I was a junior in college the first time I set foot in a full motion flight simulator. The tour guide allowed each of us to fly the simulator for about fifteen minutes. I took off, flew around, and attempted a few landings. Before that evening, the largest thing I’d ever flown was a Piper Seminole. To an airline pilot wanna-be, it was the world’s greatest video game. It was so exciting that I actually considered logging the fifteen minutes in my logbook.
I almost logged that time? The absurdity of that memory forced a smile and a head-shake as I waited to enter the simulator on day two of my training. There was nothing really exciting about this upcoming training event. The orals were over and it was time to get down to business. I’d set two lofty goals for myself during this training: just get through it, and do anything I could to help my partner get through it.
Airline pilots train in “Level D” simulators. The upper “box” consists of a replica of the cockpit, wrap-around visual displays, and an instructor/observer area. The instructor has large touch screens where weather conditions and malfunctions can be programmed. The box sits on six hydraulic or electric jacks which move to simulate motion. A drawbridge allows occupants to enter and exit the simulator. It lifts while the simulator is in use.
Although simulator training is more work than fun, the technology is still fascinating. The visual displays and motion have always been fairly realistic to actual flight. But, the newest A320 simulator at the Airbus Training Facility takes the motion and visual to a level I have never seen. In the past, only night scenarios looked genuinely real. (It is much easier to simulate runway edge lights than concrete, trees and buildings.) On the new simulator, everything looked eerily detailed. Plus, I love the sense of humor of the software developers. They even programmed a lifelike man to disconnect the push-tug, walk away, turn, and salute the captain.
We walked across the drawbridge and into the simulator. Normally on the first simulator session, it would take me a few minutes to get acquainted with a new airplane. Not this time. It was like coming home. I sat silent while the instructor taught my partner really important things like how to adjust the seat and armrest.
My partner and I then began the well choreographed procedure of preparing the simulator to fly. This is where the nine procedure training sessions really helped. We were ready to “push back” in about twenty minutes.
The instructor pushed the appropriate button and the airplane started to push back from the gate at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. We started both engines, called for taxi-clearance, and started to taxi towards runway 31L. The visibility was programmed so we could only see about 1,800 feet in front of us. I started thinking: why do they spend millions developing all these fancy visual displays when 95% of airline training is done in poor visibility?
With all checklists complete, we did a normal takeoff and climb to 5,000 feet. Surely, that would be the last normal engine start, taxi, and takeoff for the rest of the training sessions. We don’t train for things going right…. training is all about what to do when things go wrong.
The first session was pretty basic. We did some routine climbs, descents, and turns. We also performed the standard maneuvers I’ve practiced on every airplane I’ve ever learned:
- Stalls: What happens when an airplane slows to a point where there’s not enough airflow over the wing? The wings stall. In its normal flight laws, the A320 cannot be stalled by the pilot. So, the instructor had to force the airplane into its alternate flight laws by turning off a few computers. We slowed, waited for the aural warning, then recovered by lowering the nose and increasing thrust. (A side note to primary aviation students who are reading this: My whole career, I’ve often thought too much emphasis was placed on how to enter the stall and not enough on recovery. Remember: You may have a procedure to enter the stall, but, it is just a training procedure. In the real world, you will never intentionally stall an aircraft. On the rare event it happens, it will always be a surprise. Your recovery technique is what really counts.)
- Steep Turns: We performed 360 degree turns at 45 degrees of bank. (Normal bank during an airline flight is limited to about 20-30 degrees.)
- Unusual Attitudes: The instructor would put the simulator is a strange bank and/or pitch attitude then say “recover.”
After the air-work, we returned to JFK for some approaches, “go-arounds” and landings.
After about two hours, we took a short break. When we returned, we switched seats and my partner flew the same training profile. After the last landing, we brought the airplane back to the gate at JFK. We completed the parking and securing checklist.
The session lasted four hours. One down, five to go. Don’t worry… I don’t plan on boring you with a detailed recap of every simulator session. In the next post, I will sum up the highlights of the rest of the simulator training.
After debriefing with the instructor, we left the training facility about 11:30PM. Starting to unwind, we realized we hadn’t eaten anything substantial since lunch. So, we set out to find a late night meal. As we drove around Miami Lakes, all the restaurants were dark. Well, except for Denny’s. Breakfast or dinner food? It was the hardest decision I had to make all day.