Total RecallTotal Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.  

Depending on how old you are, if you're a flight sim fan you probably cut your teeth on a series like Microsoft Flight Simulator, Falcon or Flight Unlimited. But did you know the world's very first flight simulator was built all the way back in 1929?

It was built by a man named Edwin Link, and anything you've ever played where you're simulating the act of flying an aircraft, you owe its existence to his series of "Link Trainers".

Edwin Albert Link was born in 1904 in Huntington, Indiana. From an early age he developed a love for flight and aircraft, yet his parents - his father built player pianos and organs - could not afford to have him trained as a pilot. So Link improvised, and built himself an airplane. On the ground.

Using scavenged organ and piano parts from his father's small factory, in 1929 Link had completed the "Link Trainer", a small, chubby aircraft attached to a base with an engine inside. It was the world's first true flight simulator, a contraption that presented the pilot with realistic-looking instrumentation that, when activated, would be recreated by the small plane. Pull up and, using cannibalised organ bellows, the plane would pull up. Bank and it would bank, etc.

At first a curiosity, the Link Trainer would soon make Edwin and his family rich. After a series of crashes and deaths, all caused by pilot error and unfamiliarity with new aircraft, in 1934 the US Air Corps bought six Link Trainers at $3,500 each, a tidy sum at the time.


Using the cash received from this first sale, Link expanded both his business and production facilities, improving his Link Trainers and finding plenty more business with the Air Corps, who saw the Link Trainer as a valuable way to keep fresh pilots from risking their lives by taking to the skies in actual flight conditions. By the time the Second World War came around, Link was producing a completed flight simulator in his factory at Binghamton, New York, every 45 minutes.

By the time the war ended in 1945, his company had manufactured over 10,000 Link Trainers, most of them the ANT-18 Basic Instrument Trainer, which was nick-named the "Blue Box" due to its bright blue colour scheme. These units trained not only US airmen, but made their way to other Allied nations like the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.

After war, demand for Link Trainers declined, as aircraft became larger and more complex, and the humble little boxes could no longer accurately simulate their actions. Far from ruining Link's company, though, he simply moved onto a new frontier, and continued to make a name for himself designing deep-sea submersibles.


Over 500,000 pilots were trained using Link's simulators before they were taken out of service, and many remain in working condition in museums across the US, Australia, UK and Canada.

While primitive by today's standards, the Link Trainer was still incredibly useful at the time, as it was far safer and more productive to teach pilot cadets the basics of instrumentation and flight theory on the ground rather than having them risk their lives in the air.


And by serving as the world's first true mechanical flight simulator, it's the grand-daddy to everything that came after it, from arcade fliers to high-end military training systems to Microsoft Flight Simulator.

[pic: Philip Greenspun]