The Steampunk Flight Simulator That Helped Win WWII

Flight simulators are often an integral part of pilot training, allowing trainees to log hundreds of flying hours and experience in as many emergency scenarios as possible without ever leaving the safety of the ground. But while modern simulators with their advanced computerized displays and motion-simulating hydraulics may seem like a relatively recent development, the idea of replicating the experience of flight on the ground is nearly as old as manned flight itself, with the first mass-produced simulator, the Link Trainer, appearing in the early 1930s.

The brainchild of American aviator and inventor Edwin Link, the Link Trainer was a remarkably sophisticated device for its time, and was produced and used in the tens of thousands by flying schools, airlines, and air forces around the globe. The Link taught an entire generation of pilots to fly, and was one of the forgotten secret weapons that allowed the Allies to attain air superiority and victory in the Second World War.

Edwin Albert Link, Jr. was born on July 26, 1904 in Huntington, Indiana, to Edwin A. Link Sr. and Katherine Martin. In 1910 the family moved to Binghamton, New York State when Edwin Sr. bought the bankrupt Binghamton Automatic Music Company, a manufacturer of pipe organs and player pianos. Renamed the Link Piano and Organ Company, under the senior Link’s management the company flourished, its products selling well in New York and Pennsylvania and even as far as California, competing on equal terms with the more famous Wurlitzer company.

In 1918 the family separated, Katherine moving to Chicago to resume her singing career. Not wanting her youngest son to grow up in the city, she sent Edwin to live with his aunt in Rockford, Illinois. Here Edwin acquired his lifelong passion for aviation, reportedly after witnessing a troupe of barnstormers fly into town. A common sight in rural America in the interwar years, barnstormers were nomadic pilots – many of them First World War veterans – who flew from town to town putting on displays of stunt flying and offering aeroplane rides or even flying lessons to the local townsfolk. But while young Edwin was enthralled by their feats of aerial derring-do, his Father was less than supportive of his new obsession, and pressured him to attend college like his older brother George. But Edwin was firmly drawn to the practical and the mechanical, and instead enrolled in vocational training at Rockford Training High School and then Los Angeles Polytechnic High School. It was in Los Angeles that Edwin took his first flying lessons, at a small field run by none other than Sidney Chaplin, brother of legendary movie star Charlie Chaplin. Right from the start, Edwin was less than impressed by the standard training procedure of the time:

“For the better part of that hour we did loops and spins and buzzed everything in sight. Thank heaven I didn’t get sick, but when we got down, I hadn’t touched the controls at all. I thought, ‘That’s a hell of a way to teach someone to fly.’ But I made a date for the next week anyway.”

 “I had two more lessons with Sidney, and they were pretty much like the first one. He did let me put my hands and feet on the controls during the maneuvers so that I could feel what he was doing. I didn’t learn too much, however, I found out later that most of the old-time aviators, like Chaplin, started teaching their students by scaring them half to death.”

For Edwin, this was a painfully inefficient way of learning to fly – and an expensive one too, with each lesson typically costing between $25-50 ($300-$600 today). It would be nearly six years before he sat behind the controls of an aeroplane again.

At the insistence of his Father and older brother, Edwin enrolled at the Lindley Institute military school in Pennsylvania, but while he enjoyed the military life he found academic classwork dull and soon dropped out, working briefly for the Western Electric Company before landing a job at his Father’s factory. Over the next four years he travelled widely on behalf of the Link Company, installing and repairing organs and player pianos in churches, theatres, and music halls across the country.

During this time he also filed his first patent – a small vacuum for cleaning out the air holes in organs and pianos – and befriended a group of barnstormers headed by WWI ace Richard “Dick” Bennett. In 1926, he finally achieved his dream of flight when fellow pilot Alfred Stanley allowed him to solo in his aircraft.

Upon hearing of his son’s achievement Edwin Sr., rather than be impressed and offering to pay for more flying lessons, was instead furious and fired his son on the spot. Thankfully, Edwin Jr. had an ally in George Thayer, the factory superintendent, who, recognizing the younger Link’s mechanical talents, threatened to resign if little Edwin wasn’t hired back. But by this time Edwin Jr.’s heart was firmly set on aviation, and in 1928 he borrowed money from his mother to buy his first aircraft, a brand-new Cessna Model AA.

