The Spooky Reality of Flight Simulation
By Emil Schoonejans. 

TWA’s B-747 flight simulator at JFK had its ups and downs, its growing pains, its good days, its bad days, and its “fun-and-games” days. Speaking of which, among the best was participating in the taping of the Peter Sellers UP, UP AND AWAY commercials. The most exhilarating part of showing Mr. Sellers the TWA Flight Training Department was his entourage, as he never traveled without a bevy of beauties. His eyesight was not very good and I suppose he may have needed all those pretty girls to help him to get around. He almost stumbled over the chair tracks when entering the simulator cockpit, but the attentive girls were right there to hold him. The dark cockpit was very crowded that day, but it certainly never smelled better. Sellers took the copilot seat so we could show him our new visual aid, Redifusion, which if I remember correctly, was as British as our guest and my favorite comic of Pink Panther series fame, Inspector Clouseau (can’t you just hear the music of Henry Mancini?).

Redifusion was our first experience with this visual aid in “seeing “ a runway. It had a low-visibility, night time-only capability, which required a total blackout of the room housing the simulator -- a cube-shaped enclosure of 50-foot dimensions without windows. The simulator, seemingly suspended in the center but actually resting upon 3 hydraulic legs, gave it six axes of motion activated by the pilots’ control column input forces. Fastened to the exterior of the nose of our simulated aircraft cockpit and below the pilots’ windshields, well out of sight, were two TV sets, one for each windshield display, the “pictures” of which purposely aimed straight up at the room’s ceiling. The only thing transmitted from those TV sets were points of light, the primary target was an invisible pane of glass called a beam splitter which was mounted at an appropriate angle directly in front of each pilot’s windshield and above the upward-facing TV sets.

The first simulated flight session with the new visual system installed was begun after the pilots to be checked had been properly briefed. They knew, and were quite ready for this simulated flight experience using the new visual aid. Check lists having been read, we were ready to start engines.

Captain Checkee: “I see something out there!” Captain Checkor (who is seated directly behind the Captain’s seat), after turning off his overhead chart light and looking for himself, responds: “No you don’t, there’s nothing out there.” Checkee: “There it is again, I see it again!” Checkor: “No you don’t … I don’t even have the damned thing turned on!” From my Flight Engineer’s station directly behind the co-pilot, I saw nothing out there, just as my boss said, and I also knew he did not yet have the new visual system turned on.

All FAA certified check airmen knew their lesson plans without a need for notes, but dove-tailing this new visual aid into the training syllabus was something that required a crib sheet, at least in the beginning, so as to make the simulator flight as realistic as possible. We did not want any confusion with the new system to confront pilots already coping with periodically scheduled ‘Proficiency Checks’ during a landing approach, or when dealing with any of a number of emergency situations, which we could -- and did -- introduce.

The third time the Checkee saw the apparition, he merely mumbled about it to the pilot in the right seat. It was then that I decided to physically lean over to the left side of the cockpit centerline in order to look through his windshield and, sure enough, there really was “something” out there, a faint white cloud-like mass which occasionally moved around slowly before disappearing totally when the check pilot turned off his chart light.

Mystery solved -- the check pilot had a fine shock of white hair, and the chart light above his head was causing a reflection of it onto the new beam splitter, but I never told my boss or the Checkee that there really was “something out there.” If I had done so, the humor in it would have been lost forever. I was being selfish and quietly having too much fun to share it with anyone ... until now.

Emil Schoonejans (1949-1985) served in Maintenance, Flight Operations and Flight Operations Training, New York.