From the Flight Deck: Scent of a Simulator

From the Flight Deck: Scent of a Simulator

From the Flight Deck: Scent of a Simulator

I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’ – Muhammad Ali

The ambiance of the layover hotel was starkly different – in a good way. Designated by the company as one of the half-dozen or so “training hotels,” it’s used mostly to house pilots during initial, upgrade and recurrent training – from four days to two months at a time. And, occasionally, for crews on a trip that is “off-schedule.” This means a trip in which we were supposed to be somewhere else for the night and something changed or went wrong and we ended up in an unplanned city. This time, we’re here as part of an off-schedule trip – not in training.

I’m on the trip with a new FO…. well, new to the mainline. Justin is a “flow-through” pilot from a regional partner. It’s a contractual agreement that potentially saves the company training money and prevents regional pilots from bailing-out while they wait their turn to be paroled from poverty and sent up to the Big Show. He only has a couple of hundred hours in the MD-80 (about three months), but is very experienced in the industry with sixteen years of time-served at the regionals; some of it as a captain. His wife, Shannon, is still a pilot there; like a family member left behind in a war-torn country. She is hoping to join the majors soon. Unless, that is, they get their wish and have a baby. They have been trying very diligently for a while, he points out with a glance and raised eyebrow. Not long ago, Justin completed initial training on the MD-80 and the training hotel is still fresh in his mind. The smell of the room, elevator, lobby and van, not to mention the unmistakable smell of the sim itself, are burned into your brain and stomach. It was easy for him to notice the different feel. We’re both grateful to be guests of the hotel as crew and not headed to training.

You Can’t Win

Pilots going to training are everywhere, like cockroaches. They scurry around the lobby for the free hot breakfast before their scheduled pick-up time to the flight academy. Even in civilian clothing, you can tell they’re pilots and not normal guests: we all look alike, even the ladies, and even without a kit-bag. It was that way in the military too. Unless you’ve worked for a Part 121 operation and have been through the ritual of training, over-and-over-and-over, it may be difficult to relate to the stress and moderately-unpredictable nature of the arduous ordeal. It’s like a flight physical: you can’t win, only break even. I sat outside as the sun came up, after my free hot breakfast (for which I did not scurry), writing this article and enjoying a coffee. I watched as the pilots reluctantly, solemnly and silently boarded the shuttle to the flight academy to be tortured, I mean trained – poor bastards. The day begins with the sound of the cargo and passenger doors slamming closed and the rough driving technique of the hotels non-CDL drivers. The ride is eerily quiet, as if the pilots are a group of puppies, whimpering softly with darting eyes as they are driven to the vet – trying to not wet the seat. It’s that bad. You don’t see many of them with tongues hanging out, nervously panting, but it would not be out of context.


The simulator schedule begins extremely early. The things cost a lot of money just sitting there unused, so scheduling them eighteen hours per day lessens the impact of fixed costs. So what if the pilots are half asleep at 0400 or 2300? The adrenaline with pull them through. The crews now boarding the van are the lucky ones, likely with more seniority or based in a western time zone – the ones with the primo simulator times. The sun is already rising in DFW and the first six-hour block that began several hours earlier is half finished. Those pilots left the hotel long ago, well before the hot breakfast was open, and were getting two hours of oral review followed by four hours of “Dial-A-Disaster”: an accurate designation used to describe the way in which the simulator instructor/evaluator can select very bad things to happen to you from the control console behind the crew. It’s always nighttime in the sim, you are always in the weather, always in icing conditions, the RVR’s are always 600/400/300, crosswinds are within three knots of the limit and something is always on fire, leaking or about to fail – like a motor, flight controls, hydraulics, pressurization or fuel system. A trip to the vet would be way better.

Time spent in briefings and the simulator is used efficiently and productively, practicing everything from engine failures, to windshear to CAT III approaches. The annual changes in training are extremely valuable: lessons learned through ASAP (NASA safety reporting system), mistakes made by pilots around the world and fixes to poorly written procedures. Depending on the age and category of the device, the ability to accurately recreate these lessons, in which the realism and feel of the aircraft is sufficient, varies. Training devices are categorized in accordance with their ability to recreate flight conditions, including aircraft and ground-based systems, weather, wind, sound, motion and malfunctions. Most simulators, and some FTD’s, (Flight Training Devices), recreate instrument flight quite passably – some with more realism than others, and some that the FAA considers accurate enough to be used for qualification and requalification training events. Flight training devices, the ones that don’t move, are classified Level 1 through 7, with 7 being the most sophisticated. Only devices that have motion are called simulators and are classified Level A through Level D.

FTD’s by the Numbers

Remembering the FTD classi-fications is simple because three of the FTD levels are no longer in production and level 7 refers to helicopters. That leaves levels 4, 5, and 6 for us fixed wing folks. Level 4 is a part-task-trainer. You can expect to see buttons, knobs, switches and touch-screens that help you learn procedures for instruments or flight management systems and that’s about it. There will be no control yoke, but for anyone transitioning to a new avionics suite, this type of FTD is a blessing. Level 5 represents a class of aircraft (SEL, MEL). At this level, the device is starting to look more like an aircraft; there’s a yoke, for example. Level 6 is accurate for a specific aircraft, including spatial relationships and functions. It uses aerodynamic data and flies with more realism. When motion is added, we can call it a simulator.

Sims by the Letter

Not many Level A simulators still exist – less than a dozen. They have unsophisticated visual systems and very little data for simulating terrain and airports. One aircraft still using Level A simulators is the Lockheed JetStar, one of the first business jets. Level B barely exists. Level B can give you 80 percent of initial training for a type rating, and 100 percent of recurrent training if the sim has circle-to-land privileges added to its certification. Level C steps a notch higher; there are tighter tolerances on data and the scenery is more accurate. All instrument currency requirements, including a landing and circle-to-land approaches, can be met in this simulator and many pilots use it. Last is Level D and you can do everything in it, including full type ratings. Daylight scenery is a requirement and they have better data and tighter performance tolerances. Other devices and simulators give credit for flight experience, and that includes the approaches, holding, and the navigation portion of the IPC, but you’ll not get credit for a landing unless you’re in a Level C or Level D simulator and only these can be used for a full IPC.

By Any Other Name

Using a simulator instead of the airplane can generate a significant cost advantage and save on wear-and-tear, not to mention leaving the airplane available for use on the line. The most obvious benefit of the simulator, however, is the Dial-A-Disaster function. We may hate it, but we can safely experience and practice all instrument procedures and some really bad things that would be difficult, or foolish, to recreate in the air. This includes taxiway markings including SMGCS, and some things we seldom experience; stalls, upsets, windshear, icing including tailplane icing, flight control hard-overs and of course the obvious fires, engine failures and emergency descents. Psychologists would tell us that our heightened sense of sight, sound and smell during an event, such as simulator training, is due to apprehension, anxiety and adrenaline – along with our type A, over-achiever desire to succeed, if not excel. If this were not true, would completion of training be as sweet? Though not easy, we should ignore negative reminders like the sounds and smells, and appreciate the skills that modern simulators give us – even if it feels like going to the vet.T&T

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