My goodness, it’s black out there.
“Better tighten your turn; those mountains are close,” says my copilot.
Yeah, but how close? I wonder. Checking the Cessna Citation Mustang’s terrain awareness and warning system provides cold comfort: The entire display is washed in red. The synthetic-vision system software update for this airplane, unfortunately, hasn’t yet been installed, so we’re on our own. Like an insidious mantra, a voice chimes in my headset: “Caution, terrain!”
The turbulence makes life all the more uncomfortable as the wind-speed readout on the Garmin G1000 primary flight display shows more than 60 knots off our right wing. Lightning flashes somewhere in the distance, and I instinctively crank the yoke over harder and — against my better judgment — continue the descent into Lugano Airport with the jagged, unseen Swiss Alps rising all around.
Why are we doing this?
Oh, yeah, we’re not really being bounced around over southern Switzerland in a Citation Mustang. Instead, we’re seated in the relative comfort of a Level-D full-flight simulator at FlightSafety International’s newest learning center at Farnborough International Airport in southwest England. I have to keep reminding myself of this fact as Lugano’s lighted runway at last comes into view and I line up on final. The illusory depth and texture of the simulated image mere feet in front of me certainly seems real enough. The firm clunk of the wheels on the concrete as we touch down feels right, and, exiting the left side of the runway, I can even detect the bumps and expansion joints beneath the wheels while taxiing to the ramp.
Advances in computing technology over the last several decades have certainly contributed to the amazing capability of today’s full-flight simulators, but that’s not the whole story. Motion systems are being converted from hydraulic to electric for improved fidelity and smoothness, and visual systems are advancing to the point that it can be hard to tell at a glance whether you’re looking out at a real world or not. Perhaps the only thing left that can take you out of the virtual experience of sitting at the controls of a simulator are those occasions when you can try things you’d never be brave enough — or dumb enough — to do in a real airplane.
Here’s what I mean: Invariably, whenever I climb into a new flight simulator or training device I’ve not seen before, I’m offered the invitation to perform a barrel roll. Or a loop. Or a hammerhead stall. Or, as has happened more than once, a macabre suggestion that we should crash — just to see what it’s like.
Truth be told, I don’t want to do any of these things. When I’m evaluating a flight training device or simulator, I simply want to put the device through its normal regimen and experience the same sort of training scenarios that other pilots likely will during initial or recurrent training. Don’t get me wrong. Rolling a Boeing 777 at Flight Level 350 for the first time is a hoot. It’s just not very useful in making any kind of practical determination about the overall fidelity of a multimillion-dollar, six-degree-of-freedom full-flight simulator at an airline or corporate pilot training center. This is the kind of computing horsepower that, in theory, allows a pilot to earn a full type rating and head out to the line without ever spending any time behind the controls of the real airplane. Just flying the sim is enough.