Dream Aero USA
By Tony Vallillo
It was the relatively obscure (aren't they all?) Vice President Thomas R. Marshall who famously quipped "What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar". As far as I know (having never smoked a cigar) the smokers of America are still waiting for that need to be filled. Now a country as large and dynamic as the USA has many needs, quite a few of which have been going unfilled, and judging from the current governmental stasis may stay that way indefinitely. But at least one of those needs, one mainly applicable to those of us in the flight sim community, has now been met. We finally have the metaphoric five-cent cigar!
Of course I am not talking about tobacco. What this country has needed for some time has been a really good storefront flight simulation offering, the likes of which has been popular in Europe and Asia for some time now. Someplace where anyone can climb into a reasonable facsimile of an airliner cockpit and play Captain for an hour or two -- and preferably at a reasonable price, a price not as lofty as the simulated altitude of the "flight" in question. Until now, you would have to take a transoceanic trip to strap into something like that. But be frustrated no more, for relief is at hand - some very fine relief indeed. I refer to a new operation called Dream Aero USA, which recently opened near Washington DC.
Years ago our hobby spawned the desire, in a few talented minds at least, to operate our PC based flight simulators from a realistic cockpit complete with controls that looked and worked like those in a real airplane. Thus the hobby-within-a-hobby of cockpit building was born, and came to fruition in such efforts as those of Dr. Joe Maldonado of Puerto Rico in his Project 727. If we all had the myriad skills, and, let's not kid ourselves, the money to carry off a project of this sort, the world would be littered with mock airliner cockpits and also probably enough fighter cockpits to equip a small nation's air force. But most of us lack both the money and the skills, and thus have to look elsewhere to scratch that particular itch.
Elsewhere, in the past, usually meant real airline simulators at real airline training centers. In the 1990's some airlines, led initially by United, began to offer time in their Level D simulators to the more well heeled practitioners of our hobby. This time was usually in the wee hours, when their own pilots were reluctant (or precluded by the union contract) to be flailing around simulated skies with an engine out. Hobby pilots, on the other hand, didn't care what time of day it was - they were just happy to be playing the ultimate Walter Mitty fantasy game! Prior to 9-11 many airlines dined out on this new revenue source, and quite a source it was; the hourly rates were said to be many thousands of dollars, yet the lines were around the block.
The events of 9-11, of course, put at least a temporary halt to this opportunity, but things got a bit looser a few years after, and today it is again possible to get some time in a real FAA Level D flight simulator; albeit usually through the good offices of a third party such as Rod McClennon at Airline Captain for a Day in Las Vegas, which uses the simulators at the Pan Am International Flight Academy. I also know a few folks who have bought some sim time at the American Airlines Flight Academy in Texas, also courtesy of a third party operator. Nowadays it is likely that anyone buying such real simulator time may have to undergo some sort of vetting prior to being allowed access. I have no idea how that works, but it would likely be arranged through the organization, such as ACAD in Vegas, which accesses the time.
There is one air museum in this country that features a fully operational Level D simulator, and that is the Delta Airlines Museum in Atlanta. They have a 737-200 simulator that is available to anyone with a certain amount of bucks. It, like the simulators in the active flight academies, is full motion and full visual and all of it is working. I would imagine they keep it humming, since all it takes (besides money) to create the time to sit in it is to schedule yourself a six or so hour connection between flights at KATL! (It is a good distance from the terminals, however, and you probably have to Uber it over).
Another air museum, this one in Elmira NY, has an ex-American Airlines Boeing 727-200 flight simulator on display, but it is not fully operational and only "flies" using Microsoft Flight Simulator on the visual display. An interesting piece of history, but not flyable in the sense that we want to experience.
Aside from building your own, or availing yourself of a real FAA certified sim, nothing had been available to us here in the USA, at least nothing that I knew of. Elsewhere in the world, however, the situation was a bit different. A number of what could be called "storefront" simulator operations had sprung up in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. These were typically not certified flight simulators but rather something more akin to a fixed base trainer. Hardware of this sort was and is manufactured by several companies worldwide, one of which is Flight Deck Solutions, whose products range from partial cockpits for the hobbyist to full-up setups for airlines and, on occasion, Hollywood productions (Flight 93 was filmed in a Flight Deck Solutions 757 cockpit).
