A ride in a training simulator offers the chance to experience and appreciate the grace and ability of the WORLD’S MOST MODERN AIRLINER.

The 787 Dreamliner soars through the Utah canyon, mountain peaks on either side of its 98.5-foot wings. Pilots Bill Elder and Jim Dees look out the windows at the nearby peaks and ease the airliner over the mountains. “There,” Dees says. “The ski resort should be right over there.”

The cockpit tips as the plane eases into a gentle turn, gliding over the mountains, and I bend my knees to accommodate the motion. The performance is a marvel; this is a 186-foot airplane acting like a small bush plane.

My senses tell me that I’m wheeling through the Wasatch mountains outside of Salt Lake City, but it’s an illusion. The first 20,000-pound simulator stands inside the Flight Academy building in Fort Worth, Texas. From outside, the airplane is actually just a gleaming white pod mounted on six electrically driven legs. The legs tip and jostle the pod to mimic the movement of the plane, including acceleration, turbulence and turns. Inside the simulator, physical movement meshes with realistic graphics projected onto screens outside the windows to trick the brain into thinking the pod is airborne.

The land below is modeled after Google Earth images of actual airports and landscapes. “The high resolution really enhances the training experience in the air and on the ground,” says Elder.

BACK TO (FLIGHT) SCHOOL: Pilot Bill Elder with the 787 Dreamliner simulator that takes training to new heights
David Halloran
Right now, Elder, fleet training manager, and Dees, head of the training program, are the only two employees at American who have ever flown a Dreamliner, scheduled to be delivered in late 2014. The pair will train the entire cadre of pilots to fly the aircraft, and they’re relying on high-fidelity simulators like this one to do it.

The simulator is all electric, replacing hydraulic systems that rely on pressurized fluid to drive the motion of the legs. But without pumps to pressurize the lines, the 787 simulator uses 80 percent less electricity, according to Asok Ghoshal, American’s director of simulator support and engineering. “It took three months to install,” Ghoshal says. “It looks like a jigsaw puzzle when it comes in, with pieces in shrink wrap.”

The academy building staff removed a wall with a crane to accommodate the large pieces before a team from the simulator’s vendor, CAE from Montreal, assembled the parts. After engineers loaded the software and double-checked the installation, test pilots from Boeing validated the simulation’s realism. In May, the 787 simulator passed its final milestone when the FAA qualified the machine after three days of intensive testing.

A second simulator is already on order. ­Future pilots will spend challenging hours ­inside these simulators before flying one of the world’s newest, most exciting airplanes. “Going through the training program is a tough time,” Dees says. “But when you get it done, it’s so exciting to get inside the real thing and push that throttle for the first time.”

With the push of a button, the simulator stops and the Utah vista vanishes. I know it wasn’t real, but I will always remember the feeling of pushing the massive but graceful airplane over those snow-swept valleys, searching for that ski resort in the largest joyride imaginable. It’s a simulated memory, sure, but one I’ll keep with me anyway.

Senior Manager, Internal Communications
American Airlines