[Editor's Note: Martin Arant is the new "Simulation Technologies Director" at Avsim Online and as such, will be writing regular reports on airline simulators and new simulation technology of interest to the AVSIM community. Martin is also a member of the Avsim Board of Directors and handles operation of the Avsim Online Store.]
Like most simulation and aviation enthusiasts, I always do a second-take when boarding a commercial flight and walking past the flight deck. It was no different this time as I boarded a B-737 in Birmingham in late April for a flight bound for Denver. As a member of the Avsim 2004 Convention team, I was heading out to Colorado to check out the facilities for the upcoming September Avsim Convention. For this 3rd annual get-together, facilities don’t just mean hotel and exhibition hall, but includes the United Airlines Flight Training Center… the centerpiece of this year’s event.
At 7:30 AM the morning after our arrival, Captain Richard Walsh of United Airlines met us in the lobby of the training center. My wife Janet had come along in order to document and photograph our visit. Captain Walsh is the B-777 Chief Pilot for United Airlines and Director of Flight Center Operations. I had met Richard after arranging with him to be the keynote speaker for our last Avsim convention, so I was really looking forward to having him give me the orientation on the Triple-7. Captain Walsh was accompanied by Mike Gillen, Flight Operations Supervisor at United for the B-400 and B-777 fleet. Mike was going to be in charge of the instructors’ station in the simulator, as well as providing air traffic control for our session. After signing in, we proceeded back to the simulation bays. The facilities at United are similar to other centers I’ve visited, but on a much grander scale!
The entire United training complex is located across the street from the Doubletree Hotel, the official hotel of the convention and site of this years Avsim conference and banquet. United encompasses several large glass multi-story buildings and is within easy walking distance of the hotel. This entire area, by the way, was previously the site of Denver’s Stapleton Airport. When the airport relocated a dozen miles to the east, becoming the new Denver International Airport, United maintained its training facility at the old location. After all, simulators can still execute smooth takeoff rolls, even if real airport runways and tarmacs have been turned into housing tracts and strip malls. It certainly made for a curious site in the lobby of the Doubletree, watching pilots with their flight bags heading out to “catch their flights” across the street. With the United training center next door, the Doubletree is still very much a pilot’s hotel, even though the airport departed the area long ago.
Logging In for the Flight UAL Flight Training Center
There's nothing that can quite describe the feeling when I climbed into the left seat of the Boeing 777 Simulator! I've flown other full-motion simulators at various airline and training facilities around the world, but this was different. First of all, the UAL 777 simulator is a state-of-the-art level-D full 6-axis motion simulator. This means it is fully certified by the FAA for all aspects of training, including daytime mode. Simulators approved at lesser FAA “levels” need not incorporate daylight visual scenes. The B-777 aircraft also has the distinction of being the first airliner totally designed on computers. The simulator was built before the actual aircraft was ever produced, so the various design aspects and flight characteristics could be tested before the airliner actually went into production. One could therefore say that the airplane was built to fly like the simulator, instead of building the simulator to fly like the airplane. Not only do the instruments in the Triple-7 simulator look like the real thing… they are the real thing! The flight instruments and MFD (multi-function displays) are actually interchangeable with the corresponding parts in the actual aircraft. So strapping into the Captains seat on the flight deck could not have been more real.
Mike has now positioned us at the gate of London’s Heathrow Airport for a flight across the Atlantic to Newark. The APU was already running and the preliminary checklists had been completed. The next step is to program the flight management computer for our trip. Flight plans for the FMC are actually downloaded into the system from company dispatch. Captain Walsh explains this not only saves time, but also eliminates the possibility of errors, such as punching in wrong coordinates. Today we will be flying the Increased Gross Weight (IGW) B777, so gross weight for takeoff is going to be a whopping 640,000 pounds. Captain Walsh pulls up the electronic before-start checklist on the MFD and we go through each item before starting up the engines. We have 123,300 pounds of jet fuel onboard and a full passenger load.
At this point we request a pushback from the gate. Unbelievably, this is accomplished exactly the same as with our desktop simulators… by pressing a key on the instructor keyboard. There is however, one significant difference; you feel the aircraft beginning to move away from the gate. Believe me, this is no small thing. Motion and peripheral vision out the side cockpit windows add a whole new level of realism. Clearance Delivery issues us our clearance and we begin the engine startup procedure. In this fully automated aircraft, engine start is simple and straightforward; select start with the left engine start-switch, then the right engine start-switch, press auto-start, and then open the fuel-cocks for each engine on the throttle console. Within seconds we can hear the soft whine of the turbines spooling up, the engine gauges come alive and stabilize to their idle settings, and we’re ready to taxi. Ground control clears us out to runway 27R and I slowly advance the throttles just enough to get us rolling. During this time Captain Walsh gives me some really impressive data on this remarkable aircraft. The B-777 for example, can get off the ground with a gross weight of 500,000 pounds using 20 degrees of flaps in only about 3000 feet of runway. Which airports can handle the big jet is more an issue of gate size and parking requirements rather than actual runway length. The Triple-7 is also Boeing’s first fly-by-wire aircraft. As Captain Walsh ran though more and more of the advanced features of this aircraft, I began to realize that my session in the B-777 was going to be a memorable experience.