Setups like this differ from real flight simulators in several ways. For one thing, little of the re-created cockpit is actual airplane hardware. In a certified sim just about everything is flight hardware, and could be taken out of the sim and put in a real airplane. In a Flight Deck Solutions cockpit (or any of several other makers) the yokes, throttles, instruments and the like are identical in size, shape and usually function, but are replicas and not the real thing out of an airplane (they are often more delicate as well, for obvious reasons). The look is similar, most if not all functionality is the same, but the tactile feel is often different, to say nothing of the "feel" of the simulation itself.
The other most frequent difference is the lack of motion. Simulator motion is expensive to create, which is one of the reasons why real Level D simulators often cost almost as much as one of the airplanes in question. The airlines can afford them only because of the enormous savings, mostly in fuel, that the simulators create, to say nothing of the vastly improved training and the lack of fatal training accidents (in the early jet age, before simulation had reached full maturity and the "simulators" were merely fixed based trainers, the majority of the hull loss accidents in the first few years were training accidents).
Interestingly, motion is the least necessary aspect of flight simulation at our level. Relatively unsophisticated motion, like you can find on the current general aviation simulators (actually "training devices") adds little to the training experience. Even the 1960's era 3 degree-of-motion installations, like that of the aforementioned AA 727 simulator in Elmira, were never confused, kinesthetically, with real airplane motion. It takes 6 degrees-of-motion to fully replicate, in any realistic way, all or nearly all of the sensations of flight, and that is the requirement for a modern FAA Level D simulator. The "degrees" of motion are, in no particular order: pitch, roll, yaw, heave, surge, and sway (it was interesting to see that heave is a cause, and not the result, of some of the motion!). I refer you to Google to find out just what those last three motions do.
So if motion is not particularly essential, what is? A big wide visual, that's what. A very wide (on the order of 180 degrees or more) visual can create its own psychological motion effect. I once saw this for myself, in the engineering simulator for the Comanche helicopter at Sikorsky in Connecticut. This was one of those full dome visual setups, with the simulator cab inside of a plastic dome that covered almost 360 degrees of view in every possible direction. On this day the demo pilot really put the copter through its very considerable paces, including rolls and loops. No motion, because the motion system was deactivated for our session. I was standing on the floor inside the visual dome, right next to the helo cab, on the verge of nausea because of the way the "world" was flinging itself around on the screen! I literally had to close my eyes for awhile to avoid an incident of "heave" that had nothing to do with the motion system.
The store front operators worldwide had picked up on these facts; and, motivated no doubt by the fact that a whiz-bang visual system is usually an order of magnitude less expensive than a major motion system, they installed no motion at all, but instead really good wide visual systems. These apparently sufficed for the mostly non-pilot clientele that gravitated to these centers. And so things arranged themselves in the rest of the world. But not here. (A few years ago I heard Bob Randazzo, the head of PMDG, say that he was looking to establish just such a sim center, in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. But at least at the moment, nothing further has been heard about that.)
Then, a week ago and much to my surprise, a friend of mine emailed me a picture of himself sitting in what appeared, for all the world, to be a real 737-800 simulator. I knew that this fellow would be very unlikely to lay out a lot of money to fly a real simulator, and my second thought - that he just sat in one and had his picture taken in it - was put paid by the message that accompanied the picture; to wit, that he had flown the thing for 30 minutes! It was beginning to look a lot like storefront! I immediately questioned him as to just where this new Elf Hill was (A Night in Elf Hill, the title of a science fiction story along the lines of the Brigadoon legend, was the title of the original article I wrote here about Project 727). To my great delight, my friend told me that the operation was called Dream Aero USA and was located in the Washington DC area. Even greater delight -- it was in the Maryland suburbs, much closer to me than Virginia. My first thought was that perhaps this was finally the PMDG operation, but not so.
Dream Aero USA is the American branch of a company located in St. Petersburg, Russia. They build the simulators themselves - this is not Flight Deck Solutions hardware. They have, according to information I was able to find on the internet, built around eleven of these 737-800 simulators, and an A320 sim as well. The company has opened storefront installations in Russia (They have ten locations in Russia, including four in Moscow: three B737 and one A320), Dubai, and now the good old US of A!
