At the heart of every airline training program is an amazing, multi-million dollar machine. A “Level D” aircraft simulator is the closest you can get to flying without leaving the ground. Costing close to $20 million USD, many aviation fans would love a chance to ride in a simulator. Airline pilots, however, might prefer a root canal over their annual visit to “The Box.” Find out just how cool these machines are…
A Little Simulator History
The very first documented “simulator” was constructed in 1909 for the French Antoinette monoplane. It was used to familiarize pilots with the aircraft’s control wheels. As the “pilot” manipulated the wheels, a couple of helpers would stand beside the rig and move it around. It’s a good reminder that a simulator doesn’t have to be fancy to be an effective training device!
As aircraft technology progressed, so did the simulators. In the late 1920’s, a musical organ manufacturer named Edwin Link started tinkering with aircraft trainers. Link was an amateur pilot that decided to build a better training device. His first models used pneumatic organ parts like air bellows and reed switches. Link Trainers soon became widely used by both civilian and military pilots. Eighty years later, Link Simulation & Training remains a leader in simulation technology.
In the 1960’s, simulators became really interesting with the development of out-the-window displays. Large model boards with scenery were built and mounted on their sides. As the pilots “flew” the simulator, a small video camera would move across the board. The live images would be projected outside the cockpit windows. The system had obvious limitations but was a vast improvement over the opaque, frosted windows used in earlier sims.
Model boards wouldn’t last long. Advances in microprocessors and computer graphics in the 70’s and 80’s revolutionized aircraft simulation.
Modern Flight Simulators
Full-motion simulators are really expensive. To keep training costs down, airlines use other tools to supplement the simulators. The simplest is a cockpit procedures trainer. It’s exactly what it looks like: a plywood mock-up with pictures of instruments and few, if any, moving parts. A device like this is used to familiarize crews with the layout of an unfamiliar flight deck. Basic procedures can be rehearsed.
The next step up in sim-tech is the Virtual Procedure Trainer. VPT’s are fairly new on the simulator scene. Instead of plywood and pictures, the VPT uses LCD touch screens to display the instrument panels. Most of the switches and instruments function properly when touched. Like a fancy version of Microsoft Flight Simulator, The VPT has the ability to “fly,” allowing pilots to practice ground and flight procedures. While VPT’s are great for learning new procedures, they don’t provide the real-airplane flying experience that’s so important. For that, we need to pull out the big guns…
Level D Simulators
They are the ultimate video games. Simulators certified as Level D can be used for “Zero Flight Time” training. After a pilot completes an approved training program that includes Level D simulation, he or she is qualified to fly passengers or freight without ever stepping foot in the real airplane. Level D simulators are that good.
Motion + Visual
The most obvious difference between a Level D sim and the previous devices is the motion. These things move all over the place. Surprisingly, when you’re inside the sim, you don’t notice the extreme movements. The actual motion is exaggerated to simulate the forces of acceleration and deceleration. When “accelerating” down the runway, the front of the sim tips up high to give the occupants the illusion of forward of acceleration. When combined with the out-the-window view of a runway, we don’t notice that the sim is tilted upwards. It feels like normal takeoff acceleration. The motion combined with state-of-the-art visual displays provides an extraordinary and realistic flying experience.
Modern, out-the-window displays are amazing. The visuals of Level D sims are projected through special lenses onto a large wraparound screen a few feet outside of the cockpit. Any of the flight deck windows provides a near photo-realistic scene. Views of the ground are created with satellite imagery. Runways, cars, buildings, people and weather are computer generated. Daytime views are impressive and night-time scenes are dead-on realistic.
What Do We Simulate In The Simulator?
I’d love to tell you that spending eight hours in the simulator is fun. I definitely had gee-whiz moments the first few times I climbed into the box, but after the amazement wears off, it’s all business. The hours are spent focused on procedures, problem solving and flying skills under pressure.
The beauty of a simulator is that any sort of problem or emergency can be rehearsed, and we get wrung through the ringer. We practice engine failures, fires, landing gear failures, hydraulic system failures, communication failures, windshear recovery, weather avoidance, rejected takeoffs, rejected landings, landing in wind, rain, and snow, and landing with engines on fire. If there is something bad that can happen to an airplane, we have probably rehearsed it in the simulator. Once we master flying the simulator, the real airplane is a piece of cake. Modern, full-motion simulators are one of the reasons airlines are still the safest way to travel.
Here’s a short video about the installation and operation of Lufthansa’s Airbus A380 simulator in Frankfurt, Germany. The A380 is the world’s largest airliner. You’ll get a good idea of how much motion there is on a full-motion simulator.