A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

April 2010

   Flying on the Ground

             After an entire afternoon of flying, and four instrument approaches in hard IMC, I was lined up on the ILS @ Edmonton (YEG).  It was the last leg of a five city run through a weather system that cloaked Alberta in low cloud and snow.  Alone in a Skylane, I was tired and feeling the stress of hand-flying all the approaches right down to minimums.  Four miles back … right on the localizer, slightly above the glideslope.  Adjusting the rate of descent ever so slightly, I reminded myself there was over 10,000 feet of runway.  No go-round on this one.   Three miles back, the cross-hairs right where they should be.  No wind, no reason to drift off.  One minute later those first, tiny lights appeared in my peripheral vision over top of the panel.  At the minimum descent altitude I looked out the window to see the centerline right where it should be.  I’m always amazed at the technology that allows us to do that, and pleased with myself when it happens so precisely.  But that evening in the cloud and snow, it was especially sweet. 

            Muscles in my neck and back let me know just how tense the approach had been.  My head ached as the last few hours filled with NDB and ILS approaches, one after another, were catching up with me.  After this final one, I never bothered to taxi in to the terminal or even pull the mixture to shut down the engine.  The plane was still sitting halfway down the runway as I punched the keyboard command to “end Flightsim”. The screen went black, I slowly pushed away from the desk, stretched long and hard, then headed to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. 

            It’s a great advantage to know there are no consequences when you fly the simulated airplane down the ILS into hard instrument conditions made up of the worst you can program.  Ten foot ceilings, eighth of a mile visibility in heavy snow would be a real challenge in the real world.  But sitting at your desk in front of the computer gives you the opportunity to actually go for these approaches.  When you succeed, the reward is huge.  When you fail, you simply try again. 

           Simulators are one of the most valuable tools available for training pilots.  But some flying in this ground-based environment is actually for real.  UAV’s, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are flown by pilots who sit in a cockpit which closely resembles a simulator.  During the last twenty to thirty years, UAV’s have evolved into highly capable, specialized aircraft utilized worldwide by the military and other government and private industries.  And although these machines have no pilot on board, they’re still under human control …. from the ground. 

            The UAV most recognized would be the military plane called the Predator.  It’s the one we see and hear about on the news and is used for surveillance and reconnaissance as well as weapons delivery.  It’s capable of firing missiles at enemy targets, and is an efficient tool in the U.S. arsenals.  But UAV’s have many peace-time applications.  They’re used in search and rescue operations, wildfire detection and suppression, law enforcement, disaster and emergency management, research, photography, pipeline and powerline patrol, crop spraying and as communications platforms.  They are relatively inexpensive to build and maintain, and have the huge advantage of keeping the risk out of flying them.  The pilot controls a UAV the same way he would fly in a simulator.  It’s been described as flying while looking through a straw, referring to the view from the aircraft projected on the screen in front of the operator.  If you’ve flown FLIGHTSIM on your home computer, it’s similar. 

            If you believe there is no future in unmanned flight, you may have to reconsider.  Educational institutions are stepping up to the plate to train personnel for this expanding enterprise.  The University of North Dakota has set up the first program, a bachelors degree in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations.  The university states that “the last fighter pilot has already been born”, and “the last fighter is being built”.  Already, about 12 students are enrolled for the first year of this program.  These people will be trained with the most advanced technology available, information that will be changing rapidly.  The university is hoping to secure a 13,000-square-mile testing range in North Dakota so that they can fly the UAV’s without endangering other aircraft. 

            Operating a flight simulator, whether it’s a grand-scale commercial tool or one on your home computer, can be a huge challenge to your knowledge, ability, experience and endurance.  Your skills are tested and honed, and you’ll undoubtedly feel satisfied when you complete the flight, all the while sitting safely with your passengers on the ground.  And for young pilots, the UAV’s future may be more closely linked to their own.  At one point in time, there were predictions of commercial super-sonic flight.  That in fact did happen with the Concorde, but did not last.  It’s given way to larger aircraft that move more people.  All the talk about space flight for the general public is perhaps not that far away.  Consider that we’ve been riding subway and above-ground trains for years that are controlled by computers.  Then ask yourself, can unmanned airliner cockpits be far behind?  Having fun in a flight simulator or on your own computer with FLIGHTSIM should be taken more seriously. Someday, it may be the only flying you will ever do.      

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