All photos are taken from the internet with proper credit attributed. We were not allowed to take photos of our experience due to secrecy concerns. Our experience was with "the real thing". Actual equipment used to train our fighting Naval Forces. These photos are from San Diego and other Naval facilities and depict the MH-60R and the MH-60S. If you're interested in helicopters and not just our story, click on the photo credit links to read the corresponding stories.
Two. Hours. We get to play with this machine for two hours! We arrived at the base and after a quick tour of Scott's work environment, we were led into the facility where the TOFTs were housed. We showed our ID and were issued badges signifying that we must be accompanied by authorized personnel. We followed Scott down dimly lit halls and through a doorway marked "SECRET".
The interior was darkened with a control center aft, which had video screens and two chairs. Our escort finished up the settings with the question: "do you want guns and missiles?" to which Scott replied YES! Awesome! We get to blow stuff up!!!
There was also a camera just behind Bruce's head that showed me the instrument panel he was seeing. I could listen to Scott instructing Bruce and see what he was seeing on the panel.
I was able to keep up and learn how to work the cyclic and collective and see the vessel's reactions to Bruce's movements. I was also able to feel the simulator move, sometimes making me glad that I was seat belted in, because let me assure you, I would have been tossed to the floor otherwise.
It was difficult to separate reality from fiction as we would go into the occasional uncontrolled free-fall... at which time Scott would take control and bring us back to straight and steady flight. Bruce brought us out to one of three simulated ships that were steaming along in our simulated world. The boys got carried away blasting the carrier with missiles and guns. They ran out of ammunition and Scott talked me though replenishing their weapons on the computer control panel in the back.
What we saw was very close to this picture but we had the pilots view as we followed the wake of the carrier and zeroed in on the deck runway. Once we landed safely, Scott asked if we were ready to switch!!!
Gulp! It was my turn. I was nervous but after listening and watching Bruce do it, I was ready. I stepped into the pilot seat, slid the chair up way too close to the controls and strapped myself into the seat belt. One belt between my legs, lap belts clicked into the central lock, then two over-the-shoulder belts clicked in to complete the process. I was securely trapped!
Once he got it steadied out, I took control again and kind of got the hang of it. I got a little brave, but was content to just putt along at about 70 miles per hour, nice and easy. I did a few turns and Scott said "OK, where do you want to go?". To which I replied "MEXICO!!!". So I turned the cyclic and headed for Los Coronados.
Scott told us that they often see whales down in the water as they fly overhead in the real Sierras (that's what us insiders call them... Sierras). This experience was so real, I found myself peering over the instrument panel into the shimmering water below in hopes of seeing one... If they could populate our make-believe world with target ships, surely they could muster a whale or two...
I turned my sights back to the Coronado Islands looming ahead. I began to descend and Scott told me that I was getting the hang of it quickly. I felt like I almost knew what I was doing and it was becoming more natural. I began to relax my tensed up muscles and enjoy the ride.
Even more exciting was the fact that I instinctively moved the cyclic and collective to better position for a hit. One after another my dots of light arched to the hillside with a satisfying little >poof<. Scott told me to shoot continuously. He said that way I could see where my shots were landing so that I could adjust the flight to hit where I wanted to. I held the button down and a continuous rain of white dots sped off to the mountainside. Multiple >poofs< signaled my success. YAY!
Then Scott switched me to missiles! No more little jolt... There was a bigger jolt as the fireballs flew. This time they landed with a >CABLOOEY<!! Missiles are FUN! Suddenly I realized that the island was looming fast. Just in time, I pulled the cyclic back to avoid hitting the side of the island. I could almost hear the Starwars music in the background... I eased us between two peaks and pointed us towards mainland Mexico.
Scott knew just where it should be, from his training flights over this area. He knew what it should look like, and as we neared the shore, he pointed it out to me. There! I could see it. A low brownish looking row. I pointed us there and began to descend. When I got near, I gladly gave up the controls so that Scott could land us down in the bowl.
He asked for our input as he brought it slowly down, down, down. When landing, the pilot can't see what's beneath the helicopter. Although this is not real, we sunk slowly into the center of the bullring. the top edges rose around us and we could no longer see the surrounding countryside of Tijuana. The only indication that this was NOT real was the lack of detail. There were no rows of seats, no aisles, no ring at the bottom, no people. We felt the ground beneath us as we rested there momentarily, grinning in delight!
The controls came back to me and I lifted us up and out of the bowl. There is a lighthouse just next to the bullring. We buzzed it as we ascended to head along the coast and back to the USA. We flew over Scott and Brittney's old house, laughing about lobbing a missile or two at the place, just for fun. (but we didn't).
I saw a flashing light off Point Loma and asked Scott what it was. He said, "lets go over there and take a look"... it turned out to be the lighthouse on the low point of the channel. Awesome! We turned away and set our sights once again on the ships as they tried desperately to escape our wrath.
Scott asked me if I was ready to switch out with Bruce again. In relief, I agreed to relinquish my hold on the controls. It seemed as if I was regressing instead of improving. My skills were decreasing. I couldn't "feel" it anymore. Scott explained that this is common when people first learn to fly. They are so nervous that their bodies reactively tense up, causing a sneaking fatigue which affects their reflexes and ability to concentrate. I had that.
I got ready for Scott to land once again on the carrier deck so that we could switch seats. My shock could not be more real when he stopped the helicopter in mid air and said "OK". I laughed! It's NOT REAL! Of COURSE we can just stop in mid-air, like some kind of cartoon. I extricated myself from the seat belts and slid back to allow Bruce to take the hot seat once again.
Our time was nearing the end of our two hours in the simulator. Scott took us in for a landing after Bruce found the airstrip. But then he turned it back over to Bruce and talked him through it. It was a bit bumpy, but Bruce got us safely back to the earth. We did some more hovering and spinning... if there was ever a time for motion sickness... this would be it. But neither of us had any problem with is. I guess our sea legs are good for something besides sailing!
With less than ten minutes to go, Scott began to show us how to land the helicopter if we lost engine power. He took it up and then cut the engine causing us to begin a free-fall. At the last moment, he threw it into a counter rotation that cushioned our landing enough to keep from damaging anything. It was at that point that we ran out of faux-fuel!!!
Scott turned off the simulator and we felt it settle back to the ground. Once the warning sounds stopped, signifying that the simulator had returned safely to off position, we were free to unbuckle and open the door to leave. Even though I KNEW that we had never left this room... it felt as if we had been on a grand adventure. I had "seen" Tijuana and the bull ring. I had landed on the deck of a carrier and fired missiles at Los Coronados.
We climbed down from the simulator full of absolute joy. We just can't believe how lucky we are. We realize that this was an experience that a rare few people will ever know.
We may have come down from the clouds when we descended those steps... but in our minds we continued to soar well into the next morning. Thank you Scott and thank you Navy! I only wish that I could have taken pictures to share and make this as real for you as it is for us.
P.S. When we got back home and my daughter asked us about how it went... Scott told her: "Your Mom wanted to go sightseeing!"