It’s shaped like a stubby little aeroplane, with comically short wings and a tail. It’s not very big: inside is seating accommodation for a single occupant only. When in use, it rotates and pitches and rolls on air-operated bellows and if you’re unfamiliar with this machine you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for one of those coin-operated children’s rides you find in dreary suburban shopping centres.
Though for a while a coin-operated amusement is exactly what it was, this 90-year-old piece of technology is actually a highly sophisticated simulator. It is, of course, a Link Trainer, and last weekend, I got the chance to try one.
Edwin Link – the man who designed the machine – did so using expertise gained from his previous career as an organ builder. Hence the bellows. In 1931, the world wasn’t quite ready for the leap in sophistication that the simulator represented. That’s why for several years the only models that Link managed to sell were the aforementioned coin-operated varieties for amusement parks. But when a number of pilots were killed flying air mail in the US in the mid 1930s, the Link Trainer’s potential as an instrument flight trainer became clear. When the Second World War erupted, the little simulator truly came into its own. More than 10,000 were built; apparently at its peak one rolled off the production line every 45 minutes.
Open the logbook of any World War II pilot and you will almost certainly find that they spent considerable time in a contraption just like this one. It seems to have been the custom at Australian training schools to add an extra column in one’s logbook to record time in the Trainer on the same pages as real-life flying, but once pilots got to the UK they transitioned to what was evidently the RAF way of doing things, dedicating entire pages in the back of the book to time in the simulator and leaving the main section of the book to the real aeroplanes. But relegating time in the simulator to a forgotten section at the back of a logbook seems rather like selling it short. This little box-on-bellows played a crucial role in pilot training, allowing the realistic simulation of instrument flying and procedures, at a much cheaper cost than flying in a real aeroplane, and at virtually no risk to life and limb.
The operating Link Trainer that I had a go in is part of the excellent Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre in western Victoria. NAHC volunteers Wes and Trevor explained things as we moved around the hangar, and after looking at the Anson they have under restoration, the exquisite Wirraway parked in a corner and an airworthy Tiger Moth, eventually we ended up standing next to the trainer. We chatted here for several minutes before Trevor casually asked me if I had any flying experience.
Well, yes, I admitted. But it was a looong time ago now.
That didn’t seem to matter. “Would you like a go in the Link?” he asked me.
I didn’t have to be asked twice.
Trevor flicked a few switches on the outside of the machine while I climbed in. It took a little while for the valves to warm up – there’s nothing digital about this thing, everything’s electro-mechanical or pneumatic. I looked around the cockpit while I waited. The pilot’s seat is padded leather and the control stick is a big piece of turned wood that falls naturally to hand. My feet rested on flimsy-looking rudder pedals on the floor. In front of me was a wooden instrument panel with a standard ‘six pack’ of dials like you’d find in any aeroplane of the era, with a big artificial horizon in the middle. There was a throttle lever on the left wall of the cockpit and a compass between my knees, in the manner of a Tiger Moth or a Spitfire. There was even a Morse key mounted on the right-hand side. It was a reasonably comfortable little cockpit.
Once the instruments started indicating things, Trevor turned on the compressor that powers the simulator’s motion, released two stabilising metal strips, and I was away. The whole machine wobbled immediately, like it was floating on air – which, I suppose, on those bellows, it pretty well was. I started off carefully, with the hood open, getting a feel for how the controls moved and how the simulator responded. Before too long, though, I started pushing the envelope a bit, pitching the nose up and down as far as it would go and, somewhat more tentatively, rolling from one side to the other. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that it took me a while to realise that if I pushed the rudder pedals far enough, the Link would spin around – I later discovered that if I’d tried it, I’d have been able to rotate through a full 360 degrees.
As you will see if you watch this video, I had a grin from ear to ear. It was great fun! But it also wasn’t the point. The Link Trainer wasn’t for fun. It was a trainer, designed to allow pilots to learn and practice instrument flying so they could go flying in cloud without killing themselves. I wanted to get the full effect, so I asked Trevor if I could close up the hood. He nodded. So I did.
It was very dark under the hood (he says, obviously). The only illumination, apart from a tiny bit of light that leaked around the base of the hood, came from a pair of lights mounted on either side of the cockpit, bathing the instrument panel in a dim orange light. It was consequently not much of a challenge to concentrate on the instruments: there was nothing else to look at. With the vacuum pump running it almost sounded like a jet inside; the air flowing through the pipes made a reasonable approximation of a slipstream flowing past the fuselage. There was some ungainly wobbling, but I managed to fly something resembling straight and level for a little while, and even made some more-or-less coordinated turns. I was concentrating so hard I started sweating, but I was still grinning widely. It really did feel like flying.
Though Jack Purcell did start out on a pilot’s course, he was fairly rapidly scrubbed from that and remustered as a navigator. Presumably there was a Pilot’s Logbook that recorded his flying training but it hasn’t survived so I don’t know if he ever got into a Link Trainer. But his pilot Phil Smith certainly did, and it was towards him that my thoughts turned as I bounced around in the Link cockpit. It wasn’t much, but I could feel a distinct connection reaching back through the decades to him. For a moment, I could feel just a tiny bit of what these people experienced.
Then I opened the hood and got out again.
Thanks to my partner Rachel for the video and some of the photos in this post. She had a go in the Link too. Let’s just say I’m not a very good flying instructor and leave it at that, eh?!
The Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre is open on weekends or by appointment. See their Facebook page for the most up to date information.
© 2020 Adam Purcell