It was the late 1920s. L3 Link founder Ed Link was a 24-year-old with an aptitude for science, an interest in mechanical devices and a dream to fly. The cost of taking flying lessons was prohibitive, which planted a notion in Ed’s mind: a ground-based training solution to help him learn how to become an aviator.
By early 1929 Ed had developed and begun marketing a working pilot trainer that from the outside resembled a toy airplane, with short wooden wings and a fuselage mounted on a universal joint. The cockpit, however, was full scale and realistic, with standard aircraft controls and, later, radio aids and gauges to tell pilots if they were flying level. Ed used an electric pump and organ bellows to make the trainer pitch and roll as pilots worked the controls.
His first order came in 1934 from the Army Air Corps (AAC), which was experiencing pilot loss of life, especially during adverse weather, as it began to carry U.S. Air Mail. AAC officials agreed to meet with Ed and saw how his device could be used to train pilots to fly by instruments and improve safety. They ordered six of his trainers for $3,500 each. By the time Ed completed the order, others were coming in.
Link Aviation Devices, Inc.—and the flight simulation industry—was born.
The company expanded rapidly throughout the 1930s, and by World War II the ANT-18 Basic Instrument Trainer, known to tens of thousands of fledging pilots as the Blue Box, became standard equipment at every air training school in the United States and allied nations. In fact, during the war years Link produced more than 10,000 Blue Boxes, turning one out every 45 minutes.
The World War II era also marked Link Aviation’s creation of the first synthetic visual systems, used initially on the Celestial Navigation Trainer (CNT). At the top of a 40-foot silo, a planetarium-like dome allowed a bomber aircraft navigator to use a sextant to shoot an array of 379 accurately positioned light-point stars. Below and forward, a reproduction of terrain flashed on a movie screen for practice in identifying landmarks during simulated daylight flight. The CNT also represented the first classified simulation program, incorporating the then-secret Norden bombsight.
The 1950s marked a highly competitive period for the flight simulation industry, but Link Aviation continued to set industry milestones. In 1951, Link won the then-largest simulator contract ever, a $6 million award to produce trainers for the U.S. Air Force’s F-89D jet interceptor.
The following year, Link built a jet bomber simulator for the B-47B Stratojet. The F-102 aircraft simulator, built by Link in 1955, was the first in the United States to incorporate a direct-current computer system. In 1958, Link delivered the first-ever commercial jet transport trainers to simulate a DC-8. In 1959, Link built the first supersonic bomber simulator for the B-58 Hustler.
Link Aviation entered the nation’s space program in 1960 when it delivered a navigation trainer used by Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard to prepare for his mission. In 1961, NASA astronauts for Gemini space missions also began to train on Link training devices. Link completed command module and lunar excursion module simulators for the Apollo Moon Mission in 1963, and received its third Apollo mission simulator contract in 1966.
In the civil aviation training arena, in 1963 a B-727 simulator for Eastern Airlines became the first to include Link’s Mark I special-purpose digital computer. In 1968, the Singer Company acquired Link and renamed it Singer-Link.
In 1970, astronauts on the ground at Johnson Space Center and Cape Kennedy worked in Link simulators to develop and test emergency maneuvers that would bring the Apollo 13 crew safely back to Earth after an explosion crippled the spacecraft in flight.
Also in 1970, Singer-Link delivered the Synthetic Flight Training System to the U.S. Army, a milestone that represented the first multiple-cockpit helicopter trainer. The Link-built DC-10 simulator, delivered in 1972, would prove to eliminate about 80 percent of training time once required in the aircraft. The following year, Link built a full flight simulator for the Concorde aircraft.
The latter half of the decade was just as busy. Link delivered a Shuttle Mission Simulator to NASA in 1976, developed the first F-16 Tactical Flight Simulator in 1977, and installed the first commercial digital image generation system for use on B-727 and B-747 simulators in 1978.
Breakthroughs continued at the start of the decade, marked by Link’s production of the first microprocessor-based simulator and night/dusk visual system in 1982, and development of the first microprocessor-based daylight visual system in 1984.
The following year marked Link’s delivery of the first helicopter combat mission simulator for the AH-64 Apache. In 1986, Link introduced F-117A trainers. In 1987, Link was awarded the U.S. Air Force’s C-130 Aircrew Training System (ATS), the largest-ever contractor-managed ATS.
In 1988, the industry continued to consolidate. Hughes Aircraft Company acquired Rediffusion Simulation and Honeywell’s Training and Control Systems Division. In the same year, CAE purchased Link's military simulation business. The decade concluded with CAE-Link’s win of the NASA Training Systems contract.
The new decade opened with Hughes Aircraft’s training business being renamed Hughes Training, Inc., and two years later establishing its training division headquarters in Arlington, Texas. In 1993, CAE-Link delivered B-2 aircrew training devices to the U.S. Air Force.
In 1995, GM Hughes Electronics purchased CAE-Link and merged it with Hughes Training. Just three years later, Raytheon Company acquired Hughes Aircraft Company’s defense electronics operation to form a new flight simulation business unit.
New business wins during the course of the decade included the U.S. Air Force’s F/A-22 pilot and maintenance trainer contracts and its E-3 training and simulation services program, the U.S. Army’s Aviation Combined Arms Tactical Trainer, the eighth U.S. Army helicopter simulator upgrade, the FSCATT artillery training system, and the U.S. Navy’s T-45 flight simulator production option.
As part of a wave of defense company consolidations, L-3 Communications struck a deal with Raytheon Company in February 2000 to acquire its flight simulation and training services businesses. The Link name returned to the marketplace as L-3 Link Simulation & Training, the world leader in military flight simulation.
L3 Link continued to win major programs. Key wins in the first decade under L3’s guidance included the U.S. Army’s Flight School XXI, the U.S. Navy’s F/A-18C/D Roadmap Procurement Program and F/A-18C Distributed Mission Training system, as well as the U.S. Air Force’s F-16 Mission Training Center and Predator Mission Aircrew Training System programs.
Key international awards during this same period included the Canadian Air Force F/A-18 Advanced Distributed Combat Training System, Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18 Hornet Aircrew Training System, Polish Air Force F-16 Aircrew Training System, Swiss Air Force F/A-18 Simulator Upgrade Program, Royal Oman Air Force F-16 Aircrew Training System and Royal Moroccan Air Force F-16 Training System.
The first half of the decade was marked by L3’s 2012 acquisition of Thales Training & Simulation Ltd.’s civil aircraft simulation and training business, now known as L3 Commercial Training Solutions (L3 CTS). L3 CTS now includes L3's driver training capabilities (commercial trucking), added through the 2012 acquisition of D.P. Associates.
Other key milestones achieved from 2011–2015 included wins for Pakistan Air Force F-16 Aircrew Training Devices, the Royal Malaysian Air Force F/A-18 Tactical Operational Flight Trainer, Iraqi Air Force F-16 Full Mission Trainers, Taiwan Army UH-60M Operational Flight Trainers, and the Hawk Oman Training System.
Key L3 Link technologies and solutions during this period included the launch of HD World® and the establishment of RealitySeven™ as the premier full-flight simulator solution for civil aviation training.
In the fall of 2017, L3 acquired Doss Aviation, Inc., the sole provider of initial flight training to the U.S. Air Force, adding depth, breadth and experience to L3 Link's industry-leading portfolio of capabilities.
Across all of its markets, L3 Link's nearly nine decades of leadership have demonstrated an ongoing commitment to providing advanced training solutions that enhance learning while reducing customer risks and costs. Customers can count us to continue to live by this commitment in the years to come.