Skip to content

Pilot Trainees Take Flights of Fancy

Sandra Sugawara. "Pilot Trainees Take Flights
of Fancy :[FINAL Edition]. " The Washington Post
(pre-1997 Fulltext)
  [Washington, D.C.] 10 
Sep. 1990,f31. Washington

Copyright The Washington Post Company Sep
10, 1990

John Blackwelder and Kevin Stiles were flying the Jetstream 31
turboprop airplane into Dulles International Airport last week when
they encountered a pilot’s nightmare.

An unexpected airplane appeared headed toward them from the
right side. A short time later, a door popped open, causing
temporary decompression and setting off an alarm buzzer. As they
approached Dulles, it became obvious that the airport was shrouded
in fog, which did not clear until the plane was 500 feet above the
ground. After two near-crashes, the plane came to a hard, bumpy

Blackwelder and Stiles were unharmed, because the "airplane"
they were piloting was merely a simulator owned by British
Aerospace Inc. at its training facility in Herndon. But as they
leaned back, their faces still tense with strain, their hands
clammy, the two men-who are training to be pilots for CC Air, a
small commuter airline based in Charlotte, N.C.-said their "flight"
felt frighteningly like the real thing.

Advances in computer hardware, software, computer-generated
graphics and motion control bases have enabled simulators to come a
long way from the original ones designed by Edwin A. Link. James E.
Foster, operations manager of the Training and Simulation Division
of AAI Corp. in Hunt Valley, Md., said that as an Air Force pilot
during the Korean War, he trained on a Link simulator called the
"Blue Box."

"The instruments were not real. There were no visuals," Foster
said. "It was very claustrophobic."

On the outside, British Aerospace’s $10 million simulator looks
like a huge metal box, suspended on tubes and metal legs. But
inside, it is the spitting image of the Jetstream 31 turboprop
airplane. A lifelike, computer-generated image of Dulles or five
other airports can be projected on the window. As the plane "takes
off," the simulator slowly rumbles, then tilts, to give those
inside the feel of actually taking off.

Joe Mullis, an instructor with CC Air, is enthusiastic about the
increasingly high-technology simulators available for pilot
training. Mullis said he is able to throw more problems in the path
of pilots-from mechanical problems to icy and foggy weather
conditions-than he would under traditional training. In addition,
Mullis said CC Air estimated that it costs $400 an hour to train on
simulators compared with $1,000 an hour to train on airplanes.

These days most airlines are opting to do much or all of their
pilot training on flight simulators, just as the government is
turning toward simulation for training everyone from pilots and
soldiers to air traffic controllers.

Many of the simulators look like sophisticated, lifelike video

Take, for instance, the 20-foot-radius dome built by AAI, which
is used to teach Marines how to fire Stinger missiles. A
computer-generated image of an enemy airplane is "flown" across the
sky of the dome, while the sound of the aircraft grows louder. The
Marines use equipment designed to operate exactly like a Stinger
weapon system. If a hit occurs, the plane will "explode."

The ultimate video game of the simulation world, the Nintendo of
the military set, is probably the National Test Bed, an elaborate
simulator located near Colorado Springs and the most complicated
simulator ever attempted.

Martin Marietta Corp., the prime contractor on the project, is
trying to do what many scientists feel is simply not possible-write
software that simulates the physics of thousands of objects moving
through space, so that it can test whether the Strategic Defense
Initiative will really work.

"The idea is, you might have ballistic missiles coming toward
the U.S., and there could be hundreds of warheads mixed in with
thousands of decoys," said J. Patrick McGinn, a spokesman for
Martin Marietta.

The simulator has to test whether the sensors can distinguish
between sensors and warheads and hit the warheads. To do that, it
has to take into account numerous factors about the Earth’s
environment, physics and the random movement of thousands of

It takes an enormous amount of computing power-two Cray
supercomputers, two IBM 3090 mainframes and four DEC VAX
mainframes, the equivalent computing power of more than 600,000
personal computers-to run the National Test Bed. The project could
not even have been undertaken a decade ago.

If it is a success, it will be the most elaborate,
sophisticated, computer-simulated war game ever created. But
critics are skeptical, calling the effort science fiction.

Indeed, simpler battlefield simulation projects have gotten
mixed reviews from military leaders, according to Training Systems
Report, a trade publication that follows the training and
simulation business. A recent article said that a panel of military
experts complained that war games simulation programs had numerous

In particular, they complained that numerous human factors were
not taken into account, and that programs could not account for the
mentality of the enemy.

Likewise, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association has
been critical of the increasing reliance by the Federal Aviation
Administration on simulation to train air traffic controllers.

During recent congressional testimony, the association warned
that simulators "cannot teach a controller the intuition and feel
for air traffic and for what a pilot may do."

Blackwelder and Stiles, however, probably wouldn’t agree with
that. To them, flying the simulator was as nerve-racking as flying
the real thing. To prove their point, they pulled out a bottle of
Pepto-Bismol after the flight to calm their nervous stomachs.

Leave a Reply