Sunday, December 06, 2009

If I Did It

So, as I said, the instructor quit an hour early so as not to miss his favourite TV show, leaving an unbooked hour in the sim. After discussion with John, I've decided to document as follows. If I had a chance to fly the sim for that hour, this is how it went.

I'm in the left seat, a colleague of John's is in the right, and John is running the sim. Rather than spend precious minutes starting up and taxiing, I ask John to position the aircraft holding short of the runway, engines running. The same eternal twilight prevails. Maybe it's the default. It's commonly used in sims, because you can still see well, but the brain accepts that indistinct visuals are caused by poor lighting conditions, heightening the efficacy of the illusion.

Not Me (nor Lee), doing prestart checks in an Australian C-130

I call for the pre-takeoff checklist, which I had thought was displayed on screens on the glareshield, but now that I can see it close up I find that the centre panels are nav and radio frequencies (funny to see numbers starting with "2" up in the UHF range) and it's where you set the autopilot parameters, which is why they were looking at it at checklist time. You can sort of see them in the photo. My copilot, whom I will call Lee, because it's awkward to keep calling him "the guy in the right seat," says "it's a flow," meaning that it's a silent rechecking of systems. I give a takeoff briefing consisting mainly of the appalling, "I'm going to push everything forward and rotate at ... umm, what's it say on the TOLD?" and "then we'll make it up as we go along." We obtain a takeoff clearance, and then I taxi onto the runway.

You might wonder why I didn't just ask him to start it up ON the runway, like the default in Microsoft Flight simulator. I do want to see what it's like to taxi, not just to know, but because a take off run is transitioning from taxiing to flying and let's give me a chance to see how this thing works before I'm actually taking off. Oh and there's a wrinkle that I very almost forgot. In an airplane this size there is no rudder pedal-nosewheel steering linkage. I have to steer with a separate wheel. It's like the steering wheel on some buses: a normal steering wheel with a knob on it so you can crank it fast. It's weird to have airplane steering in my hand.

With the right hand, it's quite easy to push four power levers forward. They've been designed to act as one, or as two for differential power. Oops, it's too easy. You have to put the power up and wait for things to happen when the airplane is this big. Maybe I'd be more intimidated by this airplane had I had to walk up to it and climb into the cockpit instead of walking across the little bridge into something I could see wasn't much bigger than a minivan. I stay on the simulated runway and get the thrust under control.

Centred -- more or less -- on the runway, that again-forgotten 'go past before you need to turn' thing, and my slowness on the nosewheel crank worked in my favour here. You don't have the same foot feedback on whether the nosewheel is centred like with rudder-linked steering. You have to look at the markings on the pointer by the steering wheel to see if the nosewheel is back in the middle after a turn. I eat up a few hundred feet of runway experimenting with the steering and getting the airplane properly centred with the nosewheel straight, then I stop and look at Lee. "Ready?" Some aircraft have lineup checks or "below the line" items on the runway. If this one does he's snuck them in, because he just says, "Ready, Captain." John must have paid him to say that. I grin like a kid and push the power levers forward.

Oh. Yes. Baby. This is a twenty million dollar sex toy. Size matters, as long as it's got this much thrust. In the back of my mind is the knowledge that lurks there on every real or simulated takeoff that it may be an abort, but I do everything but call out "don't stop!"

It climbs like a bat out of hell, and is remarkably stable doing so. I call "Gear up" and find myself hunting for an HSI or other directional indication to maintain my heading. We're in VMC but even with all these windows, I can't see a ground reference at this climb angle.

"Heading information?" I ask.

John just says, "that's fine right there." He thinks I was asking for a heading. I figure it out. It's on the HUD, like a compass, only forward, which is backwards for a compass. Don't ponder that too hard. I'm right side up and have nowhere to go in particular. I also have to clean up the power. I'm so far behind this plane I wouldn't get hurt in a crash.

"What torque do I set for the climb?" Lee's hand beside me does it. The beauty of having at least one crew member who knows what he's doing. Wait, there are no propeller levers. "Where are the propeller controls?" The throttles are just throttles, but this is not a jet, it's a turboprop. You're not going to tell me it has fixed pitch propellers?! Apparently it's automatic. How cool is that? I have no idea how it works. I could look it up, but then this blog post would be even later.

