Thursday, December 03, 2009

Middle Seat, Again

It's time to go over to the simulator building. Oh and John billed me as a Canadian bush pilot, but someone involved in the approval process got the idea that I'm a simulator visuals technician. I guess it doesn't take too much message mangling to go from "visual flying" to "visuals." "So maybe you could admire the visuals," suggests John. I'm actually nervous about the sim, not because I might be faking my visual credentials, but as a pilot reflex. Being in a simulator is about succeeding or failing at a job interview, or about getting to keep your job versus having to go back to the bush leagues. Even though no one will ever know if I fly this pretend airplane badly, it's still how I feel. I also don't want to look like an idiot.

The simulator building is inside a fence which we enter through an unlocked gate. John points out a new simulator almost ready for use in its own building inside the compound. It is for another type, which I don't know if I'm allowed to name. Once it is operational that gate will be locked and one will have to enter through the checkpoint around the other side of the fenced area. Today there's no one at this gate to check my ID.

The lower door into the tall room where the simulator sits is open and I can see that it looks pretty much like any other motion simulator, a big pod up on a hoist, with hydraulic hoses and wires hanging off it. It is white, like other simulators; the Marines have somehow resisted the temptation to paint it grey or khaki. Upstairs, past an Uncle Sam "WE'RE AT WAR! ARE YOU DOING ALL YOU CAN?" sign is the entrance to the simulator. There's a North Carolinian touch added to the standard sign forbidding food and drink in the simulator.

We cross the bridge into the simulator pod. At the left side near the back are monitors and controls for the instructor to see what the students are seeing and where they are, and to change weather, location or the operability of the aircraft. There's a flight engineer seat on the right and of course two pilot seats at the front. Each of the two pilot positions has what looks like a clear sunvisor positioned in front of it. When you sit in the seat you can see green lines, providing a horizon, airspeed, altitude and some radio nav information: a heads-up-display. Instead of having to choose between looking at the cockpit instrumentation and looking out the window, you can look at both at once, or switch your focus between them without moving your head a single degree. And I thought the "VFR" button on my transponder was a cool attention-saving device.

You can see a throttle quadrant, a traditional-looking FMS, EFIS screens, standby instruments, and everything else you'd expect to see in an airplane. I'm directed to sit in the flight engineer's seat, which is on a track, such that I can slide it forward and left from its position at the FE console to the middle of the airplane looking between the two pilots. There's a four point harness and I put it all on, then shrug off the shoulder straps so that I can still lean around all over the place to rubberneck.

I'm introduced to the instructor, but it turns out that he hasn't been informed of my presence. John and the instructor both take this as a matter of course. It's always heartening to know that one's own organization is not the only one with communication difficulties. The instructor checks with someone, I think, and then we're on. I asked him if there was anything I would see or hear during the lesson that couldn't be published. He assured me there was not. I still know I have a habit of noticing the one thing I wasn't supposed to know about, so this is all double-checked through John before posting. There is no safety briefing, unlike other simulators I've been in.

The pilots whose session I am sitting in on will be taking their second lesson in this simulator. They have been through basic flight training and upgraded to turbine engines on the military equivalent of a King Air, but they have never flown this airplane for real. They are both very young men, wearing one-piece flight suits with blank velcro for the insignia patches on their shoulders. The instructor closes up the back of the simulator and tells them that today they will take off, climb to altitude, practice as many steep turns as they like and then do some stalls before returning to the airport for circuits. It's a pretty standard familiarization lesson. Their conversation with the instructor is casual and respectful both ways, with no military overtones. I know someone who quit a Canadian military flight instruction job because he didn't like the training atmosphere, but I'd be happy supervising this session.

The trainees are directed to set up the computer. They are entering weight and fuel information, communicating with each other, but not through checklists or crisp SOPs, just talking. They get everything set up and the instructor gives them a tip for entering their fuel burn when the route includes maneuvering, instead of just point to point. When everything tallies they are directed to start up. The first engine they start is #3, and the whole simulator shakes from the vibration of the simulated engine. They continue through the checklist on the glareshield, starting #4 next, then #2 and #1 last. Imagine having twice as many engines that might not start on any given day. At least they are turbines. And their simulated ATIS gave them a 20 degree day. It's twilight, but it doesn't matter if it is dawn or dusk, because the simulator is set to remain frozen in time. The instructor says there is a continuous setting that allows time to run, but instructors never use it.

The instructor offers a hint to the left seat pilot to bring up the power on the inboard engines, in case the FO accidentally turns off the APU. I didn't see the layout that suggested that was likely. There's a simulated marshaller on the ramp, but the instructor turns him off, because he says he's a pain to operate. He just gives the guys a taxi clearance, which in typical American style names no taxiways, so they are free to find their own way to the assigned runway. They go most of the way down the ramp, which the instructor says is fine, when they ask. As they turn they know too go past the intersection before turning, because they are sitting forward of the nosewheel. I would have forgotten; I sit over my nosewheel.

Positioned on the runway, I shrug my shoulders back into the shoulder straps and watch power application. Centreline control isn't perfect, but probably pretty good for someone's second time with that many engines and that much power. I'll have to remember to be right THERE on the rudder as the power comes up. A master caution light illuminates on the panel, "door open," but to my surprise neither pilot calls for an abort. I have written most of "why aren't they aborting?" on my notepad before they decide for themselves that that would be a good plan. Oh yeah, I realize. As cool as they look in their flight suits and as far superior as they are to me in youthful reflexes and expense of training, these guys have less than five percent of my experience. They come to a stop without going off the end of the runway and the instructor reminds them about correct and timely callouts for such an occasion. He says "don't look out the window, it will mess you up," and resets the simulator to the beginning of the runway. Of course I look, and see the mind-warping whoosh as the airplane accelerates backwards and rematerializes on the threshold. If you're prone to airsickness, don't look!

