Need and effectiveness drove the development and use of flight training devices in the UK. Walter F Ullrich tells the story.

In 1909 the French engineer and inventor Léon Levavasseur began operating his Learning Barrel at the Antoinette Flying School on the French Army’s Camp de Châlons Training Area. Only one year later, two Englishmen, Eardley Billing and Haydn Sanders, in quick succession presented their own flight training devices that were remarkably progressive for their time.

The Eardley Billing Oscillator

Eardley Billing, an aviator and aeroplane designer, was arguably the first Englishman to design and build a fixed ground-based flight training apparatus. In August 1910 he installed his Oscillator at Brooklands Aerodrome, where he gave basic flight training. In November that year his ground trainer was also exhibited at the Stanley Show in London. A few months later he built a biplane that was named after him.

Billing’s concept was to use a rudimentary aeroplane as a training device by putting it onto a rotatable and tiltable undercarriage, enabling him to teach aspiring pilots the basics of flying in the open air. He was copied, either knowingly or not, by many other constructors. His colleague Captain Haydn Arnold Sanders came out with a similar yet more sophisticated device three months later, for example. At the pilot training school in Cameri, the Italians used the “Captive Garbadini Monoplane”– an aeroplane made by the company Garbadini that was fixed to a base plate and used to teach pilots how to use the controls. And the Russians still had a full-size Yakovlev U-2 biplane mounted on wooden tripod in 1935 that taught trainees the sensations of motion by means of manual movements.

The Sanders Teacher

In October 1909, Captain Haydn Arnold Sanders, a merchant marine officer from Suffolk, made his first flight in the Sanders No 1, a biplane designed by him. The plane did not survive for long: In February 1910, Sanders hit a telephone wire and crashed the plane. Sanders himself was not hurt in the accident and he was certainly not discouraged. He took those components that were still useable from the wrecked plane and built the Sanders No 2 that he showcased in March 1911 at the Olympia Aero Show in London.

Captain Sanders would most probably have sunk into oblivion like so many other early experimenters and aviators had he not invented and built the Sanders Teacher after his crash. Thanks to a comprehensive report in the magazine FLIGHT dated December 10, 1910, we know quite a lot about this early flight training device. Sanders, who always denied that technical problems had caused his first aeroplane’s accident, had apparently recognised the importance of elementary training on the ground before a prospective aviator actually took to the air. This also led to an interesting business model that is mentioned in the FLIGHT article, namely giving training “especially to those not blessed with a long purse to reduce the risk of smashing the machine while endeavouring to learn how to control and fly it”. The second purpose addressed the more competent student who, by training on the device, learned to do the right thing in hazardous or even life-threatening situations.

The Teacher’s “open air” installation exposed the simulator to the varying forces of the wind in an almost identical manner to a working aeroplane. The Teacher was a motorless aeroplane stripped down to the bare essentials. It was fixed to the ground by a pivoted rocker so that it faced into the prevailing wind. The training device consisted of a forward elevator, two lateral ailerons and either a single- or double-planed rudder. The apparatus closely adhered to the design drawings of the real aeroplane the pupil was learning to control. These were in fact standard parts of the Sanders biplane and could be substituted if desired by the same parts of any other type of aeroplane. Thus, those who purchased a Teacher bought parts that could be used later to construct the Sanders aeroplane. This “modular” construction, however, allowed the original parts of practically any existing aeroplane to be installed, making the Sanders Teacher the first reconfigurable flight training device. Despite its pioneering design the device was not a success.

Training Military Flyers

In April 1912, the British War Office established the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). The government was alarmed by the potential of aeroplanes to drop bombs and carry out reconnaissance, something the Italians had demonstrated during the war in Tripolitania. In a comparison of the country’s aviation assets with those of other great naval and military powers Britain did not fare so well. All of a sudden, the British government rushed to build up the country’s aviation forces. The plans envisaged, among other things, seven aeroplane squadrons, each providing 12 aircraft for the RFC. The wartime mission would be reconnaissance, preventing the enemy’s reconnaissance, inter-communication, observation of artillery fire and inflicting damage on the enemy.

An essential step towards creating the new aviation force was the establishment of the Central Flying School (CFS), a joint Naval and Military Flying School at Upavon. One reason for building it there was the presence of large troops exercising on Salisbury Plain; this would offer the possibility to train military reconnaissance, which was considered to be the main mission of an aircraft in any future war.

Training for flying at CSF hardly differed from the procedure followed in private flying schools. Depending on their previous flight experience, students were divided into four categories: A, B, C and D “Flights”. The Flight A group comprised complete beginners who began with elementary training, while Flight D members, RFC officers who already had a pilot licence, practised wartime tasks. In order to get an in-depth understanding of how their aeroplane worked, students were given intensive instruction in the general principles of mechanics and engine and aeroplane construction. They also had lectures on aerial photography, as well as intensive instruction in meteorology, signalling and warship identification. Three four-month courses per year were planned with the aim of passing through 179 pilots a year. However, by 1914, the year the Great War started, Britain had only 88 trained pilots, 52 of whom were CSF graduates. It soon became apparent that the CSF’s noble objective not to “produce aviators as such, but professional war pilots” had not been achieved by a long chalk. The RFC had the highest attrition rate of all British services, with casualties quadrupling between 1915 and 1916. Many fatal losses were not even due to enemy action but to pilot error.

