Not-a-hop #1

Today was clear skies, but it was around 97 degrees and rather windy (13-18kts, gusting to 25) at the airport. So rather than have me go up solo and fight winds while sweating myself dry in a sun-baked airplane, my CFI figured we'd do something we needed to do anyway and stay in air conditioning. Having just driven my convertible to the airport, I couldn't really argue with that reasoning. So we walked upstairs to the Redbird flight simulator.

The Redbird is a two-seat, motion-capable simulator with six window screens and a mix of LCD and physical instrument panel. The right seat (instructor's seat) rather than controls has a small shelf with a laptop on it which can be used to run the simulator. "Okay, why don't you do a lap around the pattern to get used to the sim?"

I looked around. The instruments weren't in the same place, and they looked different; also, I had more controls. "Uh, what aircraft is this set up to be?"

"A Piper Aero. Don't worry about it, the main thing is that this is your throttle, rather than the Cessna's push/pull...the flaps are over here near the shelf. Engine instruments along the bottom of the panel, not over on the right, and your DG has a VOR display integrated into it, which makes this one up here NAV2. Oh yeah, and it's a constant-speed prop and complex airplane, so this-" (next to the throttle) "-is your pitch, and this is mixture, and your gear switch is here."

"Uhhh...okay." Spent a half minute or so looking at the various controls, and then trying to move my hands to them while looking up at the 'windscreen'. When I was satisfied I could find the flaps and the throttle accurately without taking my eyes off the 'window', I nodded, and my CFI tapped keys. The screen (which, to my horror, had proudly displayed the Windows XP logo on bootup) blinked once and came up. I was able, from the position of the hangars on my right and the ridgeline ahead of me, to recognize that I was supposed to be on the ground at 7B2 although the scenery was actually pretty crap compared to what I'd expect a modern flight sim package to have in it.

"Okay, up you go."

I nodded, ran through the takeoff checklist (Fuel selector valve, elevator trim - where's the trim wheel? Oh, there- flaps, mixture, and... "where's the carb heat?"

"No carb heat, fuel injection."

"Ahhh, okay. Should I be making radio calls?"


So I gave it throttle and put my heels on the floor. My virtual Piper yawed like crazy and full right rudder didn't seem to be enough, so I gave it a touch of right brake and it swung crazily to the right. "This What's takeoff in an Aero?"

"Yeah, it's a little twitchy on wheels. Keep it steady. Rotate around 80 knots."

Eventually, at around 80 knots, I pulled back. My virtual airplane resisted for a bit, then lifted off the runway and I trimmed it for 90 knots as instructed. Then started hunting around until I found a control under a triangle of LEDs (red at the moment) and flipped it. There was a simulated grinding noise as my simulated gear lifted, and I looked around. "Man, it looks like post-apocalyptic Northampton." I wasn't kidding - the simulator had terrain, but it wasn't really simulating trees other than one or two here and there, and everything was brown. A few buildings dotted the landscape, but their very paucity drew attention to the desolation.

"Heh. Winter. And it's not great, no."

I turned crosswind, then tried to level out at 1000 AGL but found that this virtual Piper was really twitchy about altitude - and without actual feedback from the seat of my pants, it was difficult to hold level. I screwed with the trim wheel to not much effect and then turned downwind. I hunted for carb heat for a few seconds before remembering - then realized I couldn't see the airport. "Where the hell am I?"

"Airport's still too far left. You stayed on crosswind pretty long, and this airplane's faster."

So I cranked it around to the left and finally found the airport off along the far side of the river, but by the time I was settled back at 1000 AGL, with 10 of flaps in and the gear down, I was coming right across the end of the runway and had a speed of around 130 knots. "Damn it, too fast and too close."

"So what're you gonna do?"

"Gonna go around." I gave it power and put the gear back up. "Okay, I'm on a right downwind..."

"Same as an upwind, right?"

