Gear Up: New Simulator Training for Two Old Friends

** Sweating it out in the SimCom box with Bill
Wyman (center) and Robert Brooks.**

"Whiskey Whiskey, cleared to Jamma Intersection. Hold as published. … ” I hear this as we’re climbing out of Lebanon, New Hampshire, heading to Tampa, Florida, with my 91-year-old mother in the back and at least two low-pressure areas in front of us on the route down the East Coast. The widespread rain and low IFR weather have me glued to the Avidyne EX500, so I just barely hear “Whiskey Whiskey is requesting 10-mile legs.”

“Wait a second,” I think, “that’s Bill.”

And it is. Whiskey Whiskey is a Cheyenne just a few days younger than 58 Whiskey, the Cheyenne my wife and I own. I am not sure I know why so much whiskey is involved with ancient Cheyennes, but there you are. WW is owned by my good friend Bill Wyman; he's heading home to New Hampshire from Teterboro, New Jersey. Bill and I have just spent three terrific days together doing training at SimCom, so this is an unexpected gift. We sneak a quick hello on the Boston Center frequency.

“Hi, Bill,” I say. “Is this Eric?” says Bill. “No, Dick.”

“Hi, Dick.”

Then a second later I hear Bill’s wife, Ro: “Hi, Dick.” Just as I begin to fear a sharp reprimand from Boston for clogging the frequency comes this inquiry from the controller: “Is this Dick Karl?”

When I admit to being the perpetrator of this colossal breach of radio etiquette, I am prepared for the instruction to call a phone number for Boston Center upon landing. But no, the command is “Be sure to mention how great Boston Center is and be sure to give a shout out to Alan and Nicki.”

OK, whew. As we headed into the gloom with 54 knots of headwind component, I was reminded of a similar friendly interchange the day before with St. Louis Departure. The headwinds did have their charms: I had plenty of time to reflect on flying, safety, recurrent training, flying friends and all the satisfaction that is associated with airplanes and the people around them. It is not my intent to be overly gushy here, but I struggle to find ways to express this appreciation that aren’t too sentimental. I’ve been told sentimentality is a bad thing, though I am not sure that this is actually true. (And Boston is a great Center.)

I met Bill more than a decade ago. He wrote a letter to Flying and I learned that he lived near my parents' home in New Hampshire. I looked him up. We had an immediate affinity easily explained by our love of airplanes, but, because of a unique constellation of events, it is more than that. We've become the most unusual of friends. Every year since we've met, Bill and I have trained in Cheyenne recurrent courses and simulators. We can't get insurance coverage without this yearly exercise.

Bill has had a highly successful business career and I have enjoyed being a cancer surgeon. We would not ordinarily be close friends unless we lived near each other (even then!), but our predictably repetitive three days in Florida have meant that we spend countless hours sitting next to each other in the classroom and in the simulator. Cheyenne sims aren’t that roomy; this is a close friendship.

Every night we unwind with a martini and a good dinner. We talk about everything. We cover kids, women, spouses, divorces, family triumphs and tragedies, business, money and, most consistently, the wonders of the turboprop. How often do friendships like that come along in middle age? I dare say that Bill knows me better than many friends I’ve had for 50 years.

Up until this year, this training has been at FlightSafety in Lakeland, Florida, but that training center has been closed and the simulators sold to SimCom in Orlando, Florida. What, I wondered, would the new venue be like, and what effect would it have on our annual training retreat? We were about to find out.

The SimCom building looked brand-new. The welcome was warm. An alert greeter had been informed that I had done Cessna 340 training with SimCom some 17 years ago; he reminded me of this much like you might get welcomed back to a high-end hotel. Right away it felt good and right away we went to work.

