I'm banking over Boston Harbor on final approach to Logan Airport, piloting my Boeing 737 out of Toronto. Visibility is so clear I can see New Hampshire's Mount Monadnock 90 miles away, but mostly I'm focused on my instruments. Cleared to land, I drop the flaps and start my final descent. The altimeter counts down, 1,500, 1,200. I check my air speed: a perfect 155 knots. 800, 700. Suddenly a robotic voice insists, "Wind shear! Wind shear! Pull up! Pull up!" But it's too late. I can't repeat the curses I let out as I topple like a leaf into Boston Harbor.
I'm shaken up, but ready to take off again.
I'm in a JetMax flight simulator, a single seat "cockpit" set up in the midst of a hangar at FlightSimCon, a convention of home flight simulator enthusiasts, at the New England Air Museum just outside Bradley Airport near Hartford, Connecticut. Scores of people sit near me at consoles, flying various simulators or serving as air traffic controllers for the "airspace" through which the simulators "fly."
Today's flight simulators have realistic cockpit setups with visuals almost indistinguishable from the view out the aircraft window, together with computer-linked yoke, rudder pedals, instrument displays and cockpit avionics tied into a large community of virtual air traffic controllers, weather and other real-world flying conditions. Fly a powerful graphics-intensive home jet simulator for a few hours and you'll almost feel ready to pilot the real thing.
Ken McElheran, vice president of Jetline Systems, which builds and sells home flight simulator component systems for enthusiasts, says, "You can have an experience essentially no different than a pilot flying a real airliner." But you're flying in your own home.
Flight simulation isn't just fun. Max Enis, a 20-year-old who wants to become an airline pilot, uses it to train. "Every aspect of real-world flying is followed," he says. "It has saved me thousands of dollars for my training and helps me feel comfortable with the complexities of communications so that I can focus on my flying."
According to McElheran, a single-seat 737 or 777 cockpit with the power, instruments and feel of the real thing, runs around $20,000. But for $10,000 you can be flying sans all the bells and whistles.
I'm itching to get off the ground. I climb back into the 737's seat and run through my instrument check. I'm bound for Anchorage.