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The Question

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There is a question on the mind of many flight simulation enthusiasts. A question that is as old as our hobby itself:

Does flight simulation prepare us for flying a real plane?

More than any other, one particular scenario has lit up our community’s collective imagination: At cruise altitude, on an otherwise boring commuter flight, the cockpit door suddenly bursts open. The flight attendant steps out, visibly shaken. She grabs the intercom and announces with a wavering voice that both pilot and copilot had spoilt chicken for lunch and are now laying unconscious on the cockpit floor. As deadly silence falls over the cabin, she asks the question that you – the long time flightsim pilot on seat 2A – had both dreaded and hoped for: “Is there anyone among the passengers who can safely land this plane?”

… now, could you?

Could I? Have two decades of involvement with flight simulation prepared me to deal with the real thing? Do all those flights in my homebuilt cockpit count for something? This is the story of my quest to find an answer.

Even after years of soaring the virtual skies I am realist enough to know that my chances of ever flying a real B737 are rather slim. But there is a way to go at least three quarters of the way: a ride in a professional simulator. Nowadays, pilots transition directly from simulator based training to regular flight duty – with passengers! Simulators have come a long way, mimicking real planes very, very closely.

They say everything in life has a price. This is at least true for time on commercial flight simulators. I found a company in Germany that offers “the ultimate flight experience” on any simulator in Lufthansa’s arsenal. Their only 737-NG simulator is located at a training center near Berlin Schönefeld Airport. With a simple phone call I managed to book an hour on a Saturday afternoon – but only in a month’s time.

It felt like a very long wait, but that Saturday afternoon finally arrived. I left my hotel two hours early to allow for possible delays, including traffic jams or a failure of my car’s navigation system. Of course, nothing happened and I got to the training center well before the appointment. A grumpy young man at the reception asked me to sign in, than told me to wait. I was nervous, but savoring the moment. An answer to the question was only minutes away!

At 4pm sharp a grey haired gentleman approached me and introduced himself:
“Hi, my name is Robert. I’m a retired 747 pilot and I’ll be your flight instructor today. Have you ever flown the 737, simulated or real?” I shook his hand and mumbled something about my experience with Microsoft Flight Simulator. He nodded understandingly and I got the distinct feeling that I had just been categorized.
“Since you are used to a PC joystick, the A320 would actually have been the better choice for you!” I told Robert that I had specifically asked for the Boeing 737-NG, because I was quite familiar with that plane. Instead of an answer I got that nod again.

Robert led me to his office on the second floor. One wall was decorated with a larger than life schematic drawing of the 737 cockpit, including the overhead panels. Robert began to explain how to read speed and altitude on the primary flight display. I interrupted him and told him that I did not need cockpit familiarization. I thought it was time to emphazise my point, so I asked him if the simulator’s MCP had speed intervention installed. He gave me an inquisitive look, but now I had his attention:
“Yes, both speed and altitude intervention. All right then, how do you want to spend the next hour?”

I told him about The Question. I was brief and to the point, because I did not want to see that patronizing nod again. I asked if he could set up the simulator in a clean configuration 20 miles north of Metro, the initial approach fix for a landing on runway 25L at Frankfurt Rhein-Main airport.
“Altitude 5000 ft, speed 250 knots, heading 180 degrees, next waypoint MTR. And I want the autopilot on, with both LNAV and VNAV active”. Robert frowned and – rightfully – pointed out that this would require setting up a route in the FMC, something not usually done for flight sim ‘tourists’. He noticed that his comment had hurt and hastened to add: “Besides, it would use up valuable simulator time! Why don’t you try a manual approach?”

In my home simulator I use automated flight most of the time and hand-fly only during takeoff and on short final. But why not? A successful landing with hands on throttle and yoke should be an even more convincing answer to the question!

We left the briefing room and entered a gallery that runs along a wall of the main hall. Below us two massive full motion simulators were set up next to each other. I was impressed by their size – somehow I had expected them to be smaller. I estimated them to have a 6 x 6 meters footprint, standing 8 or 9 meters tall. Mounted on six powerful hydraulic legs, the cabins looked rather boxy. From the outside there was no telling that they contained full sized airliner cockpits.

Robert noticed my amazement and quickly filled me in:
“The one to the left is the 737-800 simulator, built jointly by Boeing, Thales and General Electric. It costs 20 Million US-Dollars, one third the price of the real plane. What the plane can do, the simulator can do. And vice versa. Boeing guarantees that!”

