Joyriders in the Matrix: We take a trip in a virtual A320

‘Cos there are few things as nuttily high-tech as a flight simulator used to train airline pilots

Buckle up tight as we take you on the ride of your life in the CAE Series 5000 Full Flight Simulator for the Airbus A320.

You’ll find this Series 5000, along with two of its compatriots (an even fancier, even more expensive Series 7000 is slated to arrive soon), at the CAE Simulation Training Pvt. Ltd. facility in Greater Noida. Designated a ‘Level D’ or ‘Full ‘, flight simulator, the Series 5000 models the Airbus A320 flying experience down to the minutest bit of detail There’s no indication whatsoever that you aren’t in the cockpit of a real airliner, and it’s so realistic that a session aboard the Series 5000 counts as Zero Flight Time Training, the closest a pilot can get to real flying without taking an A320 up into the air.

Encountering the Series 5000

Walk into the simulator bay at the CAE facility and a trio of alien-looking pods loom up, looking like otherworldly creatures here to take over planet Earth. From the bulbous cockpit, to the electro-mechanical legs, to the distant whine of simulated jet engines, punctuated only by a Series 5000’s movement as the pilots inside encounter bad weather, it all feels like something out of a science-fiction movie.

Rather fitting when you think about all the cutting-edge technology involved in recreating this realistic illusion of flight right here on terra firma.

What do pilots do here?

Training sessions on the Series 5000 sim cover every aspect of piloting the A320: Low-visibility and all-weather operations, monsoon training, command assessment /upgrades, proficiency and skill checks, corrective training. While airlines use their own certified instructors and examiners, all training is carried out according to Standard Operating Procedures approved by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation.Training sessions are bookended by briefings and are recorded so pilots can get feedback.

Take a step back and you’ll spot the instructor ‘s workstation. The touchscreen monitors on the left are used to set up a training session: Engine failure? Heavy turbulence at 30,000 feet? Flight control surface malfunction? Windshear on take-off? Winter fog as you come in to land in Delhi? Monsoon winds and rain over Kathmandu? It can all be configured from here. And before you ask, we most certainly did not check with CSTPL if the Series 5000 can simulate a ‘UFO over the right wing’ scenario.

What’s it like to ‘fly’ in one of these?

It takes years of hard work before you’re trusted with flying a few hundred people thousands of feet up in the air, inside a metal tube powered by tonnes of highly flammable fuel. Which is why we leapt at the chance to sit through a flight in the cockpit of a virtual A320…

All set for take-off, our instructor pushes the throttles forward, and we’re on our way. Sceptical about how realistic the Series 5000’s motion is? Don’t be. Combined with the sound and the visual cues, our brains are fooled into thinking we’re accelerating past a few hundred knots as we soar up into the air.

Taking gentle turns over Delhi, traffic visible on the roads below us, with the occasional jerk as we hit a patch of bad weather, it’s easy to believe we’re out for a joyride in a real Airbus. Going in to land, the ground proximity warning goes off as the landing gear’s not engaged. That’s fixed, and as we come in, a voice alert counts out our altitude. We touch down with a thud and gently roll to a stop. Of course, we also took a turn behind the controls. How did that go? Let’s just say nobody’s gonna be hiring us as pilots for a while!

What makes it look so real?

The CAE Tropos 6000 image generation system in the Series 5000 is powered by commercial off-the-shelf graphics processors (you might find Nvidia or AMD chips inside), and uses three Sony GH-10 projectors. Wanna get technical? Look up ‘collimated displays’. Okay, you’re probably too lazy to do that, but, in a nutshell, the Tropos 6000 generates a high-resolution image with a wide field-of-view, one that ‘s accurate (for both pilots) even from varying angles and viewing positions.

It’s so realistic, you can even spot cars moving about on the ground as you come in to land! There’s also enough graphical power to make weather (clouds, rain, fog, snow and thunderstorms), time of day, shadows, buildings and airport traffic look just like the real deal!

The brains behind the scenes

It takes a whole lotta computing power to create a simulation so accurate that, for all practical purposes, it’s as good as flying a real A320. From engine sounds and the way the aircraft turns, to the motion feedback (even how the runway surface feels) and the weather physics, and what happens when a critical system fails during flight, everything has to be in perfect sync.

That’s why there’s a separate server room with a bunch of ‘Computer Console Cabinets’: High-powered, rack-mounted computers connected with fibre optics and Ethernet, and running in lockstep to make sure the Series 5000 FFS can make airline pilots forget they aren’t really at 30,000 feet.