airBaltic Training Center - A Visit to the Flight Simulator
Tuesday 17, August 2010
The image of a commercial pilot has been firmly engrained in our collective imagination. Swaggering down airport hallways dressed in a dazzling white shirt, a neatly knotted tie, and well-pressed black slacks, the light glinting off the shiny stripes on his sleeves and shoulders, the pilot has become an icon of the modern-day world.
However, this image of a pilot extends beyond merely physical attributes – the shiny black shoes and aviator sunglasses, the smart cap and leather briefcase. We also have a firm idea of how a pilot behaves: cool and confident and graceful under pressure, but also always ready with a sly grin, a quick wink of the eye, and a few easy-going jokes.
But what gives rise to this attitude? What makes a pilot a pilot – that is, someone so calm and collected that he seems unfazed even by the heaviest bouts of turbulence. (Just think of that easy drawl over the microphone – “Ladies and Gentlemen, we’re experiencing a little turbulence here; but don’t worry, it should be over shortly” – as you clutch your seat in horror.) Perhaps the answer lies up in the skies.
The Wingtips team recently had the chance to find out what really goes on up in the air – what a pilot feels and experiences during his daily journeys through the heavens. Fear not, however: the pilot of your recent flight to Copenhagen was not a team of aviation bloggers. The Wingtips crew took a practice flight of Latvian airspace without ever leaving the ground, at airBaltic’s Boeing 737 flight simulator.
airBaltic Training Center
Our practice flight began with a short trek over to the airBaltic training center. Perhaps you’ve missed this building during your visits to Riga International. But you shouldn’t: standing proudly on a hill right behind the car rentals area, the training center is a beautiful sight to behold. The building itself looks like a glass-enclosed castle, and when you approach the area, this impression is only intensified by the dozens of pilots and cabin crew waltzing about—members of the royal court of aviation.
At the training center, Wingtips was greeted by none other than Captain Gerhard Ramcke, the star of a recent interview on this blog and a well-respected friend of the Wingtips team. In addition to his responsibilities as first office of the Q400 fleet, Ramcke is also an instructor for the Boeing 737 flight simulator parked inside the training center. (He is also an incredibly nice guy, but this goes without saying: after all, Ramcke is a commercial pilot.)
Ramcke began by introducing his guests to the activities of the training center. This is where pilots come to hone their skills at flying a commercial airliner. Of course, all of airBaltic’s pilots have already had hundreds of hours of flight time before they even put on the airline’s uniform; an aviator with a private pilot’s license needs at least three hundred hours of flight time to begin studying for the Airline Transport Pilot License exam. However, even professional pilots must constantly test their skills and train for all possible inflight scenarios.
Ramcke explained that, inside the flight simulator cockpit, the instructor generates various malfunctions to test the reactions of the pilots he is training. He can create a wide array of engine malfunctions, seizures, flame-outs, or system failures. He can change runway conditions to simulate ice, fog, snow, or wind. He can even fill the cockpit with smoke, from imaginary smoldering wires, to test the pilot’s ability to operate in high-stress situations.
That being said, Ramcke quickly pointed out that all of these situations are completely hypothetical. In fact, a commercial airline has two functional versions of all the equipment onboard the plane: two engines, two navigation systems, two sets of wheels, and, of course, two pilots, who constantly check and balance each other’s work. The effect would be similar to driving a car with two engines, two motors, two steering wheels, two drivers, and eight wheels instead of four. And don’t forget those gigantic wings at the side of the aircraft: if anything happens to go wrong with the engines, a Boeing 737 can sail for up to 300 miles, about the distance from Riga to Vilnius.
This is Not a Game
After this brief introduction to the training center, Ramcke led the Wingtips team over to the simulator. When one of his guests made a joke about having stayed up late the night before playing an online version of the old computer game Flight Simulator, Ramcke’s response was short and thoroughly unironic: “This is not a game, friends.” And with that he swept his arm through the air to introduce the simulator itself – a ten million dollar piece of technology that can simulate the inflight experience with such incredible accuracy, that a visitor will completely forget he is in the training center and not up in the air.
airBaltic’s Boeing 737 flight simulator is the real-life cockpit of an airplane, though it is attached not to a passenger cabin but to a tiny space for an instructor to sit and monitor his students. The simulator is erected on a set of hydraulic shocks and lifts that fully enact the complex movements – the tilts and dips, ascents and descents – of the plane. The device itself must be approached by a short bridge, as it requires a considerable amount of open space to accommodate its many frantic movements – bucking like a bronco within the training center’s hangar-like interior.
