Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

Piloting a plane, sans the license

NASA Ames opens the doors to its flight simulator and virtual airport and a CNET News.com reporter takes to the cockpit.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
2 min read
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--I'm flying in the cockpit of a NASA-owned Boeing 747-400 and we're about to land this rig at San Francisco International Airport, but it's foggy as usual.

Thankfully, the flight controls are on autopilot, because I can only glimpse the airport's two parallel runways (750 feet apart) between the clouds.

It's actually all a flight simulation, courtesy of NASA Ames Research Center here, but when my stomach dropped, it was real. All the controls--rows of lights, landing gear and 180-degree picture-window views in high-definition video--lend to the effect.


NASA Ames hosted a tour of its flight simulator and virtual airport, FutureFlight Central, for airport industry executives and the press on Wednesday. The tour followed the close of its two-day conference, the Federal Aviation Administration/NASA/Industry Airport Planning Workshop.

NASA Ames opened FutureFlight Central in 1999 as research tool to test air traffic controls and operations for the airport of tomorrow. The control tower is amazingly real, with all the communications systems in place and 3D views of the airport in every direction..

I'm told one of FutureFlight's first major projects was in 2001, helping to train pilots and controllers in 2001 for an improved Los Angeles International Airport. For the last year, NASA engineers have been working on simulations for an improved and expanded Chicago O'Hare Airport, set to be finished in 2018.

I'm looking out onto runways planned for O'Hare--as many as four additional runways are planned and two more air-traffic control towers. O'Hare pilots and controllers tested the software here earlier this year, experimenting with east- and west- traffic flows and the visual instrumentation.

"It took them awhile to get used to it because there's a slew of new taxiways," according to a NASA representative.

NASA Ames built the 3D visualization in little more than two months with data from the FAA, still images and aerial photos of the Chicago airport, among other sources. It is one of the largest airport simulations of its kind, according to NASA.

NASA Ames developed its cockpit-flight simulator nearly 14 years ago, as an exact replica of a Boeing 747-400. It's now only one of thousands around the world, including those built and used for testing by all the major airlines. I'm told that what makes NASA's unique is that it's a Boeing 747, certified by the FAA, that is fully configurable so that pilots and engineers can change the controls and human-machine interaction in the cockpit.

For that reason, the simulator has been used to improve traffic collision avoidance systems in U.S. airports and help tweak controls to avoid pilot fatigue, according to NASA representatives.

The external view of the flight simulator is a software simulation in high-definition video and can be changed to represent any airport, weather pattern or time of day. Out the window, test pilots use the 3D visualization to practice landings in bad weather, for example. San Francisco's airport certainly needs that practice.