Of course, I just had to have a look at this new operation; and since the Westfield Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, Maryland is less than an hour and a half from my door, events so arranged themselves that within a few days I found myself merrily motoring toward the nation's capital, hell bent on checking out this local Elf Hill!
The Westfield mall must surely be one of the few remaining busy, popular and bustling malls in the entire country. This place reminds me of the 1980's; when such giant shopping centers, in their heyday, were the de-rigueur hangouts for both shoppers and teenagers. Today most such malls have fallen into some level of disuse, courtesy of Amazon and other cyber companies, but not this one.
On the third floor, hard by the food court and the ArcLight Cinemas, lies the modern and attractive Dream Aero USA shop. The center of attention both visually and operationally is, of course, the simulator itself, which can be seen from just about anywhere in this part of the mall. Like all modern simulators with wrap-around visual systems, this one looks nothing at all like an airliner nose section - in fact, it bears more resemblance to a simulator for some kind of alien spacecraft. It sits on the silver legs of a 6 DOF motion system, just like the airline sims. It has stairs that take you from the ground up to the simulator cab, just like the airline sims. It gyrates in many axes when someone is "flying" it, just like the airline sims, and it prangs and heaves when someone botches a landing, again just like the airline sims. All I could think of to say was...Cool!
My original intent for this exploration was merely to gather information and pictures for this very story, which I proposed to Nels the minute I found out about this. But of course I was unable to just look at it, or even just sit in it. Once I saw it I had to fly it! And so I did, but I am getting ahead of the story.
When you walk into Dream Aero USA you are immediately greeted by the receptionist, today an efficient and attractive young lady named Yuliia. I acquainted Yuliia with the essentials of my mission, some of which I had previously related to her over the phone, and she had ready answers to my many questions. Who built the sim? Was it in any way FAA certified, such as for approaches or other currency requirements? Did it incorporate real airplane parts in the cockpit? Was that indeed a 6 DOF motion system sitting underneath it? And most important of all, how much did it cost to fly it?
That last question was actually answered for me by signs on the reception desk itself. The list prices start at $175 for 30 minutes in the sim, and time can also be purchased in one, two, and three hour amounts, all at various discounts from the 30 minute basic block. I will leave it to you to visit their web site (dream.aero) for the dollar amounts since things might change over time. There are many discounts available, ranging from a currently offered Valentine's Day discount to a discount of 10% if you actually have a pilot license. Overall, you can probably take advantage of one or another sort of discount in just about every instance.
These prices are an exceptional value, in my opinion. The hourly rate today was $285, which is $65 less than twice the 30 minute rate. (And all rates today were discounted 15%, which actually resulted in a $148 charge for a 30 minute flight, and $242 for an hour.) Let's put this into perspective. The next cheapest full-motion-and-visual airliner flight simulation option in the USA is the Delta Museum, which charges $425 for an hour, which amounts to 45 minutes actually in the sim after the briefing. Airline Captain for a Day now apparently has a two hour minimum of around $1500, which would work out to $750 per hour, a bit less than the hourly price two years ago but you need to buy two hours. The airline flight academies are way more than this, in the thousands of dollars per hour. So -- what we have here is the least expensive full-motion, ultra realistic cockpit, ultra wide angle visual experience in the country, by a long shot. And best of all, you can go for the 30 minutes, which is plenty of time to do a short flight - even including push back, start up and taxi. Say perhaps a ferry flight from DCA to BWI, or a "Short Haul" from LGA to JFK!
To answer the other questions - the sim was built in Russia by the parent company of Dream Aero (from Russia, with love!). It is NOT Flight Deck Solutions hardware, nor are there any real airplane parts that I could perceive. It is not FAA certified, nor do they want it to be, since 1) it is for entertainment purposes only and 2) they would probably have to get involved with vetting the customers if it was certified. So no, I could not log the approaches for my instrument currency. I think, though, that based upon its sophistication, this sim might very likely be FAA certifiable, at least to the AATD standard.
