“Flight Simming: A Pilot’s View”


It’s every pilot’s nightmare…the feeling of not being totally in control of your machine or your situation. Sure, I was new to the airline back in 1984, but certainly not new to airplanes, and most importantly, how to keep the metal of said airplane from getting bent. With that said, I was just not having a “warm and fuzzy” feeling about this at all.

The weather was truly ugly; one of those dark, stormy nights that only look good in the movies. The machine was sick, and that was not good. It was one of our newer model Boeing 727s, but one of it’s three engines had developed an oil leak, so passing through flight level 250 (or 25,000′) in the climb, we aborted the flight to Minneapolis, and were on our way back into our departure airport…General Mitchell Field in Milwaukee. The upside to all of this was the the fact that the two gentlemen in the front seats (I was the Flight Engineer), were seasoned veterans, with many hours logged in the venerable Boeing. That notwithstanding, something just didn’t add up. Even though I was new to the airplane, new to being a Flight Engineer, and new to the airline, I could still tell that something simply wasn’t kosher. Hence my seat was the recipient of lots of squirming “new guy” butt.


pilot simming 5
(A Northwest Orient Boeing 727-251…this was the name of the line when I was hired in 1983. Huge thanks to Bob Garrard for the use of this gorgeous picture.)


It all started about 30 miles from touchdown. We had declared an emergency with ATC, had secured the number 1 engine, performed all the required checklists, informed the cabin crew and passengers of the situation and our plans, and I was in the process of coordinating with the company dispatchers (and the station personnel) for our return. “Bang, bang, bang”…about that time, the number 2 Pratt and Whitney JT-8D began to compressor stall (an airflow problem…sounds like your car engine back-firing). The Captain remedied this by immediately reducing the thrust on the that engine to the point where the stalling ceased. In this case it happened to be all the way back to idle…not good. I was about to become one VERY BUSY person…

I asked the Captain if he wanted me to begin dumping fuel, his reply was a terse “YES! Take us down to 150,000 lbs!” (landing weight). Opening the Fuel Dump Panel on the aft bulkhead to my right, I positioned all the switches correctly (we were allowed to do this from memory…most all other procedures required the use of a checklist), watched for all the green lights to confirm that the valves had indeed opened, and then began the mental gymnastics to calculate the required time to dump to have us at the weight specified by the Captain (I knew he would be needing that answer, and soon). So far, so good for the new guy.

Here is where it all began to unravel. My next question to the man commanding this stricken ship, was an inquiry to see if he would like to run the “Single Engine Checklist” (when down to 1 engine on ANY multi-engine airplane, it gets VERY SERIOUS quickly, and the [very involved] “Single Engine Checklist” was the nightmare of any Flight Engineer…it could reduce a “Top Gun” to a sniveling schoolgirl quickly.) To my shock and amazement, he answered, “No! We have only 1 engine SHUT DOWN…so we’ll fly this just like the books calls for!” Well, he WAS right (and he was the Captain), we had only one engine actually turned off, but of the remaining two, one was normal and the other was operating at a VERY reduced power setting (idle to be exact), and I was starting to have strange flashbacks.


(I took this as a new 727 Captain departing KMSP one cold, sleeting afternoon.)


As a child of the 1960s, I’ve always been a huge fan of the WWII movies, especially those involving aviation. I began to flash back to those scenes of the battered B-17 Flying Fortress, barely able to stay aloft, and the heroic crew throwing everything not needed overboard…. 50 caliber machine guns, parachutes, armor plating, even the dead guys (well, not really, but MAYBE). They knew that gravity is a cruel bitch, and that fast air over the wings was needed to keep the bird in the air…and making her lighter was the only answer. The obvious logic was that if it can’t help you…then consider it junk and GET RID OF IT. I adopted that mentality right then and there. Great idea to be sure, the only problem was that I wasn’t in command here…

The next statement I made to him was a bit hard to make as a new hire, but it had to be said. I advised the seasoned dude in the left seat that “in my humble opinion”, since No.2 was at idle, and it’s only use for use was the hydraulic pump and/or electrical generator, and since it appeared that it WAS NO USE for thrust, why we don’t we set up to do a single engine approach? If No 2 does quit, then we’re ready, set up for it, and if it doesn’t then it’s like money in the bank.

