Comment 13 August 2006: No-fly zone

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Boeing wants to prove that zero flight-time type rating can, in future, be done without full-flight simulators. It may well be right

Nearly a quarter of a century ago a debate was raging about whether qualified commercial pilots could carry out their type rating without flying the real aircraft. But it happened - and no-one today bats an eye at zero flight-time conversion.

The type rating check still has to be carried out on a full -flight simulator (FFS), however, implying six-axis motion and high-quality external visual display as well as total flightdeck fidelity with the real aircraft. Some major airlines still require their pilots to perform at least a few circuits and bumps in the real thing after the conversion. The latter is more a psychological booster than a technical need, but since when did psychology not matter? It is always a boost to find out how much easier real aircraft are to fly than simulators, with the mushy responses they inevitably provide.

Perhaps the fact that real aircraft are actually easier to fly manually than simulators provides one hint as to why Boeing is pushing at the next training barrier - zero flight-time conversion between the 777 and 787 without using a full-flight simulator.

Ever since the advent of zero flight-time, simulator time has never really been about learning to fly the aeroplane. It has been about three things: familiarisation with the cockpit environment learning how to handle and understand the aircraft systems in normal and emergency situations and learning to cope with the rate at which things happen in the new type - helpful on all conversions, but essential if a pilot is changing, say, from turboprops to jets. Even six-axis full-flight simulators are not really about handling, and modern aircraft do not provide pilots with aerodynamic surprises - if you can manually fly one big jet you can fly them all. This is especially true of moving from one fly-by-wire (FBW) type to another, as in the case of the 777/787 conversion. The effects of trim change caused by selecting gear, flap or power variations can be largely compensated by the system. And although pilots still have to be able to cope with direct control law even on FBW types, the trim changes in modern aircraft are rarely a surprise.

At the same time, simulators below the full-flight level - flight-training devices - are being built to increasing levels of sophistication at lower cost, and that is true of the computer- based training systems with which conversion courses start. Traditional computer-based training is being replaced by smart, touch-screen flight and procedure training devices. These enable pilots to master systems handling and mechanics to learn about systems interfaces in a way that makes the experience much more real from the outset.

If Boeing wants to lead the way by persuading the Federal Aviation Administration that modern type rating training can effectively be done with zero flight-time using flight-training devices, they should go for it. But the rest of the world's aviation authorities will be watching the Boeing/FAA team with interest to see if the tests applied for proof of concept are sufficiently rigorous to be persuasive.

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