Posted by: Korry | December 13, 2011

Techie Tuesday: Inside “The Box”

Would you feel comfortable getting on an airliner if you knew that one of your pilots had never flown the real aircraft before? Well, prepare to be shocked and amazed because believe it or not, that is very often the case for a pilot on a new plane. How can that be? The answer is that any time a pilot trains on a new plane, he or she will spend dozens of hours training in incredibly advanced, unbelievably realistic flight simulators…and as I mentioned yesterday the quality of training those pilots receive is infinitely better, safer and more cost-effective (even for a $7 million simulator) than if it had to be done in the real plane.

Today for Techie Tuesday, I’m going to bring you inside “The Box” (aka the full motion flight simulator)…

The Box

…for a peek at what these amazing video games devices are like.

The first thing you may notice is that it doesn’t look anything like an airplane at all. From the outside, you can see that the simulator–officially known as a Level D Full Flight Simulator–is supported by a series of rods that are hydraulically driven to maneuver “the box” in such a way as to fool our minds into thinking we’re moving, especially with the visual displays. For instance, if we’re accelerating, the simulator tilts backwards giving us the sensation of being pushed, just as we would feel during takeoff. If you’ve never seen one of these babies at work, you just can’t believe the range of motion they have. Of course, some times are more impressive than others. We practice a lot of flying that doesn’t require much movement; however, we also train for situations such as engine failures, windshear avoidance and landings that tend to move the box around a lot more.

Once inside, the simulator uses original parts and pieces to create a cockpit that is nearly impossible to distinguish from the real deal. The same buttons, same switches, same displays…even the same circuit breakers are all used. Everything is fully functioning. And with visual displays that are incredibly detailed, it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference from real life. Take a look at this picture I snapped yesterday that shows the view out the first officer’s (aka co-pilot’s) window while positioned at the beginning of the runway on a supposedly very foggy day.

View of Simulated Runway and Fog

The incredibly high level of realism lets the pilots basically “forget” that they’re in a simulator, and the fact that it’s not a real airplane means the pilots can safely practice lots of things that would be unbelievably dangerous to do in the real world such as engine failures and fires, blown tires, landing gear or flap malfunctions, etc. All of those “failures” are controlled by the instructor who sits at a computer behind the pilots. There are also additional observer seats so our friends at the FAA can come and watch us “play” too! Here’s a pic of the instructor’s station. Notice that you can see a simulated ramper through the windshield giving the stop signal to the pilots (two wands crossed above his head).

Instructor's Station

Just how realistic are the simulators? Amazingly realistic. When the instructor simulates closing the passenger door, we feel a thump. When we taxi to the runway, we can feel grooves in the pavement. When we’re “flying” through stormy weather, we feel turbulence that is strong enough to bounce us out of our seats if it weren’t for the seatbelts. The visuals contain rampers, other planes, real terminals and even satellite imagery of the ground we’re supposedly flying over. Entire city skylines are even loaded despite the fact that the vast percentage of our time is spent flying in clouds or poor visibility conditions since that’s what is more challenging.

The bottom line is that training is just phenomenal in these devices. Want to practice a complicated mountainous approach? Just load the approach to Mexico City and away we go. What about multiple crosswind landings that are at the max the airplane is certified for? No need to find a windy airport…just load one in the simulator and then after each landing reposition quickly back a few miles and give it another run. The simulator allows pilots to do all of this and more in a single simulator session! There’s no way you could do that in a real airplane–logistically, safely, and economically.

The end result of this is increased safety for passengers. There is no doubt that simulators have played a HUGE role in helping pilots maintain that 99.999% safety rating. So when the pilot finishes training and heads to the airport, it’s ok that he’s flying the real plane for the first time with paying passengers on board because he’s truly already flown the plane! (Albeit a simulated version of it). Trust me, you are definitely in better hands than you’d be if it weren’t for these sims.

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Responses

  1. […] of recurrent training. So while I knew all along we were on just another routine flight in the simulator, my adrenalin was still pumping thanks to how realistic the situation felt. I take comfort knowing […]

  2. […] those actually selected, the training is intense. They use flight simulators, much like airline pilots, to practice for emergency situations that could occur during a […]


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