Tuesday, August 11, 2015

We Just Flew In From Mexico...

And boy, are our arms tired!  Our Son-In-Law is a Navy Helicopter Pilot.  Cool, right?  Well it gets better...

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.

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Yesterday Scott told us that he had secured time for us to use the MH-60S tactical operational flight trainer (TOFT).  It's the simulator that Scott trains on to fly!!! Bruce immediately said yes... my response was a little slower.  Sounds kind of scary although my biggest concern was that I would become motion sick and toss my cookies into the multi-million dollar faux-cockpit!

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".

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Scott announced our arrival and intention to use trainer #8, which sent one of the men off to prepare our simulator for civilian use.  There are secret functions that we are not allowed to see, which must be shut down prior to our entry.  It didn't take long until we found ourselves slowly mounting the stairs and crossing to the landing of one of two hulking giants.

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They looked like something out of a Transformer's movie with their gleaming white bodies and electronic legs... We would be experiencing movement as well as visuals during our session.  We wanted to play it cool of course, but Bruce and I could not stifle the huge ridiculous grins on our faces.

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!!!

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I graciously allowed Bruce to go first in the cockpit just forward of the control center.  There were two seats (just like the real thing) that slid back for entry, then slid forward to bring the operator right up into the controls.

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From my seat just aft of the cockpit between Scott and Bruce, I could decide whether I wanted to watch them to my right, or see what they were seeing out the windows on a video screen to my left. The view from the cheap seats was a little distorted, so much of the time I watched the video screens.  

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.  

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I listened closely as Scott taught Bruce to increase and decrease speed and altitude.  Then came time to land the helicopter on the deck of the carrier.  We encouraged Scott to take us through that and watched in awe as visibility became seriously limited.  He had to literally do the last bit blind, bringing the bird down onto the deck, which we felt as a jolt.  

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!

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Scott went over the controls with me from his side, while I held the cyclic and collective in my hands to get the feel for it. We went over use of the foot pedals as well, but he says they aren't really for use at higher speeds, mostly for close in work (which we would leave to Scott). Then it was time to power up and take the vessel up off the deck.  It wasn't my finest hour I can tell you... I rocked a bit as we rose, then I got all catiwompus and had to have Scott rescue us before we crashed into the Pacific.  

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.  

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In some ways it is very similar to sailing.  Just like you can feel the pressure on the rudder of the boat, you can feel that you need to adjust the collective.  When you raise the nose of the helicopter, the speed drops and you must counter that with increased pressure on the collective to remain constant... and likewise if you lower the nose to increase speed, you can counter the increase by lowering the collective power.  It was really pretty neat to feel like I was really getting it.   

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Just as I was feeling more settled and relaxed, Scott told me to go ahead and fire away at the island.  WHAT???  (it's all make believe, it's all make believe...) So I eased my right thumb beneath the protective flap and depressed the fire button momentarily.  Whoa!  We could feel the helicopter shake as the little dots of light arched through the air in front of us.  WOW!  

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.

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Next I wanted to see the bullfighting ring.  I could see the faux-waves as they caressed the long sandy shoreline. I could NOT see the bull ring.  It should be huge, why can't I see it?  I realized another similarity to sailing... Many times Bruce or I have been able to pick out a landmark or navigational aid long before others (non-sailors) could see it.  I guess pilots have developed the ability to distinguish between landmarks just like we have on the water.  

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.  

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I fell into the spectator row in relief and buckled myself in.  It was a good thing too because this time, the boys did a lot more maneuvering.  Scott taught Bruce how to speed up and slow down, how to hover, how to turn.  He let him use the foot pedals... then they blew some more stuff up.  I had to reload for them 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!"


  1. This is so cool. I can relate. My step dad was in the USAF and when I was about 14 he managed to get me into the F111 simulator. We "flew" it for a couple of hours. It seemed so real that when they opened the door to let us out I was taken aback that we were still in the simulator hanger.

    Don't forget to stop at In and Out Burger in CA and What-a-burger in TX. We miss What-a-burger :(


    Mark and Cindy
    s/v Cream Puff

    1. Well we never got to the In and Out Burger. We were just too busy with wedding stuff then too tired to leave the apartment before we headed for home. We have made it to the Whataburger! We really miss so many of our favorite foods from the US and from home. This next part of our journey will be hard on us in the fave food category.