April Fools Day 2013
It’s hard to believe that I have been flying jets now for 14 years, and that every year, at least once, sometimes twice a year, I attend five days worth of recurrent training specific to the jets I currently fly. The training consists of two full days in a classroom reviewing aircraft systems: Fuel, electric, hydraulic, pneumatics, flight controls, etc. The classroom also covers emergency indications and procedures, and airplane performance. Following the ground school, three sessions are spent “flying” in a full motion, FAA certified, Level D flight simulator.
The flight simulators are a marvel of the modern technological world; an enclosed box reached by walking from a cat walk on a gangway high above a concrete floor and entered through a door, the gangway rising up and away from the simulator after the door is closed. Inside is an exact cockpit of a particular jet, with two control yokes, two pilot seats and a third seat behind for a simulator instructor.
Hydraulic gear legs extending from the base of the simulator are secured to the floor with massive bolts. The legs expand and contract, causing the simulator to roll and pitch in response to several constantly changing variables; pilot control input being one. The view out the simulator’s windshield offers convincing images of runways, terrain, cities, hangars, fog, snow and other airplanes.
The flight simulator is an invaluable training tool, allowing pilots to review and practice dangerous scenarios and procedures safely. Engine fires, emergency descents, single engine approaches, the loss of an engine during the critical phase of take off. All of which are costly, hazardous and/or impossible to achieve in the actual airplane.
Sitting slightly above and behind the pilots in a chair with a control panel, the simulator instructor is able to program endless scenarios; failures of systems, loss of engines, fires, rapid loss of pressure, weather and other air traffic into the computer. The instructor is also able to freeze the simulator on the ground or in the air, or reposition it to another geographical region.
At the end of the session, the instructor pushes a button and maneuvers that were flown during the session are printed out; squiggly flight paths looking like Etch a Sketch doodles, the airplane’s longitudinal and lateral deviations during approaches with altitudes and airspeeds plotted on a graph.
When the simulator flight centers are busy, rows of simulators run twenty four hours around the clock with some unlucky flight crews drawing ungodly times in “the box” to accomplish their annual training; rows of van sized simulators simultaneously pitching, rolling, collapsing, stretching and hissing on their silver legs.
I was invited inside the the flight center’s newest machine, a state of the art Gulfstream 280 simulator. I eagerly accepted the invitation to sit in the pilot’s seat and take the controls. The instructor at the control panel programmed the simulator’s geographical position and suddenly, I was flying over Port Townsend.
It was thrilling and creepily real; every landmark and feature I had been looking down on for nearly 30 years exactly where they should be and nearly perfectly rendered. The cliffs of Whidbey Island a few miles across the water, the brick courthouse on the hill, my old high school a few blocks over. North Beach and the lagoon appeared out the window and I could see the airport, runway 27 clearly visible.
I buzzed downtown, flying two hundred feet above the bay behind the ferry dock at 300 knots with no concern for regulations, noise, danger or other air traffic, but feeling slightly guilty just the same.
Then I turned to the west, away from town, Protection Island flashing past, the Dungeness Spit and Port Angeles in the distance. I spotted my house and banked steeply toward it, the realistic feel of the simulator as it pitched and rolled coupled with the convincing visuals caused me to do two things in unconscious expectation; I braced for g loading and looked down at my pasture for the horses.
The state of the art machine was unable to produce either.