While ubiquitous today in the world of aviation, in 1928 the Cessna Aircraft Company of Wichita, Kansas had only just been incorporated, and Edwin Link Jr.’s aircraft was the very first to be delivered. Using this aircraft Link went into business flying ferry and charter flights and formed his own professional barnstorming troupe. Unlike most of his contemporaries, who drank heavily and boasted loudly of their flying abilities and wartime exploits, Link and his crew maintained a sober, professional image, Link later stating: “I wanted to promote aviation, not kill it.”

Around this time Link’s thoughts returned to the problem of teaching pilots to fly in a safe and affordable manner. He had heard of a system used by the French during the war whereby pilot trainees were introduced to the controls and basic handling of an aircraft by taxing around on the ground. Known as the “penguin system”, the technique dramatically cut down on training time by allowing students to master the basics without the stress and distraction of actual flight. Edwin began to wonder whether a device could be built to simulate the basics of flight while keeping the pilot safely on the ground. While primitive simulators like the Sanders Teacher and the Eardly-Billing Oscillator had appeared within a few years of the Wright Brothers’ epoch-making 1903 flight, none had been commercially successful, and in any case what Link had in mind was far more sophisticated.

Working out of the basement of his Father’s factory, Link spent a year building and perfecting his flight simulator, which he dubbed the “Pilot Maker.”  The device consisted of a small plywood fuselage with stubby wings and a tail containing a cockpit with a full set of controls and instruments. Drawing on Link’s intimate knowledge of organs and player pianos, the Pilot Maker was driven by vacuum pressure and used a system of valves, bellows, and pneumatic motors to make the fuselage climb, dive, roll, and spin just like the real thing. Link immediately proved the device’s effectiveness by teaching his brother George to solo after only six hours in the simulator and 42 minutes in an actual aircraft. On April 14, 1929, Link filed a patent for the Pilot Maker and established a workshop and flight school in the factory basement to build more simulators and use them to train prospective pilots. The revolutionary training course promised to teach students to fly after only 35 hours in the simulator and 2 in an actual aircraft – all for the remarkably low price of $85 (about $1300 today).

While the flying school was reasonably successful, with 100 students soloing in its first year of operation, Link found the Pilot Maker itself considerably harder to sell. Though he had hoped that the Army Air Force and the Navy would jump at such a useful training device, at first the only buyers were county fairs and amusement parks, who, as the November 1930 issue of Science and Invention explained, saw the Pilot Maker as little more than a more sophisticated mechanical hobbyhorse: “The device is the centre of attraction at the Mayfair Miniature Golf Course in Los Angeles, California, where it was first installed. Such devices would make a valuable adjunct to the multitude of miniature golf courses that now dot the country.”

Though disappointed, Link bowed to market pressure and began manufacturing Pilot Makers specifically for the amusement park crowd, with a built-in coin slot and a scoring dial that removed points every time the rider deviated from a level flight path. But soon slow sales were the least of Link’s problems, as the worsening Great Depression killed demand for organs and player pianos and forced the Link factory to close its doors. Over the next four years Link took on various jobs in order to stay afloat, including aircraft maintenance, stunt flying and parachuting, and even founding one of New York States’ first local airlines. Among his most successful schemes involved wiring lights to the bottom of an aircraft’s wings to create a giant illuminated flying billboard.

But in 1934, a major government scandal would finally give Link the opportunity he’d been waiting for, and prove the Pilot Maker’s true value to the world.

In 1920, after several years of experimental flights, the United States Post Office Department established the first regular transcontinental air mail service. At first the work was contracted out to private companies, but this arrangement soon became mired in scandal. As compensation was based on carrying capacity and not actual mail volume carried, those with stock in the air mail companies began mailing each other lead weights and other heavy objects to pump up revenues. In February 1934, fed up with allegations of corruption and price fixing, the Government withdrew the contracts and awarded them to the Army Air Corps, which, being a government department could be more tightly controlled. However, keeping a regular delivery schedule meant flying at night and in inclement weather, and the Army Air Corps had so little experience with flying on instruments that a dozen pilots were killed in accidents in the first 5 months of service alone. On February 10, Edwin Link received a call from the Army Air Corps asking for him to demonstrate the Pilot Maker at Newark airport the next day. The weather the following morning was grey and foggy, and as the hours ticked past the Army delegates assembled in the airport hangar began to realize that Link wasn’t coming. But then, a lone aeroplane suddenly burst from the fog and made a perfect landing on the runway, and from it stepped Edwin Link. Without even having seen the Pilot Maker in action, the delegates concluded that anyone who could make such a landing must know something about flying on instruments, and soon thereafter the Army Air Corps placed an order for six trainers at a cost of $3400 (about $66,000 today) each. The Link Company was back in business.

