September 25, 2002

If it is late summer, it is time to go down south and fly the simulator. I like to be home, and I would rather not travel. I don't like the simulator, and I would rather stay home and push splinters under my nails and chew tinfoil. An annual bout with the simulator, however, is an obligation for most pilots who fly in commerce.

The flight simulator is a fantastic tool. From the outside it resembles an alien robot, a strange and boxy body upon a tripod of six hydraulic rams. Inside, the body is about the size of a typical bathroom, divided into two areas. The back room contains the instructor's console and an observer's seat, and in front there is a faithful and complete re-creation of the airplane's flight deck. These full- motion flight simulators are incredibly complex custom- built machines which cost millions of dollars.

Turbine powered airplanes are very reliable, and the Cessna Caravan that I fly was designed with a minimum of airframe systems so that there are fewer things to malfunction. I have flown the airplane almost 2000 hours now, and have never had a mechanical problem in flight. The simulator is designed to have problems though; The engine catches fire, or it quits just after takeoff. The big Ni- Cad battery not only overheats, but will not disconnect from the charging circuit. The deice boots fail in the "on" position, and must be operated by cycling a circuit breaker near your left ankle... while making a landing approach in a snowstorm.

There is no other way to experience these things. My quarrel with the simulator is with the way that it actually flies, and I would really like to have an hour with it on my own terms to understand it better. On my first takeoff, I pulled back too hard and banged the tail on the ground, and then crashed on the runway after the instructor failed the engine. With such uncharacteristic sensitivity, actual instrument flying is a real adventure.

Adding to the injury of a squirrelly simulator is the insult of airline travel to the simulator school, about 1100 miles away. I didn't enjoy the trip in any of the three previous years, and they were all prior to last September. I was certain that I would find this year's trip to be intolerable, with security inspections that are designed to establish the aura of accuracy and thoroughness through the imposition of mindless annoyances. I have a problem when absolute authority is invoked to prop up paper tigers.

This year I voted with my seat... and seated myself in a rental car. The total travel costs, including lodging, were less than the airfare from Elmira, and my wife was able to accompany me at no extra cost. We had a very pleasant time, and suddenly discovered halfway through the trip that we hadn't traveled with such freedom since our honeymoon in the 1970s.

We took the interstates when we needed to make time, but took many local roads when they looked interesting. We made side trips at random, and stopped for reasons that were no more than whimsical. By an apples to apples comparison, driving the car on the shortest route would have required a bit more than twice the hours, but we saved money and had a great time.

We drove in absolute air- conditioned comfort in a car that rode quietly at 70 MPH. There was more legroom than I could use, and the leather seats adjusted to all sorts of positions. Snacks and cold drinks were within easy reach, and the FM CD radio helped the hours float along. I tried again to imagine airline travel and shook my head in disbelief.

For a moment too, I tried to imagine making the trip in my little airplane. I could have watched our hills flatten out into the plains of the midwest, and I could have more properly appreciated the meandering of the Mississippi River. I'd like to make a long trip someday, someday when the journey itself is the destination, much like a motorcycle trip. My plane is cramped and noisy, and hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Worst of all it isn't a whole lot faster than the car on a midwest interstate.

I would have rather stayed home, but as long as I had to travel, I am glad to have watched the 2600 miles of countryside through the front windows of a nice car.

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