A Brief History of Flight Simulators

Putting an inexperienced trainee pilot in the air can be a dangerous prospect. Even with an experienced instructor at the controls, it is far better that a trainee get experience with the aircraft before they ever take to the skies. Flight simulators, capable of replicating the experience of flying an aircraft, are therefore an excellent way to introduce trainees without putting them in the air. In this blog, we will review a brief history of the flight simulator.

The first form of flight simulator was for aircraft gunners during World War 1. Gunners were trained in deflection shooting, and how to account for the travel time of the bullet between them and their target by aiming ahead of the enemy and leading the target. To develop this skill, gunner trainees would be placed on a trailer attached to a truck and execute drive-bys on stationary targets. 

The best-known early flight simulator is the Link Trainer, developed by Edwin Link in 1927. Dissatisfied with the amount of flight training available, Link invented a ground-based device, a pneumatic motion platform driven by inflatable bellows that simulated pitch and roll cues, while a vacuum motor rotated the platform to simulate yaw. Inside, a generic replica cockpit with working instruments , pilots were allowed to fly by instrument in a safe environment. While flight schools and the US Army Air Force were initially uninterested, their view soon changed in 1934, when the Army Air Force was contracted by the government to fly postal mail. This included flying in poor weather conditions, which AAF pilots were not prepared for. After several pilot fatalities, the USAAF purchased several Link Trainers to be better prepared.

World War 2 was when the simulator truly broke through, however. With the surging demand for pilots, over 10,000 Link Trainers were produced to train over 500,000 new pilots for the United States and her allies. Almost all USAAF pilots were trained in a Link Trainer. 

Modern flight simulators take several forms. Cockpit procedures trainers (CPT) are used to practice basic cockpit procedures, such as processing emergency checklists, and to familiarize trainees with the cockpit itself. Some systems may be simulated or not, and the aerodynamic model of the simulated aircraft is generic, if present at all.

The most advanced simulators, as classified by the Federal Aviation Authority, are Full Flight Simulator Level D. FFS Level D simulators are mounted on hydraulic actuators that can simulate all six degrees of freedom, and feature fully enclosed cockpits with multiple mounted screens, with projected terrain and weather for a simulated flying environment. Along with a fully accurate aerodynamic model for the simulated aircraft, this allows for as realistic a flying experience as there can be, without actually taking off.


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