We're through ten thousand feet in the time it takes me to figure out how to look straight ahead of me and accept that I have no propeller levers. I level off and then make some shallow turns to look around, and get the feel of the airplane. It feels very much like an airplane. Knowing the way a simulator works: tipping and lurching to simulate various kinds of motion, then sneaking smoothly back to the middle so it's ready to do that again, I had intended to try and trick it and come up with a scenario that would allow me to notice the little man behind the curtain, but even as a passenger it didn't occur to me during maneuvers that there was anything going on other than airplane physics. Now that I can try it, I want to think about trying the plane not the sim.

There's a reason the trainees were doing steep turns and stalls. It's not just that they're flight test items, but that's how you tell what an airplane does. You need to know how it responds to roll, pitch and power inputs. On an examination you demonstrate a steep turn to prove you have mastered these controls. On a test flight you find out how the airplane behaves. On a lesson you find out how the student behaves. I find out whether I'm going to make a fool of myself.

I see no traffic. (It doesn't matter that you're in a glorified box on a stick, if you were properly trained you can't do a turn without checking for traffic) and try a forty-five degree turn. Look at the horizon; roll smoothly through thirty degrees; climb two hundred feet as I add way too much thrust. "Easy on the rudders!" advises the right seat pilot. It's surprising he can speak, given how hard he must have been biting his tongue up to now.

I roll out, using much less rudder, readjust the power, and then try again. This time smoothly, easily, lock it on the horizon and carve a semicircle in the sky, and then back the other way to where I started. It's really just like my regular ride. I usually screw up the first one in recurrent training, too, because due to my regular payload I'm operationally forbidden to bank over 16 degrees, often less. I trust that the way the simulator feels is very much the way the actual airplane feels, but it doesn't feel like I'm hauling around three Humvees, 64 paratroopers or almost 30,000 kg of fuel.

"What weight is it set at?" I ask, scanning the areas where the guys seemed to have been looking when they did their fuel calculations. I don't have their benefit of groundschool, study manuals (I asked, but they were all "not to be transmitted outside the department"), or non-motion cockpit trainers. "Can you adjust it so I can feel it at max gross?" John does so, and I do another steep turn. Now I need more power.

"What is the stall speed in this configuration?" There's a TOLD indicator on the centre console. I think it was one thirty something. Forgive me for not taking notes. Those sinusoidal fans Angus mentioned seem to have done their job. Or maybe it's the week or so delay in writing it up. So fly plane, reduce power, fly plane, reduce power, hold altitude, trim, airspeed dropping. "Hey, I want to hold it in slow flight for a moment," increase power, keep nose up, hold altitude, now I get to use the rudder a bit more, but I guess it has a yaw damper, because not as much as I would expect. I'm trying to balance it on the edge of a stall. There's something amazing about the skills I learned in a Cessna 152 being applicable to something that probably needs chocks bigger than an entire C152. I hold the attitude and reduce the power a bit more.


I was intending to stall it, and knew it had a stick pusher, but the movement of the stick actually pushing takes me by surprise. It's like a flight instructor angrily grabbing the controls, or the first time anti-lock brakes makes themselves felt under your feet. The pilot is supposed to push the stick forward to get the nose down if the airplane stalls, but this airplane isn't taking any chances that I'm stupid or slow, so it shoves it forward itself. Many smaller airplanes are aerodynamically built so that the airplane noses down at the point of stall. This feature replicates that. I increase the power as I should for the stall recovery. The familiarity of that maneuver--stick pusher notwithstanding--is a testament to this being a historic airframe, predating airplanes too fancy for humans to fly them without computer stabilization. "Take it down to a minimum weight," I dictate to John, words like 'could you please' completely lost in the combined spirit of scientific investigation and pilot-in-command.

I stall and recover again in level flight, letting the stick pusher push one hand while the other pushes power levers. I'm really not sure if I can tell that the airplane behaves differently or if I just imagine it does because I know the forces are different. In the real airplanes which I've flown so far, I only really notice weight differences in slow flight, i.e. take off and landing, but the max and min weights are not so different. I try a steep turn at the lower weight and I nail it. Seriously, a HUD is the best invention since the windshield. This would so rock for aerobatics.

Insert a half second pause to consider what I just thought there. Okay, that's enough of a pause.

"Ladies and gentlemen, please ensure your seatbelts are fastened, your tray tables up and your carry on baggage securely stowed." I make a rolling gesture with my hand where Lee can see it but John can't, and he grins and nods. Look at the horizon. Look at the HUD. Coordinated aileron and rudder into the roll. Hold heading, hold altitude, hold the roll inputs, look at the horizon. Amazingly, it really feels like I've rolled inverted. You can actually see the ground ahead through the highest windows. Oh oh I shouldn't have swung my head like that. Check the nose, keep the roll going, look at the horizon, back to right side up, and roll wings level. I make a noise like "Yippee!" only less articulate. This is awesome. I'm sure someone who does a lot of aerobatics would be able to distinguish between the expected disorientation of being upside-down and the artificial orientation of a simulator asked to do something it can't sustain, but it felt good enough to me. Writing this, I realize I should have tried to sustain inverted flight to see how the simulator would respond to that and I might have tried it, but just then an alarm went off.

