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Pilots enter superjumbo virtual reality

Montreal's CAE tackles task of building flight simulators for new Airbus A380


By MARK BLANCHARD
MONTREAL "” If you build it, they will fly it. But first, pilots need a simulator to teach them how.

The world's largest passenger jet, the A380, was introduced to the public this week by Airbus SAS. Pilots will learn to tame the massive aircraft before leaving the tarmac thanks to the efforts of 200 engineers and technicians at Montreal-based CAE Inc.

They're creating a virtual version of the superjumbo jet that's designed to be the most realistic, technologically advanced flight simulator ever built.

"A lot of people don't believe we can do that," said Michel Grenier, CAE program director for the A380 simulator. "Of course we can."

That kind of confidence helps when you're making aviation history. As if conceiving and starting work on the simulator before the first A380 was even built wasn't difficult enough, CAE is aiming to have the system certified as the world's first "zero flight time training" simulator.

"That's important to the customer," Mr. Grenier said, "because you won't need to fly the aircraft empty to train pilots."

The prospect of watching a pilot walk into an A380 cockpit without ever having actually flown the aircraft may be somewhat unnerving for passengers. But it's a tantalizing proposition for Airbus, the world's struggling airlines -- and their accountants.

Consider this: a single A380 costs about $340-million to buy and millions more a year to fuel and maintain. Training flights with no passengers aboard eat into potential revenue. It's cheaper, the theory goes, to take veteran pilots who are already flying similar Airbus models and train them in cutting-edge A380 simulators, priced at a mere $17-million or so each.

"It's a very high bar," Mr. Grenier said. "It's a huge challenge for the industry, not only for us."

Capable of carrying 555 passengers, the A380 has a range of about 14,810 kilometres, more than the distance of a non-stop flight between London and Sydney, Australia. It is 73 metres long and 24 metres tall -- twice the height of a Boeing 747 -- and airports around the world are scrambling to plan the infrastructure they will need to host the gigantic airliner.

Most of the jets will come with wide seats, sleeping compartments and even a gym. Despite the luxurious accommodation, Airbus says the A380 will burn 20-per-cent less fuel and cost 17-per-cent less to fly for passenger airlines compared to the 747-400 model, while cargo carriers could post savings of up to 30 per cent when using the A380 as a freight plane.

So far, 14 airlines have ordered a total of 139 A380s from Airbus, and CAE has sold five simulators. The first simulator will be delivered to Airbus in April, so pilots can train on it before the planes go into passenger service early next year.

By then, pilots will have had a chance to adjust to a new way of working in the world's first completely computerized and paperless "fly-by-wire" cockpit.

The A380's advanced onboard electronic information system puts all the safety, operating and maintenance information a crew needs at their fingertips. The cockpit is connected to a network of eight in-flight servers, offers triple redundancy and makes the A380 the most computerized plane in history -- all of which has to be recreated accurately by CAE.

"You have more than 100 computers or systems that you need to simulate," Mr. Grenier said. "Some of them have three million lines of code."

With such massive amounts of data to deal with, CAE's Montreal engineers have been working closely with their European counterparts at Airbus.

"We need to be as close as possible to the real aircraft when it gets into service. Otherwise, the training the pilots get in the simulator is not adequate, it's not matching what's in the real aircraft," Mr. Grenier said. "You have to be able to adapt to constant change, because things will change on the aircraft."

The simulator was designed to use the aircraft's actual software and handle major updates or minor tweaks alike without causing headaches for the maintenance crew. Besides regular flight training, the simulator also reflects the A380's performance in possible emergencies caused by one or many of some 400 potential malfunctions.

"You need to be able to push the pilots into a situation," said Peter Wadell, a retired Air Canada pilot now with CAE who will be the first to test "fly" the A380 simulator.

That could mean piping smoke and dropping oxygen masks to re-enact the type of scenario the pilots of Swissair Flight 111 faced before crashing into the Atlantic near Peggys Cove, N.S., in 1998.

CAE engineers want to recreate not just massive system failures, but everything pilots see, hear and feel in the cockpit of an actual A380 -- from the cloud ceiling right down to the colour of the runway lights at South Africa's Cape Town International Airport.

To do that, they use a new sophisticated computerized visual system called CAE Tropos. Its purpose is to generate images with such detail and accuracy, pilots will feel like they're really flying in and out of the almost 30 airports instructors can choose from during a training session, the designers say. For enhanced realism, the terrain around six airports is based on actual satellite imagery.

"We spend a lot of time here making sure everything is correct," Mr. Wadell said. "If you're not going to make it real or as real as possible, they'll turn around and say 'this is a game.' "


http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20050120.gttwsimulator20/BNStory/Technology/
 
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