I Found Out Just How Tough It Is To Land A Private Jet

XOJet CAE Flight Simulator plane cockpitInside the Challenger 300 flight simulator.

Private jet charter company XOJet is serious about training its pilots.

They are recruited “from all walks of the industry,” Chief Pilot Chris DiCara said in an interview, including international, regional, military, and corporate carriers. But before a new hire joins the crew even as a co-pilot, he or she is trained to qualify under FAA rules to serve as the pilot in command, or captain.

Much of that training happens in a classroom. The rest goes down in a flight simulator — an enormous piece of equipment that recreates exactly the experience of being in the air, right down to the rumbling of the engines and the feel of the captain’s seat.

The flight simulators XOJet uses are actually good enough that pilots are not required to fly the physical aircraft before going to work.

To make sure they’re really ready, XOJet goes beyond the standard procedures required by the FAA, DiCara said. They recreate all kinds of real-world situations, even having someone play a distracting flight attendant or passenger while the jet is malfunctioning.

To give me a taste of what its pilots go through, XOJet invited me to Whippany, New Jersey, to take a flight in a simulator for the midsize Challenger 300 jet, operated by leading aviation training company CAE, which produces and operates the top of the line simulators.

After a brief spin — taking off from and landing at New York’s JFK airport in heavy cloud cover — I came away impressed by what the simulator can do, and by the pilots who survive it.

For XOJet pilots, the work starts here — in an ordinary looking CAE classroom. XOJet pilots spend 300 hours in training before flying (combined here and in the simulator), and another 150 hours every six months after that.

Posters on the wall recreate the controls in the cockpit of the plane the pilots are learning to fly.

This is the simulator for the Bombardier Challenger 300, which we tried out.

Here's a photo of a real Challenger 300 cockpit.

The graphics projected onto the windshield aren't stunningly realistic, but they're more than good enough to make you feel like you're in a real plane.

Pretty soon, I forgot I wasn't in an actual Challenger 300. (The fact that I was the one at the controls was a reality check.)

Before we got started, CAE Instructor Pilot Bob Foley showed me around the simulator, including the door panel that be kicked out for an emergency exit if the door unexpectedly locks.

I took the captain's seat (on the left), and DiCara played co-pilot. Foley sat behind us and served as the air traffic controller.

He had us take off from and land at New York's JFK airport, giving us runway directions. As co-pilot, DiCara ran through various checklists to make sure the plane was ready to go. During takeoff, he called out when we passed V1 — the speed above which the jet must take off, even if something goes wrong, like an engine failure.

While the jet is taxiing, steering is controlled with the tiller (circled). It's a lot more responsive than the yoke (the equivalent of the steering wheel), which takes a lot of force to move. It's designed that way, DiCara said, to allow the jet to make tight turns on the ground, and only gradual ones in the air.

For pilots in training, XOJet creates real-world scenarios, complete with someone playing the role of a passenger or flight attendant distracting them from dealing with a malfunction.

The simulators sit on these legs, which recreate the movement of the planes. During my visit, CAE was making tweaks to the system for recreating turbulence, so I didn't get to try that out.

To land, DiCara put on autopilot for the final approach, and turned it off when we broke through the cloud cover. Then it was up to me to land the plane, which I managed (with some help from my co-pilot).

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