Gear Up: One Big Airplane

Training in US Airways' newest A330 simulator.

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US Airways' newest jet simulators have
the best daylight visual displays yet,
and the motion is supplied by electrical,
not hydraulic, power.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed being the guest of US Airways, after two tiring sessions in its simulators, I was ready for a break. The Boeing 757 and 737 had been fun and, for the most part, understandable to me. I had survived assorted V1 cuts and wind shear in both airplanes and was pretty well rung out when my host, Corky Carson, led me to a trim, scholarly looking gentleman with a calm air and a bemused smile. He was Rob Byrd, check airman and instructor on the Airbus A330-200, a behemoth of an airplane that seemed incongruous with the thoughtful man I saw before me.

Rob was to show me and Corky (a 767 captain and check airman) what the big Airbus was all about. First, though, he had to finish checking his seat assignment on tonight's Charlotte, North Carolina, to Frankfurt, Germany, trip; Rob was heading to Toulouse, France, to pick up US Airways' latest A330-200 acquisition as soon as we got done with our sim ride.

The A330-200 sim in Charlotte is the airline's newest, and rather than hydraulic, it is electric, a feature that makes the simulator movement all the more smooth and realistic. And that is the least of it. Entering the cockpit is like taking a seat at a science-fiction movie. The glass instruments glow with prospects, and the absence of a yoke in front of you makes the whole notion of flight surreal. Somehow I imagined a French railroad engineer at the controls of the TGV (train à grande vitesse) hurtling across Burgundy at an ungodly speed with a baguette, some cheese and a bottle of serviceable Bordeaux at his side.

Rob deploys the tray that slides out from underneath the flight instruments and locks it in place. This adds to an almost home-theater sense of the space and elicits a curious grunt from me and Corky. When will the show start?

Soon enough, it turns out. As the door to the sim closes and the gangplank is raised, I am gifted the left seat and Corky takes the first officer position. Rob will be our instructor. His seat and control panel are not behind me, as in most sims, but behind the FO position and can be electrically maneuvered back and forth. The engineering is so intricate that, should his control panel bump up against the FO's seat, it deactivates that seat so that it cannot be moved backward, potentially destroying the instructor's bag of electronic simulator tricks and devilish training hazards.

Let the movie begin. We start up. The cockpit seems huge, and, with the tray stowed, the lack of a yoke gives an eerie spacious feeling, almost like sitting down to dinner without a plate and silverware before you. The side stick comes easily to hand. It feels just fine in my left mitt. The throttle quadrant is very different from anything I've ever seen or felt. The throttles have four settings, and that's it. The airplane does everything it needs to do with those four settings. This is a very computer-driven airplane, as we shall see.

The flap handle seems ridiculously petite, almost dainty, and it admits to only five positions: flaps 1, 2, 3, full or up. It sticks up like a little rooster with a jaunty hat just aft and to the right of the trim wheel. There are stripes on the trim wheel, which is encased in the console; you won't feel it moving with your knee as you do as FO in the 737, so the stripes give the corner of your eye a chance to glimpse trim changes. For the life of me, I cannot find a trim switch on the side stick, or anywhere else for that matter. Rob confirms this observation. Trim is usually computer-controlled, and only in a "non-normal situation" would you ever touch the decorative wheel.

As I stumble around trying to find recognizable bits and pieces that aren't missing, Corky sits to my right quietly asking professional questions. In fact, during the entire sim ride, I was struck by how Corky looked like a polished professional who found himself in a strange environment. Like Pete Sampras examining a new type of tennis racket, Corky seemed to be weighing the heft and balance of the big Airbus.

The sim view is amazing. Lined up for a 36L departure out of Charlotte, we can see the grooves in the runway. The fidelity is impressive, as is the perceived height above the ground. With calm winds and a clear day, we start by advancing the throttles from idle past two clicks to the takeoff mode. Though I guard the throttles should we have a reason to reject takeoff prior to V1, it feels different because there is no fine-tuning of the throttles to achieve the appropriate N1. It is all done automatically by the fadec system.

