit training course.

One day, early on in the course, Sparky and I were told to report to the Squadron Training Office where a squadron leader formally presented each of us with a Certificate of Merit signed by the Station Commander for outstanding performance on the mechanics course and we were each given immediate promotion to Leading Aircraftman with a very welcome pay rise. We were jolly proud. That squadron leader then paid us two shillings (10p) each out of his own pocket to deliver some coal to his home. Coal for domestic use was in very short supply at the time but it was not for us to question why we were shifting coal from an RAF coal dump to a private house.

The fitters  course was much more demanding than the mechanics course had been and for the first time I was forced to do evening study. I found the mathematics particularly taxing because I had only GCE O Level Maths. The rest of our fellows had at least A Level maths or equivalent qualifications from civilian technical colleges.

Alternating current (AC) theory was treated mathematically. There were frequent references to the square root of minus one and imaginary numbers when manipulating sine and cosine waves. It was fascinating stuff but took some getting used to. No longer could AC be dismissed as mere 'wiggly amps' as it had been on our mechanics course. Several of us bought personal copies of the two volumes of the  Admiralty Handbook of Wireless Telegraphy (1938 edition) because they were much better than the course notes the RAF provided us with (I think Sparky Wale had recommended them to me). Six shillings for each volume was a considerable sum for what was known affectionately as 'The 1938'. I still have mine.

There was also a little bit of electrical history at the start of our fitters  course. Up until then we had been taught that electric current flowed from positive to negative, that is from high tension to ground, which had seemed very reasonable. The negative terminal of batteries or other power supplies was always zero volts, the same as the earth - which is why it was often called 'ground'. In thermionic valve theory we had been taught that current flowed from the anode, the positive terminal, to the cathode, the negative terminal. Now we were told all that was wrong. We were introduced to the new concept of 'electron flow' whereby negatively-charged electrons emitted from the heated cathode are attracted to the positively-charged anode. What we had been taught earlier was now to be known as 'conventional current'; in future all teaching would be based on electron flow. The subject is too complicated to go into in more detail in this book but it all seems so obvious now.

Our introduction to antenna (aerial) theory was even more interesting. As we were arriving at a classroom in one of the hangars that we had never visited before, a gaggle of aircraft apprentices was just leaving. The instructor, a middle-aged civilian, was apparently tidying his bench.

"Sit down and make yourselves comfortable," he said, barely looking up at us. "I'm just tidying up after my previous class."

I found myself sitting on the end of the front row. The instructor stopped in front of me. "What's your name?"

"Cunnane, sir."

"No need to call me sir - I'm a civilian - Mr Jackson will do." He handed me a long fluorescent tube that he'd just picked up off his bench.

"Hold on to this for a minute will you, Cunnane."

When I carefully grasped the middle section of the tube it immediately crackled into life and shone brightly. We all gasped out loud - in fact I was so astonished that I almost dropped the tube onto the floor.

"You're a bright chap, Cunnane," chuckled Mr Jackson. "Sorry, poor joke but it never fails. That little demonstration, gentlemen, is your introduction to antenna propagation theory." He went on to explain that I was sitting in the narrow beam of a small dish antenna in the corner of the room that was transmitting low level radio frequencies, not harmful but just powerful enough to strike the fluorescent tube into life. So started one of the most interesting and baffling parts of the course.

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