|July 03, 2008|
In a rectangular room at the T.H. Davis Aviation Center, on the edge of the Piedmont Triad International Airport, kids are lining up to test the cutting edge of flight-simulation technology, circa 1950.
The students, from middle schools across the region, are part of a group of 60 enrolled in the first annual Aviation Career Education Academies (ACE), organized by the North Carolina Department of Transportation (DOT) and Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC), of which the Davis center is a part.
These ACE academies comprise a week-long day school for middle school students and a week-long resident school for high school students, who are housed in dormitories at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
The four Link GAT-1 aircraft trainers are Ed Frye's pride and joy. Frye, the chair of GTCC's Transportation Systems Technology division, trained on similar machines when earning his pilot's license in the 1960s. He has been a big champion of the Korean War-era trainers, pushing for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification for GTCC's, the only ones the FAA has certified for pilot training of the 70 or so still in existence.
The trainers, the last generation of the mechanical flight simulators that dominated the market from World War I until the 1960s, consist of a fiberglass cab mounted on a heavy base bearing the name "Singer." That's right, Singer, just like the sewing machine. The Singer Corp. bought the design from the company of its inventor, Edwin Link, in the 1950s.
To a generation raised on Microsoft Flight Simulator and other high-tech, low-impact visual simulators, the GAT-1s look fairly primitive. From a distance, they look – sorry, Ed – like nothing so much as steroid-enhanced versions of the quarter-a-turn rides that, until recently, lined the curbs in front of most American grocery stores. Or modernist mechanical bulls.
The mechanical bull analogy is actually apt. The gyroscope-controlled, six-degrees-of-freedom mechanical base of the GAT-1 is God's own universal joint, capable of throwing the tiny fiberglass cab of the GAT-1 through a 360-degree turn at any pitch up to 10 degrees at a touch of the controls, feeding the resulting information back to the instruments in the cab. Believe us, it's far more visceral than anything your computer flight simulator can do.
The Piggly Wiggly look of the GAT-1's exterior breaks down inside the cab, where gauges and controls replicate those found in any small civilian airplane. Visual flight simulators match the controls and instruments to the view outside the cockpit; mechanical simulators work on an entirely different principle, modeling only the controls and instruments and matching them to the mechanically induced heading and pitch of the cockpit, giving would-be pilots an inner-ear feel for the controls that no visual-only simulator can recreate.
"As old as these simulators are, they do amazing things," said Frye, who went all the way to the office of the head of the FAA in Washington after the agency, in 1996, prohibited using the old mechanical simulators to log flying time for a pilot's license.
Under the new FCC rules, manufacturers of visual or mechanical/visual flight simulators had to work with the agency to get their devices certified. By that time, Singer had gotten out of the flight-simulator business, so there was no one to seek certification for the GAT-1 until GTCC stepped in.
As a result of GTCC's efforts, its four machines can be used to log flying time, and other GAT-1 owners can get their machines certified if they are grandfathered in under GTCC's letter of authorization.
The GAT-1s help older pilots with instrument training, but for the ACE academies, they are a good combination of fun ride and educational tool. They're more fun than the grocery store version, but require real knowledge to operate successfully. A student who mounts one without learning how to trade altitude for airspeed will soon be in real trouble. Or at least as much trouble as a 10-degree pitch and an instrument-simulated crash can replicate.
"It seems a little more realistic than when you're sitting at a desktop flying," said Audrey Floyd, chairman of the Aviation Management/Career Pilot Department at GTCC and a nine-year Air Force AWACS pilot.
Floyd and Frye, along with Dave Thomas and Carla Faulkner, who work for the DOT's aviation division, shepherd the students, 12- to 15-year-olds from area middle schools, to the trainers in groups of four.
Floyd stands next to a GAT-1, walking Brandon Paul, 12, a student at South Davidson Middle School in Davidson County, through the process of steering the plane with his feet on the ground until, reaching 70 miles per hour on the notional runway, he can raise the nose of the GAT-1 for takeoff.
Paul, encouraged by his success in taking off, points the nose of the trainer at the sky, quickly making the trainer stall and the altimeter reel groundward.
"If you were flying a jet aircraft, that would be fine," Floyd said. "But you don't have the power."
Floyd helps Paul recover at 900 feet, adding climb to the vertical speed indicator until he can level out at 2,000 feet. After a few minutes of flying, he lands successfully, but, losing sight of the altimeter, doesn't at first recognize the lurch the simulator gives when his nonexistent wheels touch down.
"We made it fine," Floyd said. "That was a nice soft landing – after the first bounce."
Like other students, Paul signed up for the aviation academy because it sounded cool. In addition to training on the flight sims, the students get classes on flight theory and aviation history, tours of local airports and aviation businesses, including the new HondaJet factory, and a chance to build model airplanes the hard way: with balsa wood, from an aerodynamically valid design. But at some point during the week-long school, he began taking flying more seriously.
"At the beginning, I thought it would be fun," Paul said. "But now I'm thinking more seriously about getting a license and joining the Air Force. I think you'd get the biggest adrenaline rush with the F-16s."
That's all according to plan. The faculty at GTCC and the staff at the DOT aviation division, flight nuts to a man and woman, launched the summer ACE academy to pass on their enthusiasm for flight and, they hope, to help offset, in the long run, a chronic shortage of pilots.
Pilots usually come to flying on one of several paths. Some are taught by pilots in their families; some are trained by the military, and some, usually those who want to be airline pilots, learn as part of their college education or at a commercial flight school.
Traditionally, others are "ramp rats" – flight-obsessed kids who hang around airports, get jobs there and learn their aviation through contact with real aviators.
But the military is producing fewer pilots than it did in previous generations, and ever-increasing airport security has made ramp rats an increasingly rare phenomenon. Academic flight training is little known in high schools or among parents. Most parents know, at least in general terms, what their kids would have to do to become lawyers or doctors. But how many know how to start their kids on the path to an aviation career?
Frye said one result is an increasing shortage of pilots and other air-industry workers. He said one study shows that, in the triad area, 1,700 aviation-related jobs are unfilled.
"Aviation is not a well known career path to parents or teachers," Frye said. "This is helping expose it in a big way."
If you're going to expose middle and high school students to aviation, the T.H. Davis Aviation Center is the place to do it. In addition to the flight-simulator room and classrooms, the center has a runway and a cavernous hangar full of aircraft used to teach aviation mechanics.
The hangar houses a Piper Cherokee (a traditional low-wing general aviation airplane) and a Cessna 172 (a typical high-wing airplane). But it also contains several wood- or steel-framed fabric-bodied planes and such oddities as a Corben Baby Ace, a homebuilt airplane built from plans in a 1955 issue of Popular Mechanics, and a Rutan VariEze, a futuristic looking canard-winged one-seater designed by Dick Rutan, who set a world record by piloting the Voyager aircraft around the world without stopping or refueling.
My favorite was the "Snapperjet" – a tiny fuselage married to a Snapper riding mower, used for riding in parades to introduce kids to aviation.
The serious hardware is on the runway, and includes a Boeing 727-100 donated by FedEx.