Some World War I experts laid the blame for the fiasco on the pre-war training, which, according to them, taught aviation technology at length but neglected to provide adequate flight training under wartime conditions. During the first two years of war more flight schools were built to speed up pilot output. While quantities increased, their level of training did not, however, improve. In April 1916, Brigadier General Hugh Trenchard, Commander of the RFC, complained that three out of the five pilots in one squadron had wrecked their machine within the first three days. He also expressed concern because hardly any British pilots were capable of operating their Lewis machine gun in combat.

Military leaders started to recognise that the aeroplane could no longer be seen as solely an observation platform; it was a weapon that could be used to achieve air superiority. Training was modified accordingly. Much more attention was paid to the quality of the instructors. Pilot training now included stunt flying, which had previously been scorned. Pilots trained airborne machine gun combat, using gun cameras in place of the guns. The exposures not only showed target kill or no kill, but also the student’s ability to fly combat manoeuvres.

The breakthrough in qualified training was finally achieved in early 1917, when Major Robert Smith-Barry, a graduate of the very first CFS course, implemented a new training method at the Gosport Flying School that employed dual-control aircraft. Now it was the trainee who primarily controlled the aircraft and the instructor interfered only in case of an emergency. In the same year, the RFC adopted what has become known as the Gosport System. General Trenchard called Smith-Barry the man who “taught the air forces of the world how to fly”. Many British pilots regarded his system as their life-saver.

Simulators, or other ground-based training equipment, did not play any role in the training of pilots of the British aviation forces. The Prussian and the Royal Bavarian Aviation Corps did experiment with ground-based simulator-like devices, for both research and cockpit and flight crew training. The Italians made systematic use of ground equipment to screen and train their future pilots. However, whether the German and Italy pilots really benefitted from the use of such simulation equipment remains questionable.

Simulation Arrives in the RAF

During the post-war years, the Royal Air Force (RAF), which had been established in April 1918 by merging the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, had to fight to preserve its status as an independent service. It was essentially due to Air Marshal Hugh Trenchard, meanwhile Chief of the Air Staff, that the RAF as such subsisted. He believed it was essential to concentrate resources on training officers and men. “It is not sufficient to make the Air Force officer a chauffeur and nothing more,” he said.

By 1936, blind flying had come to stay and instrument flying became an integral part of pilot training. This brought the first Link trainers into RAF training centres. This training device, designed by the American Edwin A. Link, provided pilots with a realistic replication of actual flying. The fuselage sat on pneumatic bellows that converted the pilot’s movements of the controls into pneumatic signals that in turn caused the trainer to turn, pitch and bank. In simulating actual flight characteristics, the trainer allowed pilots to learn or improve their flying skills without leaving the ground. As regards blind flying instruction, RAF experts estimated that 20 flight hours would be needed to turn out a pilot student competent enough to undertake instrument flights in all weather conditions. Experience gained with the Link trainer showed that at least 15 hours could comprise training on the ground. Using such equipment thus contributed to facilitating overall training without reducing quality. In the light of the growing tensions in Europe, the United Kingdom ordered several hundred trainers for the RAF. The contract called for their manufacture in the British Empire, which led to the founding of a Link Manufacturing Company in Gananoque, Canada.

In 1940, the RAF found a new use for the Link Trainer. Up until then, it had been used solely for instrument flying instruction of already qualified pilots. The new “Visual Link” Trainer was used for pre-ab initio training at the Initial Training Wings. It had an open cockpit and was surrounded by an aerial panorama of mountains, sunny countryside, littoral, smoky towns, clouds, seascape and a misty horizon. This panorama was painted to represent a flying height of 2,000 to 3,000 feet and the illumination varied to give the illusion of good or bad visibility. A top plane and centre section had been added to give the impression of sitting in a Tiger Moth. A series of valves produced the effect of bumpy weather or icing conditions. The RAF found out that after a careful course of instruction on the “Visual Trainer” pupils took far less time to become accustomed to flying an actual aeroplane.

By end of World War II, over half a million Allied pilots – many of them Brits –had qualified on Link Trainers. It is generally agreed that the different types of Link Trainers that were introduced into the RAF pilot training saved lives and money and freed men and aircraft up for combat. Marshall Robert Leckie, wartime Chief of Staff of the Royal Canadian Air Force, once said that “the Luftwaffe met its Waterloo on all the training fields of the free world where there was a battery of Link Trainers”.