I look at the glareshield for an annunciator. I'm low on fuel, because that's what I asked for: minimum weight. John magically refuels me. "Inflight refuelling," I say, a standard instructor-in-simulator joke. And then I realize that this is an airplane that provides inflight refuelling to others in real life. I ask if we can simulate air-to-air refuelling. They tell me we need a flight engineer to do that right. In the J-model (we're in the Hercules C-130J) the Marines use the FE position as an FE, navigator, defensive systems operator, loadmaster and refuelling operations controller. Older models had more crew members, but automation has allowed them to condense the jobs. The FE is especially busy during refueling. the pilots just have to fly straight and level while the receiver hooks up and the FE does all the interesting stuff during the transfer. So while it would be cool to see the simulated receiving aircraft pull alongside, it wouldn't be any more educational than watching a movie of the real thing.

It really boggles my mind that they are pumping fuel between aircraft. I wonder if it's an aviator/aviatrix thing whether you see an aerial mating dance, or the comparatively little helicopters suckling at the teats of the mommy Hercules.

I'm trying to think of what else can I do in this airplane that I couldn't in any other. It has radar jamming countermeasures, but useful as that may be, it doesn't sound like a hoot to simulate, and it's the FE's job, anyway. "Can we drop the paratroopers?" I ask, "After the way I've been flying I'm sure they want out." Yes, the sim does do that. I often have to retrim an airplane because one person walked to the back. What is it be like when sixty-four of them jump out the back? There wasn't a crazy pitch change as John insta-fuelled me earlier, but that's not a normal function of the airplane, so I wouldn't expect it to be modelled. But the trainers would want a pilot to know what to expect when everyone jumps out the back.

I turn around so we're headed back to the airport, and we run the checklist. The pilot not flying, that's Lee, does the depressurization. Pressurization is so automatic that I haven't had to think about it yet, but the aircraft is pressurized, so popping the back door might not result in quite as orderly a jump as my simulated Marines have planned. Depressurization is trivial: he has set the pressurization control to "NO" and the rate of depressurization to "normal." It's easier to use than on the King Air. Our altitude (about 12,000', I forget) is good.

When the depressurization is complete, Lee tells me he's going to open the cargo doors and reaches up. Normal airplanes have separate panels for things like lights, fuel system and deicing. This one has all that, plus an 'aerial delivery control panel.' You can drop a tank out of this thing. I'm exercising bad CRM by rubbernecking at the panel and it bites me. The whole airplane shakes violently. I redirect my attention to the controls where it should be and manage the airplane. I have a caution light, but it's just the 'door open' light, not the 'door ripped violently from the airframe' light or the 'missile attack' light that it feels like. Apparently this turbulence is a bug in the sim: it's supposed to be simulating normal airframe vibration caused by opening the door, but every once in a while it produces too much vibration for the event. I slow to the jump speed of 120 kts. Lee is working more switches on the panel. Later I look and see that there are deflector shields (cargo bay doors and deflector shields (it's Star Trek: 2001), plus caution lights in the cargo bay so the jumpers know what is going on. Presumably I would have a jumpmaster or someone else down there to talk to on intercom, too. When Lee tells me everything is ready I "approve" the egress.

I concentrate on flying nice and level and not hurting any of my simulated jumpers, and try to feel if there is any simulated CG shift. Nothing significant. "How long does it take them to all exit?" I ask after a moment.

"They'd be out by now."

It was maybe thirty seconds. "Can I see them?" I immediately want to know, looking out the window. John doesn't know if the simulator shows that. I bank over and try to look, but we don't see any simulated parachutes opening. I'll just have to assume my guys (and gals, if there are there female paratroopers) are all alright. I head back to the airport while Lee closes the doors and tidies up after the jump. We totally abbreviated that procedure, and skipped a bunch of checklists required to ensure the safety of real jumpers. John sent me a lot of information on how it should have been done, so I'll post that in a later entry. Remind me if I don't.

Isn't that the coolest picture? It completely conveys "ready for anything" when you can jump out of an airplane wearing a parachute and swim fins. I guess they just jettison and abandon the parachutes, as you certainly couldn't swim with one. Seems a waste, but then I guess most military operations involve throwing something away.