And yes, that is a 6 DOF (degrees of freedom) motion system fitted to it. The motion system is entirely electronic and has no hydraulics, thus being smaller and lighter, to say nothing of cheaper and cleaner, than the typical high pressure hydraulic system that an airline simulator has. It apparently works using some kind of high speed jackscrews operated by electric motors to flex the motion muscles. However it works, it works well. It even simulates the effect of getting shoved in the back by an increase in thrust, which is something the Level D sims have to do. It is far superior to the 3 DOF systems we had into the 1970's, and it really adds to the overall experience.
When you enter the cockpit you encounter a nearly exact simulacrum of a 737 flight deck. As far as I could tell (I never was qualified on any variant of the 737 and my real world experience in them is limited to jumpseat riding on a number of occasions) every switch, handle, button, bell and whistle is faithfully duplicated. Again, none of it seemed to be real flight hardware, but the similarity is total. The only thing I found that did not work (although it moved realistically) was the crank to adjust the rudder pedals! The yokes look and feel like the real thing (they might conceivably be - you can get that sort of thing out of the boneyards; but it did not occur to me to ask, and Yuliia might not have known). Ditto the throttles and the spoiler and flap handles, although the handles seem to be made of a lighter material than the metal of the real thing. All of the instruments and display screens were very authentic. The seats are a near identical duplicate of the real thing, and lack only seat belts; which is interesting, since the thing has motion. Apparently the motion does not kick things up enough to throw you out of the seat, at least not when I was flying -- which was surprising since I was doing a pretty good job of over controlling! More on that later...
As I said before, my original intent was merely to sit in it, see how realistic it looked, and take some pictures of it for eventual use in this article. But resisting temptation has never been a particularly strong point with me! It only took about five minutes of sitting and looking before I just had to fly the thing. That was easily arranged with a quick trip back to the front desk and a wave of the ol' Visa card. The discount available today made the total cost for a 30 minute flight $148.
At this point my instructor pilot, Lamyl, made his grand appearance, all decked out in a four stripe uniform shirt (it turned out that the remainder of the "suit of lights", the four stripe jacket, was hanging quite realistically in the cockpit itself). He sat down in the right seat and proceeded to give me a short briefing about the operation of the 737NG. The engines were already running, which was just as well for a mere 30 minute flight. A non pilot might well want to experience the push back and start up, but I have done that a few thousand times in the real world and need no introduction to it. The sim was "sitting" at the end of runway 01 at KDCA, and Lamyl suggested a flight over to KBWI, an airport from which I fly regularly as a passenger in the Southwest Airlines version of this very plane. And so it was.
According to Lamyl, who is also a user of PC based flight simulation, this system runs on the professional version of X-Plane 11. There are four PC's running the sim -- one for the visual, two for the cockpit displays and one for the flight dynamics. The flight dynamics and instrument displays may perhaps be proprietary software - I was not able to clarify that. But the actual "flying" feels much like X-Plane. More on that in a minute.
Once I had run through a brief check of all switches, and put a short flight plan into the FMC, we were ready to take off. Stand the throttles up to mid range, let the engines stabilize, then arm the autothrottles and engage N1. The motion system entered stage left with a pretty good sensation of forward acceleration, which is done by tilting the simulator cab backwards as though it were in a steep climb. VR speed came up and I put as much back pressure on the yoke as I was accustomed to doing in the larger Boeings I have had the privilege of flying in years gone by. Turns out it was just the right amount, and I was immediately impressed by the apparent realism of this sim. I was aware, from conversations with 737 pilots during jumpseat rides, that one does not want to over rotate this airplane, lest the long fuselage lead to a tail strike. So I kept the pitch to a bit above 5 degrees nose up until it was apparent from the instruments that we were airborne. After that it was whatever pitch attitude it took to keep the speed within reason, which turned out to be the prototypical 15-20 degrees. Since we were taking off to the north at KDCA I started a left turn to follow the Potomac River, an easy task with a visual like this in front of me.
