CAE’s Falcon 7X simulator replicates the real world

 - May 31, 2007, 4:53 AM

Flight training provider CAE SimuFlite won’t hold the grand opening ceremony commemorating the start of operations at its Northeast Training Center in Morristown, N.J., until this month, but pilots have already been strapping into the brand-new Falcon 7X simulator for initial training.

The interim level-C full flight simulator actually received FAA approval before European and U.S. officials handed over the real airplane’s certification papers on April 27; CAE is currently seeking level-D certification. The simulator and a companion cockpit procedures trainer at the Morristown center now enter an around-the-clock rotation as flight crews arrive at the center for more than 30 hours of sim time and additional classroom and take-home coursework.

When pilots emerge from their training, they will be fully qualified to fly the world’s most technologically sophisticated business jet and the first with fly-by-wire flight controls. Manufacturer Dassault selected CAE in 2004 as the exclusive provider of pilot, maintenance and cabin crew training for the Falcon 7X. As part of that contract, CAE developed two simulators and Simfinity procedures trainers, one for the Morristown training center and another for European customers installed at CAE’s Burgess Hill center in the UK.

The 30 hours are split between the full-motion simulator and the procedures trainer, which resides in a small room down the hall from the main simulator bay. Replicating the full complement of systems and running the same software as the sim, the procedures trainer includes touch-screen displays that recreate digital renderings of all switches, knobs and levers.

Of course, the Falcon 7X airplane makes heavy use of flight displays and a trackball cursor control device for most functions, so there aren’t many switches to replicate. The 7X features the same Honeywell EASy avionics that are certified in other new Falcons, and nearly every cockpit function can be completed by moving a cursor crosshair symbol among the four large flat-panel displays. In fact, many common functions must be performed using the cursor controller.

During a demonstration of the 7X simulator at the newly opened training center just a short drive from Morristown Municipal Airport, CAE Falcon instructor Jan Hruska demonstrated why the airplane and the trainer deserve billing as among the industry’s most advanced. The visual system in the simulator uses digitized satellite imagery, meaning the view pilots see out the front is an accurate representation of the ground on the day the satellite passed over. In the cockpit, every component and avionics system feature has been replicated to perform exactly as it does in the airplane. And the handling characteristics are said to be spot on.

The most striking difference between flying the Falcon 7X and any other business jet in its category is the sidestick controller and fly-by-wire system. There is no trim thumb button on the stick; instead, the computers manage all control inputs automatically to maintain desired pitch and bank angles. The pilot’s sidestick commands are converted to electronic signals, with the flight control computers determining how best to move the actuators at each control surface to provide the desired response. And what a response it is.

Lay the 7X over on its side and center the nose on the horizon and the airplane will stay glued there, even if you let go of the stick. In fact, anytime the pilot lets go of the sidestick the 7X’s flight path vector remains constant. It takes a little getting used to, but if you apply the logic of what’s happening with the fly-by-wire controls to the autopilot’s algorithms, fly-by-wire starts to make sense.

Borrowed from civil HUD designs, a variety of flight path cues and trend vectors on the primary flight display provide the pilots with an array of information about the airplane’s energy state. Taking lessons learned in the development of the Mirage 2000’s fly-by-wire system, Dassault has largely succeeded in its goal of creating the easiest to fly and most comfortable Falcon ever, Hruska said.

Fly-by-wire flight controls allow aircraft makers to offer protections and better low-speed handling characteristics. In the 7X the computers will intervene to prevent the airplane from stalling or overspeeding.

Trying to stall the 7X in any configuration or at any speed is an exercise in futility. The computer nannies simply won’t let a pilot exceed the wing’s critical angle of attack. Likewise, pitching the nose over, stowing the speed brakes and shoving the throttles forward will get the speed tape moving, but it will also induce protests from the fly-by-wire controls as the airspeed nears Vmo. As if by magic, the nose automatically starts to rise as airspeed increases, even with the stick still pressed full forward.

The demo flight included a series of (very) short hops from JFK International Airport to La Guardia to shoot a series of ILS and Rnav approaches. The vector path cues on the flight displays make flying an approach by hand a cinch, at least in smooth air. Dialing in some turbulence made it tougher to stay on glideslope as the auto trim fought to maintain a constant descent. The trick is making smooth inputs to the sidestick at all times.

Each of the landings in the sim was harder than the passengers probably would have appreciated, but the realism of that solid “thunk” onto the pavement was impressive for a simulator cab sitting on hydraulic stilts. The last landing of the day, however, showed why even a multimillion-dollar simulator built by one of the top producers in the world still can’t replicate the real world with absolute fidelity.

Descending in the murky, early- morning haze toward Kennedy’s Runway 4R, the Falcon was on a perfectly stabilized approach with the flight path vector nestled inside the approach cue. Nearing decision altitude there was still no runway in sight, despite the fact that we had broken out of the clouds and visibility wasn’t too bad at about three miles. The pilot had one hand on the throttle levers and was poised to shove them full forward; the outline of the rabbit light stanchions started to appear below the nose.

“Joe, does Kennedy have its lights on?” Hruska asked the sim operator. After a beat, the airport suddenly appeared from the mist, every runway and taxiway light blazing brightly directly ahead. Just another routine approach, with the EGPWS calling out “50, 40, 30, 20, 10…” Thunk!