When they say fly, wanna-be Navy pilots say 'how high?'

At Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, the US Navy graduates about 1,000 fresh pilots a year. CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman takes a digital shot at flying like one of them.

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CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman flies a T-6B Texan in the US Navy's simulator at the Naval Air Station Corpus Christi. Rodney Hafemeister for CNET

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas -- Banking hard to the left, I begin the first of two 360-degree rolls. My brain wants my stomach to know I'm turning upside down, but my stomach isn't fooled. Not entirely.

I'm inside a T-6B Texan II simulator, one of the Navy's most valuable on-the-ground tools for teaching would-be aviators how to fly an airplane. High above Corpus Christi, virtually at least, I complete the rolls before heading back to the airport for what turns out to be a remarkably smooth landing.

As part of CNET Road Trip 2014, I've come to the Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, one of two bases -- the other is Whiting Naval Air Station in Florida -- where the military sends Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard pilots who have passed an initial preflight indoctrination program at a ground school through six months of intensive training. When they graduate, they move on to advanced education where they learn to fly the specific plane they'll spend their careers piloting. But first they have to master the basics.

Since the 1970s, the Navy has sent these pilots into the sky in T-34C Turbomentors, but the service now is phasing out the venerable planes. At Whiting, the training is already being done entirely on T-6Bs. Here in Corpus Christi, in southern Texas, a bay-front university town of about 300,000 just west of the Gulf of Mexico, new aviators are still flying both the T-34C and the T-6B. Within a year, though, the old planes will be discarded, likely to be mothballed in an aircraft graveyard in a desert somewhere.

High-tech simulators like the one I've been flying in are essential in helping the Navy train pilots without ever risking their safety or the planes themselves. Before they ever set foot in a T-6B or a T-34C, they have to make 100 attempts at a smooth landing in the simulator. "That gets all their crashes out of the way," said Tony Floyd, a contract flight simulator instructor, and himself a 26-year Naval aviator.

As an instructor, Floyd leads them through their time in the simulators, and through the digital cues he enters into the software that controls the machine, he can give them just about any kind of conditions in which to fly: good or bad weather, airplanes in their airspace, failed engines, whatever. "I'm kind of like God to the little guy when I'm back here," he said, grinning.

T-34Cs and T-6Bs

To full-fledged Navy pilots, the T-34C is a quaint airplane. Though the ones in use in Corpus Christi don't go back six decades, as the model itself does, they are from an older era. Looking in the plane's cockpit leaves no doubt: Absent any of the bright digital screens found on most modern aircraft, the T-34C instead features a slew of old-fashioned dials. Pilots call them "steam gauges."

By contrast, the newer T-6Bs sport three computer screens designed to provide all the information a pilot needs in an easy-to-interpret fashion.

Regardless of where they end up in their careers, would-be pilots at NAS Corpus Christi have to fly one of these two planes. If and when they graduate, they choose a type of airframe -- strike aircraft (the jet fighters with the pointy noses), helicopters, or maritime planes -- and move on to advanced training. Every year, the program graduates between 800 and 1,200 out of "primary," and another 400 or so who move on from the base's multiengine advanced program.

Yet the rest of their primary graduates' careers may be determined by fate. Few slots are available for the strike aircraft, for example, and even if a pilot has high scores, there may not be enough spots open when he or she graduates. It's tough to switch airframes once their careers get going, so pilots may well end up flying the type of airframe that's available that week.

Once they complete training on their chosen type of aircraft, they are then sent on to their service's fleet replacement squadron to learn the specific plane, such as an F-18 or C-130, they'll spend their career flying.

Pilot training

Pilots' six months at NAS Corpus Christi are dominated by learning the elements they have to master to earn their wings. There's basic flight maneuvers like taking off and landing. Then they work on flying under the simplest circumstances in the best weather. Next there's training in doing loops and rolls and understanding situational awareness. That's all done alongside an instructor. Then it's time for solo flying.

Once all that's under their belts, pilot trainees here go back to the classroom to learn about the many different instruments they'll spend innumerable hours interpreting: navigation screens, GPS, airspeed indicators, and so forth. They'll also have to learn to land in bad weather. Finally, they have to successfully complete an eight-flight round of formation flying paired up with another trainee. Make it through all that and the reward is between six and nine months of advanced flying in their chosen airframe type. Survive all that, and a brand-new pilot has bought a minimum of eight years flying for the Navy, Marines, or Coast Guard.

In the simulator

Stepping into the T-6B simulator, I'm made to feel, just for a moment, that I belong in a seat that probably should be occupied right now by an actual pilot. Instructor Floyd's friendly demeanor signals either that he genuinely expects I might have a small bit of skill, or he's good at being nice to hopeless newbies like me.

This is not the first time I've been in a professional flight simulator. In fact, just a week earlier, I'd "flown" a Boeing 737 at Southwest Airlines' headquarters in Dallas. And I've been in a few others over the years. Still, any 6-year-old with a few hours of video game experience could outfly me in a heartbeat. But with a little coaching from Floyd, I got my T-6B off the ground, ascending smoothly and gradually into a clear sky over a virtual Corpus Christi.

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More adventures from Road Trip 2014

Check out the latest from Daniel's trip to the best tech spots in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and more.

    Unlike the Southwest simulator, which is a big machine built atop a very expensive hydraulic system that allows for very realistic banking, tilting, shaking, and other movement, the machine here doesn't move at all. But thanks to a 270-degree giant screen that wraps 45 degrees past each shoulder, your brain is fooled into thinking you're rising and falling through the sky in response to whatever you do with the flight stick.

    Once in the air, Floyd let me fly for a while through the digital version of the south Texas skies, banking when I wanted, climbing, descending, and checking out both the Gulf of Mexico and many of the oil refineries below. While it's not photo-realistic, I got a good sense of what I'd see if I was actually flying a plane over the area -- as I was the next day in a US Customs and Border Protection P-3 designed to hunt the skies and seas for potential smugglers. But that's a story for another day.

    Here, it was time for something altogether trickier: skimming 50 feet above Corpus Christi Bay and under the beautiful Harbor Bridge. This sounded easy, given the readouts that showed me my airspeed and altitude, but getting the plane down to that height without stalling, or splashing down ended up requiring a bit of good-natured hand-holding from Floyd. But pass under the bridge I did.

    Once past it, I took to the sky again, circled around a bit, and then Floyd had me try both a left-to-right roll, and a front-to-back loop. I began to fancy myself a bit of an air show pilot. That I needed Floyd to help me through these procedures was forgotten for the moment.

    Then it was landing time. I flew out over the Harbor Bridge, banked hard left over downtown Corpus Christi, and then began a long, slow, and very ugly down-up-down-up-down descent toward the virtual airfield, Floyd coaching me, and, to be honest, reaching over and grabbing the flight stick more than once, to get us back on the ground.

    Did I look like an idiot? I'm sure many have done a lot worse than I did. Do I have a future flying airplanes for the US Navy? Not so much. Thankfully, the Navy has plenty of perfectly qualified young men and women who do, and in Corpus Christi, they're taking the next steps toward fulfilling that future.

    Keep an eye out for more behind-the-scenes stories and photo galleries as I travel throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kansas during this year's Road Trip. I'll seek out most interesting technology, military, aviation, architecture, and other destinations our country has to offer. From US Air Force basic training to NASA's Johnson Space Center and FedEx's massive package-sorting hub, and much more, Road Trip 2014 will take you along with me.

     

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