The visual system at Dream Aero is fully the equivalent of that in an airline simulator. In fact, it is better than some that I had flown back in the day, before the advent of the 180+ degree wide view visual systems. And the scenery in X-Plane is also better than the scenery databases we had at AA back in the day, although judging by the installation at the Pan Am International Flight Academy in Las Vegas much improvement has occurred over the years. The screen wraps around both sides to straight off your shoulder, a full 180 degrees of coverage. It is sharp and without pixilation, a high definition view. From your seated position the visual covers everything you can see out the windows - you would really have to lean over unrealistically to see the top or bottom of the screen.
When I started to roll to the left I discovered that the yoke has a bit of a detent at the center, and thus requires a certain "break out" force when you make a roll input in either direction. This is not something you find in the airplane or in a certified simulator, and results in having to use a bit of effort when you make a turn. Normally you think of pressure on the yoke rather than yoke movement for either pitch or roll inputs - how much would depend upon what was needed. At lower speeds more actual movement of the yoke is needed, at higher speed less. This is because of control effectiveness at different speeds. But you make the inputs as pressure rather than movement per se. When you apply a roll input here, the required break out force (which is not a whole lot but is noticeable) will exceed the control pressure one would normally apply in the airplane. This, coupled with an apparent bit of stiffness in the roll axis of the yoke, leads to a physical feel that is not quite perfect, and which can and did (for me at least) lead to over control in the roll axis. It took a bit of mental adjustment to come to terms with the roll axis, but I soon enough got the hang of it. Overall it took a bit more wheel throw in most phases of flight to achieve the desired bank condition than I remember it taking in real jets, but the sim was always controllable and responded more or less like X-Plane 11 does at home.
The pitch axis of the yoke does not seem to have the same center detent and feels more realistic to an actual airplane. I had no difficulty rotating to the exact degree that I wanted, and as we climbed out I could tell that there is some kind of control loading being applied in pitch, enough that keeping the sim trimmed in pitch is a necessity, just as it is in the airplane. I kept hand flying the sim through the clean up because I wanted to sample the control feel and response.
Flap retraction proceeded apace, with Lamyl handling that aspect of pilot-not-flying duties for me since I am unfamiliar with the flap-speed schedule of the 737. X-Plane 11 has what I consider to be a somewhat exaggerated pitch response to flap configuration changes, and this tendency carries over to the Dream Aero sim as well, making it mandatory and at the same time a bit difficult to keep the sim in pitch trim during these excursions. You really feel the need for trim change in the yoke, due to the aforementioned control loading, and since I am long unused to handling a jet using a real yoke I ended up over controlling in pitch a bit.
This was eventually compounded by a bit of hubris on my part, a not atypical situation with me! The flight thus far had been conducted in VMC, the better to sample the outstanding visual display. But now I decided that I would hand fly an approach and landing to minimums, say around 2000 RVR. I have done this many times at home with X-Plane 11 without difficulty, and I consider it to be a litmus test of my remaining supply of the "right stuff". But I should have known better, considering all of the time I have spent in flight simulators.
At the airline, we always started each sim session off with at least 15 minutes of visual flight conditions, the better to get the "feel" of the sim and adjust to the small differences between even the big Level D simulators and the actual airplane. It was often amusing to watch the initial struggles of experienced airmen (who were not flying on their PC's at home in preparation for recurrent training) coming to grips with the simulator after months of flying the real airplane. It often took them nearly 20 minutes to settle down and get used to the sim. All simulators are a bit less stable and somewhat more "squirrelly" than the airplane. This may or may not be by design, but the effect is beneficial -- once you master a maneuver in the simulator it will be easier in the actual airplane.
This hard-won awareness was lost on me this day, and the result was comical to say the least. Mr. Retired Captain was all over the sky trying to keep up with the demands of hand flying the sim. Too much pitch, not enough pitch, break the yoke out in roll, now immediately reverse the input because the original was too much, out of trim, in trim, up, down, here, there and everywhere except where I needed to be. It was doubly embarrassing because over the years I thought that I had learned the great maxim of flight simulator expertise -- use half of the control input you think you need and take it out before you think you need to. And halve it again close to the ground!