I descend for the airport and join downwind. Lee talks me through it and sets flaps and gear. I feel like I'm flaring too early, but it's textbook, in the first third of the runway, on the centreline. As an instructor myself, I know that I can pretend to take credit for that, but it wouldn't have looked as nice without the unobtrusive coaching. On the go of the touch and go there's surprisingly little to do. No propeller levers, the gear is supposed to stay down for circuits (but I raised it after takeoff without thinking). I wouldn't have pilots practice circuits with the gear always down. You could train out the instinct to always check it, and end up with something like this.

There's not a lot of time for circuits. I want to try a bush pilot style short field landing, flare over the weeds and stall onto the beginning of the runway, so I fly a long downwind and turn base to set up a long approach, as I said before an easy way to help judge descent profile. But we have to be out of here with the sim shut down and ready for the next people by eight o' clock and it's almost time. Lee says, "Quick, let me show you something."

"You have control."

He takes it, cutting the corner to final and then he shoves the nose down, divebombing the airport. I think he might have added power. He overflies the runway without slowing down. And then reaching the other end of the runway, before I can say 'hey cool,' we're in a knife edge left bank. I look at the simulated ground, including radio towers and buildings. Just when I think he's about to roll it inverted, he cranks the yoke back the other way and makes an equally steep 270 to the right, pulling the throttle to almost idle. He calls for gear down and flap fifty, and before I have that set he has rolled out perfectly on the centreline and wants full flaps. Done, down and brake. I don't think we've quite stopped rolling when John shuts down the sim. Without the visuals, we can feel the pod resetting itself to the neutral position. I'm still saying "holy firetrucks!" or something like it as we unstrap, grab our stuff and vacate the machine with a couple of minutes to spare.

Apparently that roller coaster approach is a trick to confuse people who hang out near your airport with ground to air missiles, and aren't on your team. I won't be trying it soon in my ride. That was definitely more than a fifteen degree bank. It kinda violates the Transport Canada regulations on flying a circuit, too.

As we all left the sim building we passed the open door of a briefing room where two more clean-shaven young men in flight suits were sitting with an instructor preparing for their simulator session. I hope they do well, and what I've seen from the quality of the instruction around here, they will.

It turns out that Lee, whom I didn't get more than a handshake introduction to before flight, is working on qualifying to be an instructor pilot. I wish I'd known that before the session: I could have made better use of his knowledge. I tease him, "I'm an instructor. The first thing is you have to be more outspoken. Don't let some ignoramus in the left seat push you around when you know better." We chat for a bit about the airplane and instruction in general, but he declines my offer of beer and or dinner, probably seeing through my shallow ploy to siphon more information out of him before casting aside his lifeless husk. John watched me do that to an aquarium volunteer, probably warned Lee. Lee therefore accepts only my abject thanks for his role in my flight of fancy, and goes back to studying.

So remember if I flew the KC-130 simulator, and I'm not saying I did, because that could get someone in trouble, that's more or less the way of it. I might have got some things wrong or left some parts out. Those sinusoidal extraction fans are something else.

Afterwards John and I went to a generic sort of food place that unfortunately did not measure up to the barbecue recommendations some of you gave when I announced this trip. I had an unmemorable entree, but then one of the dessert items offered was deep fried cheesecake. If I tried the cheesecake, and I'm not saying I did, because that way it's symmetrical with the previous paragraph, my tastebuds were wary but ultimately happy, my pancreas seemed worried and my arteries cried out in anguish. Seriously, y'all will deep fry anything around here!

So, anyone else have any thrust levers or cheesecake I can sample?


Frank Van Haste said...

Dear Trix:

First...Bravo Zulu!!! Outstanding performance in every respect.

Second. I am absolutely convinced that someone, somewhere in the last 50 years has rolled a Herc. But of course, you can't get anyone to admit it. As you now (may) know, the airplane is fine with it. So next time you talk to John, ask him if he's heard stories...

Now you be careful. Much more of this and the Marines may decide to keep you.

Best regards,


Aviatrix said...

Frank, I have no doubt whatsoever that you are right. You have environments where some of the aircraft are fully aerobatic and pilots move between types over their careers. You have a rock solid airplane. You have crews who are trained to die for one another, so who can trust each other to keep their mouths shut. And you have long, long legs with not much to do but make sure the fuel is feeding from the correct tanks.

jinksto said...

Fantastic post. Thanks for sharing. My favorite line, "I'm so far behind this plane I wouldn't get hurt in a crash."... hadn't heard that one before.

CanuckFlyer said...

