The Problem

The Spitfire was a magnificent fighter, one which still kindles the imagination and awe in this age of fast jets. However, its spectacularly pleasing design had a few drawbacks. The aircraft had a very long nose, thanks to the powerful in-line Rolls-Royce Merlin engine it employed. When taxiing, or more importantly landing, the nose got in the way of the pilot's vision. While taxiing, the pilot would merely work the rudder pedals to weave slightly side-to-side and obtain the view ahead until, during the take-off run, the tail of the aircraft would rise and give an unobstructed view ahead.

On the landing approach however, things were not quite so easy. At lower airspeeds, the angle-of-attack had to be steeper to prevent stalling, meaning that a nose-high attitude needed to be maintained. The position of the wings on the Spitfire also meant that the downward view from the cockpit was quite poor when in level flight. During daylight hours, this could be overcome by briefly altering the aircraft's attitude, but at night doing so even briefly to view the landing lights could be both dangerous and impractical. Compounding the restricted forward visibility caused by the aircraft's structure, the glare from the six (later twelve) engine exhaust stubs also tended to drown out the pilot's view of the standard runway approach lights. This glare equally affected Hurricane pilots.

The Solution

The RAF Drem Station Commander in 1940 was Wing Commander "Batchy" Atcherly, who personally addressed this problem, and devised a revolutionary new system. Essentially, it involved mounting shrouded lights on poles 10 feet high at dispersed designated positions around the airfield in a particular pattern. These lights were only visible to aircraft in the circuit, and could be dimmed sufficiently to render them invisible to attacking enemy aircraft.

A circle of lights was laid out around the field, the radius being 2000 yards from the centre. A pilot would fly his landing circuit around this circle of lights, until he saw the flare path lights on the runway which were so mounted as to be only visible to aircraft on the approach. All these lights were on poles and specially angled to be seen only at the correct position. They were also hidden where possible, in hedges and bushes, to make them inconspicuous to enemy reconnaissance. At the runway ends, lights were also mounted on poles 10 feet high, with only the runway flare path being at ground level. When used in conjunction with special baffles fitted to the aircraft exhausts, the system virtually solved the glare problem, as pilots could see the lights at oblique angles instead of just dead ahead. The pattern was also specially designed to allow for Spitfire blind spots.

Atcherly's lighting arrangement was simple and worked well in operation. It certainly made landing fighters at night vastly safer. The Air Ministry was so impressed with the Drem Lighting System that they made it standard at all RAF stations, and in due course it was improved upon and perfected.

This diagram shows the Drem Lighting System. The Outer Circle, Funnel Lights and Runway Flare Path are all white lights. The inner circle with blue lights is the taxiway. At each end of the runway are Totems, either showing white lights (far-end of runway) or red lights (near-end of runway). These indicate landing direction. At the near-end of the runway is the Glide Path Indicator, which shows Amber/Green/Red, depending on whether an approaching aircraft is Too High/Correct Glide Slope/Too Low. A white double-flare and two amber lights on the left hand side of the active runway were distance indicators.

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