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The Gosport System: Robert Smith-Barry and Pilot Training

The Avro Biplane – pictured at Gosport – was Barry-Smith’s preferred aircraft
for instruction as it was easy to fly so the pilots could concentrate on
learning tactics. This is from Landowne Album 3.

Training pilots to fly planes – at first for reconnaissance and then for fighting – was a dangerous and haphazard affair; of the 14166 pilots killed, over half died in training. By mid 1916 there was a dangerous shortage of pilots. The Royal Flying Corp (RFC) training programme taught pilots to fly but not to fly in battle or attack. Major Robert Smith-Barry constantly asked General Trenchard (head of the RFC in France) to let him try a new, more rigorous training programme.

It wasn’t until late 1916 that Major Robert Smith-Barry was allowed to revolutionise pilot training by trialling a new programme at Gosport Airfield. Smith-Barry argued that pupils should have as much time at the controls as possible and not start by simply watching the instructor. He thought that they must also learn how to fly in dangerous conditions, be able to get out of a spin and learn to take the right action with engine failures, stalls and hazards. A spin was the plane going round in a flat circle and thought impossible to get out of. Smith-Barry heard of Major J. A. Chamier, a RFC pilot, and another New Zealand pilot Capt. R. Balcombe-Brown who had both got out of spins. When Balcombe-Brown visited his squadron (No. 60) in France, he found out that Balcombe-Brown could get in and out of a spin at will, he then tried it himself and taught other pilots to master the spin: 

Keith Lansdowne describes this as a ‘D.H.2 crash after a spin.’

The words ‘danger and nerves’ must no form part of the instructor’s vocabulary.  Nothing that a pupil may do in the air is dangerous, if he knows what he is doing and what the results will be.  Almost all accidents are the result of ignorance, and if, instead of telling the pupil that a manoeuvre is dangerous, he is taught to do it, his instinct of self-preservation will do the rest. (Smith-Barry)

This 3 week intense method of encountering every difficulty in the air and knowing the aircraft intimately was put into practice at Gosport. After a few months and observations of the difference the method made to pilots’ ability to tackle hazards, General John Salmond – Smith-Barry’s commanding officer – recognised the value of Smith-Barry’s system. A School of Special Flying was founded at Gosport with Smith-Barry as lieutenant-colonel and all flying instructors elsewhere were required to attend this training. Smith-Barry’s paper ‘General Methods of Teaching Scout Pilots’ was distributed across the RFC. Croydon as the training site for London, and the other training airfields, soon followed this methodology from August 1917 until the end of the war.

Landing in a tree with the pilot climbing down a long ladder

Smith-Barry developed the ‘Gosport tube’, which allowed the instructor to talk to the pilot whilst in flight, which we saw in the RAF Museum.
Using dual control flying, the pupil sat in the front cockpit and received guidance from the instructor behind him. Smith-Barry wrote that:

“For dual control, speaking tubes are now being fitted. Up to now it has been necessary to stall the machine to make a momentary conversation possible. This has, however, given a useful indication of the pupil’s nerve. . . “(Smith-Barry)

Crashes still happened, a great deal, but Smith-Barry also taught pilots the safest way of landing a plane in the worst circumstances so there were less fatalities.


Robert Smith-Barry, General Methods of Teaching Scout Pilots (1917)
Horatio Barber, How to Fly a Plane: The First World War Pilot’s Manual (repr. 2014)
Joshua Levine, On a Wing and a Prayer: The Untold Story of the Pioneering Aviation heroes of World War One, In Their Own Words (2008)
‘Robert Smith-Barry’, Obituary, Flight, 5 May 1949

By Lorraine Gray

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