I think your right Frank, Someone has to have rolled a Herc at some point. I mean, Tex Johnson rolled a 707, so it can't be THAT hard...Or maybe it is, I'm not a pilot of Tex's calibre by any measurement. But I may or may not have rolled a 172 once. Now there's an accomplishment to (not) brag about.

Angus said...

Great report! (possibly... if real)

Critical Alpha said...

It appears from this article

That a C130J has been rolled in testing - flick rolled though, not slow rolled -;)

You'll find it near the end of the article, which is interesting in its own right.

Go Fat Albert, Go!

jk said...

"I wonder if it's an aviator/aviatrix thing whether you see an aerial mating dance, or the comparatively little helicopters suckling at the teats of the mommy Hercules."

I think it has to do with the respective aircraft and refueling system rather than gender; helicopters taking a drink? Definitely the mother's milk analogy. Then consider the opening aerial refueling sequence of Dr. Strangelove.. there is little doubt what Kubrick was trying to portray there.

Anyway thank you for sharing your (not) sim session, and it was really enjoyable reading as well.

Anonymous said...

I know I said don't stop when I rode my F16 for the first time! Glad you enjoyed yourself.


Sarah said...

Fun writeup, for your possibly imaginary simulator ride. Thanks! That is, "don't stop". (That bit was hilarious.) For the record, the inflight refueling reminded me of hummingbirds more than anything else.

I learned some things... I guess I hadn't really thought about it, but with all those windows and the back door, I'd not have imagined c130s are even pressurized. Of course they are, but around here you're most likely to see them in pairs at 1000' AGL.

I've seen a few "Khe Sanh" landings being practiced... Google "assault landing c-130 CYYV" to see one done by the Marine's Thunderbird escort, "Fat Albert". That must definitely be an exciting view of the ground on short final! They do some interesting take-offs and zero-gee pushovers with JATO rockets too.

No doubt this has inflamed your desire for a fistful of power. Good luck on that front, but of course if you're ever around here - in the summer - you're welcome to partake in engineless flight again.

nec Timide said...

sarah said: That must definitely be an exciting view of the ground on short final!
You mean like this

Traveller said...

Great story! (If only...)

The C-130 is one of my most favorite aircraft. I've been in the back on live missions often enough.

The biggest difference from the sim to the real thing is the g-force experienced on high angle turns. But that is front brain stuff and effects fatigue if you do enough.

We use the blast deflectors when they are available to reduce (somewhat) the prop/turbine blast when doing loading and unloading operations behind the aircraft on the ground.

@Sarah: I agree with you about the hummingbirds for the type of refueling done from KC-130s. -...- I know we pulled negative gees on my first combat approach to a dirt strip on a C-130 (this was in Colorado).

@nec Timide: That appeared rather tame compared to what Aviatrix described, though it was on a par with most of my landings.

Mark said...

Very exciting. Does the simulator tip back to simulate acceleration on the take off roll?


Aviatrix said...

Yes it does tip back, but when you're in it there is no sensation of tipping back, except at rotation. The visuals tell you that you are accelerating and so does your inner ear. The motion is realistic enough that there was no reason to mention it.

Wayne Conrad said...

If you rode in the simulator--and I'm not saying you did--then that was an E ticket ride and, as always, a vivid writeup. Almost like it happened (and I'm not saying it did).

Richard said...

The picture of the Aussie doing her checks has the fullest Exif Metadata of any I've downloaded yet! So we know that it is, "Flying Officer Carlene Heise, 38th Squadron B-350 King Air pilot, executes pre-flight checklists on a C-130J-30 Hercules here, Aug. 27. The RAAF's role is to provide intra-theatre combat airlift support for the Australian Defense Force and coalition elements throughout the area of operations. Flying Officer Heise is a native of Townsville, North Queensland, Australia. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Tech. Sgt. Jason W. Edwards)"

So now we all know!

And Jason is using a Nikon D200!

The C130 "Air-bridge" that supplied the Falkland Islands in 1982 was hardly carbon neutral! The First C130 took off from Ascension, and flew South, to meet it's follower a few hours down, and refuel it, then turn back. That follower then refueled, in turn, a little further down, the actual Falklands flight - policy requiring that "THE" airbridge always had sufficient fuel to be able to turn back to ASI, rather than try a politically awkward diversion to any South American runway! ... and cross-winds quite often meant that the aircraft made one pass over Stanley, then turned back, for a 22 hr non-stop trip.

Aviatrix said...

Wow, Richard. It's a good thing I didn't make anything up about her.

"Politically awkward diversion," heh.