A Brief History Of Flight Simulators

A Brief History Of Flight Simulators

Full Motion Flight SimulatorFlight Simulators are devices which provide a safe, controllable environment that represents the flying experience, with very high accuracy and significantly less economical and safety costs than real aircraft. Artificially recreating aircraft flight, as well as the flying environment (air density, turbulence, wind shear, cloud, etc) gives pilots in training valuable experience without the risks presented by actual flight, as well as being highly beneficial for research and design of new, improved aircraft.




The Beginning

Since there have been aircraft, there has been the need for flight simulators. The first was essentially just a structure; two barrel halves, one placed on a pedestal and the other representing a swinging cockpit. The pilot sat in the upper half-barrel, which was moved manually and then had to control various flight attitudes. During the First World War, ground-based simulators were developed to teach pilots spatial orientation. The electric “Ruggles Orientator” was controlled by an instructor, who manually manipulated the “cockpit”, as well as the student, who tried to keep the cockpit level.

Soon enough, trainers were equipped with increasingly complex instruments, and were controlled either mechanically or pneumatically. Flight paths could now be recorded, which allowed instructors to manually simulate signals from radio beams. The best-known early flight simulation device was the Link Trainer, produced by Edwin Link in Binghamton, New York, USA. The design was patented, and first available for sale in 1929; it consisted of a basic metal frame, usually painted in its iconic blue colour.


Over the course of the Second World War, aviation advanced massively. Flying became an increasingly complex task, which subsequently demanded a high level of skill and co-ordination from the cockpit crew. Flight simulators began to specialise; different machines were developed to represent the performance qualities and layouts of a particular aircraft.  Developments in computers meant that aerodynamic principles could be calculated accurately, rather than by trial and error.

The principal pilot trainer was the Link trainer, which was used by almost all US Army Air Force pilots., In 1941, the Celestial Navigation Trainer was developed for navigating the skies at night. It was 13.7 m (45 ft) high and able to accommodate the entire bomber crew. Sextants could be used for taking “star shots” from a projected display of the night sky.

Civil Aviation

In 1954, simulators became available beyond the military. The first airliner simulator was manufactured by Curtiss-Wright for Pan American Airways, who bought four simulators at the cost of $3 million. As the 60s approached, mobility became increasingly important. The three basic axes for the pitch, roll and yaw motions were followed shortly thereafter by the possibility for up-and-down motion, all of which could be precisely controlled.


By 1970, computer-generated graphics were enhancing the simulation experience. The quality correlated with computer technology, logically;  by the end of the 70s, three-dimensional landscapes were progressing rapidly. The development continues to this day; now, the simulator landscapes of today are almost indistinguishable from the real world!


Today, flight simulation is a multi-million dollar industry, with established international standards. The influence of IATA (International Air Transport Association) and universal regulations has given flight simulation credibility, both with airline pilots and the governing bodies.