Business & GA, Commercial

The Art of Imitating Flight

By William Reynish | December 1, 2007
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Possibly more than in any other industry, simulation technology has found wide application in aviation, playing a role in avionics development and testing, airframe and engine analysis and every aspect of personnel training, from operating airport de-icing trucks to flying virtually every type of aircraft. The payoff is the ability to accurately reproduce any process "off-line," at much lower cost. Simulation also helps users investigate, understand and sometimes exceed operational limitations in complete safety.

This is particularly true of flight simulation, where pilots not only can be trained in normal operating procedures, but can be exposed to potentially hazardous situations such as coping with an engine failure during take off, or recovering from severe upsets in turbulence, or countering the effects of low-level windshear during landing.

Similarly, emergencies like engine fires, loss of pressurization and various other system failures can be exactly simulated. Put simply, simulation brings substantial operator cost savings compared to training in a real aircraft, quite aside from the aircraft’s unavailability for revenue service. Finally, failure to adequately respond to emergencies in the simulator results only in the trainee’s pride, and not the aircraft, being dented.

Today, flight simulators are becoming ubiquitous. This overview will describe the activities of two companies, CAE and FlightSafety International, respectively, the world’s largest flight simulator manufacturer and the world’s largest civil pilot training organization. By an unusual coincidence, the two companies are also, respectively, the world’s second largest civil pilot training organization and the world’s second largest flight simulator manufacturer.

For both companies, the future looks very bright. A world shortage of pilots, particularly in China, India and other developing countries, is creating a rapidly escalating demand for simulation and training as airlines and business aircraft orders are now rising to record levels.

Founded in 1947, Montreal-based CAE today boasts annual revenue exceeding $1 billion, with 90 percent derived from exports, and with the largest proportion supplied to the United States market. The company’s first flight simulator project, in 1952, was a Canadian Air Force CF-100 fighter. Its first civil airline simulator was a DC-8 built for Swissair in the mid-1960s.

The company’s product line includes most commercial aircraft in operation, including giant A380 simulators already delivered to Airbus, and others being readied for Emirates, Qantas and other undisclosed customers. And behind closed doors, development of CAE’s Boeing 787 simulator is underway.

During a visit by Avionics, a mix of strange bedfellows rubbed shoulders on the production floor: a dark green military Agusta A109 helicopter simulator stood beside a gleaming white Boeing 737-800, while across the aisle rose the massive shape of an Airbus A340 simulator, approaching completion for a Middle Eastern airline. Beyond them stretched a line of other civil and military types on both sides of the assembly hall. It was a hive of activity, yet unusually quiet — no rat-a-tat riveting guns or any of the other customary background noises of aircraft assembly plants.

In fact, building today’s simulators is a careful fusion of art and science where, as Chris Stellwag, CAE’s director of marketing communications, put it, "we create reality in a virtual world." And reality here means that everything must exactly replicate the real aircraft, from the precise location of flight deck hardware, the "feel" of the controls in all flight regimes, the rumble of the gear as it drops down and locks, and a thousand and one other details, right down to the material of the pilots’ seats.

Obviously, the flight characteristics must exactly mirror the real aircraft throughout its operating envelope. The company’s Boeing 787 simulator, for example, cannot yet be completed until Boeing has put the real aircraft through its full flight tests and its total performance data package is integrated into the simulator’s own computer systems, in itself a lengthy and exacting task.

This detail is at the cutting edge of simulator technology, where over a year of meticulous craftsmanship, combined with advanced avionics engineering, will produce the company’s top-of-the-line, full featured 7000 Series unit with a sticker price of around $16 million. There’s an impressive backlog of customers around the world waiting to write their checks.

Of course, not all simulators are that expensive. CAE’s "Simfinity" line runs on laptop computers for Web-based training, through basic cockpit like units to aircraft specific fixed-base trainers, to full-flight units for single-aisle airliners, and on to larger, multiengine aircraft.

Interestingly, all CAE units interact with a common software foundation that brings both economy and extraordinary flexibility across the product range and allows new, high-end features, such as the realistic ATC voice exchanges in the company’s "True Environment" program.

FlightSafety International was formed in 1951 by Al Ueltschi, then a personal pilot to Pan American Airways President Juan Trippe. Now owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway holding company, FlightSafety International last year trained some 75,000 pilots at its 40 Pilot Learning Centers across the United States and overseas.

FlightSafety’s primary clients are corporate pilots, although it also does military and government work. Consequently, its Learning Centers specialize in business jets, turboprops and corporate helicopters, with each center offering training in two or three specific airframe types, including several of their respective variants, such as the nine different Gulfstream simulators at FlightSafety’s Savannah. Ga., center.

