Excerpted from the forthcoming book, ‘All But Flying is Simulation – The Illustrated History of Flight Simulation’, by former MS&T Editor and Senior Correspondent Walter F. Ullrich. Additional excerpts will be featured in the coming months. 

I visited Airbus Training in Toulouse, France in August 2007 to gather material for an article about this extraordinary flight training facility. My official focus was on the freshly installed A380 training component, as well as the future training for the A400M transporter aircraft, but I must confess that I was even more fascinated by a strange looking wooden assembly in the entrance hall of the main building. Of course, I knew what was in front of me – I had seen it before on some vintage photos. It was a faithful copy of the legendary “Antoinette Barrel”, probably the world’s first flight simulator that truly deserved this designation.

The device on display at Airbus is extremely accurate and detailed; photos alone would not have been sufficient to achieve such a realistic reproduction. But what was the template? Since the original is presumably lost, the original design drawings only could have been the source. 

In 2014, I had the good luck to come into contact with Jean Pinet, a real heavyweight in French aviation: aerospace engineer, fighter pilot, airline pilot, test pilot, PhD in psychology-ergonomics and since 1965 member of the Concorde flight test team with Sud Aviation. In 1972, he founded Aeroformation, the independent Airbus Industries training centre, which later became Airbus Training. In Pinet’s day, the centre was earmarked to provide high-quality flight training for the most recent airplane developments. Being a historically conscious person, Pinet wanted to set up on the premises a compelling testimonial of French involvement in early flight training. “As I started myself with that complete challenging European project in the seventies, with sophisticated Concorde and A300 simulators, I decided to display the first flight simulator in the world!” Pinet explains.

And this simulator was the Antoinette Barrel!

He asked and received, from the Museum of Air and Space in Le Bourget, drawings and old photos, and had the simulator built at a local enterprise. Unfortunately, Monsieur Pinet, at the time I questioned him, could no longer recall the name of the carpenter, to whom the work had been entrusted. Nor did he remember if the borrowed drawings had been returned to the museum at all.

My further enquiry at the museum revealed that photos and illustrations of the Training Barrel still exist; the drawings, however, were untraceable. Could it be that the original work drawings of the world’s first simulator are now buried somewhere in the back drawer of a Toulouse carpentry workshop?

By the way, in 2016 Airbus donated the beautiful remake of the Antoinette Barrel to Aeroscopia, a newly set-up aeronautical museum in Blagnac near the Airbus facility. 

“…Student pilots… requested a training device”

When the Antoinette VII aeroplane appeared in the spring of 1909, it was the largest and heaviest of the monoplanes of its time. Richard Harris, a contemporary aviation expert, praised it for “its performances under adverse conditions, and for its inherent stability”. The Antoinette was the result of a cooperation between the factory owner Jules Gastambide and Léon-Marie-Joseph-Clement Levavasseur, craftsman, engineer and inventor; for example, Levavasseur patented the first V-8 engine. Since 1903 both men had fiddled together about flight machines and engines for aeroplanes – not too successfully.

The situation improved when, in 1906, Capitaine Ferdinand Ferber joined the company as engineer and technical adviser. Frustrated by the lack of support from the hierarchy, he had taken a 3-years leave from the army. In February 1909, Hubert Latham, a millionaire’s son and distant cousin of Gastambide, joined the team as pilot. Both talented and reckless, Latham almost became the first to cross the Channel – before Louis Blériot. Unfortunately, the engine of his Antoinette failed some miles off the coast. Overall, it is true to say that Ferber and Latham brought knowhow and glamour to the Antoinette Company.

