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Expensive aircraft and nervous trainee pilots are a dangerous mix. It is safer for both the trainee and the plane if the student learns as much as possible about aircraft controls while in a safe environment that mimics the experience of being in the air. The advent of the simulation cockpit in the 1920s allowed students to do just that. The apparatus used in the 21st century mimics as closely as possible the many features of flying, using computers and three-dimensional images to create a realistic flying experience without leaving the ground.
The first simulation cockpits were wooden boxes with flight instruments inside, mounted on a pedestal that could be rocked to mimic the movement of the plane through the air. The trainee pilot sat inside the box and all light was blocked out to simulate the conditions of flying in the dark. The student could not see out through the front of the cockpit and had to concentrate on using the instruments. Simulation cockpits built by Link Aviation Inc. starting in the 1930s were used to train pilots during World War II.
A disadvantage of early simulation cockpits was that trainees could only learn the skills of flying using instruments. For the simulators to train pilots in a wider array of flight skills, simulator designers needed to give the simulation cockpit a realistic outside view. The earliest versions of a cockpit with an outside view were developed in the 1950s.
The first external-view simulation cockpit types used a video camera, a screen and a model airfield. The pilot could use the joystick to "fly" the video camera over the model airfield and the images were transmitted onto the screen in front of him. The next innovation for cockpit simulators was to use more than one screen to create a 180° view in front and to the sides of the trainee.
Video cameras and screens were replaced by computer graphics in the 1970s. The first computer-generated images were produced by General Electric Co. for use in the U.S. space program. At first, the images were two-dimensional but later versions produced realistic images that appeared three-dimensional.
Simulation cockpits in the early 21st century transmit the information coming from the pilot's instruments to the virtual display in less than one-tenth of a second. The display is projected onto a panoramic spherical mirror and the pilot sees the image in front of him reacting almost instantly to his instructions. A simulation cockpit is often used as part of a commercial or military pilot's official training.