Growing up in Ohio, I lived andbreathed airplanes. We rode our bikes out to the grass strip at the edge of town to watchthe flying and play around the hangers. We built countless model airplanes. Throughout itall, the idea of actually learning to fly never occurred to me, even when my collegeroommate took lessons. I guess it had to be held as something unobtainable to be soalluring.
Three decades later, the computer brought vicarious flying backinto my life. I flew the Microsoft flight simulator real time across the Pacific (withheavy use of the autopilot to let me attend to real-life issues) and toured Japan andHawaii. I landed the Cessna at 110 knots and wondered why it stopped climbing when Ipulled all the way back on the joystick.
I bought a yoke and then decided to build a set of rudder pedals. When I went out tothe local FBO to ask whether pedals hinge or slide, I learned that intro flights were only$34.95. I decided to take one to provide a framework for my imagination, but I was stillno closer to thinking about actually learning to fly than thirty-five years before.
The instructor taxied the 152 out to the end of the runway, took his hands off of theyoke and said, "Push the throttle in smoothly and, when you get to 60 knots, pullback gently." I was hooked before we reached pattern altitude.
I began taking lessons once or twice a week as our New England weather permitted and Iflew the computer a couple hours a day. The simulator seemed remarkably realistic as Ibecame familiar with the real plane. I disassembled and modified the yoke to eliminate thecenter detent and my homebuilt rudder pedals were substantial enough to rig with shockcords and achieve control pressures similar to climb-out.
The flight model of the Microsoft Simulator is accurate enough that you can bring thenose up close to stall and rock the wings back and forth with the rudder alone. Trueairspeed changes with altitude and, if you set the OAT at 100 degrees and fill the planewith fuel, it accelerates slowly and uses up a lots of runway, especially at high-altitudeairports.
I re-created every lesson on the simulator. At first, I tried practicing ahead forlessons, but I quickly found that I would go flying with ignorance and bad habitsreinforced. After that, I stayed behind the instructor’s syllabus.
I seemed to have an aptitude for handling the plane. Everything came pretty easily withone glaring exception, flaring and landing. Twenty feet AGL and above, I was an A student;below that, D-. It drove me crazy and it persisted.
The simulator has a feature that brings up a graph of your flight path and verticaldescent rate at touchdown. I set it up to start on final and practiced and practiced. Mysimulator landings became consistent greasers but my real landings didn’t get much better.I was sure that some deep phobia about concrete must be the root of the problem.
My landings gradually improved but they were still way out of sync with my progress inother areas. My air work was almost to PTS standards and my approaches were like riding aninvisible wire. Once in ground effect, however, I was just barely in control. I soloed andbegan my cross-countries but, my landings remained an embarrassment.
About the time that we began serious crosswind work, I had an encounter with wind shearwhen the weather changed rapidly. I set up a simulator situation on final approach andthen made ten wind variations starting from the identical point, attitude, and speed. Thesimulator allows three layers of wind and the abrupt transitions really contribute to theshear effect. It also lets you set turbulence all the way up to levels where the planecomes apart in the air and falls in little pieces on the screen. I put all three layersbelow 1500 feet with different directions of shears and gusts. One or two were realkillers. I wrote a program that would mix up the files by randomly changing the names andwould work through the whole sequence every day with the landing analysis graph set on. Ilearned a lot about the strategy of dealing with gnarly conditions and making quickgo-around decisions but it did little to smooth the contact between real rubber andconcrete. I also had to explain to my wife why she heard so much crashing from thecomputer when I was flying the father of her children around in a real plane a couple oftimes a week.
Discussions about the value of simulators usually center oncomparison with time in real planes. The proper comparison is with ground time. It’s onething to read about a maneuver or navigation procedure in a book, or even watch a video.It’s quite another to practice it real time with some semblance of the cockpit view and beable to redo and review it. Simulator time is more likely to come out of book than airtime. After all, you are home. It may be of less value than Hobbs time but, used properly,it is far better than going back over the same book or tape. Used with the book or tape,it can be more than the sum of the two.
The simulator can also really slow down your progress towards your checkride. It’salways sitting there beckoning you to explore strange parts of the world and play at doingall those things you are eager to do more of. Next to it are the FAR/AIM, the METARtranslations, and the exam prep materials. It takes a lot of discipline to get in the hardstudy needed for the written and oral.
All my simulator time really showed up under the hood. I could almost fly better oninstruments and even did an NDB approach. Instrument recoveries from unusual attitudes, noproblem. Then my instructor said, "Tip up the hood." I did and there, right infront of us, was the wall of a huge cloud. We plunged in. Immediately, the AI began totilt. I turned the yoke; nothing happened. It felt as if the controls had becomedisconnected. We began to go over into a spiral. I realized that my hands were refusing toobey my brain. The wisps of cloud going by the windows, the bright light of the blankwindshield, were all convincing me that I could see. My brain was refusing to break theconnection between inner ear and hands. I began an intense mental struggle and I waslosing. Only when I focused with tunnel vision on the instruments and pretended that thewindshield was black could I begin to regain control. I was just getting level when wepopped back into the sunlight. I rate that as the single most valuable 30 seconds of myflight training.
