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Feature Article 2


Charlie Rothschild, WVFC aircraft owner


Simulator, Simulator, Simulator


Today was a very interesting day for me, as I flew a beautiful 737–800NG, taking off from San Francisco, and shooting an ILS approach back into San Francisco, and then taking off again and shooting the ILS at San Jose. Sounds pretty fanciful right? Doing such a thing in a real plane would probably have cost me north of $20,000, if I could find anyone that would allow me that option.

But instead, I flew a 737 simulator out of a small strip mall near the Toronto, Ontario airport. This wasn’t a “home use desktop” simulator, it was a custom-built machine, that started with a retired United 737 (N911UA – look it up) flight deck forward, including the original flight controls, and even the original United paint scheme. A custom simulator company then installed an exact replica of a 737 NG flight deck, with all of the instruments, all of the FMS systems, everything, fully functional. The only thing this simulator didn’t do was fly. It also didn’t have motion, but more on that later.

Besides the instruments, there are three video projectors outside the windows (the original windows) such that when you look outside, you think you are seeing the real thing. If you move your head to get a different perspective out the window, you see the different view (it isn’t like looking at a TV monitor), as the projectors are covering a 220° arc and quite a bit up and down. For my takeoffs and landings, I really couldn’t tell the difference between the real thing.

Now here’s the amazing part – the cost for 1 ½ hours, with a knowledgeable instructor (one of the co-owners), was approximately US$150. Two hours would’ve been US$200. That is half the price of flying my Cessna 182T, and that is without the instructor, who acted as the copilot, and programed all the automation (which I never could’ve done).

Is it real? The owner told me that one of their largest group of clienteles are aspiring airline pilots who are preparing for a simulator ride as part of their airline interview. They first practice the maneuvers in this simulator. Is it real? While I’ve never flown a 737, it acted in every way like a real airplane, including the load forces, use of trim, stability, etc. etc. the simulation portion is very realistic, and given that the guts are in fact a real 737, I suspect this is very real.

Back to my comments on real motion – there is no motion, but there are vibration transducers, such that when you add power or do other things you feel it in the cockpit. After some banks and turns, and the landing, I turned to the owner and said “I thought there was no motion?” He laughed and said that’s the typical response he gets, because of the real cabin, and the amazing projection view out the windows, all of the visual cues make you think there is motion, which tricks your brain.

So, for a very reasonable fee, and a couple hours while I was visiting Toronto, I was able to experience the real “Walter Mitty” in me. If that daydream, I have (and every other pilot I know has), about the crew becoming incapacitated and me having to land the plane were to ever happen, today I learned that I could actually do it. I made two good approaches, and two good landings (the first was okay, but the second was really good). The auto throttles, automatic breaks, and a few other pieces of technology helped, but I never once turned the autopilot on – I hand flew the entire time.

Given that I have grandchildren in Toronto, and I get there several times a year, you can be sure this will not be a one-time event. Next time I will bring a friend of mine, a retired Air Canada captain, who now is a simulator instructor. My only fear is he will put me through some of the stuff his students experience (engine outs, fires, etc. etc.). 

The next time you find yourself in the Toronto airport, Threshold Aviation is just five minutes away by cab and the experience of a lifetime. I can’t say enough positive things about it. I also can’t say enough positive things about the people there, including the co-owner, Mickey Bodog, who was my patient instructor and copilot, and tried very hard to make me feel like I almost knew what I was doing.

All in all, an experience I will remember for a very long time.