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Aviation students Derek Shattenberger, left, and instructor Tyle

Rocky Mountain College aviation student Derek Shattenberger, left, flies a final approach as student flight instructor Tyler Reed looks on in the school’s new Redbird MCX flight simulator Friday.

Derek Shattenberger sat at the controls of a Piper Archer on Friday, flying the aircraft over the Pennsylvania countryside, heading for Erie International Airport.

Shattenberger was flying blind, using his instruments to guide him through the clouds. He also experienced turbulence, but that didn’t stop him from landing his single-engine aircraft without a hitch.

Except that Shattenberger, 19, a sophomore at Rocky Mountain College, never left Billings during the flight, or, for that matter, the school’s Aviation Hall. He sat inside the cockpit of the Redbird MCX flight simulator acquired by Rocky’s Aviation Department in early December.

His simulator session finished, Shattenberger said he finds the new simulator much different from the others he’s flown at the college.

“It’s a lot more realistic and there’s a lot more movement,” he said. “It’s pretty close to what you experience out there.”

Shattenberger, who is from Brookville, Pa., hopes someday to fly corporate aircraft out of an airport near Pittsburgh. He was glad for the chance to simulate flying in his home state, which gave him the chance to fly nearer sea level.

Shattenberger is one of just over 100 students in Rocky’s aviation program. Eighty percent major in aeronautical science, to be a professional pilot, and 20 percent choose aviation management, said Dan Hargrove, director of the department.

The new full-motion simulator puts the pilot in changing weather conditions and a range of emergency situations. At just over $100,000, the simulator is “quite economical” compared with a plane that would cost $300,000, Hargrove said.

“It’s cutting-edge technology made to be affordable for small colleges,” he said.

The simulator easily fits inside the Aviation Center. An observer standing outside the simulator can see it move slightly as it simulates flight. They can also watch a computer screen outside the simulator that shows the plane in flight.

The Redbird better emulates the college’s Piper Archer and multi-engine Beechcraft Baron than other simulators by having the right weights, speed and performance, Hargrove said.

It also is extremely realistic in its ability to duplicate the conditions of flying in any geographic part of the country, he said. For instance, a student could hop in the simulator, fly from Billings to Bozeman, and mirror an actual plane ride.

“So if a pilot makes a left turn instead of a right one, there’s consequences for that,” Hargrove said. “The FAA calls it intensity, and the intensity associated with the simulator is unmatched for this level of simulator.”

Chris Gartner, a senior in the program and a student flight instructor, agrees.

“I think with the Redbird, that gap you had between the simulator and the real environment closed so much with the taxiway, the airport environment and the way we’re able to simulate weather conditions,” he said.

It also more accurately portrays what happens when an engine cuts out or the electrical system malfunctions or when a pilot has to fly for a prolonged period through turbulence, said Tom Nelson, director of safety and flight simulator manager.

“Turbulence in real life in real time is physically draining, mentally straining,” Nelson said.

Giving a student pilot that realistic experience in a safe place is quite valuable, he said. So is letting students feel what it’s like to fly with ice on the plane’s wings.

“We can’t risk the safety of people in an airplane to go in actual conditions, but we can do exactly that in the simulator and do it safely and they get learning associated with that type of event,” he said.

Gartner said in the past couple of weeks he has programmed difficulties into flights for some of his students.

“I did a flight in the Livermore area, ran him through multiple approaches in bad weather and turbulence, and he was mentally done in by the time we were done,” he said.

Unlike the other simulators, the Redbird has a dual set of controls, which allows either pilot in the simulator to fly the aircraft, Hargrove said. In a real-life situation, if something happened to one pilot, the other one would have to be able to take over.

Nelson teaches the senior capstone course on crew resource management, where pilots learn how to operate as a crew. With the new simulator, two pilots can sit in the cockpit and Nelson can sit across the room, programming in the pilots’ troubles.

In that situation, they have to rely on each other, Nelson.

“They can’t rely on me anymore, they have to work through it on their own,” he said. “So it’s kind of the removal of the security blanket.”

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General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.