Being a beginner to motion simulators and also a pilot who has flown very little on autopilot (and especially coupled approaches), I knew I was in for a steep learning curve at Flight Safety. I had trained in Duluth and acquired the Cirrus Instructor Certification for the Avidyne Cirrus 22 but that was years ago now. With little recent automation experience I expected this to be tough but I did probably underestimate the level of challenge. My instructor, Josh Rivera, was a two-year FSI veteran and had clearly seen all sides of this training experience. Each lesson in the simulator was proceeded with a careful and complete briefing and after each “flight” there was a complete playback of all the tracks and controls (including cockpit video and full audio). You had an opportunity to relive your moments of terror and triumph.
The first session was Sunday morning with an off-motion “sit session” identifying switches and reviewing checklists and procedures. Since I have been on the other side of this equation way too long (as the CFI) I could uncomfortably feel Josh’s need to swallow hard and be excessively patient as I fumbled around finding switches. I had been a good boy and practiced dutifully with the poster in the hotel but the real thing is always different when your mind is in a cramp. The experience is so real you find yourself being excessively cautious so you do not cook the PT-6 engine on start up. At this point it is hard to believe in four days you will be even partially “competent.”
By Sunday afternoon, with take-offs and maneuvering, the experience was becoming a bit more fluid and fun. This sim flies so realistically, you are quickly convinced you are burning Jet A. With that huge Hartzell prop and 1200hp out front, this plane requires massive amounts of right rudder and can be tricky on take-off and landing. Learning the pitch and power settings (and even where the knobs and gauges are) takes a few mistakes and recoveries: 15psi level gives you 150 knots, 25psi 200 knots level (for that speed limit within 4nm C and D) Climbing at 150K needs 28psi and descending 8psi. You can easily achieve 3,000 fpm on the climb if you are light. Learning all the functionality of the Honeywell APEX flight management system obviously is the most challenging for most transitioning pilots. FSI gets candidates at all levels of experience. Fortunately I already had an ATP SEL and MEL but that certainly does not guarantee success.
Remembering where everything is and programming for the departure, enroute and approach while flying was initially overwhelming. You are simultaneously “reprogramming” your brain while operating with some new (and not yet firmly established) habit patterns. The software menu and tab orientation was manageable when no disasters were occurring but got challenging as the pace picked up. With only four days to go from bozo to competent, it’s a steep slope to climb.
And you know the standard pedagogical process; the first day everything goes right, the next day everything goes wrong. With 11 electrical buses, 4 display units and two independent graphical processors, there are endless failures modes and reversionary tactics you need to memorize. I spent a lots of hours on the videos and procedure trainers building habits and working through sticking points from previous lessons. The PC-12 also has a detailed CAS (crew alerting system) with many annoying aural chimes and bells going off (continuously in training). Each alert requires consulting the QR checklist and performing a detailed, timely response. This noise and confusion probably was the hardest for me to get used to. Since all the equipment is actual manufacturers OEM, these alerts are excessively loud (designed for the Bose A20s…which we did not have in the sim!) I felt a little like I was the chrome ball inside the pinball machine on day three. Just try to run a list with someone screaming “fire, fire, fire” at 90 db in your ears.
Fortunately I got a little payback for all my “yank and bank” skills. These worked perfectly for the complete engine failure at 1500 agl. They want a quick power back, feather, best glide and 180 degree turn back to the runway (while securing and alerting ATC). I am proud to say I nailed this on the first surprise attempt. Balancing that was the required RVR 500 take-off; pretty ragged on the first attempt! But failures like this point out the amazing utility of a simulator; a safe opportunity to live and learn. You can practice all kinds of hazardous procedures repeatedly and master them with only a damaged ego and no blood on the floor.
The fire in the cockpit at FL280 required donning the real oxygen mask and smoke goggles and flying an approach and landing at the nearest airport. This simulation leaves you sweating and panting. This certainly is something to practice in the sim and pray you never have to prove in real flight.
Day three was the “valley of death” and I died on a nasty crosswind approach at RVR 1800 (a company requirement) and also iced up (even with boots on full) on autopilot and trim stalled at 5,000 agl on approach. It is somewhat depressing to die so realistically twice in one afternoon! By day four I was getting fairly proficient but took one last day to polish and prepare for the check ride on Friday. As with most evaluations, you know you are going to be less than 100% under the microscope and I was still struggling with the FMS programming.
Friday was the payoff with a review session and check ride. This went pretty clean with only a few minor snafus. Most notably on the engine failure on departure at 1500 agl, I managed to also hit the “kill button” (out of sight under the fuel cut off lever) and the machine went “off motion” (suddenly very smooth and quiet). We had to run that a second time with motion “on” to prove the element was successful. Examiner Water Bryant is a very fair and calming influence but also very detailed and comprehensive. The whole experience at Flight Safety International was superb with great equipment and a talented and caring staff of instructors. Now on to the real plane and to see if we can really fly!