Over the next four years Link would sell hundreds more Pilot Makers – now known simply as Link Trainers – to the Army Air Corps and the Navy, as well as dozens of private airlines and flight schools. In 1935 Link secured his first international sale to Okura & Company of Japan, and was invited to travel to Japan to supervise their installation. The trip that was strongly supported by the US Government, who wanted Link to report back on Japan’s military capabilities. Link arrived in Japan only to discover one of his simulators disassembled and laid out to be photographed. Unable to do anything about it, he nonetheless carried on with the rest of the visit despite knowing that his design would be copied and he would likely never sell another unit to Japan.

During the early part of the Second World War, as the United States tried desperately to remain neutral, Link would sell simulators to many other countries who would soon become enemies, including Germany and Italy. By the time America entered the war in 1941, the Link Trainer was being used by the air forces of some 35 countries.

At this point the ANT-18, the standard Link Trainer used during the Second World War, was not merely a glorified amusement park ride but rather a sophisticated device for teaching instrument flying. In addition to being able to climb, dive, roll, and spin like an actual aircraft, the Link had a full set of instruments that behaved exactly as they would during flight. Amazingly, just like the Link Trainer’s movement, much of this simulation was accomplished not with electronics but rather pneumatics. For example, pushing the control column forward or back would let air in and out of a metal tank behind the instrument panel. The pressure inside the tank would be read by a pair of modified pressure gauges, which would give simulated values for altitude, airspeed, climb rate, and engine speed. Other instruments, like the artificial horizon and gyrocompass, worked exactly as they would in a regular aircraft, while others were slightly modified to work without the g-forces encountered in actual flight. The trainer even featured a cam-powered pneumatic system for simulating turbulence, as well as a mechanism that would throw the student into a spin if they stalled in uncoordinated flight. And to force the student to use his instruments, the Link Trainer was fitted with a hinged hood that could be lowered to cut off visibility of the outside world. The effect of all this was so realistic that one Navy trainee, finding himself in a particularly rough simulation, reportedly threw open the hood and attempted to bail out, only to break his ankle as he fell to the floor three feet below.

A short distance away from the Link Trainer sat the instructor, seated at a specially-designed desk that allowed him to monitor the progress of the student’s simulated flight. In addition to a duplicate instrument panel that displayed what the student saw in his cockpit, the desk also featured a small wheeled device called a “crab”, which rolled along in synch with the student’s movements and traced out his flight path in ink on a map. The instructor could also communicate with the student using an intercom system and simulate airport beacons, blind landing systems, and other radio signals using a specialized transmitter.

In any event, the increasing need for combat aircrew caused production to skyrocket, and Link established a new factory in Gananoque, Canada, to keep up with demand. The factory produced nearly 5000 Link Trainers over the course of the war, and at its peak one Link rolled off the assembly line every 45 minutes. The devices were widely used by the US Army Air Corps, US Navy, and the Royal Canadian Air Force, where they played a pivotal role in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, a massive undertaking wherein nearly 170,000 British Commonwealth and Empire aircrew – nearly a third of all who served – were sent to Canada to be trained. In total, more than a million Allied pilots were trained in the “blue box,” the importance of which in securing Allied air superiority was such that after the war RCAF Air Marshall Robert Leckie would declare: “The Luftwaffe met its Waterloo on all the training fields of the free world where there was a battery of Link Trainers”.

 After the war, the Link Aviation Devices would go from strength to strength, developing ever more sophisticated flight simulators including those used to train the Apollo astronauts to land on the moon. And they are still around today, having been acquired in 2000 by L-3 Communications and renamed L-3 Link Simulation and Training.

As for Edwin Link, in addition to developing simulators he also became a pioneer in deep-sea diving, developing some of the earliest ocean exploration submersibles and becoming the first diver to breathe a mixture of helium and oxygen underwater – a practice that is commonplace today. He died in Binghamton, New York on September 7, 1981 at the age of 77, his creations having taught nearly three generations of pilots how to fly.

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Expand for References

Kelly, Lloyd, The Pilot Maker, Grosset & Dunlap, NY, 1970

The Link Trainer, Aeroplane Maintenance and Operation Series, Volume 8, George Newnes Ltd, London

Taylor, John and Jim, A Link to Victory, Vintage Wings of Canada, http://www.vintagewings.ca/VintageNews/Stories/tabid/116/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/129/A-Link-to-Victory.aspx

Lipsner, Benjamin, Airmail: a Brief History, https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/airmail.pdf

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