This was not total jolly; there was work to be done. I navigated myself into the right-hand seat, right leg leading, placed my blue satchel to my side and readied myself to assist Bill with the morning’s Heads Up Display (HUD) alignment maintenance work. By “assist,” I mean quietly observe and do as I was told when I was told. This was not my first rodeo in a complex simulator. A colleague and I once flattened half of the Aldgate business district in a Citation Mustang on our approach into London City, so I was versed in how unnervingly realistic simulator training is for the non-aviator. First off, we departed out of London Gatwick (LGW). Bill took me through the flap settings, the landing gear’s lever that required a subtle finger and thumb movement, trim controls, and a myriad of other features of the Dash 8’s flight management system (FMS). He then throttled forward and using the foot pedals only, I kept the aircraft straight along the runway to reach V1 at 110 knots for takeoff in a southerly direction.
The cabin noise was obviously much quieter than I remember it as a passenger. Nevertheless, the level of simulated noise emissions matches the flight deck of an actual Dash 8. That’s understandable really – simulated flying conditions need to be as realistic as possible in every conceivable detail.I hurriedly learned to start reading the FMS like Kurt Russell in that stricken 747 in Executive Decision – the airspeed indicator, the artificial horizon, pitch reference marks, barometric pressure to determine altitude, the angle of bank – all whilst Bill talked me through a range of actions that would simulate a go-around for an ILS landing back into LGW. The proper work began when Bill steadied the ship to test the HUD’s alignment on approach. Bill, Michà¨le, and another colleague all took turns to verify the HUD’s accuracy as we touched smoothly down at the south London airport.
We then repeated the process all over again out of London Luton (LTN). I was impressed with the attention to detail when I saw easyJet’s distinctive orange-colored Hangar 89 headquarters to my left as we hurtled along the runway.Now it would be foolish of me to attempt to describe the simulator experience in any discerning or authoritative manner. I was struck by just how much was going on at any one time and when I could I sat silently in awe of the men and women who train thoroughly to fly any aircraft, old and new. It reminded me of exploring the pioneering Link D2 trainer at IWM Duxford’s American Air Museum last March and the important role that simulators have played in preparing aviators for our skies. Interestingly enough, FlightSafety’s first training device was a Link. The company rented one when it started operating from the Marine Air Terminal at NY LaGuardia Airport in 1951. “No way”, says Michà¨le conclusively when I ask her whether we will see pilotless aircraft any time soon. Or ever. “We also train pilots to do so much that will probably not happen,” she continued. A native of Canada and passionate about the Dash 8, Michà¨le learned to fly in a country that requires logging a minimum of 3,500 flying hours before a pilot can qualify as a First Officer in the Dash 8. She has flown through enough Canadian storms and harsh meteorological conditions to know that the broader the pilot’s skill set is the greater the chance they have of surviving an emergency. She gave me a couple of examples of pilots whose glider training and local area knowledge had proved more than handy in the event of a double engine failure on approach – human judgement for which a computer may not always be equipped or designed. Of course, being human, no two pilots are likely to react in entirely the same way to a crisis from an emotional perspective. Pilots are ably assisted by their machines though. The Dash 8 is equipped with the “stick shaker” and “stick pusher” safety features that Bill demonstrated to show when the aircraft knows that an aerodynamic stall is imminent – a ‘self preservation’ feature, as Michà¨le put it. For me, it is just comforting to know that the training involves so much more than routine flight preparation, practice, and instruction. Sim complete. Time for lunch. From the training center’s canteen window, I watched Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 test aircraft rotate and positively skyrocket upwards at a fare-paying-passenger-puke-inducing angle as well as ANA’s 787-9 do a few low flyovers in preparation for the following week’s Farnborough Air Show. Getting to see commercial aircraft put through their paces outside their habitual commercial environment from time to time is always a pleasure. An F16 pitching, rolling, and roaring in the Hampshire sunshine topped the mini-show off nicely. AvGeeks stood mesmerized. I have deep respect for pilots. I sat on the jump-seat of an easyJet A319 en route to AMS a few years ago, but this brief experience with FlightSafety allowed me to understand and appreciate a little better the level of concentration and focus required to fly these winged-beasts. FlightSafety founder (and private pilot to Juan Trippe) Al Ueltschi coined the company’s motto that “The best safety device in any aircraft is a well-trained crew.” I concur.