Flight Simulation as a Career
Ask any professional pilot what the bane of his life is and chances are he will not complain about the passengers (or self loading freight, as they are sometimes derisively known) but he will say ‘the flight simulator’. He will also probably grudgingly admit that it’s his best friend as well. He (or she, of course) will meet more emergencies in his annual 8 hours of flying the simulator than he could expect to face in 40 years of flying. It is this system of teaching him the worst that could happen that keeps him ready and confident when a minor problem – like an engine stopping in-flight, happens.
After qualifying to be a commercial pilot (during which time he will have already spent 40 hours plus in simulators of various grades – from cardboard displays to full flight simulators) he will re-visit the simulator twice a year to brush up on his skills and develop new ones. The simulator he goes to will be an exact replica of the cockpit he flies in for real, with all the buttons, switches and levers having the same apparent effect. In other words, it’s as close to the real thing as it gets.
But who keeps these technological marvels working the way the pilots expect? Enter one of the unsung heroes of aviation – the simulator technician. Could you consider flight simulation as a career?
The average simulator technician – the sim tech, will have to know his way around every aircraft sim they might have on site – anything between 1 and 15 different types. Each of these aircraft will have different avionics or instruments, different navigation systems, different ways of starting the engine and operating the radar, as well as many other ancillary items and many simulators even have multiple ‘fits’ – variations of the same aircraft, yet the experienced sim tech will know them all.
In addition to the ‘front end’, the simulator technician may also have to deal with a variety of back end interfaces and computer systems too. Most will be modern PCs but there are some systems that are more than 30 years old too, based on strange and unusual operating systems and possibly older than the technicians maintaining them.
Add to that the controls and motion systems which may be hydraulic or electric and a visual display system that might be 35KV projectors or modern digital systems similar to those seen in a bar that shows sports fixtures – except in the simulators case there will be 3 to 5 of these showing an interlinking picture that give a more wrap around effect.
The modern simulator is far more than the ‘toy’ software simulations that are available for a games console.
The final burden for the sim tech is the annual qualification of the devices he maintains. The national aviation regulators won’t just take the manufacturers word that each sim looks and feels just like the aircraft and each year will visit every commercial aircraft simulator to establish its credentials that it still emulates the aircraft. Without this certification, the simulator is not permitted to be used for training at an accountable level, and every pilot likes hours in his log book. There are a number of software tools that enable the technician to prove that the sim does just that and of course he has to know his way around all of them too.
As a career, it is not for the faint hearted. It’s definitely a case of ‘never the same day twice’, of always learning and being prepared to learn more. There will always a niggling little snag that you can’t quite find, that always turns up when the most pedantic pilots are visiting and there will sometimes, even minutes or hours when nothing happens. Just not that often!
If you are good at maths, physics, have an interest in aviation but little interest in flying, can go from zero to full on at a moments notice, have customer facing skills that can sooth the most scathing over-paid bus-driver (which is how pilots can be considered – until something goes wrong at 20,000 ft) and can do it all with a smile (or at least hide the grimace), then you could be a sim tech.
The jobs are not easy to find and not easy to get into unless you’re already doing it (Real Catch 22 there) but there are apprenticeships available. Find out where the nearest simulator complex is and try to cadge a visit. If it doesn’t amaze you, then don’t consider flight simulation as a career.