The Real Thing
After a brief lecture from Captain Ramcke about safety precautions, the Wingtips team was finally ready to embark on a flight as student pilots inside the cockpit. True to Ramcke’s telling, the cockpit was exactly like the cockpit of a Boeing 737 plane—complete with hundreds of dials, switches, buttons, and levers whose function could only be mastered after hundreds of hours of training. The window of the plane was filled with an image of the Riga airport’s runway – an image so incredibly lifelike that all thoughts of sitting in a flight simulator were completely dispelled. This was indeed the real thing.
After buckling up his students in the pilots’ seats, Captain Ramcke turned on the plane. As the engines roared to life, more sounds and noises could be heard from “outside” the aircraft, which had begun to sway from side to side as it rolled down the runway. “Remember, you have more than 50 tons of steel under your seat,” Ramcke said, “and more than 250 people in back of you. Keep the plane steady, or your passengers aren’t going to be happy.” And with those words, and an extraordinary surge of force, we took off from the tarmac and lifted up into the air, the Wingtips team working hard to keep the plane steady and the 250 passengers safely in their seats.
Once aloft, the view from the window was breathtaking; one could see the river Daugava and the surrounding green of the Latvian landscape. The river also proved to be a perfect navigational tool to follow out to the open sea. However, there was little time to admire the marvelous view, as Ramcke assigned the Wingtips team – one was now the chief pilot, the other the copilot—to monitor several navigational instruments. One dial showed the altitude, another displayed the horizontal tilt of the plane, and a third reflected the vertical lift of the nose.
Gliding Through the Air
However, even these three dials proved difficult to monitor, for even the slightest tug at the steering wheel made the nose tilt upward and the plane shoot into the air, the altitude rising at lightning speed. As soon as this was corrected, with a slight push on the wheel, the plane would careen downward, a mechanized voice announcing “Stop sinking!” Captain Ramcke would then have to remind his students that the passengers in back would surely object to so much upward and downward motion—and that we shouldn’t expect a round of congratulatory applause from them upon landing.
But one thing that the Wingtips crew did get the hang of was gliding the plane through the air. The sensation was amazing: a whoosh of the wings, a graceful tilt of the cockpit, and the landscape soaring past outside the windows. Once the plane had reached the Baltic Sea, this is precisely what Captain Ramcke instructed us to do – turn the steering wheel and glide back inland to the Riga airport. He quickly set a “heading ”, or a navigational direction that we were to follow, lining up the plane’s onscreen trajectory with a magenta-colored line (this sounds much easier than it actually is). The Wingtips team was heading home.
It was at this point, as the plane reached a nice cruising altitude, that the real beauty of the landscape could be soaked in. It immediately brought to mind what Captain Ramcke himself once said in an interview for this blog: “I can always enjoy the view from the airplane’s cockpit, which is my ‘40 million dollar office.’” The view from this particular “10 million dollar office” was just as amazing, even though it was simulated. But the simulation was so real that every time you tried to imagine your real-world location – a large hangar at the airBaltic training center – something threatened to snap in your mind, like when you try to tell yourself that a dream is just a dream, and not reality.
Coming in for Landing
But all philosophical ruminations about the nature of reality vs. simulation quickly came to an end, as Captain Ramcke flipped a switch to release the flaps, lower the wheels, and prepare the plane for landing. This was certainly the hardest part of the journey, because the landing equipment drastically changes the feel of guiding the plane, and it was necessary to adapt to a completely different speed and handing. Thankfully, Captain Ramcke was able to assist with one hand as the plane approached the runway. (Saying that the Wingtips pilots “landed” the plane would be akin to saying that a five-year-old child “drove” a car while sitting in his father’s lap in the driveway.)
Save for a bit of abrupt tilting and some minor shakiness in the approach, the aircraft was finally guided to safety on the tarmac, accompanied by a burst of applause from the passengers in the cabin (a noise simulated by none other than Captain Ramcke himself). After applying the safety brakes with a hard push on the foot pedals, the Wingtips team could finally remove their hands from the steering wheels, wipe the sweat from their brows, and breathe a collective sigh of relief. The simulated flight had been a real success.
From Bloggers to Pilots
After bidding adieu to Captain Ramcke, who congratulated his students on a good flight and cracked the obligatory post-flight-simulator jokes (“Now you’re all set for that nine a.m flight to Copenhagen! Be back at the airport at oh-seven-hundred hours!”), the Wingtips team crossed the simulator bridge to safety, headed out the doors, and descended the steps of the airBaltic training center. Outside the sky was a dazzling blue, with not a cloud in sight, and the sun shone brightly overhead.
Peering into the heavens, the sensation of “having just been there” was overwhelming. “We were just there,” one wanted to say – up in that mysterious vault of space knows as the heavens, peering down at the divine beauty of our earth. The Wingtips team wanted nothing more than to put on a pair of reflective aviator lenses, crack a smile as wide as the Daugava River, and saunter off into the noonday heat, sharing a joke with everybody we saw. We had peered at the earth from above, and the world down below would never look the same again.
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