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
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
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
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
I Flew for
MMA - An Airline Pilot's Life
R.C. Adkins, 1996
Reproduced with permission.