So you want to learn how to fly a giant cargo jet? There's a place for that -- at least if you happen to a be a pilot working for UPS Inc.
The parcel delivery service has 500 pilots based in Anchorage, the domestic hub of its Asia-Pacific network, where about 30 UPS aircraft take off and land every day, according to Dave Smith, UPS Asia-Pacific region pilot chief.
But for all the other pilots not making trips across the Pacific Ocean in Boeing 747-400 planes, there's no sitting still. Instead they head to the UPS Flight Training Facility near Kincaid Park to hone their skills on two simulators, where pilots can get as close to flying as possible without ever getting in the sky.
It's so real, pilots can become certified to fly the cargo jets without ever taking one of the actual planes off the runway.
Smith said the simulators run 24/7, almost 365 days a year, with small breaks for Christmas and Thanksgiving. Pilots rotate through the hubs to learn how to fly the planes or to keep their training up to date. The simulators can run pilots through almost every scenario imaginable, from bad weather to mechanical malfunctions.
"Ninety-nine percent of the stuff that can go wrong, we can replicate in here," said simulation instructor and 747 pilot Don Hoback.
Smith declined to say how much the two simulators cost. He said over the last 10 years UPS has invested $50 million in the South Anchorage facility. The simulators generally run in the "tens of millions" each. UPS has 13 of the 747-400 planes based in Anchorage.
From the outside, the simulators look like sci-fi submarines: bright white with sleek, rounded edges. They stand about 20 feet off the ground, lifted up on hydraulic pumps that move up and down in a motion reminiscent of a "Star Wars" droid.
The interior is an exact replica of the 747-400, the aircraft UPS supports in Anchorage along with the MD-11. Every movement in the faux cockpit mimics how the plane would react, whether taxiing on a runway (in a simulation that replicates the layout of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport) or taking off and landing in inclement weather.
The simulators have been in place since 2008. Smith said the training facility is one of two, with the other located at the UPS hub in Louisville, Kentucky.
The facility is not open to the public, but Smith said they occasionally allow tour groups and special guests a chance to try the simulator.
So what can a person with zero flying experience take away from trying to pilot a cargo jet? Smith said it's a reminder that it's a technical job that requires many skills to stay sharp, similar to being a doctor or attorney.
"I think they'll take away (the pilots are) true professionals," Smith said. "And get a feel for how special aviation is -- it's a unique thing to fly airplane."