Even though our Level-D simulator is fully daylight capable, Captain Walsh has recommended dusk mode for the first part of our flight, as it provides the most natural depiction of buildings, airport lighting, and the surrounding landscape. As we began our taxi out to Runway 27R, the immersive aspect of the simulation is uncanny. It was like I was really there! Honestly though, it’s not only the scenery realism that makes the difference. The taxiway lighting and airport markings are very good, but not any better than some of the scenery we have on our desktop simulators. Rather, it’s the totality of the combined elements of the simulation. Our field of view is no longer confined to a small monitor… it now totally surrounds us with 180 degrees of view. The motion, the real instrumentation, and the fact we’re sitting in a real aircraft cockpit made me quickly forget that this is a simulation. My total absorption into this 3-D world became apparent when we decided to forego the remaining minutes of taxi time and get right out onto the runway. Mike repositioned us on Runway 27R and I immediately felt disoriented and confused. Mike explained that this is common and the most effective way to combat the effect is to close your eyes during repositioning, something I definitely want to remember for the next time.
Running the Checklist Turbulence Jars the Photographer
Now the moment every simulation enthusiast dreams about is here. I make one final mental review of the takeoff procedure as I push the thrust levers forward to the green line on the EPR gauges. Controls are checked. LNAV and VNAV are armed and programmed for departure. My left hand now comes off the tiller as we begin accelerating down the runway. Thrust increases to the takeoff setting of 1.506 EPR. Within a matter of seconds Captain Walsh calls out 80 knots, then V1 and Vr, as I begin rotating off the runway at 145 knots. He brings up the gear, and we begin our climb out. Flaps start coming up at 2000 feet. Climb thrust is set automatically by the autopilot. At 2500 feet we begin cleaning up the flaps and trim nose-down to 10 degrees. “United 901… Heathrow Departure: Climb and maintain 5,000.”
During the next several hours comes a rapid succession of takeoffs, landing, stalls and recovery, as well as a demonstration of traffic avoidance using the advanced TCAS system. My most memorable experience in the simulator was a takeoff from Runway 28 at San Francisco with an engine failure right before rotation at V1 (see accompanying MPEG video). The yawing effect was immediate and dramatic after power loss on the left engine, requiring full right rudder to keep the aircraft on the centerline. Within a few seconds the engine failure turned into an engine fire, which in turn was quickly extinguished by Captain Walsh, as I struggled to maintain control of the aircraft. Once a positive climb rate had been established however, we engaged the automatic rudder compensation system… from which point the aircraft behaved effortlessly, as though both engines were still operating normally. ATC gave us priority clearance, vectoring us out over San Francisco Bay for a return and ILS approach to Runway 28R. After an uneventful landing and rollout it was unfortunately time to turn the simulator over to the next airline flight crew scheduled for her use.
The one question I always ask myself after flying one of these high-end simulators is this; “Did it really fly like the actual airplane?” I know many other flight simulation enthusiasts reading this article are wondering the same thing. I’m a private pilot and have never flown anything in real life larger than a Cessna 182… so I can’t factually answer that question. But the answer I always get from airline pilots and simulator instructors is an unqualified “Yes.” Captain Walsh was no different in this regard. He assured me that the B-777 simulator feels and flies like the real aircraft. The only concession he made to realism was to what is known as ground effect, the cushion of compressed air that builds up under the aircraft as it flares out for landing. Apparently this is very hard to accurately simulate, even on a multi-million dollar simulator. A side note of interest: The simulators at United and other centers are out of service several hours each night for testing and calibration. In addition, they are checked by the FAA on a regular schedule for instrumentation accuracy and fidelity to the flight characteristics of the actual aircraft.
Attendees of the Avsim Denver Convention in September will have the opportunity to purchase time in a variety of United Airlines Simulators at a greatly reduced rate. My only suggestion to those attending: Book yourself some time in one of these marvelous machines if you have the opportunity! It’s the real thing!
For those looking for a bit more information on both the conference and the UAL B-777 Sim experience, here are a couple links you will not want to pass up:
(This MPEG video was recorded during the 777 simulator flight at San Francisco and is comprised of three segments. The first 40 seconds starts at rotation right after the left engine has failed during the takeoff roll. The next 30 seconds shows United's Captain Walsh dealing with the subsequent engine fire. The last 3 1/2 minutes shows the ILS approach and landing on one engine at San Francisco's 28R.)
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