The simulator is excellent for navigation practice. Microsoft models density altitudeand true airspeed effects accurately enough to check your E6B work but the VORs andairports aren’t always in the right place. You need to check them with third-partyflight-planning software that looks at the actual scenery to be sure of the source of anyerrors. It has icing. I flew until the plane sagged to 60 knots at full power and thendiverted. I developed a feel for the real-time distances and the effect of wind drift. Icrashed a lot.
I set up all my navigation materials on my knee board and found the system oforganization and procedures that worked best. I flew routes in below-minimum visibilitywith a random timer set and practiced diversions. Sometimes I would pull the power until Icould just hold stalling speed at a slight decent rate and try to get to a field. It wasalso fun to set the plane on autopilot in a large, high-altitude circle and go out forlunch. On return, I would pull the power, find my position with the VORs, and try to glideto an airport.
Landing continued to be a problem and my checkride was coming closer. Noquestion what would be on any pink slip. When I found out where I would be taking thetest, I practiced the route and familiarized myself with the surrounding area andalternate airports. I still sweated in ground effect. Oddly, my landings in wind,especially crosswind, were often better than in straight or calm conditions. One day, Ishifted my gaze away from the windshield picture during the flare and looked down at theend of the runway. I saw the plane sink and pulled back on the yoke. It was a greaser.Suddenly, I could land. I saw that one of the runways has a pronounced hump. It is soobvious and yet, I never saw it in forty hours of flying. Clearly, I wasn’t looking at theright place.
I left behind an entire phase and form of flying. Before, there had been flying andflaring, separated by two distinct forms of consciousness. I used to say that my brain didthe flying, my hands did the flaring, and my brain was a better pilot than my hands.Suddenly, I was just flying all the way to the ground. Time seemed to stretch out duringthe flare and it was hard to believe it ever could have been so difficult. My landings onmy checkride were everything I could have hoped for; even on a runway with both a hump anda dip. I flew home with a checkmark at the highest level of the evaluation form.
I am sure that I would have taken my checkride sooner if it had not been for thesimulator, but I am also sure that I would not have been as good as pilot when I did.Without the simulator, I might not even have been able to become a pilot. There is noquestion, however, that it greatly retarded my landings.
I went back to the simulator after my landing breakthrough, but I could not land thecyber airplane. Close to the ground, the simulator limits you to a simple geometricview that is the wrong thing to be using as a guide in the flare. None of thethree-dimensional cues that are the key to smooth landings are even available. I wasafraid of jinxing my real landings so I didn’t try too hard to regain my desktopproficiency. The simulator yoke and pedals gathered dust under my desk for several months.Everything that seemed so realistic at 40 hours now seemed artificial and limited.
Writing the first draft of this article got me interested again. Between New Englandfall weather, a mild but nagging sinus condition, and focusing on work after two years ofputting flying first, I was pretty well grounded anyway. In the name of research, Idecided to risk my carefully nurtured landing skills and put in some serious desktoppattern work.
My first few landings would have definitely justified a taxi back to the hangerto check out the rivets around the landing gear attachments. I quickly got the hang of ithowever, and the landing analysis graph began to show nice flare profiles and touchdownrates. I felt the stirrings of memory as I went round and round in cyberspace. Then it hitme, night landings. Landing the simulator is much like a real landing at a small darkstrip with only basic runway lighting. The lights and poor visibility reduce the landingview to a very simple picture. You have to focus hard on the geometry, create a mentalpicture of the situation, then fly the picture.
This insight is supported by looking back at my night landings. They were pretty good,not great, none of my landings were. But, they were as good as my day landings — not whatyou would expect from a ground-effect-challenged student. I was doing all my landings asif they were night landings. Call it the "simulator effect." I don’t think nowthat differences between the simulator and real life are as significant once you havebecome competent at both. But, I still believe that too many simulator landings, prior tolaying down real rubber, can be hazardous to your ego and lucrative for your FBO.
A few months hiatus from cyber flying, combined with a fair amount of the real thing,have really improved my desktop flying skills. I landed on aircraft carriers and bridgesand flew through cities at third-story level, hot stuff. It was great fun and seems muchmore realistic with a few weeks distance from Hobbs time. Have I jinxed my real landings?If weather, work, and my head ever clear up at the same time, I’ll let you know. In themeantime, maybe it will take some of the edge off of not flying. It might even slow thedeterioration of some of my skills, those used above ground effect anyway.