The World War II version of the trainer was no carnival ride; it was a full-fledged flight simulator. Driven by multiple sets of air-driven bellows assemblies, the simulator rotated on all three axes, and could simulate pre-stall buffeting, spins, and even landing gear over speeds. A separate instructor’s desk served to control the simulator and recorded the student’s success over an aviation chart.
So sophisticated was the trainer, and so large was its impact, that in the summer of 2000, it was recognized as a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, who noted it was “among the first mechanical devices used to simulate actual processes.”
Link sold more than 10,000 simulators during World War II. Following the war, Link’s company continued to make simulators for the military, including devices for high-performance aircraft, and they even built the lunar lander simulator for the Apollo missions to the moon.
Link is still in the simulator biz today as a division of L3 Technologies, making a portable helicopter simulator for the army that fits into two 53-foot tractor-trailers. But its products never gained traction with the general aviation market. That void would be filled by a whole different kind of flight simulator.
When Simulators Stopped Moving
In the 1970s and 80s, ATC Flight Simulator Company filled community colleges and flight schools with the iconic table top ATC-610 and 710 general aviation simulators to teach instrument flight skills to new pilots, and to help existing pilots stay proficient on their instrument skills.
These flight simulators looked like instrument panels that had been surgically removed from well-equipped general aviation trainers and wrapped in plastic cases. While they looked airplane-like — featuring the classic six pack, navigation instruments, radios and transponders with adjustable knobs, engine monitoring instruments, throttle-mixture-prop controls, and even working mag switches — and were more precise than any simulator that came before, they certainly didn’t feel airplane-like. I can still remember sitting in a folding chair “flying” one. The optional rudder pedals on the floor kept sliding away from my feet. The humming and flickering florescent lights above reminded me that I was very much NOT in an airplane. And, of course, it didn’t move.
Simulators had lost the link.
Still, the table top simulator taught me, and thousands of other trainee pilots, the basics of instrument flight safely and economically — which has always been the purpose of a flight simulator since that first one was cobbled together in the basement of the Link Piano and Organ Company.
Like the Link company, ATC is still in business today. They sell newer versions of their classic products, now with sophisticated digital imagery for a simulated view of the outside environments — as well as retrofits for their old products — but their simulators are still motionless.
In 2006 a new company called Redbird burst onto the scene with a full motion enclosed simulator for far less than the price of a typical GA training aircraft. The Link was back, and better than ever.