Avionics visited FlightSafety’s Dallas-Fort Worth center, which provides Gulfstream and Dassault Falcon training. Opened in 2000 with eight simulator bays, customer demand brought a further eight bays and even more expansion seems likely.

Gil Schnabel, assistant center manager, explained FlightSafety’s training philosophy. "Essentially," he said, "we focus on teaching pilots what they need to know to operate their aircraft safely and efficiently. We place strong emphasis on realistic, scenario-based learning, both in the classrooms and in the simulators. And each scenario exercise continues to its logical conclusion." Here, he was referring to the totally illogical tendency, in the early days of simulation, of compounding emergencies on top of emergencies in combinations that would be virtually impossible in normal operations.

Schnabel also reviewed FlightSafety’s "Matrix" program, a comprehensive data base of all aircraft characteristics and associated information, accessible from any of the 12 or more dual-screen student positions in each of the center’s 18 classrooms plus individual review rooms, and at its several fixed-base, eight-screen, graphical flight deck simulators. Matrix allows students to select various flight deck presentations of their specific aircraft.

We opted for a compressed briefing on Honeywell’s EASy flight deck before a demonstration flight in a full motion Falcon 2000 simulator.

The instructor, Falcon specialist and former airline pilot Rick Hall, clearly loved his job, and his enthusiasm was catching. But to an old round dial pilot, EASy’s astonishing capabilities revealed that we should have taken the full 19-day training course before flying. While a handsome system and certainly the way of the future, EASy’s incredible wealth of pilot-selectable features is taxing on the memory.

At the conclusion of the demonstration trip, however, we made a fairly reasonable, and confidence restoring, old-fashioned visual landing. One never forgets, after all, how to ride a bicycle.

Flying The Next Generation 737, Falcon 2000

No pilot, however out of practice, can turn down the opportunity to handle a new airplane, or a flight simulator of a new type. So, having flown airline turboprops many years ago, this writer promptly accepted offers to fly a Boeing 737-800 simulator at CAE and a Falcon 2000 EX simulator at FlightSafety International.

Surely, even a rusty pilot shouldn’t have too many problems. But hand flying either aircraft reminded one of the old adage that "the pilot should always stay ahead of the aircraft," as I found myself strenuously trying to keep up with the simulators.

CAE instructor Domenic Di Iorio diplomatically pointed out that pilots today use the autopilot in almost all flight regimes, from climb out to final approach. On autopilot, the 737 became rock steady and, after responding to two Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) alerts and staying safely clear of a line of serious looking thunderstorms, it very smoothly intercepted the ILS localizer and then the glideslope for a Cat II approach to Tokyo’s Haneda airport. The aircraft broke out of the overcast at 100 feet, followed by a gentle flare to touchdown. Autobraking then brought us down to safe taxi speed at the runway exit. All hands-off, and very impressive.

The Falcon 2000 EX was an even more exhilarating ride. With feather-light controls and seemingly huge reserves of power, this corporate jet’s lineage with Dassault’s Mirage and Rafale fighters was immediately obvious as it leaped into the air like a winged rocket.

Once having caught up with the aircraft, it was a delight to fly, but the effort of staying with it rather detracted from instructor Rick Hall’s simultaneous demonstration of the incredible range of data modes available on the aircraft’s four Honeywell EASy glass cockpit displays.

Again, we reverted to an immaculately flown autopilot ILS intercept and approach, except this time I was instructed to disengage the autopilot at 30 feet above the runway for a manual landing that I managed to accomplish with a fairly smooth flare and a reasonably gentle touchdown. Dignity was restored. — William Reynish

The Link Trainer

Flight simulation began, one might say, in the imagination of Edwin A. Link who, as a young man in New York in the late 1920s, found his desire to be a pilot hampered by the cost of instrument flying lessons. So, using the knowledge gained from his father’s pipe organ business, he built a bellows-activated device that used air pressure and suction to move a pedestal-mounted, aircraft replica, complete with a pilot’s cockpit and controls, that could be "flown" as an instrument flying trainer.

Inside its completely enclosed cockpit, a student flew prescribed maneuvers that were relayed electro-mechanically to a "crab" that moved across a large, glass-topped table and left an inked trace of the flight path over the map below. At the edge of the table, duplicates of the machine’s airspeed, climb and descent rate indicators and altimeter, showed the instructor how well the student controlled the flight.

Prior to World War II, little interest was shown in Link’s invention, which he called the Link Trainer. But by the end of the war, some 7,000 units were in use by the U.S. military alone, with an unknown but substantial number being used by allied forces and, subsequently, by civil operators.

Ed Link never could have imagined that 80 years after building his first machine, virtually every military and commercial pilot in the world will have benefitted from his legacy. In today’s multi-billion-dollar flight simulation industry, Link’s name is as revered as those of the Wright brothers.

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