This weekend, pilots will take to the skies for the Frontiers in Flight airshow at McConnell Air Force Base. Modern day pilots can learn flight simulation with computers, but for pre-WWII pilots, their means were much more primitive.
In a corner of the Kansas Aviation Museum sits what looks like an airplane carnival ride. The “Link Trainer” is credited with teaching half a million pilots to learn to fly in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
“Initially it really didn’t take off that well however at that time, the army air core was flying the air mail routes and they were losing flyers, they were losing pilots,” KAM executive director Teresa Day said.
Edwin Link created the “Link Trainer” in the late 1920s. The son of an organ factory owner, Link used his knowledge of organ pipes, valves and bellows to create the moving-base simulator.
“Pilots would be disoriented at first, students would be disoriented and probably got air sick or simulator sick…in this trainer you would learn to ignore those feelings and just fly on the instrument, and that saved a lot of people’s lives because the early air mail pilots were crashing and dying,” KAM volunteer and retired aerospace engineer Jim Hammer said.
Hammer’s father learned flight on a Link trainer in the 1940s as part of the army air core, later becoming an instructor. Hammer enjoys performing maintenance on the KAM Link trainer, even calling it “an honor.”
An instructor at a nearby desk could control turbulence and crosswinds with a joystick, letting pilots get flying experience without ever leaving the ground.
Hammer estimates there are hundreds of Link trainers in people’s barns across the country, but only two to three besides the one at KAM are in working order.
“Something like the Link trainer would have to had to have come along in order for aviation to evolved because before the Link trainer, there was no way to learn to fly in the clouds without actually doing it,” Hammer said.
The Link trainer is often referred to as the “blue box” because the simulators were painted blue and yellow.
Children are allowed to “fly” the Link trainer at KAM when Hammer is volunteering.