Award for wartime flight trainer returned to service

Image source, Techworks
Image caption,
The GAT-1 gave trainee pilots a sense of how to control and fly a plane

A project to restore early flight simulators has won an award for the best computer conservation project.

Engineers from the TechWorks museum in the US won the Tony Sale award for their work to return three simulation machines to working order.

One of the contraptions, known as the Blue Box, was used to train thousands of pilots during World War Two.

The award honours the life of Tony Sale, who pioneered efforts to remember and recreate historical computers.

Screeching wheels

"Excellent research, skilled implementation and an impactful result make this a superb example of the power and relevance of computer conservation," said Martin Campbell-Kelly, who chaired the judging panel from the Computer Conservation Society, which chose the winner.

The Techworks project brought three separate machines back to life:

  • The Link Aviation Blue Box developed in the 1930s
  • A 1960s-era General Aviation Trainer (GAT-1) simulator
  • A wholly digital Super GAT trainer from the 1980s
Image source, Techworks
Image caption,
The Blue Box looked like a tiny plane to add to the sense of reality

Techworks director Susan Sherwood said the Blue Box machine, which resembles a small aeroplane, closely mimics real control systems and helped to train "tens of thousands" of military pilots for service in World War Two.

Training involved enclosing pilots in the mocked-up cockpit - shut off from any visual cues.

"It taught them to rely on instruments rather than instincts," she said.

Image source, Techworks
Image caption,
The Blue Box needed a lot of work to restore it to full function

Restoring the earliest simulator was "challenging" said Ms Sherwood, as it was entirely mechanical, being mounted on four bellows that give the sensation of flight.

Despite its mechanical construction, the machine could effectively recreate challenging conditions, such as rapidly changing wind speeds and directions, to help pilots become familiar with them, said Ms Sherwood.

The later simulators presented other problems and it took "months" to accurately represent the sound and timing of the "wheel screech" heard when a plane touches down.

Such details were key, said Ms Sherwood, to making the simulators as realistic as possible.

Image caption,
Tony Sale spent years rebuilding the pioneering Colossus computer

The Techworks museum in Binghamton in New York State, was set up to celebrate the industrial and computer connections of the firms around it, said Ms Sherwood.

Link Aviation, which produced the simulators, was situated close by, as was IBM's first manufacturing plant and - later on - its space science division, which helped with Apollo missions.

Runners-up for the 2018 award included the creation of a "virtual" Colossus computer which exactly mimics the workings of the wartime machine in a web browser, and an Argentine project to restore Clementina - the nation's first scientific computer.

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