History Preserved with the Link Trainer

Story and photos by John Chalmers

For anyone who learned to fly in a Link Trainer during the Second World War and afterwards, a display at the Alberta Aviation Museum in Edmonton will stimulate fond memories! The display is based on the famous Link Trainer, used to provide simulation training for air force pilots in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) during the war. The Link Trainer was produced from the 1930s to the 1950s by Link Aviation Devices, founded by Edwin Link.

Mounted on a turntable, the Link Trainer could turn and tilt, climb and descend in replicating aircraft movement to give the feel of flying. A panel with instruments found in an airplane cockpit helped to complete the simulated flight. Both calm and rough flights could be simulated, along with other realistic difficulties that could be experienced in flying. With the hood closed, the Trainer could be used to simulate flights in bad weather or instrument flying at night. Use of the Trainer in schools of the BCATP schools began in 1940 with an initial purchase of 200 units. Of more than 10,000 built for Allied forces, half were built in Canada at the Link plant in Gananoque, Ontario.

Authentic original equipment in the display includes the “crab” at the instructor’s desk to plot a course for the trainee in the Link Trainer.

The display at the museum includes two Link Trainers, as well as the equipment such as the “crab” used at the instructor’s desk to plot the simulated flights. An intercom system enabled instructors to speak with trainees in the cockpit. The display was made possible by a grant of $2,100 from the Canadian Ninety-Nines for the museum when it received its Canadian Award in Aviation for 2018 from that international organization of women aviators.

A mannequin representing Margaret Littlewood is portrayed in a blazer with a crest bearing the name Empire Air Training, just as Margaret herself wore one.

Of note is that the display’s training staff includes women members of the RCAF, but a mannikin representing civilian trainer Margaret Littlewood is a key component of the exhibit. An accomplished pilot with a number of licences, Margaret served as an instructor for No. 2 Air Observer School navigator trainees. She was hired by First World War RFC/RAF fighter pilot and famed bush pilot Captain Wilfrid “Wop” May OBE, DFC to come to Edmonton as a Link Trainer instructor at No. 2 AOS based at the 1941 Hangar 14 – now home to the museum. Wop May served as the manager of the School during the Second World War.

The display is appropriately adjacent to a restored Avro Anson, the type flown from the hangar during the war when it served as home for both No. 2 AOS for navigators and No. 16 Elementary Flying Training School for pilots learning their skills in de Havilland Tiger Moth and Fleet Finch aircraft. The Ansons flown from No. 2 AOS provided multi-engine experience for the pilots with navigator trainees on board. No doubt all Anson, Tiger Moth and Finch pilots at Edmonton had preliminary flight training in the Link Trainer.

The Link Trainer display is beside a restored Avro Anson, the type flown from the hangar during the war when it served to train navigators in No. 2 Air Observer School.

Close to the Anson is another of the Museum’s aircraft with a special connection. It is a restored de Havilland D-98 Mosquito fighter-bomber, the type flown by City of Edmonton RCAF 418 Squadron during the Second World War. The aircraft commemorates Edmonton-born Russell Bannock, who flew Mosquitos for 418 Squadron during the war.

W/C Russ Bannock, DSO, DFC who served first as a flying instructor and then as a Mosquito pilot, and as commanding officer of 418 Squadron and 406 Squadron, well remembers the Link Trainer. “During my four years of involvement with the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, I always regarded the Link Trainer experience portion as essential in graduating good pilots, and most important teaching pilots to recover from a spin when ‘under the hood.’ I was astonished by a recent airline accident report that stated the pilots were unable to recover from the spin after a stall at high altitude.” Post-war, Russ was president of de Havilland Canada, and on November 1, 2019 celebrated his 100th birthday. Sadly, Russ passed away recently on January 4, 2020.

Nose art on the Mosquito is the image of Hairless Joe, a character from the Li’l Abner cartoon strip by Al Capp. During the war, 418 Squadron aircraft bore nose art characters from the cartoon. The Museum’s restored B-25 Mitchell bears the image of Daisy Mae, the sweetheart of Li’l Abner himself.

Dr. Lech Lebiedowski, curator and archivist at the Alberta Aviation Museum, designed the  Link Trainer exhibit, as well as all others telling the story of aircraft displayed at the museum. Construction of the displays is done by museum volunteers, who are also involved in restoration projects, including aircraft in the collection.

The Link Trainer was used at stations across Canada during the war. Seen at No. 19 Elementary Flying Training School at Virden, Manitoba, four Trainers are in use.
(DND photo PA 140658))

Edwin Link designed his trainer after being dissatisfied with the instruction he received in 1920 as he earned his pilot’s license, and was concerned also about the cost of learning to fly. First used commercially as a ride at amusement parks, his “Pilot-Maker,” as he called it, soon found more practical use in training military air crew. Little did he know how important the Link Trainer would become during the Second World War.

Margaret Littlewood, who died in 2012 at the age of 96, is seen with the Amelia Earhart Medal she received from the Ninety-Nines in 1976, in recognition for her contributions to aviation.
(Photo source unknown)

For his contributions to aviation, Edwin Link was enshrined as a member of the National Aviation Hall of Fame in the United States in 1976. Born in 1904, he died in 1981. His “blue box” as it was often called, can be seen at the Alberta Aviation Museum exactly as it was used during the Second World War. The display presents a scene frozen in time from a chapter in aviation history when the Link Trainer was used during the war.

Author note: John Chalmers is a former board member for the museum. He recently retired as Historian for Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame after 10 years in the post, but continues his association with the Hall and writes for various aviation publications. His father, Jack, trained at No.2 AOS during the war, served as an RCAF navigation instructor at bases in Canada, and may well have received instruction from Margaret Littlewood while earning his navigator’s “N” Wing. Prior to graduating from the URTP program at the University of Alberta and commissioned as a pilot officer, John spent two years with 418 Squadron during high school in the 1950s. At that time the hangar home of the Alberta Aviation Museum housed 418 Squadron when it was flying B-25 Mitchells.