During its life cycle, the Antoinette aeroplane underwent a number of modifications and improvements. The undercarriage was amended several times. The most important change, however, affected lateral control. While the older types still had ailerons, from the Antoinette VII in 1909 onwards, the airplanes were equipped upon delivery with the more effective wing-warping technology. In the course of this modification, the steering wheels on the left and the right side of the pilot’s seat were increased in diameter, which allowed a better handling. Lateral control was obtained by using the left wheel; the elevator was activated with the right control wheel. Change of direction, which in the Antoinette V still was attained by turning a third wheel – also on the left side – was now done with the feet by pressing a horizontal rudder bar in front of the pilot.

Richard Harris, a contemporary aviation expert, described the Antoinette as one of the easiest airplanes of all for the beginner in aviation. “With as few as five lessons many pupils have become qualified pilots, even winning prizes against competitors of much wider experience”, he wrote. However, this assessment cannot be the result of his own experience, probably he only passed on the promotion of the manufacturer.

In reality, the opposite was true – it took a lot of getting used to steer the machine! Turning the left wheel in the fore and aft direction for left and right side movements, and simultaneously rotating the right control wheel for the up-and-down movement was obviously not a natural sense. Potential customers were enthusiastic about the elegance of the graceful plane, but discouraged by the complex and not very intuitive flight control system.

Eventually it was student pilots, Major Georges Clolus and Lieutenant Pierre Clavenad, who requested a training device that would develop their senses and reflexes to move the control wheels the right way at the right time, on safe ground. Clavenad had been seconded by the French army to the Antoinette Flying School, while Clolus was there to acquire a pilot license at his own expense. 

On the initiative of the two officers, the Antoinette Company started building a rather peculiar training device, which was later called the “Antoinette Barrel”. In some publications, the name of a third military officer is still circulating as a co-inventor, a certain Commandant (Alex) Laffont. Even the label that was placed next to the simulator in the Airbus training lobby specifically named this officer. However, something has got mixed up over the years. None of the volumes of the French magazine L’Aérophile of the years 1909-1910 that list virtually all graduates from French flight schools shows any Commandant (or Major) Laffont. 

In reality, the person is Alexandre Laffont, an engineer from the Antoinette Company. Laffont, graduate of the School of Arts and Crafts of Aix-en-Provence, who had been with Antoinette Flying School from its beginnings in February 1909. Like many other members of the Antoinette staff, Laffont had to learn flying for subsequent employment as a flight instructor. 

He had started his training as pilot together with the two officers, and now, based on his own experiences, and the input of his fellow students, he designed and assembled a practicable flight instruction instrument. The officers insisted on a fast solution, to be realized on a best-effort basis, and using the means that were at hand. It was Major Clolus who came up with the idea to use a barrel cut into two.

Thus, within weeks only, Laffont put together the world's first “Flight Simulator” that actually deserved this designation. His work is all the more praiseworthy, since he had no model for it. His archetype of training device is, in principle, still valid today; the only difference – he used muscles for motion, whereas nowadays we apply hydraulic or electric power!

Alexandre Laffont’s role as inventor of the training barrel as well as his position at the Antoinette Flying School has frequently been overlooked, most probably because of his speedy but very short career. In June 1910, he earned his pilot licence; only a month later he was promoted to chief instructor – his predecessor Charles Wachter had died in a plane crash. Yet, the talented test pilot and flight engineer met the same fate only some months later – he fatally crashed in December 1910. The photo showing Laffont sitting in the cockpit of the Antoinette Barrel appeared in the French magazine, Lectures pour tous, in January 1911 – three weeks after his death. The caption explicitly names him as inventor of the Antoinette Barrel.

Antoinette Airbus.jpg

Replica of the Antoinette Barrel at the Airbus training facility in Toulouse, France. Image credit: Walter F. Ullrich.

