Revolutionising Flight Training: Think Possible And The Link Trainer. How One Man Changed the Game
This is a story of a man, the concept of Think Possible and an unshakable goal.
A few years ago, while in Dubai, I was able to enjoy one of my passions. That of flying, but in a slightly different way.
As a regular business traveller pre-Covid, I had often climbed onboard an Emirates A380. Whether from Heathrow heading for Malaysia, Singapore or Indonesia via Dubai or for business in Dubai, I knew my way around the economy and business class cabins on these iconic aircraft.
And while I love flying in any form, getting into the cockpit was really where it’s at for an aviation enthusiast like me. But that opportunity as a passenger almost completely disappeared after the terror attacks of 9/11.
However, I discovered The Emirates A380 Experience and what an experience it was.
But that is not what this story is all about. It did, however, get me thinking.
Where did simulators come from?
Who was the genius that grabbed the idea and was determined enough to make it work? Who was this person with a Think Possible mindset?
To find out, we have to go back to the 1920’s and 30’s to understand how pilots were trained and what challenges they faced.
Today, pilots need to be licenced and regulated to fly legally, but back then, there was no licencing for pilots and regulation was only just coming together. It literally was the wild west.
This was the famous era of the barnstormers who flew as close to the edge of their flimsy aircraft as possible to entertain crowds and make some cash.
It was also a time when pilots learned the very rudimentary basics of flying and navigation before taking to the skies and in many cases, carrying passengers. And there were obviously many crashes and fatalities.
However, there were a few aviators who thought more carefully about their flying and how it could be made safer for the pilots and the passengers. One man, in particular, stands out and he typifies the Think Possible mindset!
Edwin Albert Link
That man was Edwin Albert Link, the son of an entrepreneur, who grew up in Binghamton, New York. And it was while working in his father’s piano and organ business, that Edwin Link learned about valves, suction, bellows and compressed air. These would all come in handy later in 1929.
Link had learned to fly in the early 1920’s at great cost and began barnstorming, charter flying and giving lessons as he earned a meagre living with the very first Cessna ever delivered. But then the depression hit the US and other countries and flying lessons became a really costly experience.
Edwin came up with an idea to shorten flying lessons and to make it less expensive. And so, working in the basement of his father’s factory, he developed what came to be known as the Link Trainer. And this very strange but practical contraption would change how pilots were trained forever.
What he developed was the very first, practical simulator in which pilots could become comfortable with the pitch, roll and feel of flying as the values, bellows and electric motors moved the simulator as the pilot worked the controls.
Other inventors, like Elmer Sperry who invented the artificial horizon and the gyroscopic compass, Paul Kollsman who invented the altimeter and the Bell Telephone Company with their radio receiver, had developed instruments which enabled pilots to fly in all weather conditions or in darkness. The early versions of instrument flying.
So the problem was not the technology but rather the lack of pilot experience with the technology and that is where Link realised his trainer could fill the gap. Pilots would be able to practice using those instruments and fail without the cost of their lives and the destruction of their aeroplanes.
Now, with hindsight, you would have thought this simulator would literally fly off the shelf as the military and civil aviation saw its potential to save lives and reduce the risk of flying and you would be completely wrong.
Despite the possibilities the trainer held for the aviation world, no one was interested and Link ended up with his first sales being to amusement parks and fairgrounds as an amusement ride.
That was until a series of accidents and a scandal propelled the Link and his little trainer into the military’s orbit and what followed is where possibility became reality.
The Air Mail Scandal
In the US, air mail operations had begun with the Army Air Corps flying regular mail trips between New York and Washington DC, until the Post Office pilots took over this dangerous service in 1919. But of the first 40 pilots flying the regular trips now nationwide, 3 died in 1919 in the first year of operations and a further 9 in 1920.
Flying the mail became a daytime-only occupation and planes would land at night for the mail to be transferred to trains for the nighttime leg of the journey. In the morning, it was again loaded onto the aeroplane for the daytime leg.
This did improve over the succeeding years and night flying was becoming routine. By 1927 however, Congress had turned airmail operations over to private contractors as part of their desire to grow the commercial side of flying. This, again over time, turned into a massive political scandal for the Hoover administration officeholders despite them already having left office a year previously.
This scandal and its fallout led to the Army Air Corps again taking up the route and the delivery of mail.
And this is where the mud really hit the fan.
Commercial contract holders were flying the mail in the most modern planes available at the time, like the Boeing Model 40. Aircraft fitted with the latest navigational aids, flight instruments and radios.
The Army Air Corps by contrast had about 500 mostly light and manoeuvrable fighters which were designed for combat in daylight and in good weather, like the Boeing P-12 Pursuit aircraft. They also had around 1000 trainers and special-purpose aircraft. Nothing that really suited for the purpose.
Added to this most of the 250 pilots assigned to this project had less than 2 years of flying experience, with only 31 having night flying experience, which is when they needed to fly the mail!! This is despite the assertions of the commanding General.
A series of attempts to upgrade the aircraft with directional gyros, an artificial horizon instrument and radios, were made, but mechanics needed experience installing the equipment and the pilots found them practically useless and did not trust them anyway.
So instruments they did not trust or were badly positioned, aircraft that were unsuitable and pilots who were not training to fly at night or in bad weather. It sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.
And happen it did.
First, 2 aeroplanes crashed in bad weather, killing the pilots and the following day, an amphibious aircraft sank and a passenger drowned. This was followed 10 days later by a further 3 pilots and 1 mechanic being killed in air crashes all of which seemed preventable.
The Link Trainer
With this as a backdrop, the Army Air Corps sought a solution and found it in the Link Trainer. They bought 6 of them and by the end of the Second World War, Link had delivered 6241 trainers to them and a further 1045 to the Navy. 35 other countries also bought Link Trainers to train an estimated 500000 pilots during the war!
The Link Trainer was the first true simulator. It changed the way pilots were trained to fly and its successors have been used by airlines and Air Forces all over the world to perfect pilots’ skills in all sorts of conditions without risk to an aircraft or to the people onboard.
Edwin Link knew it was possible to train pilot better. He used his understanding as a pilot and the experience he had gained in his father’s factory to make that training possible.
He overcame all the initial scepticism in his project, waited for the circumstances to be right and then walked through the door as it opened.
And that is what a Think Possible mindset is. You will have to fight through the challenges. You may have to wait for the time to be right. You may suffer some setbacks, but if it is possible, then go through and see it become a reality.
I can’t find any evidence which points to Edwin being dyslexic or having ADHD, but that should not disqualify him from being an example of the Think Possible Mindset. His out-of-the-box thinking should inspire you to be bold, innovative and inventive in your thinking.
It should also inspire you, not to be held back by the past. Past successes and past failures.
So have bold thoughts of what is possible in your business, create a plan, and work like crazy to see it become a reality.