It would have been a lot easier if I had not set the bar too high by flying instruments right off the bat, and things were exacerbated because I do not know the power settings for the 737 except in a vague sort of way from my X-Plane experience. A cardinal maxim in either the simulator or the airplane is to know the pitch attitude and power setting for every condition of flight. Not knowing either will lead to you chasing your own tail, a feat that I achieved in dog-like fashion throughout the early part of today's flight!
Now in addition to having an overly lively pitch response to flap setting changes (probably an X-Plane artifact), the simulator is also pitch sensitive to power changes. This latter is very realistic to an airplane with engines under the wings. Every time I added or reduced power, the airplane would pitch accordingly -- up with power on and down with power off. Add this to the configuration changes on an approach and you have a recipe for a perfect fugoid. Down the glideslope I swooped; above, below, occasionally right on, but not often enough to make for anything but a missed approach at decision height. No problem, for a missed approach is a successful outcome. The sim felt very realistic in the missed approach -- the motion system gives you a bit of feeling of thrust pushing you forward - and it felt just like the airplane! This is a really good motion system.
My second approach to identical conditions was successful, in large measure because I was getting the feel of the simulator and was now able to anticipate my control inputs, which is always better than merely responding after the fact. Suffice to say that at decision height the strobes were visible, and at 100 feet AGL the runway was visible. Now came the other instance of over controlling -- the flare. I was trying not to get too nose high since these long body 737's have very little tail clearance on landing. Indeed, that is why the approach speeds are artificially high on these airplanes (higher than anything else in the sky at any equivalent landing weight); high speeds keep the deck angle lower and there is less chance of a tail strike. I got the pitch part of the flare right, but I got into a series of rolling movements due to over control of the roll axis. This is typical behavior of a Level D sim as well, and so must be considered a point of realism. The roll breakout force works against you here, but you just have to remember (and act upon the notion) to use half of the input you think you need and take it out immediately. I got the ship tamed and stopped without dinging it!
During the initial phases of this second approach, I had let Otto, the autopilot, handle the chores of flight. Otto performed flawlessly, along with the autothrottle system, which actually moves the throttles realistically. Lamyl said that the sim is capable of autolandings, although I insisted on hand flying the second approach as well. When Otto can come up with the money for however many minutes of sim time the landing takes, he can have a landing! Until then, I get the landings.
With only around five minutes remaining in my 30 minute block, I had the ideal flight in mind to fill the time -- the Short Haul; the fabled four minute ferry flight from runway 22 at KLGA to runway 13L at KJFK, about which I have written for this web site. Lamyl set it up in a moment, and we set it to night VMC, just like it was back in 1977. In visual conditions, with the benefit of nearly 30 minutes of getting acquainted, the sim and I worked much better together, and the flying and the handling were very good, proving once and for all that most of the strange gyrations of the first 25 minutes were due to my unfamiliarity with the responses of the sim. I still had a bit of rolling in the flare, but I handled it much better, and by next time I should have it down pat. I say "by next time" because there will surely be a next time! I won't let a setup like this, at a price like this, as close as this is, be a one-time experience.
So, let's sum it all up: Dream Aero USA has a very realistic looking 737NG simulator which, although it has several handling characteristics that are not exactly like either the airplane or a Level D simulator (roll breakout force and slightly exaggerated pitch response to configuration changes), can be described as overall realistic in flying. It just takes some getting used to. The visual system is fully the equivalent in appearance and performance of a real airline simulator, and the motion system is a full 6 DOF and really enhances the experience of the flying, and complements the visual system. Add to that the price and location and you have a combination that can't be beat.
I highly recommend this simulator for any PC flight sim enthusiast, and for that matter for any pilot who wants to see what the world looks like from the corner office of a 737. Just remember a few of Captain V's tips and hints: Start the session in VMC until you get the hang of manually controlling things; use the autopilot if you still have trouble (don't worry, most airline pilots use it just about all of the time!); discipline yourself to start out using about half of the pitch or roll inputs you think you need and be ready to take those inputs out a bit before you might think you need to; be attentive to learning to anticipate control inputs, particularly pitch inputs and trim inputs when flight conditions change; and be prepared to deal with over control in the flare. Every one of these hints grew out of flying Level D simulators, and the fact that they are applicable here is another testament to the realism of this Dream Aero sim.
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