The "Link" (as mentioned earlier) was used to practise our instrument flying procedures and was a hangover from the war years when trainee pilots were given instruction in basic flying and then instrument flying lessons. Tens of thousands of pilots learned their instrument flying in this simple low cost device, which lasted from pre-WW2 until the Sixties when it was gradually replaced by the Simulator. In the airlines, it was a cheaper method of maintaining proficiency than actually flying an expensive aeroplane. Early on we were rostered for half day sessions but later on this became a two hour session once a month to keep our hand in, as well as the six monthly licence renewal required by DCA. This sort of flying used to get pretty frustrating in that the Link didn't fly the same as the real aeroplane, and most pilots hated having to do it. After some years - when we were, by then, old hands on "instruments" - we'd wriggle out of it if we could.
In the original Trainer, accurate flying was the object of the exercise for ab- initio pilots. The Link was modelled on the cockpit of an aeroplane and contained all the necessary flight instruments and radio gear. It had a lid (into which your head fitted), which was sealed around the edges so that all outside reference was obliterated. Now you had to fly it solely by reference to the instruments and were required to produce results. If you couldn't fly the Link, how could you expect the Company to let you fly their aeroplanes?
The whole thing, shaped like a small aeroplane, sat up on a stand mounted on inflated rubber bellows and turned, dived and climbed in response to your control inputs, thereby giving real flight sensations. It was possible to induce vertigo (the death knell for poor aircraft handling) by turning too fast, so smooth, accurate flying was essential. Trapped "Under the Hood" in this tiny enclosed space, many was the time in the early stages of one's career when you felt claustrophobia begin to assert itself and you'd search frantically round the seal for a crack of light - just for reassurance that the outside world was still there. This would inevitably lead to losing yourself in the pattern you were flying, so the only way was to concentrate, trust the instruments and discipline yourself to fly the aeroplane.
One of the hardest exercises to fly was a Maltese Cross. A card depicting the cross was mounted in front of the pilot, showing the tracks to steer, the angles to turn and the times to run on each leg. The aim was to start at the top and work your way around the cross, through the twelve acute angle turns involved, and end up back at the top, meeting the point you originally started from. The time taken to fly the exercise was long enough to enable you to get lost if your concentration lapsed so that you forgot exactly where you were in the pattern, or which turn you were making, in which case you were marked as a "fail" and had to go back and start again. We learned, early on, to concentrate!
In the unlikely event of a failure of the sensing unit in the Radio Compass which drove the pointer needle, we were required to practice the Aural Null method of finding the station, called "Resolving the Ambiguity". This meant, from an unknown position, flying the aeroplane in a series of turns, manually rotating the loop aerial and listening to the rise and fall of a tone (the null being the point of lowest volume) in the headphones. This would tell on which side of the Station you were and whether going towards or away from it. Having resolved the ambiguity, you flew towards the beacon, following the aural beam in - the volume slowly rising as you approached - listening for the sudden null which signified the "Cone of Silence" and announced passage of the Station, after which you could then make an instrument let down through cloud to the assigned Minimum, become visual and land, or if still in cloud, climb away and go 'somewhere else. Quite old fashioned even then - and long gone now - and done completely by earphone noise, it was a quite fascinating, last ditch way to get yourself out of trouble in bad weather or at night.
The Trainer was connected electrically to the plotting table some distance away and your path through the exercise was faithfully drawn on paper in red ink by the "Crab" thereby indelibly indicating your proficiency at any given exercise. Dennis Blackburne was the Instructor who used to put us through the hoops, especially on our six monthly check flight. Hailing from England where he had joined the Royal Air Force around 1935 and served through the war years, Dennis was a small bloke with bushy eyebrows, a moustache and twinkling eyes. Quiet and unassuming, he was a real character. He started with MMA in 1956 as Link instructor, taking over from Norm Dorrington who then transferred to the flying staff. Norm had been preceded in the position by John Pierce (who went on to fly the Ansons) and George Beamish.
On August 6th 1957 I fronted up for Link Trainer work on ADF, Aural Null, and Asymmetric, logging 2hr 30min. By this time the Company had supplanted the original trainer with the updated D4 version, which was set up for twin engine flying with twin throttles, mixture controls, feathering buttons, gear selector and navigation aids such as ADF, VAR and DME. The big advantage was that we could practise asymmetric flight, as a result of engine failure, which didn't happen often enough in the air to gain real expertise.
Dennis had rigged up a little peephole behind the pilot's right shoulder, so that when you were locked in the box with no visual outside reference - flying on instruments - he could look in and see what you were actually doing. To try and make things more realistic he'd take a puff on his cigarette, quietly open the little lid, and gently blow the smoke in. Fire in flight is every pilot's nightmare, so a whiff of smoke would snap you out of the induced torpor of the small and snug warm cockpit to frantically scan the engine instruments for a clue. Then the fire warning bell would shrill and the red light illuminate and you'd have to carry out the correct emergency drills of isolating the fire, closing down the engine, stabilising the aeroplane and continue with the exercise. It sounds corny now, but it was quite effective at the time because those trainers were so basic that anything was worth trying in order to make them a bit more realistic. That D4 was quite famous and the Company used to hire out time to other Commercial pilots who wanted to practise their instrument flying. It got quite a lot of good work when not torturing we hapless airline pilots.
Being a yachting fanatic, Dennis owned a small yacht and used to frequent the bays of Rottnest on his days off. If you didn't feel like getting in the Link you could ask him how his boat was going and he'd spend some time on the subject, so (hopefully) reducing the time you had to endure in the "Horror Box" during your rostered period. Not that he didn't know what you were up to, as sooner or later you had to get in, and then he'd put you through the hoops. He was in a unique position in the Company in that he saw every pilot, individually, at least twice a year. You could say he had to be an amateur psychologist dealing with over 50 pilots - all with different characters, attitudes and approaches to the job. You had to demonstrate your ability to fly the procedures correctly and he could see immediately when a mistake was made - could even sense it about to happen - and no excuses or explanations were acceptable. You'd simply made a mess of it and had to do it again, until you got it right. Dennis stayed with MMA as Link Instructor for many years.
I Flew for MMA - An Airline Pilot's Life
R.C. Adkins, 1996
Reproduced with permission.