Instructor Robert Brooks took his post at the lectern, and Bill and I sat in a sort of small schoolroom arrangement. SimCom believes in small classes and lots of one-on-one attention. Robert turns out to be quite the aviator. How many of us have flown DC-3s and blimps for hire? His e-mail includes the term airship. Though his resume is one you or I would die to call our own, we soon learned that Robert Brooks had more than 1,000 hours in Cheyennes to boot. I was to discover that he knew the airplane intimately and better than either of us. His easy manner momentarily delayed my recognition of his impressive knowledge base and his knack for teaching us things we didn't know, even though both of us have been operating our turboprops for more than 10 years. How, I wondered, did he know what we didn't know? He seemed to sense what we already knew and tailored our sim sessions just for us. Pearls before swine, it was a custom fit.

After lunch we got into the simulator. SimCom has purchased FlightSafety’s full-motion sim with which Bill and I are agonizingly familiar, but we wanted to try the full-visual simulator for which SimCom is famous. Sure enough, the graphics were astounding, and we both commented later that the augmented visuals made the simulator as realistic as the one that moved on those complicated hydraulics — maybe more so. It felt like a motion simulator to us.

We wanted to do our engine-out work at Bill’s home base, KLEB, where there is mountainous terrain in all quadrants. Robert was able to dial up a pretty reasonable facsimile of Runway 18, except the tower was in the wrong place. “No problem,” he said, as he switched it to the other side of the runway. The exercise of taking off on 18 and losing an engine at gross on a warm day was a thrilling experience — one I hope to limit to the simulator. The terrain warnings added additional realism as I coaxed the wounded ship over the crest of the mountain ahead and staggered along the downwind in order to land back on the runway we had left just a few perspiring minutes earlier.

We explored several approaches that were new to us. Eagle, Colorado, (KEGE) in the Rocky Mountains gave us a chance to practice an approach that is infamous among pilots. When we broke out at minimums, Robert said, “You’ve got to really push the nose over.”

I didn’t really understand what he meant. All I could see was mountains and snow, but when I followed his instruction I discovered the runway way below us. The approach is so steep that I would have been seriously pressed to get us down in time. In many ways this was our best training experience in years. Everything, except the airplane, was new to us. The venue, the people, the visuals and the hotel made for a first-class triad of days.

SimCom started in 1990. When I asked the founder and CEO, Wally (not Larry) David, why he decided to take on the goliaths of simulator training, he quipped, “I needed a job and I didn’t want to work for somebody else.”

Kidding aside, the outfit started with a Cessna 421C sim and soon added a Navajo. No doubt you've seen ads with astronaut Gene Cernan in the foreground and a 421 cockpit in the background in Flying. Today they have 24 sims in the Orlando facility in which I trained, ranging from the visual motion Baron to the Level C machines that reproduce the Learjet, Hawker, Cessna CJ and Citation 500/550 with real-life fidelity. Down the road at Orlando Parksouth reside nine full-motion Level C and D business jet and regional turboprop simulators. There are 14 sims in Dallas and six in Scottsdale, Arizona, not to mention a Jetstream 41 simulator in Humberside, United Kingdom, for European regionals.

Bob Kromer, director of marketing, told me that SimCom trains pilots from the Cessna 210 up to the Dornier 328 jet. “We love owner operators. Our sweet spot is in piston twins, single- and twin-engine turboprops and the light jets operated by pilots who own them. But we have moved into medium jets with the same personal approach we apply to our owner/operators. Corporate pilots respond to this atmosphere, just like guys like you.”

He went on to say that SimCom conducts factory authorized training for pilots buying new Pilatus, Piper, TBM and Eclipse airplanes.

I now have a perfect training lineup: Cheyenne training with Bill at SimCom and recurrent Learjet training with my friends at FlightSafety in Atlanta. This annual rotation is a way for a recreational pilot like me to stay in the game with the professionals. SimCom met our anxieties about the closure of the Lakeland facility with a wonderful experience.

As for Bill, though I haven’t seen him since our training, I have heard him entering the hold in New Hampshire and talked to him on the ground. He’s a good friend made late in life, and those are hard to find. I can now say the same about SimCom.

Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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