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Women Guided the Way in the [Simulated] Sky During WWII

Posted on Fri, March 31, 2017
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Woman in uniform stands in front of a series of globes and holds a link sextant.

Specialist Teacher, 2nd Class – Waneta Miller demonstrates the use of the Link Sextant in a Navy publicity shot for WAVE instructors undergoing the 10-week Celestial Navigation Trainer Course at Naval Air Station Seattle in July 1944. Image: National Archives and Records Administration photo, 80-G-46115.

The U.S. Navy’s WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) were a notable legacy of World War II’s influence on the evolving gender norms of the later 20th century. Though American women had a long history of service in wartime, the World War II years offered women greater access to technical positions that had once been closed to them by in peacetime. Air navigation was one of the most prominent examples. While in the years preceding World War II, several women, including Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Amy Johnson, demonstrated a degree of proficiency in air navigation that was matched by only a handful of their male peers, none had the degree of professional success enjoyed by the cadre of professional air navigators like Harold Gatty or Fred Noonan.

Black and white comic strip.

This comic from the USAAF’s ‘Log of Navigation’ (July 1944) publication illustrates how the Link Celestial Navigation Trainer was changing navigation instruction. Ironically, it does not depict the navigational technique – celestial navigation – which was the driver for development of the device.

Wartime opened the door slightly for women in the field, including civilians like Mary Tornich, who taught basic navigation to Army aviators, and for a segment of the women in the new Navy auxiliary service – the WAVES. Unlike the Army’s WASPs (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots), the WAVES did not ferry aircraft as pilots, but they did take on a variety of aviation roles to “free” males for overseas combat service (interestingly, the WASPs in turn, did not serve as air navigators). These included serving as aircraft maintainers, technical instructors, and as air navigators on “homefront”’ Naval Air Transport Service flights. However, if WAVE navigators did not have the opportunity to demonstrate their skills in the most challenging operational environments, they did have the pride of operating one of the most sophisticated training devices developed up to that point – the Link Celestial Navigation Trainer (CNT). The April 1944 issue of Popular Science contains an excellent depiction of how this complex device functioned.

An instructor and student sit within a small box.

A WAVE instructor guides a navigational student on a simulated cross-country flight in the Link Celestial Navigation Trainer at Naval Auxiliary Air Station Whiting Field near Pensacola, Florida during December 1944. National Archives and Records Administration photo, 80-G-298701.

The Link Celestial Navigation Trainer came out of an Army Air Forces requirement for a realistic crew trainer for long-range bombers and transports. Given that the Army Air Corps had a mere 50 or so dedicated air navigators on hand in 1940, the rapidly changing geopolitical situation (aggressive Japanese deployments and the German invasion of the Soviet Union) of the following year quickly made Air Corps leaders realize that their force was not only inadequate for operations, but that it was unable to even provide a core cadre for the training schools needed for the anticipated tens of thousands of specialist air navigators. Attempts to use civilian schools, notably the Pan American Airways School of Navigation at Dinner Key in Miami, were found to be quickly inadequate, especially as the British also began sending their navigation students to America and Canada for training. Even if there had been enough instructors, then there still were not enough airplanes to use for the complex process of training celestial air navigators. Those planes, even if available, would then consume valuable fuel and maintenance resources.

  • Aerial photo of a building with one large silo and cars parked out front.

    The Link Celestial Navigation Trainers were housed in large silo-like buildings like this one at Naval Air Station Lakehurst (NJ), seen in July 1945. Though production of these facilities for the U.S. Army Air Forces, Navy, and the British Royal Air Force, Royal Navy, and Dominion air arms exceeded 100, none are known to survive today, presumably because the structures were difficult to repurpose. Image: National Archives photo, 80-G-325735.

  • Two women sit in front of controls and plotting table.

    In December 1944, two unidentified WAVES operate the control booth of the Celestial Navigation Trainer at Naval Auxiliary Air Station Whiting Field near Pensacola Florida. The “crab” on the plotting table generates a track of the trainee’s simulated navigational flight. The operators could input a variety of wind and atmospheric conditions to test the students’ skills. Image: National Archives and Records Administration photo, 80-G-298700.

  • Four women sit within a simulator.

    Left to right: Irene Aide (with a Link A-12 sextant in the CNT’s navigator position), Linnea Peterson (instructor), Jane Hall (radio operator), and Elinor Johnson (pilot) learn the functioning of the simulator in 1944 at the 10-week Navigation Trainer Operators and Maintenance School at Naval Air Station Seattle. Image: National Archives and Records Administration photo, 80-G-46116.

  • A woman with three male students in a simulator.

    A WAVE serves as radio operator on a CNT training exercise in the use of a Mark V averaging sextant in November 1944. The worn appearance of the unit belies the fact that most of these units operated eight or nine hours a day during the last years of World War II. Image: National Archives and Record Administration photo, 80-G-450504.

On November 27, 1941, the Army Air Forces addressed the problem by contracting with Link Aviation Devices for a sophisticated “Combat Crew Trainer.” Link had already begun design on such a trainer for a British contract the previous year, but the idea was still largely on paper. Link Aviation Devices founder Ed Link worked with air navigation maestro P.V.H. Weems to develop the trainer for the full range of celestial navigation techniques employed in aircraft. The trainers began appearing at American bases in 1943 with the Navy requesting them as well. The trainer was a milestone in the history of flight simulation. Although Ed Link had been an important pioneer in early instrument flight training with the venerable “blue box” trainer, designed to teach novice pilots to trust their instrument more than their inner ear, flight simulators did little to prepare airmen and naval aviators for the rigors of combat missions. The “Combat Crew Trainer,” which soon became the Celestial Navigation Trainer changed that. It was a technical marvel that provided an excellent trainer for a broad range of equipment and procedures ranging from sextants to bombsights.

The CNT consisted of a simulated cockpit with room for a navigator, pilot, copilot, and radio operator or instructor. It sat elevated in a silo structure on a giant turntable. Although the cockpit lacked the freedom of movement of the “blue box,” it could bank gently on its axis. Above the cockpit was a rotating, tilting star field that consisted of lights mounted on a chicken-wire hemisphere. Though most of the stars were simple light bulbs, the key navigational stars used for sextant sightings were collimated  with a system of lenses so that parallax issues from having the stars on a nearby two dimensional surface could be avoided. The height of the silo was needed for a projection system that displayed real-world photo strips below the cockpit to train the crew in pilotage (navigation by visual reference to the ground) and dead reckoning (navigation by logging direction and airspeed over time with adjustments for weather conditions).

A system of lights and smoke generators also simulated bomb impacts so that bomb runs could be demonstrated. The simulator also included realistic radio compass signals. The CNT was much more than merely a navigation trainer; it was the first effective cockpit resource trainer for multi-crew aircraft. Navigators, pilots, bombardiers, and radio operators could learn to work together without some of the distractions and confusion present on real flights. Of course, the simulator was itself not a substitute for real world training, just a more effective and focused training aid that smoothed the transition to real aircraft, so that valuable time in the air could be used to the greatest effect.

Against this background, the WAVES began taking over the responsibility for operation of the CNTs on naval installations in 1943. The WAVES performed a critical wartime function that enabled higher quality training and reduced resource requirements to produce competent aircrews. Without the WAVES and the CNT, the training of nearly 100,000 air navigators would have been slower, more expensive, and come at the cost of badly needed resources, including aircraft and fuel.