Thummmph. Thummmph. Thummmph.
The blades bit by bit begin their rotation above me. As they pick up speed I check the gauges: air pressure, wind direction, compass, fuel; all good. Soon they are spinning so quickly that the individual “thumphs” turn into one constant, roaring pulse. Headsets go on, and I speak into mine,
I look back to my brother strapped into the gunner bucket seat with his headset plugged in, and he nods. Slowly, the cockpit starts to levitate. I’m flying! Well, hovering, but the weightless feeling under me was so wonderfully apparent. It was like how you would imagine a magic carpet ride would feel only you’re in a large, metal enclosed sphere; just as freeing but ten times more badass.
I grab the cyclic (the joystick looking thing) pulling back while negotiating the pedals and we begin the flight. Buzzing through the sky, my brother and I check out the surrounding landscape, fields and mountains with scattered homes and towns.
It’s true that everything seems much more peaceful from the air.
But then, it hits us. Enemy fire from the side.
My brother gets on the gun and fires as I maneuver the helicopter hard to the left and then up into the clouds. Through the mist we hang a tight right, and I hear in headset, “We’re facing them, they’re right in front of us!” Suddenly, BAM, we’re jerked hard backwards and the cockpit writhes as we spin downward. Two seconds of spinning green and brown smear across the windshield before impact and red screen.
The hydraulics picked up the metal box of a cockpit and placed in back in starting position. We had just failed our simulation.
At Fort Indiantown Gap in Annville, Pennsylvania, AKA “The Gap”, there is a United States Army post, as well as the headquarters of the Pennsylvania National Guard. They have base camps set up and infantry divisions occupying this area, but most importantly they have the Eastern Army National Guard Aviation Training Site. This is the place where all east coast helicopter pilots are trained and certified, which includes training for pilots, instructor pilots, maintenance test pilots, and crew members. This is where my dad learned how to fly and where I was now, trying out the helicopter simulation training program.
My dad, brother, and I were taken into large, metal hanger that contained two of The Gap’s helicopter simulators by one of my dad’s old army buddies. He explained the gist of the system,
“This is where they start their actual field training after they have gone through Basic and passed their written and physical requirements. We start them off with one of us trainers inside, while they sit shotgun and observe. Then they move to the driver’s seat and I would sit and watch and help. And then they run it over and over by themselves until they are ready to be tested. They also take turns practicing on the gun, but that’s not nearly as difficult as flying the aircraft.”
A set of roll-away steps led us up to the constructed cockpit that was held up by three hydraulic mechanisms that create the feeling of motion. Once we stepped into the simulator there were bucket seats in the back for trainees to wait their turn and observe. The front was replicated to match a real helicopter exactly, with the precise seats, switches, and windows (which were actually screens) in order to train as accurately as possible.
Before I knew it, it was my turn to give it a try.
Since I had not had any previous training on the equipment an instructor stayed with me the whole time and only activated a few of the hydraulics to keep the ride tame. But I was still shaking. The instructor fired it up and we began rising off of the ground.
The graphics were astounding and the motion was ridiculously realistic! I could see everything crystal clear from the pilot’s seat; all of the scenery was sharp and well focused. I got a bit distracted by this and forgot to keep moving the aircraft forward.
The helicopter hovered for a few seconds and then started plummeting nose first towards the ground. We hit, all of the screens turned bright red, and I could barely breathe. I took a moment to regain some composure and shake it off, but for a moment I was sure I would start crying.
That was when I learned the first two staples of flying from my father and the instructor, “Pay attention” and “Hovering is much harder than you think.” Thanks, dad.
My first flight had been severely unsuccessful and utterly frightening, but once reality setback in that it was not real, it became much more fun. Like a gamer that gets unlimited lives and is able to restart, I began to feel the thrill over the fear. From there, my brother and I began switching back and forth between flying and gunning. However, like father, like daughter, I was much better at flying than gunning, and my brother was happy to remain in his bucket seat protecting our aircraft.
I have loved flying since I was little. My dad’s job as a helicopter pilot exposed me to aircraft, military bases, and the occasional play date in the plane hangar. As kids, he would often take my siblings and me up in the sky to see the earth below. There is something very different about a helicopter that trumps airplanes every time. I have been a victim of motion sickness my whole life whenever I would ride in airplanes, trains, or even cars; but in a helicopter, nope. In airplanes, trains, and cars, there is always a feeling of restriction with their small windows watching the world go by horizontally. In a helicopter, you’re flying into the sky and everything is in front of you. You can see the fields and buildings below, the clouds above, and the endless blue straight ahead. It’s astounding! And I applaud the design of a GIGANTIC windshield.
Our time together in the simulator, my dad, brother and I, reminded me of those days. It was truly refreshing to feel up in the air again, but this time from a completely different perspective. I gained much more appreciation for the craft of flying and the training that goes into it. If you’re able to get an “in” with some flight simulator instructors, give flying a try!