(note: There were some big killers on the single engine approach in the 727. Depending on which single engine you had running, you could be stuck with hand cranking the landing gear down [a huge pain in the ass for the Flight Engineer], and once it was cranked down, there was no bringing it back up…. which means there was NO GUARRENTEE that you would have any go-around capability! You were committed to land, period. Plus, you made your approach with only 5 degrees of flaps (instead of the normal 35), AND you had to extend them electrically, which took longer than usual. So you really had to be “on your game” mentally to allow extra time to get everything done, and it meant that when you turned in for the field, you were going to be going like a bat-outta-hell on final approach. So as an F/E, you found yourself: dumping fuel, running several checklists, electrically extending the flaps, hand cranking down the landing gear, all the while providing the two pilots with all important landing approach airspeed numbers, and (IIRC) about a million other things. LOL…)


(My “office” for the first year at the airline…the 727 F/E panel.)


To my shock, he rejected my suggestion!

I attempted to suggest it again, this time with a bit more of a “convincing tone”…he cut me off. The pilot in the First Officer’s seat wasn’t injecting anything into the conversation, so I decided that CLEARLY they knew more about what was going on than little ol’ me, so I deferred to his command status, and (like any smart noob should) shut my pie-hole, and did as I was commanded.

We crossed the outer marker for runway 01L with the flaps at 15 degrees, and as the glideslope needle centered signalling time to begin our final descent for the runway, the Captain called for the landing gear to be lowered, and the flaps to be extended to 25 degrees. Thank God we still had that middle engine working, for it’s hydraulic pump began the process of opening the big gear doors, and pushing those massive wheels into the dark, wet slipstream. In fact, the pilots had pushed up the thrust a bit on No2, and it seemed to be running pretty well.The tower contoller had cleared us to land several miles back, and I could see the blinking lights of the emergency vehicles lining the taxiways. At about 1000′, I secured the fuel dumping, informed the boss, and was tiding up the landing checklist. All seemed to be right in the world, but the feeling in the pit of my stomach just would not go away.


(An aerial view of General Mitchell Field in Milwaukee. You’re looking directly down RWY 07.)


That’s when it happened.

All I remember is a very loud “BANG!”, and the No2 engine seized up! Holy sh*t…”flaps to 5, flaps to 5″ the Captain was yelling at the F/O as he fire-walled the only remaining engine that was running (No 3)! I was gripping the backs of their seats so hard that my hands were aching. The nightmare was unfolding before me. Not in control of what was happening! I remember calling out his airspeed, for he had to adjust it for the lessor flap setting he was commanding. The control tower was calmly broadcasting, “Flight 303, we show you going low on the glideslope”…no kidding pal…don’t bother us now! To say that the three sphincters in that cockpit were closed rather tight might’ve been the understatement of the century. All three of us were talking to that big marvel of modern aviation…both out loud, and to ourselves…”come on baby, come on…almost there!”

It was not to be. Three women became lonely widows that rainy night on the shores of Lake Michigan. In an effort to stretch our descent, the Captain let the machine get slow, we dropped a wing, hit the approach lights with the force of a 150,000 lb collection of metal, fuel and flesh, and we cartwheeled down the runway. The resulting explosion and fireball left no survivors.

