Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Simulating Experience

My brother's former wife Kim works for Northwest Airlines (soon to be Delta) in their training department. She asked me several months ago if I'd be interested in coming out to where she works on a Saturday night and spending some time in one of the simulators. I sort of felt that it was a lot to ask and that maybe she was just being polite by making the offer. I was wrong. She emailed me last week and said she had us slotted in for 8:00 Saturday night (last night) to come down and take a ride. I asked her if it was okay if I brought my camera and she assured me that it was.

So, Tammy, Rachel, Josh (Rachel's boyfriend) and I showed up at 7:45 last night and got much more of a tour than any of us were expecting. Jeff Crawford is one of the managers of the department and has been working in simulators for over 30 years. He had a DC9 simulator which wasn't in use and he walked us over to it and brought us inside. I'd been on a flight deck a number of times before so I pretty much knew what to expect. Lots of buttons and lights molded into what looked like worn battleship gray consoles and seats that are too small for as much time that is spent in them. I know several pilots and they're all in reasonably good shape, meaning not overweight. Perhaps there's a connection.

We let Josh and Rachel get us airborne. The feeling on takeoff is incredibly real. The visuals outside the window only add to the experience. Buzzers buzz, bells ring out and audible voices come to life as climb rates, speed and the aircraft's position on the approach fall out of normal parameters. When we strayed, Jeff was quick to help get the aircraft lined up, trimmed out, and on a steady course again...and again and again.

It's easy to forget that you're in a mock-up.

I didn't think to ask Jeff but I'd be curious to know if the visuals in some of the newer simulators are even more real. I imagine that they are as the DC9 simulator was using technology considerably older than what's now state of the art. I got to look at some of the green two layer wafer computer cards behind the simulator that serve to program it. I haven't seen that sort of stuff in a long time. Still, what it could do was all very impressive.

We paired up and took turns working together to bring the plane to an/a un/successful landing. I could honestly see myself being good at that sort of thing once I've had a chance to get familiar with what I was looking at. No doubt Jeff had little to no wind for us to contend with on final. I didn't think to ask him what he'd programed into it. There's some high tech gear mounted behind the two seats where I'd guess the Flight Engineer used to sit (I'm not sure if DC9's had a Flight Engineer) and with it Jeff can program whatever ceiling (cloud cover) he'd like in addition to several other atmospheric variables, even hail. I don't know if turbulence is one of them but I'd guess that it is. So many questions I didn't think to ask.

After doing several approaches we left the DC9 sim and Jeff walked us around more of the complex to show us some of the other simulators. Boeing has their new 787 on site but it's locked so as to keep the inside out of view of regulars like us. Jeff said that there was some proprietary equipment in there which wasn't ready for public display.

He walked us out to the lobby where there's a display of one of the very early aircraft simulators; the C-3 Link. I thanked Jeff for the tour and told him that I'd be happy to return the favor by showing him my end of the operation. I like their sims a lot better than ours.

I know that Josh and Rachel enjoyed their time behind the controls but I don't know that either of them want to consider being a pilot as a profession. I don't think that any of my airline pilot friends are encouraging their children to follow in their footsteps. Sadly it could be a long time before it becomes a desirable career choice again. But for those who love and are determined to fly it's likely the only career choice.

Here are a few photos I took along the way in addition to the video below.


Tim said...

Wow! That's very cool!

Always wanted a chance to play with a real simulator myself.

Once again it proves it's not what you know, but who you know. And I obviously need to meet better people!


Kevin said...

Yeah, it was quite a treat. I only wish we had more time to play around with it.

The feel of the controls was unlike anything you're going to get from any sort of video game. It made the experience believable. That and the visuals outside the windows.