Photo Report – The Simulated Experience

By me
All photos me too, copyrighted

Even though I have stated time and again that I generally do not deal with “large aviation” topics here at Achtung, Skyhawk!, I was nevertheless always glad to deviate from this rule if the material I’d come across was unusual or interesting enough. Somewhat predictably given the above, I am about to do so once again, having recently gotten the opportunity to dive into one aspect of modern aviation that few enthusiasts (sadly) get to see: the fascinating world of “proper” flight simulators 🙂 .

The last link in the commercial aviation training chain – and just one short step away from the actual cockpit – these devices are often subject to a great deal of naming confusion, so I thought it best to clear the air first before proceeding on. Even though pretty much any replica of an aircraft (or its systems) intended for training is generically labelled a “simulator”, the word is technically reserved only for those devices that provide:

  • an accurate physical representation of the cockpit with working controls throughout
  • fully simulate in detail all of the aircraft’s systems (including those not in the cockpit itself)
  • emulate the aircraft’s flying characteristics to a very high degree of accuracy (90+ %)
  • provide the pilots with a seamless wide field of view outside the cockpit
  • and, most important of all, provide a sense of motion around all three axes to complete the immersion

When all of the above is ticked, the device in question becomes a “proper” simulator, known more accurately as either a Full Flight Simulator (FFS) or a Level D Simulator (the latter being more informal and taken from the name of the standard defining the requirements for civilian units). Devices which do not simulate motion – no matter how advanced they may be in other respects – are called Flight, Navigation and Procedures Trainers (FNPT), often shortened to just “procedural trainers”. However, both forms of the latter have shown themselves to be unwieldy to use in casual conversation, leading to their replacement – by popular choice – with the plain old “simulator” 🙂 .

The device I’ve had the chance to use is a Full Flight Simulator for the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400, owned and operated by the world-renowned Flight Safety International training organization, and located in the equally-famous UK town of Farnborough. A very sophisticated piece of kit that can cost upwards of EUR 10,000,000 – almost half a real Q400 in its most basic form 🙂 – this particular FFS is approved for use for both recurrent and initial (type rating) training, and is I believe one of only three or four Q400 units located in Europe. Given the number of Dash 8 operators gravitating towards the region, this had naturally meant that its schedule was quite busy at times, leaving little to no breathing space between successive runs; nevertheless, my camera and myself were undeterred, using whatever breaks we had to have a look around… 🙂

A view of just part of ONE OF the simulator halls at the FSI training center, located at the northern end of Farnborough Airport. With space for five units, this hall contains devices for the King Air B200 (where a party is currently in progress), Hawker 400XP and the Dash 8 Q400, with a Gulfstream 450/550 located behind me. There’s also a separate hall reserved solely for various Citation models – and another which contains, among others, units for the Sikorsky S-92 Helibus and the C-17 Globemaster.

A look at what hides inside the white cube of the Full Flight Simulator. Pretty spacious and comfortable (often more so than the actual aircraft!), higher-grade FFSs contain an inch-perfect replica of the real cockpit, complete with fully-simulated systems – as well as a control panel for the instructor, which allows control over all aspects of the simulation.

A close-up of the instructor’s panel. Even though it doesn’t look like much at first glance, the control and recording system behind it is very sophisticated, and when paired with networked computers in on-site classrooms, allows detailed analyses of the exercise from all aspects. Interestingly, the “soft” simulation parameters – position, traffic, weather, system failures and so on – are controlled via touchscreens, while elements such as the crew interphone and interior cockpit lighting by hard switches on the right sidewall.

Having a bit of creative fun between two training sessions. Since Bombardier offers several avionics options for the Dash 8 – including one or two FMS units, different flight director visual styles and imperial or metric weight measurements – the FFS can also be configured to simulate all possible setups, which are then tailored to the needs of specific operators using the sim.

And for reference to the above, a similar (but not quite there) daylight shot from an actual Q400 sporting the same avionics and equipment setup.

An important part of every simulator and FNPT is the visual system, which is responsible for the view outside. The Vital 9 unit used for the Dash 8 FFS provides a field of view of 180 degrees horizontally and 40 degrees vertically, with the picture provided by three cross-mounted projectors located on the top of the cab. And while the graphics quality may be inferior even to PC-based games, for training purposes it is more than enough, since most of the time the crew need look out only on take-off, approach and landing (where the runway and its lighting systems are the most important cues).

Along with the aircraft simulation, one of the most important parts of the FFS is the motion system, seen here pitching down on the aforementioned Gulfstream 450/550 unit (which is broadly identical to the one on the Q400). Intended to simulate a number of forces felt aboard the actual aircraft, this system is actually far more clever than it initially appears to be, and uses the fact that the occupants have no visual reference to the simulator hall to trick their senses into believing the aircraft is continually accelerating, braking or maneuvering. As most modern systems, this one is electrically powered, as indicated by the motors on each suspension leg.

NOTE: some of the shots may not be up to my usual standard – however, the lighting situation in both the FFS and the simulator hall itself was (as can be noticed) not ideal, and due to “baggage weight saving measures” I was forced to work without a tripod…