"Yeah." I hadn't remembered that 'upwind' was an actual term of art, but filed that away. This time, I flew a shorter crosswind; when I saw the runway numbers off the left wing, I pulled power back to 15 (15 what? not RPM...Hg...inches of mercury? Manifold pressure?) and put in ten of flaps and dropped the landing gear when my speed got into the yellow arc. Turned base and final, but again was fast, so by the time I was turned final I was off to one side..."Damn it, I need to go around again."

"Aw, I dunno, this is doable..." my CFI mused leadingly.

"Oh okay, if we're on 'this is just a simulator' rules..." I jibed, and turned left and then swung right, harder than I would have been willing to in a real airplane. We were almost lined up but low, so I added power until the {VASI] went red-over-white and then concentrated on making the runway. I floated really long, but figured 'screw it, see what happens' and landed. Landed a bit hard, but the simulator grudgingly acknowledged I hadn't killed myself or broken the airplane.

"Okay!" With that bright word, my CFI hit a key and the sky disappeared, bringing visibility down to around 100 meters in a white curtain. "Let's take off again."

I swung the plane around since I was close to the end of the runway, and decided to just use Three Two for takeoff. Got off the ground and pretty much instantly everything in the 'windows' vanished into a white haze except the simulated wing and prop. "Okay, let's follow the runway heading and climb to 2500."

"Runway heading, climb to 2500." I concentrated on trying to do that. It wasn't easy. I was having trouble keeping the 'airplane' coordinated because of the low speed and high power setting, but I quickly found that rudder pedals were what tended to reliably make the simulator activate its motion motors, and it was pretty jerky - generally it broke the illusion and confused me when I did it. I also found that the simulator was really twitchy about climbs/descents, and that without my gut for guidance, I had real trouble keeping the rate of climb steady.

When we got to 2500 feet, he had me do some regular turns left and right. Had trouble maintaining altitude due again to the twitchy nature - I'm not sure if it's the simulator or the airplane, to be honest, as I've never flown an Arrow. Anyway, got the hang of it but started to get that tense feeling behind the temples that presages motion sickness - the simulator's motion responses were just far enough out of coordination with what I thought I was doing to make it happen. "So for cruise, you're going to want to set the power to 24 and then adjust the prop to get 2400 RPM. Yeah, that's the pitch lever next to the throttle." I did that; twiddled the throttle to get 24 in/Hg on the manifold pressure gauge. When I did, the prop had crept up to around 2550, so I tweaked it back gently, coarsening the pitch until the RPMs settled at 2400. The simulator , it turned out, also liked to get motion-twitchy when the prop pitch was adjusted.

After the turns, my CFI had me turn-to-heading while climbing and descending. Again, it took a while for me to be able to do it anywhere near as directed. He asked me "Are you maintaining a scan of the panel?"

"Yeah, I am, but I don't have a fixed pattern - is there a recommended one? These instruments aren't laid out like I'm familiar with."

"No, most people find one that works for them. Work on it."

"Okay." Continued to fly, determined I wasn't going to be made sick by a damn simulator.

"Pop quiz. What instruments run on the instrument vacuum system?"

"Uh...well, the artificial horizon, the DG...and the VSI?"

"No, VSI is static air, but the first two were right, those are the vacuum instruments." After a bit he said "Okay, let's do so VOR work. What's your favorite VOR?"

I laughed. "I think the only one I've played with in real life is Barnes."

"Okay...oh, right, you haven't used this radio before. Here..." he showed me how to set the NAV2 frequency and then handed it off. I struggled to get the unfamiliar radio set while still maintaining level flight. I kept looking over and finding myself in a descending bank - the precursor to a spin, if not watched carefully! Finally got 113.0 megacycles tuned and active.

"Damn it, I'm not multitasking well enough."

"Well, that's the point of this - learning to do just that. Hey, which instruments use pitot air?"

"Airspeed indicator."

"Right. Static?"

"Airspeed indicator, VSI and altimeter."

"Yep. Okay, have you got Barnes dialed in? Did you check the IDENT?"