Actually, I lied. It wasn’t night at all, it was 10 o’clock in the morning. It wasn’t raining, it was January, which meant it was probably snowing ilke the devil. We weren’t in Milwaukee, we were in simulator bay #2 at the airline’s training center in Minneapolis/St. Paul. I wasn’t lying about the “brand new Flight Engineer” part, for I was so new that I had not even finished my initial “new hire” Boeing 727 Flight Engineer training. In fact, this little flight was my final test (or check ride) before my learning would be complete. So, except for that, it was all a lie. Albiet, a very convincing one. That’s what simulators (our workaday verison of the PC flight simulations) do for the professional pilot. They construct a totally believable lie that we use to develop, learn, and hone our skills as aviators.


(That “happy place” we call a simulator. A trip through “the box” happens for every airline pilot on a regular basis…it’s just a part of the job. You don’t pass your check-ride, and you’re life changes drastically.)


My first experience with a flight simulation was as a ten year old lad in the year 1966. Wait a minute there Hoss, the PC wasn’t even a glint in the eyes of the Gates/Jobs lineage back then, so explain that one. Totally right there pilgrim, but bear with me for a few minutes on this one.

As you’ve probably gathered from my other entries, back then I was living the dream for a kid like me. My biggest hero lived in the same house, had a cool job, we travelled the world, and I got to play on some of the coolest “play grounds” on the planet. When he was occupied at the Army Airfield with a non-flying day, he would march me (and usually my brother) out to an inert flying machine, park us in the cockpit and return hours later to gather us up for the return trip home. He didn’t realize it at the time (nor did I), but he was de-facto creating the first “flight simulation” for this pimply-faced youngster way back then.

When sequestered in those helicopters and/or airplanes, my entire world consisted of that cockpit…and I was by God the hottest aviator in the United States Army! I was rolling in hot on Charlie at some God-forsaken LZ in Vietnam, or under fire holding us rock steady in a hover as the Crew Chief was on the cable snatching the downed pilot from the mitts of the bad guys. It didn’t matter what “lie” I had created for myself, at that moment, it was very much a real thing for me, and that’s all that mattered! I pretended I knew what all those funny clocks meant (many I actually did know), and what all the switches were that I was constantly flipping from “OFF” to “ON” and back! It didn’t matter if I knew what I was doing, for I pushed/pulled, flipped and spun everything in that cockpit, and in my scenarios I would ALWAYS get back to base just as the rest of the company had given up all hope! I was “simulating” something, and most importantly, I was “believing” it. Cool days for a kid, eh?


U.S. Marine Corps Sikorsky HUSorH-34. Photo courtesy of Frank Colucci
(I was fortunate enough to log many an hour in the cockpit of the Sikorsky H-34.)


So how does all of this relate to flight simulations, and the experience we call “flight simming”? A reporter asked me at a LAN meet several years ago while she was interviewing us for the local news rag, “Why would you fly these things, when you fly airplanes for a living?” I gave her the static, corny “I love to fly things” answer, but in retrospect that didn’t quite seem enough. My next statement to her was more on speed. I explained that at work, we operate under an umbrella of enormous responsibility, and we have to attack it each and every day on it’s terms. In other words, for instance when the weather is totally gonzo, we put on our “weather game face”, and go at it, with the stakes being as high as it can get. But in the world of flight sims, I get to attack it on my terms, with the option to mulligan if needed… the real world life and death things just aren’t a factor.

To expound on that a bit, I guess the “hardball” part of my career as a pilot is there every time I put on the uniform, every time I sign the Dispatch Release, and every time I step on to the flight deck. Does that mean it’s not fun? Of course not! It’s a huge amount of fun, just a totally different kind of enjoyment. But it’s always hardball, always for keeps…every day, every flight… getting it right the first time. No mulligans, no time-outs, no penalty kicks. The question then becomes, as a real-life pilot and part-time flight simmer, do I want to simulate the airplane part or the pilot part? Funny thing actually. I find that even though I do it for a living, I not only want the airplane/helo part to be great, but I want the pilot part to be exceptional too. Which means I want the “lie” that goes with it to be believable, not some made up, “terrorists kidnap the President’s kid, and I have to rescue them at halftime at the Superbowl” type B.S. Won’t hack it…not for this old pelican.