The engines spool up and we lumber (all 413,000 pounds of us) down the runway until V1 and, instantly, VR go by, because the acceleration is rapid. I pull the side stick back to match the command on the flight director, and we're off. Rob and Corky are doing fine with the flap retraction, but to be honest with you, I don't notice the speeds or the settings. We level at 3,000 feet and head over to see Corky's house on the edge of Lake Norman. So realistic is the visual that I half expect to see Teresa out in the yard waving to us.

While we drive around the sky, Rob tries to tell me about the way the Airbus flies. For those of you, like me, who have never thought much about the Airbus, its many computers and the philosophy of flight held by its designers, I can tell you that there is a lot to learn. For those of you familiar with the airplane, my apologies for the inaccuracies and glossed-over bits I don't understand. For those who fly the Airbus, my sincerest apologies, for reading what follows will probably be like listening to a first-grader sing the "Star Spangled Banner" off key.

The Airbus has a lot of computers. These keep the airplane safe and protect it from its pilots. The airplane can be flown manually, of course. By manually I mean that the inputs on the stick and rudder are connected to computers that drive the hydraulic actuators that actually move the control surfaces. It can be flown manually with the flight director engaged. It can be flown in auto flight mode, in which the autopilot and auto thrust computers make the airplane do what the pilots program it to do. And it can be flown with the flight management guidance envelope computers (FMGEC) engaged, in which all sorts of flight envelope protections are provided to the crew.

Just as I am trying to get this all stowed in my head without capsizing the airplane, Rob mentions that we are in "normal law." Now, I am as law-abiding as the next upstanding citizen, but I had never really associated the term "law" with flying airplanes except for the law of gravity. Normal law, it turns out, has three modes: ground, flight and flare. Flight mode becomes active shortly after liftoff and provides: 1) load factor limitation — prevents the pilot from overstressing the airplane; 2) attitude protection — limits pitch to 30 degrees up and 15 down, while bank angle will revert to a maximum of 33 degrees unless side-stick pressure is maintained to override; 3) high angle-of-attack protection — like it says; 4) high-speed protection — prevents exceeding VMO or MMO by a pitch-up load factor command that cannot by overridden by the pilots; 5) low energy warning — produces an aural warning, "speed, speed, speed."

Think of it this way: Normal law provides the envelope protections and the FMGEC provides navigation, performance optimization and many other functions.

So, what if all these computers go on the fritz? Well, if multiple failures occur, the flight controls revert to "alternate law." In this setting, most protections (except for load factor) are lost. You are now probably thinking about the Air France Airbus A330 that disappeared on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. So was I, until Rob mentioned "abnormal alternate law" and "direct law." These describe further degradation of the computer systems until you get to "mechanical backup," in which pitch control is via that little trim wheel and lateral control is achieved by pushing on the rudder pedals (hydraulic power still required). All this made me want to think twice before attempting a type rating in the Airbus.

Next thing you know we're coming in for a landing. As I overcontrol roll with the side stick, I manage to get us somewhere over the runway and am rewarded with the gentle thud of the main trucks making contact with the concrete. A half-second later another gentle thud signals the second set of trucks have made it back to earth without calamity. Finally, I lower the nose and activate the thrust reversers. We stop with room to spare.

Any indication that I could fly an Airbus is erroneous. Nonetheless, we do a V1 cut next and it is quite easy with all those computers working. The side stick feels odd, though, compared with rotating with a yoke. An ILS or two, a few maneuvers with Corky trying out the big machine — like Sampras might hit a few backhands at 120 mph just to see how it felt — and we were about done. Rob said the only drawback to the airplane is that "I miss the flying." I thought this meant he was assigned to the training center most of the time, but he didn't mean that. He meant that he misses stick and rudder flying.

As we clambered out of the simulator, I thought of all the training that has gone on in this building over the years. I thought about how captains "Sully" Sullenberger and Jeff Skiles had trained here — sat in these very classrooms, bought coffee from the same ancient dispenser and honed the skills that would one day make them and their airline famous examples of what preparedness and recurrent training can do when the geese hit the fans. What "law" were they in, I wondered, as they descended over the George Washington Bridge on their way to a touchdown with destiny?