Simulators Become Part of the Training

The Training Barrel that Laffont had conceived consisted of two half barrels on top of each other. On the upper one was the pilot’s seat with a steering wheel on either side, identical to those of the real aeroplane. They served to control pitch and roll. To swivel in yaw, the trainee pressed his feet on a rudder bar. In front of him was a reference bar, which he was required to line up with the horizon. The bottom half barrel, on which the whole system rested, was in a state of unstable balance. It was mounted on a swivel head and moved in pitch, roll and yaw by three instructors, one for each axis, with the help of long rods. These movements represented the disturbances the pilot would encounter in the air. In order to stabilize the flight, the trainee had to counter-steer immediately with the right amount of force. Thus, he gradually got familiar with the delicate manoeuvres required for flying the Antoinette monoplane. 

Actual training with the barrel started in May 1910; and it was not only the French officers who benefited from the training tool! An article titled “Conquering a pilot's licence” gives some insight into how pilot training functioned in those early years. As an average, it took three months of training to obtain a pilot licence. In 1910, the Antoinette Flying School in Mourmelon utilised two two-seater training aircraft. This was barely sufficient for the 22 flight students that were, for example, registered at the school in October 1910. Flying hours were in great demand. And, although the flight instructor flew from dawn to dusk almost uninterruptedly, demand regularly exceeded resources. It was the Antoinette director, Jules Gastambide, who allocated the live flying training hours to the pilot aspirants.

It seems that the training barrel was a well-accepted exercise tool to fill the gaps between real flying hours. Another photo shows the instructors giving a good shaking to the novice sitting in the simulator. The caption reads: Turn Over Station! But it was not just joking. The flight student learned how to deal with the extreme flying conditions: “In real life, he might experience even worse,” explained one flight instructor. This image, to my knowledge, is the only one that shows the Training Barrel in motion, demonstrating its extraordinary freedom of movement.

At the end of this chapter, one question still remains. Why did they install into the Antoinette aircraft such a complicated control? In his book, “Building Aeroplanes for Those Magnificent Men", published in 1965, Air Commodore Allen H. Wheeler gives an explanation. Wheeler worked with the crew of the "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" movie and was involved in building and flying replicas of five historical airplanes, among them the Antoinette. “One of the errors made in constructing the Antoinette replica lay in using a normal 'joystick' control lever for the lateral control,” he writes. Very rapidly the engineers responsible for the replica returned to using the large control wheel and the small drum, irreversibly winding and unwinding the cables that controlled the warping of the wings – it just proved to be safer.

And this is how it worked. Around a drum that was fixed on the same axis as the steering wheel, a cable was wrapped. When the wheel was turned, the two ends of the cable wound and unwound, and, via a lever mechanism, rotated a cogwheel. The gear in turn, moved a chain from one side to the other, thus pulling downwards one outer wing portion, while it allowed the other to rise. A clockwise rotation of a steering wheel resulted in a control deflection to the left or up.

The Antoinette control system still had another advantage. Due to its “irreversibility”, the control always remained in the last position, allowing the pilot to release his hand from the lateral control wheel to do other jobs. Moreover, external influences such as gusts had less direct impact on the control mechanism. An anecdote reports that in 1909, during a sales campaign for the Antoinette in Berlin, Hubert Latham proved the simplicity and safety of his flying machine by letting both hands off the steering wheels to light cigarettes or to take photographs.

Incidentally, Wheeler also found the probable cause for some fatal crashes, including that of Laffont. Several Antoinettes had lost their wings in the air, following a phenomenon that in the old days, had been described as 'trampling'. In fact it was a runaway of the lateral warping control that happened in gusty conditions, when the control cables were not tight enough. If “trampling” continued too long it could finally result in a collapse of the rigging and loss of wings. Better pre-flight checks in order to prevent the control cables to get slack, would have solved the problem.

Despite everything, the Antoinette wasn’t that bad an aircraft. Yet, the control of the bird was definitely an engineer’s solution – not that of an aviator! From Wheeler’s point of view it was very reasonable that back in 1910 the designer had found it advisable to provide a 'flight simulator' for the students. Alexandre Laffont, the inventor of the Training Barrel, certainly would not have imagined that his device, which was virtually born out of an acute need, should become the first landmark in flight simulation.