Amherst Magazine

"Up Is This Way"

By Katherine Duke '05

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“Oh, the humanity!” instructor Henry Parker Hirschel cried each time the computer showed students plowing a simulated plane into the asphalt.

The students sat in a darkened room in Merrill, taking turns on a joystick and mouse. Projected onto a screen at the front of the room were the switches, dials and lights of a Boeing 737 flight deck and a simulated view of the trees, buildings and waters around the Beef Island Airport in Tortola, British Virgin Islands. Rain lashed the plane’s windshield, lightning crackled in the distance. The students were about to undertake a perilous mission.

The Interterm course “An Introduction to the Principles, Practices and Procedures of Turbine Flight,” began
on Jan. 13, 2010, with a trip to Connecticut’s (real) Bradley International Airport, where a pilot showed the class
the instruments and control surfaces of a Falcon jet. Over the next week and a half in Merrill, instructor Captain Henry Parker Hirschel—who also teaches the Interterm course “Celestial Navigation”—taught brief lessons on Newtonian physics and the evolution of flight simulation technology.

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But the bulk of class time was devoted to practicing being pilot and co-pilot on Microsoft Flight Simulator X, and the trickiest skill to learn was landing—that’s when most accidents happen. The students’ final challenge was to fly “a despondent Williams College varsity football team,” Hirschel said, from Tortola to St. Thomas in the midst of a thunderstorm. As Hirschel gave helpful reminders (“Up is this way,” “You don’t mumble in a cockpit”) and sometimes hummed Wagner’s The Valkyrie, each co-pilot read through a checklist from the course flight manual to make sure that the plane and pilot were “good to go,” and the pilots did their best to guide the jet up off one runway, through the air and down onto the other—sometimes successfully, sometimes not. “Oh, the humanity!” Hirschel cried each time the computer showed the plane plowing into the asphalt or a tree. He kept a tally of these “hull losses” on the blackboard.

In the end, the count was 23 hull losses—an improvement over last year’s 27—and several safe journeys. While this course didn’t exactly provide the 2,000-plus hours of jet time required for real licensure to be a co-pilot, every student did step up, salute and receive a certificate of membership into the “Merrill Flyers of Amherst College.”

Photos by Samuel Masinter '04