On the next take-off the same door-open alarm sounds and the guys react much better, not flawlessly, but enough to win instructor praise. They joke about getting maintenance to look at that door. They haven't eaten up much runway this time, so he clears them for take-off from that position and this time he fails an engine. They abort correctly, and stay on the runway despite a some directional control problems.

The next time they are allowed to get off the simulated ground with no failures and are quickly at exercise height. They do a good job of the steep turns, both technically and with a good brief from one to the other for the two-crew exercise, and they are happy to move onto stalls after two steep turns each. The computer tells them the speeds to fly to approach each stall for their weight. The left seat pilot has the controls first, approaching at 145 knots to a clean stall, then a dirty one and then a climbing turn stall. He tries another one just letting the stick pusher do the recovery.

There is a ding-dong alert from the avionics, but the instructor clears it. It is a fuel quantity disagree error between the flight computer and the fuel sensors, due to the trick he used with the fuel planning. He tells them how to clear it themselves if need be. The right seat pilot repeats the stalls. Like the largest airplanes I have flown -- none as big as this -- they just power out of stalls with no pitch down.

The instructor simulates the ATIS again for their return to the airport and the pilots run the approach checklist. "Passengers and cargo?" says one pilot from the checklist. Presumably the correct response is something along the lines of "briefed and secure," but there's a pause, perhaps they haven't learned the correct briefing yet, or realize that there isn't really enough time. Then the other pilot replies, "They're all dead," and they get on with the checklist. It's nice that they can concentrate on one thing at a time, and train seriously without having to be super serious.

They are still very high as the instructor gives them vectors onto final. I've never flown this airplane of course, so perhaps it drops like a rock. At the point that I'm wondering what their plan is, one of the pilots jokes that it's a "space shuttle approach." I had a boss once who used to say things went "down like a rocket." Perhaps I've finally realized what he meant. They are high and fast and resolve the problem by doing a go around. They are high on the second one, too, but lose a little altitude getting back to centreline after hooking the approach, and then get it down even though they are only using half flaps. It's a little fast and my flight instructor instincts cause me to shift my feet and arms so as not to take the touchdown impact directly on my once-broken spinal column. But the simulator is merciful and doesn't smack us as hard as a real airplane will. And the seat is a lot cushier than in a C150, too.

The instructor asks the pilots what is considered a good touchdown point for this airplane, and he approves their answer of "in the first third of the runway." Heh. I'm going to do a bush pilot short field approach, and put it at the beginning of the runway, just to see how short you can land this behemoth. Probably pretty short. They continue flying and the pilot improves quickly. I still think he's starting the flare a little too soon, but then we're pretty big.

After a few circuits the instructor directs them to land with full flaps. He says it's easier with half flaps, but that full is the correct way. I'm not sure why it's easier. It looks much more correct to me with full flaps. The right seat pilot takes control and he does right hand circuits, so he can see the turns. They're both having a little trouble rolling out aligned on final, but they work on that. After a couple of hours the instructor freezes the sim and they take a break.

My turn? Oh man, now I have to put my money where my smart-assed blogging fingers are. John checks with the instructor. Narrative continues after I check again with John to see what I can blog.


amulbunny said...

This is really cool. Thanks for sharing. Can't wait to read your real experience!

Sarah said...

O I can't wait either. The bloggy build-up has been relentless.

I'm looking forward to the hearing about the fun you can have with 4 'engines' and a tricksy instructor.

Who is going to be in the right seat for you? John?

rw2 said...

Great stuff. Here in Chicago we have several simulators between military and commercial. I'm going to have to network and see if I know someone who knows someone!

Traveller said...

USAF type-training for the C-130 is at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas. I used to be stationed there. I had the opportunity to left seat one of their simulators. What a blast?

My USAF job is loading cargo aircraft, so one of our tasks at Little Rock was loading 8000 lb hunks of concrete on cargo pallets (called "pet rocks") into the real thing so the pilots get used to how the plane handles with realistic weight on board.

I can't wait to read what you session was like.

A Squared said...

At first I thought that you'd misunderstood that the seat you occupied was the FE seat. Flight engineers are only found in Hercs prior to the J model, the J model has no FE, only two pilots. The FE seat in a Pre "J" herc is dead center between and very slightly behind the pilots, although it can move back and to the left on tracks. The FE is an integral part of the crew and an official sim session (let alone a flight) would not be done without a trained and qualified Flight Engineer in the seat. The Flight engineer sets power, manages fuel, electrical and environmental systems and reads checklists. The FO, for example, would not, under any normal circumstances, start the APU, and in fact could not reach the APU controls from his seat, unless possessed of freakishly long arms.

A little light reading reveals that the Marines crew the KC-130J with a vestigial "flight engineer" even though, judging from the description of the sim session he doesn't actually perform any essential function. Sounds a lot like the "flight engineer" that ALPA required the airlines to have sitting on the jumpseat of the 737 when it first became operational.

FWIW, the seat position described would be the Navigator's Station (another eliminated position) on the pre J model Hercs

Tim M said...

On the edge of my seat for the next post. Thanks for this interesting blog.

Anonymous said...

And then at the end of the sim they asked aviatrix if she wanted to fly the real thing everyday, and handed her this to read...

Staying tuned

Lawrence said...

Did you get a look at the flaps this time Aviatrix?

Richard said...

Door open? Here in the Scottish Highlands if I see a C130 flying quietly past (usually below me) one of the rear side doors will certainly be open, with the AQM sitting on the sill, with his feet out, advising the drivers of any trees that are higher than their neighbours, so that they can avoid them!