A narrow, retractable metal bridge connects the simulator to the gallery. Robert opened the plastic entrance door that looked as though it had been taken from a camper. He ushered me into the simulator. I did not pay much attention to the instructor station on the left and went straight to the front section. And there it was: The B737-NG cockpit, with the 5 big display screens and its overwhelming array of dials, switches and indicators! For the next hour, this would be my working place! I was very excited.

I sat down in the captain’s seat, slid it into a comfortable position and began to familiarize myself with the physical layout of the cockpit. That turned out to be more difficult than expected. I had read all those books about the 737. And yes, I have that simulator set up in my basement. But this was quite different!

No problem with PFD, NAV and EICAS displays. But so many other things were different: the yoke in front of me instead of a joystick on my right, a throttle quadrant instead of the F-16 lever at home. And that too had to be operated with the wrong hand! All dials, buttons and knobs were familiar, but their configuration and positioning was different from my home cockpit. As my eyes darted around in the cockpit, trying to find familiar reference points, a rather worrisome feeling of disorientation started to creep up my spine. I realized this cockpit was an alien environment for me, despite all my preparation!

At the instructor station behind me, Robert was busy setting up the flight. He asked me what kind of weather I wanted. The question helped me refocus on the task at hand. No need to complicate things further on my maiden flight, so I requested daylight and fair conditions: “Clouds broken at 3000, visibility 9999, wind 255, five knots”.

Approach plates are not available at the training center, but I had brought my own. I did a quick briefing of the landing. In anticipation of the hectic moments during the solo approach, I dialed the ILS frequency into the VHF1 radio and the frequency of the Metro VOR (MTR in short) into VHF2. For later reference, I clipped the approach plate to the yoke – a very handy feature!

Robert had finished the setup. He turned around and tapped me on the shoulder: “Ready, man?” I did not feel ready at all. But a man must do what a man has to do, so I took a deep breath and nodded. What followed is hard to describe. Within a second, our environment transformed completely. Suddenly, there was noise. Wind noise, and the faint whine of jet engines. There were vibrations and I could sense the slight movements of an airborne plane. The cockpit displays came to life and a split second later the outside view turned from a uniform gray to a beautiful presentation of the outside world. We were flying!

I started scanning the instruments. Speed was indeed 250 knots and the plane was in level flight. A gentle tug on the yoke made the plane roll a little, confirming that I was not on autopilot. From now on things would happen fast. I pulled the throttles back and trimmed up to reduce speed. Amazing how loud the elevator trim is! Next I set flaps to 1. The lever is on the copilot’s side, so I had to lean over to reach it. During that move I must inadvertently have pulled the joke back a little: As a result, I found myself in a 300 fpm climb! A voice in my head whispered: “this is how it starts – you are already loosing it!”… Easy now… Pull throttles back a bit more, and let the plane stabilize! Airspeed was reducing to 230, 220. I set flaps 5, reaching for the lever more carefully this time.
Altitude was steady now at 5.200 feet. A quick glance at the NAV display: The DME on the NAV display indicated that I was 12 miles from the initial approach fix MTR. I relaxed a little. Speed was constant at 220, I was in level flight and I had a moment to think about my next move.

Six miles to MTR. The plan was to arrive there at an altitude of 4000 feet with 190 knots, flaps 15. I pulled the throttles back some more. Three clicks of nose down trim. The plane started to descend, hesitant at first, than at a constant 200 fpm. A fleeting moment of elation: I was in control – the plane actually did what I wanted it to do!

One mile to MTR. Things got hectic again. I had already reached 4000 feet, but I was fast. Too fast for flaps 15. Darn! Trim up two clicks, and relax! Give the plane time to react! And think ahead… what’s next? A heading change to 160 degrees at MTR. And 12 miles past MTR a right turn into final, heading 249.

Nine miles past MTR, it’ll soon be time for the turn to final. A quick glance at the EFIS: Should I switch the NAV display to approach mode? No, too much hassle. Next, set the localizer course in the OBI! Again, many things are happening at the same time.
I turn the yoke to the left and almost immediately get a bank angle warning. The nose starts to drop and in an instant I loose 300 feet. DON’T PANIC NOW!!! Pull back on the yoke, just a bit… ah, here we go. The compass rose moves towards the 25 mark and I start to level the wings. Speed is finally coming down. Flaps 15 now.

