A screen shows the view from behind the plane in the flight simulator on Friday at the University of Maine at Augusta.
AUGUSTA — Friday was a rough day for the virtual Cessna 172 airplane.
While it had numerous safe takeoffs and landings, it also got going so fast its wings fell off, was spun into barrel rolls, and forced to fly upside down. It was flown up at such an extreme angle it stalled and plummeted back to earth, and had unfortunate, if intentional, collisions with substantial buildings and bridges.
Thankfully the flights by Maranacook Community High School students took place on the University of Maine at Augusta’s flight simulator, not an actual plane. So there was no damage, injury, or loss of life. And no crashes that couldn’t be fixed with a quick reboot of the computerized, $100,000 training device.
“I flew too fast and my wings fell off,” student Drew Davis said after his roughly 15-minute stint in the simulated cockpit of the plane. “It was harder than I thought it would be. But once I started, I got the hang of it. It’s weird, feeling it moving around like that.”
The simulator moved more than usual while Davis successfully performed a 360 degree roll, then flew the plane upside down, forcing its control stick to remain in a forward position.
Greg Jolda, aviation program coordinator for UMA, explained some of the dynamics of the science at play, noting planes are designed to fly right side up, so it takes a firm hand to keep them flying upside down.
About 15 Maranacook students were at UMA Friday as part of an engineering class project focused on flying. Students in the semester-long engineering class, a new science class offered for the first time this year, according to teacher Jean Roesner, chose the project topic themselves. They’ve been studying aviation in class and are also building a remote control airplane they expect will be ready to fly in a couple of weeks.
Flight instructor David Russo, a former test pilot and commercial airline pilot, guided students in the simulator. He warned them taking off would be a lot easier than landing. Most students appeared to land successfully. After that, they had some leeway, and were allowed to find out what its like to crash.
“As long as you complete your takeoff and landing, then you can do whatever you want,” Russo said. “You can’t really break the simulator. If you crash, you just reset.”
Which several did as they flew, on the simulator, out of a virtual Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, with at least one student crashing into the Washington Monument.
Student Tanner Evans had a successful first takeoff and landing but, on his second landing attempt, the aircraft nosed into the tarmac and crashed, the simulator’s six screens going black.
“I landed, the first time, pretty good,” he said. “The second, umm, yeah, it’s just a simulator. I stalled out, then I fell to the ground and crashed.”
Student Ryan Roy said flying was harder than he expected. But he enjoyed it.
“It’s cool,” Roy said after his stint on the simulator. “I landed it kind of rough, but it didn’t blow up, so I guess it was fine.”
Students wrote a successful grant application which brought in $500 to help fund the cost of building their remote control plane, from the Maranacook Education Foundation and National Honor Society.
Friday they each had a turn at the simulator and had a chance to fly one of several remote control planes on loan to them, outside on a UMA athletic field, under the direction of remote control plane instructors. The instructors had redundant remote controls so they could take over control of the planes when students began to fly off course or otherwise begin to lose control.
Student Hannah Woodford said flying the remote control planes was a bit scary. She said she’s not likely to become a pilot.
“It was scary, I’m not very good, I heard ‘I’ll take control now’ a lot,” she said, laughing.
Volunteer instructor Eric Guilmet, of Readfield, encouraged the student-pilots as they took the controls of the remote control aircraft, reminding them to try to be smooth with the controls to avoid a twitchy flight. The licensed pilot and remote control aviation instructor offered advice and, when necessary, took control of the aircraft, including on landings and takeoffs.
Guilmet, who has been flying remote control airplanes since he was 13-years-old, said the students could land and take off themselves, with a bit more instruction.
He and Jolda, who are both involved with the Kennebec Valley Model Aviators Club, said good instruction is key to anyone first learning to fly, even if what they’re flying is a remote control, not full-size, aircraft.
Roesner said Guilmet and others in the community have been essential to the class, volunteering their time and expertise. Guilmet said he feels it is important to get young people interested in flying.
Student Gabriel Jones said he thinks his experience playing video games helped him fly the remote control planes.
Students in the class also take part in a “webquest,” in which they must research online to find answers to aviation-related questions.
Also Friday, they went on campus tours at UMA meant, Roesner said, to get them thinking about going to college and, more specifically, see that they can get a good education nearby.
“It’s important to get them on a campus to see what college is like,” she said. “I know my students aren’t aware of the opportunities here.”
Russo told students, as they flew in the simulator, “If you go to college here and become a pilot, you can get paid to do this.”
Jolda said being a pilot is tough but there are job opportunities for pilots and for those who can fly unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.