(1C Studios incredible “IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad”. Here, I’m attempting to lay waste to a Russian aifield…)


I’m not looking to totally alter my reality…hell, a good bottle of wine can do that. I guess I simply want to be transported to a “pilot world” (place AND time) that only few a will ever see; if only for a few hours (or even minutes). I want the world to be believable, it doesn’t have to be 100% accurate, but it shouldn’t be an “eye roller” either. For example, the world of the leather-clad Spad pilot thinking he’s immortal, the disillusioned Luftwaffe ace, desperately fighting for his homeland, the newby Apache helo driver just praying not to screw up on his first combat mission, or the “pin your eyebrows to the back of your head” Viper or Hornet fighter pilot, loaded for bear, dodging SAMs and AAA over some remote, barren stretch of sand.

When all is said and done, I can sit back, critique my flying, hope I didn’t kill any virtual folks that “didn’t need killin”, police up all the empty beer cans, say good night to my mates on TeamSpeak, and call it a night. It was all “serious”, but only as serious as I decided it to be in my little virtual world. Again, reporter lady, I get to attack it on my schedule, on my terms, and with my fun-metrics. So those flight sim scenarios are all one big fat lie, but it’s a lie of my construction, and it’s as real as I deem it to be. So in a nutshell, I guess that’s one of the big reasons I fly these amazingly wonderful things we call “flight sims”.


(Here I’m flying a UH-1H “Huey” online in “DCS World”. Our mission is to escort the flight of Chinooks to repair a bridge.)


(I’m online with a friend as he spools up in an A-10C, also in “DCS World”.)


(And finally, I find myself over the bloody fields of Flanders doing battle with an Allied Spad. This is from the WW1 flight simulation “Rise Of Flight”.)


So what were my emotions in the make believe world that I found myself in on that fateful morning as a new-hire airline pilot? I quickly learned as a student (and later, witnessed it first hand as a 727 instructor), that these simulator machines do a helluva lot more than just simulate flight in a particular aircraft. They go a long way toward simulating (or creating if you will) the maze of emotions that people can feel in a high stress environment, surrounded by a believable world chock full of challenges, dangers and hardships. I’ve seen these “mother of all” flight simulations bring out the best (and the not so best) in a group of highly intelligent, highly skilled, very motivated and dedicated aviators. And it all starts because at some point in the experience, they give into the lie and start to believe. Take it from me, it’s not all that hard to do in these machines…they are that good. Isn’t that exactly what a good flight sim will do for one? Allow us to give in to the lie and begin to BELIEVE?

Oh, and by the way, in those last few seconds before we struck the approach light stanchions that dark, stormy night in Milwaukee, I cringed and braced myself just like in real life. A few seconds later, when the dust had settled (actually, the simulator just freezes), my only thought was….”f*ck, I’m dead!”

(addendum to the above mentioned 727 simulator story: The instructors informed us that yes, we did indeed crash and all were killed. The Captain and First Officer were taken off “line flying status”, admonished for not taking the (good) advice from the new guy, sent through more training, and another checkride in the simulator. I know for a fact that I did NOT endear myself to them, but so what? This is serious business, so check your ego at the door brudda. I was told that I did a good job of everything, except selling my idea that “if it ain’t working for us, then let’s not count on it…and maybe get rid of it” program, but unfortunately, I too perished in the crash (dead right?). Within a few years of this story, the airline industry as a whole began what we call “CRM Training” [Crew Resource Management]. It’s a wonderful tool, teaching (among other things) how to speak up as a subordinate crew member, and how to effectively use your crew as a Commander. It’s an excellent program, and has essentially (almost) rid the airline world of the “Captain Queeg” types. So I passed my final test, and was sent out to fly the line with an I.O.E. [Initial Operating Experience] Instructor. That first actual time in the jet with passengers turned out to be a funny story…but I’ll save that for another time.

– Happy Simming!


’till next time…








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