Where are the ILS pointers? I’m below glide slope. Good! I’m supposed to intercept if from below. The localizer marker is off to the left, so I chase it with a gentle left turn. A heading change of five degrees should do. The DME shows 13 miles now. 13 miles to touchdown! Speed is still high, but I don’t want to change thrust settings. The gear will fix this. A huge lever, much bigger than in my simulator! There is a faint rumble as the wheels come down and I can feel the plane decelerate. A glance at the speed tape confirms: 170 knots, and the trend indicator points down. Time for flaps 20, than immediately 30. Speed is down to almost 150 knots. I push the throttle up a bit to maintain level flight.

Twelve miles to touchdown. The glide path pointer has crept right of center, but just a bit. I initiate a right turn to 252 degrees. Now the glide slope indicator is moving towards the center mark and I start to trim down. Sink rate goes to 300 feet per minute, 400, 500. I pull the throttle back a bit to keep airspeed steady at 145. Things are looking good. A disembodied computer voice announces the altitude above ground: “Twenty Five Hundred!”. Just like at home in my own cockpit!

Six miles to touchdown. A glance through the windscreen. For a second I see the runway, then it’s again hidden by clouds. Back to the instrument scan. A moment later I feel slight vibrations as the plane enters the cloud layer. The next altitude callout: “One Thousand”. The glide path pointer is centered now and I turn to the runway heading of 249 degrees. I decide to set auto brakes to 3. Better safe than sorry!

Three miles out. Speed and sink rate are stable. For the first time during the flight I have time to actually enjoy what is happening. I am flying the 737!

I begin to notice things: I can actually feel the mass of the plane. The noise, the movements, vibrations – the sensory input is awesome! Another minute correction to keep the ILS pointers centered. I look up again. There it is: the runway, right in front of me! I see the PAPI lights: two red and two white, confirming that I’m on glide slope. Altitude 500 is called out. The ground seems to be reaching up to me and I get visual confirmation of my speed. In a few seconds I will land the plane!

“One Hundred!” No more instrument scan. It is all visual now. A feeling of familiarity. I know my approach is good. There will be no more surprises.
“Fifty”, “Forty”, “Thirty”: I start to flare and pull the throttles back. “Twenty”, “Ten”, and than a rather hard touchdown. I’m a bit stunned and it takes me a moment before I start pulling the reverse thrust levers. The speed decreases too slowly so I hit the brakes. I miss the first exit, but at the second exit ground speed is down to 15 knots. I landed the 737! I landed and the plane is still in one piece!
“OK. Start flaring at 50 feet next time! And no more than 5 knots when you turn off the runway!” were Roberts dry comments on my achievement.

As I slowly taxied off the runway, I had another moment to take it all in: The motion, the sounds, and the outside view – it all adds up to create the perfect illusion. I was in awe – and I wanted more!

Robert suggested a shorter runway for the next landing, so we teleported ourselves to final approach at Nice, France. The runway there has only 9.700 feet, but now I knew the brakes and the reverse thrust levers, so it turned out to be long enough. An earlier flair produced a much smoother landing.

“Let’s try a crosswind landing at Frankfurt now”, Robert announced. Did I sense a trace of malignance in his voice? He set 10 knots crosswind, and that indeed made the landing much more demanding. There were moments when I struggled with the plane, over-controlling it, but in the end I managed to land safely.

Next was Nice again, with 15 knots crosswind, gusting to 20. I nearly messed up that one. The left main gear touched down first and the plane jerked violently as I desperately tried to put both sets of wheels on the ground. I think I was very close to damaging the gear or just veering off the runway. Miraculously the plane stabilized and I brought it to a standstill 150 feet before running out of concrete.

After that I just accepted what else Robert threw at me: more crosswind landings, some at difficult airports like Innsbruck and Malta. To cut a long story short: During that hour on the simulator, I landed the 737 a total of eight times. Not once did I crash. I sensed that Robert was a bit puzzled, but he made no comments. On the way out we planned our next meeting: A complete flight from Innsbruck to Munich, using autopilot and a flight plan loaded into the FMC. Robert suggested I should take the copilot’s seat next time, to make the transition from my home simulator easier. And in real life, it’s the copilot who flies the plane anyway.

That brings me back to the question. Did the past hour produce an answer? For me it has, beyond any doubt. So, one day, on an otherwise boring commuter flight… When the flight attendant asks that desperate question, will my hand go up?

You bet.

Jan.27, 2009
© HJK 2009

 

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