"No, not yet, how do I..." He pointed to a button near the top of the virtual dash, in a cluster controlling the aircraft speakers/headsets. "Ah." Punched 'NAV2' and listened. After a couple of seconds, sure enough, I got dah-dit-dit-dit...dit-dah...dit-dit-dah-dit. "Got it!"

"Okay, let's go to the Barnes VOR then."

"Hm, I don't have a TO/FROM indicator..."

"Oh right, on this one it's the arrowhead at the bottom of the display; up for TO, down from FROM."

"Okay then, I need to fly..." I twiddled the VOR dial until I'd centered the needle with a TO indicator- "...two-ten to get there."

"Great, let's do that. Hey, how's your oil pressure?"

I looked - I knew where the engine instruments were, but had to hunt to find the oil pressure. "Um, bottom of the green - between green and yellow, actually...but I'm at low power since I was descending, so let me get back to cruise..." Did that. "...nope, still at bottom of the green."

"Okay. Don't worry about it, I just wanted to give you something else to do. You're mostly on course and coordinated. You were going to fly two-ten to BAF."

Struggled a bit but got us turned to 210 while holding 3000 feet. My CFI nodded. "Okay, I'm going to get an ice tea, you want anything?"

"Nope, I'm good..."

"K. When you get to BAF, let's fly the one seven zero radial out from the VOR."

"Okay, one seven zero from the BAF VOR." He nodded and ducked out of the sim while I wrestled with what felt like a super twitchy airplane on ADD in gusty winds.

Eventually, the needle started to creep, and then swung as I passed over the invisible VOR. Since I"d been on a heading of 210, I banked left and set the VOR to 170/FROM. After a minute or two, the needle twitched and started moving from the far left towards the middle. I banked to join the radial, but I'd been flying too much easting, so by the time I got settled down on a heading of 170 I wasn't on that radial anymore. My CFI chose that moment to duck back in. "How's it going?"

"Okay. I just almost joined the 170 radial outbound, but I overshot a little."

He looked at my instruments. "What're you gonna do?"

"Going to turn right a bit to intercept the radial and then join by banking left to 170 when I hit it."

"Sounds good."

So I did that. He had me join a few different radials on different VORs. As I finished settling onto the three three zero back TO Barnes, I saw something flicker over on the left. Did a scan of the main instruments: nothing. Did a wider scan- "Hey, I just lost instrument vacuum, that is, if this red thing here is supposed to be a red light...and, yeah, needle is at zero..."

"Good. What are you going to lose?"

"Artificial horizon and gyro."

"What're you going to do?"

"Uh...I guess I'll have to fly using the turn-and-bank, and the magnetic compass..."

"Okay. Remember, the numbers on the magnetic are reversed!"

"Doh, right, forgot that."

So I joined another radial with no vacuum. He nodded. "Okay, I think we're probably done for today then..."

I started hunting for an off switch. "No, no, that's not what we do..." he started hitting keys on the laptop. The engine noise died away, and then all my instruments failed.


"Lesson isn't over until we're on the ground!"

I gamely fought to keep the airplane steady. "Is this all the way to the deck, or will I be able to see the ground before we hit?"

"I think it's clear below 250 feet!"

"Fine, then in a fit of optimism..." I hit 'GEAR DOWN' and listened to the grind.

"Aw, damn, I forgot to break the gear!" he laughed. The stall horn went off, so I shoved the yoke forward until it went away. "Yeah, that's the right thing to do there! Hey, look, I see a blinking red light out there-" there was one, off to the right, through the fake fog. The airplane stalled again, so I dropped the nose, hoping I'd come out of the murk at least level enough to have a shot at landing-

Nope. There was a brief flicker of visibility and then the simulator screens blanked out and went back to the scenario menu. "Aw, damn."

Ah well. This was cheaper than flying the airplane, more comfortable (doing hood flying when it's around 98 degrees F ambient and bright sun is probably a sure recipe for nausea) and we needed to do instrument work anyway.