As Real as it Gets

Flying a CAE flight simulator, with Maxvue Plus visual system, goes beyong the illusion of reality.
CAE’s full-flight simulators create an illusion of reality that can fool even the most cynical pilots. A web-based distance-learning program is under development.

At least the oxygen masks didn’t drop down,” I said defensively as I bounced the Airbus A320 during a hard landing. It was a short field carved into a hillside on the Portuguese coast. But still, I should’ve done better.

But there weren’t any oxygen masks to dislodge. I was in the cockpit of a full-flight simulator at CAE’s base in Saint-Laurent outside of Montreal. Nevertheless, the “landing” felt real enough to embarrass me and make my hosts glad I wasn’t flying the real thing.

But it was a simulator. So a couple of button pushes on the instructor’s panel gave me another chance to humiliate myself. This time the wrap-around visual was a night scene of the approach to the airport at Innsbruck, Austria, with the surrounding mountains silhouetted against the lights of the city and with cars, their headlights piercing the dark and red taillights following behind, moving along the roads below. I flew the curving visual approach into the valley, skirted the shoulder of a mountain and set the airplane down on the short runway. It wasn’t a greaser, but this time my landing was much smoother.

If you’ve never “flown” a Level D full-motion simulator, it’s difficult to comprehend how easy it is to believe you’re in an actual airplane. The A320 simulator featured CAE’s Maxvue Plus visual system, and there’s no question the capability of today’s simulators has leapfrogged the FAA requirements to qualify for Level D approval. CAE, which has sold more than 400 flight simulators and training devices to more than 90 airlines, aircraft manufacturers and training centers, packs features into its systems that go above and beyond the requirements and further foster the illusion of reality.

For example, its Gates program displays airport ground vehicles and taxiing airplanes that are fully correlated with the simulator’s actions. The program even includes ATC radio communications and sound effects. During a demonstration, we sat at the gate at Anchorage, Alaska, waiting to depart FedEx’s base with blowing snow swirling through the glow of lights on the hangar wall. Trucks drove past, and a marshaller waved his orange batons as a tug slipped under our nose and hooked on. In the distance we could see airplanes landing. As we waited, the cargo plane in the next gate pushed back. We heard his engines as he fired up and taxied past. Then it was our turn. The tug pushed us back and, after starting our engines, we followed the other airplane toward the active. The proper taxiway and runway signs appeared through the snow as virtual plows worked to clear the runways. Other FedEx airplanes landed and taxied past as we moved toward the departure end of the runway.

If, as we taxied out, there had been an emergency that required help from ground personnel, crash trucks and ambulances with their lights flashing would have raced to where we had stopped. From his console, the instructor can crank up the wind speed and change its direction. When he does, the blowing snow and the wind sock react to the changes. It’s so real I felt cold. While we accelerated down the runway, the snow blew back-realistically-and we rotated and began to climb. As far as I was concerned, we were flying.

Climbing through cloud layers to the clear sky above, the strobes and anti-collision lights-and later, approaching to land, the landing lights-reflected off the clouds in response to the changes in their density. Mountain tops projected up through the cloud layer.

Who said there’s nothing you can do about the weather? Rain? Snow? Fog? Clouds displayed in three dimensions? Thunderstorms? You want it, you’ve got it. Even the surface of the runway is at the instructor’s command. His options include dry, wet, snow, ice and slush-and the airplane’s performance and the sounds in the cockpit respond to the selected conditions. Other weapons in the instructor’s arsenal include wind shear, microbursts, sandstorms, scud and haze.

Realistic airport databases, created using data collected from surveys, satellite and aerial imagery, ground photography and mapping agencies, are included with each simulator. All Maxvue customers have free access to CAE’s library of more than 250 airports (approximately 30 are added annually) and can request copies at any time. Airport data is updated to reflect terminal, taxiway, runway and other changes. In addition to the airports, there is an extensive library of 3-D objects and vehicles that allows users to create their own airports.

The instructor can also build an airport “on the fly.” In addition to the depicted airports, the database contains the lat/long and runway orientation for all airports. During a flight the instructor can select an airport identifier and quickly create the airport, defining the width and length of the runways, adding runway lights, taxiways, terminal buildings and choosing the relative position of the town and of any mountains in the area.

CAE, recognized for its line of full-flight simulators, flight training devices and cockpit procedure trainers, is leveraging its experience to establish its own training centers as well as to develop an interactive, internet-accessible training program.

The company has some experience with the rigors of operating a training center. A CAE-owned building houses the Bombardier Training Center in Montreal, which is next to CAE’s manufacturing facility. And, while Bombardier provides the instructors and courseware, CAE provides everything else-all the maintenance and support for the center’s five simulators: a Challenger 604, a Global Express, two RJ200s and an RJ700 (as well its own A320 that’s temporarily operating in the Bombardier center).

In April, 2000, CAE broke ground on a 60,000-square-foot pilot training facility in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The center, which will initially house four simulator bays but has the capability to accommodate 12 bays, is the first independently owned and operated training center in South America. Initial customers include Varig for training on the MD-11 and Transportes Aereos Regionais S.A. for Fokker 100 and Airbus A320 training.

CAE has partnered with Acciona, a Spanish aviation services company, in a training center located at Barajas International Airport in Madrid and will provide four simulators to supplement the three already on line at the center.

By this summer, a third center will be operating in Toronto. The four-bay facility will initially provide training for Canada 3000 and Skyservice but will be available to other airlines and corporate operators.

CAE is also developing a distance learning program. The simulation-based program, which will be able to run on most laptop computers, will have the capability of providing training to pilots and maintenance technicians at multiple locations “anywhere, anytime, in a web-based environment.” The system uses the same software as the full-flight simulators to drive the virtual cockpit graphical displays and the internal logic of the aircraft systems.

Pilots and maintenance technicians can explore an airplane’s systems on their computers with interactive photo-realistic panel displays and schematics of all the airplane’s systems. Click on a switch or turn a valve and the cockpit alert activates and the schematic changes to show the effect of the action. In addition to the cockpit presentation, the program allows an exterior “walk-around” of the airplane, and technicians can “navigate” into bays and compartments to practice maintenance procedures.

The system, capable of providing initial, transition, recurrent and refresher training, includes the simulator software, a graphical interface, an authoring tool and courseware. Lessons will be composed of a tutorial, guided performance, free play to practice what’s been learned, an evaluation and tracking and record keeping of each student’s progress.

Flight training has certainly advanced. Had Wilbur Wright been aware of the virtual reality that CAE’s training systems offer pilots, he might have rephrased his advice that “…in learning to ride a flying machine; if you’re looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on the fence and watch the birds; but if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.” Today, pilots are lucky they have CAE’s machines on which to get acquainted with an airplane’s tricks.


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