The weather in my little corner of Oregon this winter has been perfect. Perfectly wretched, that is. Endless days of drizzle that seems to defy gravity and just hang in the air has caused many of us to begin resembling waterlogged, fungus-covered gnomes. The locals call themselves “webfeet” with no small amount of pride, but it’s hard for me to buy into this thinking on those cold, miserable walks the dogs seem intent on inflicting on me every day. I’ll whine it out loud, just this once, I hate this damned rain!
One of the lovely side effects of all this precip is that my real-world flying lessons have had to go on hiatus during the cloudbursts. If the low ceilings weren’t enough to keep me hangar-bound, my choice of training airports ices the cake. Situated exactly at the mouth of the Columbia River Gorge, Portland Troutdale airport (KTTD) is positioned beautifully to catch the full furious brunt of the winds that whip through the gorge, nearly non-stop, all winter long. It makes me a little nuts to look up and see a rare decent day forming, only to call up Troutdale’s AWOS and get a report of “winds 090 at 25, gusting to 37”. I’m endorsed to take off in crosswinds of up to 5 knots at this stage in my training, and the little 172 I fly is rated for up to 15kts. Neither of us can even consider the havoc that a 37kt gust might wreak on our delicate frames. So, on the ground I sit, trying to maintain a modicum of proficiency by flying on my simulator and studying up for my written exam.
All of this is the long way of explaining why I was so excited by yesterday’s weather report. While the skies were far from clear, the clouds were broken enough to allow VFR flight, and the winds took a rare winter break, dwindling to nearly nothing. It didn’t take long to get on the horn, round up my instructor, and secure the plane for the afternoon. And a glorious afternoon it was, too! The clouds were chasing each other across the sky in great fluffy herds, revealing snowy mountain peaks and frosted forests below. The crystalline winter air revealed amazing views of the jagged white tips of Mt. Hood nearby, Mts. Jefferson and Ranier farther away, and the ever-present hump of Mt. St. Helens, quiet for now, just across the river.
It had been since early November that I was in behind the controls, but I was pleased to discover that I hadn’t lost much, if anything, in the interim. I was able to perform some steep turns, some (very) slow flight, a few stalls and a wide variety of landings. From normal to short-field approaches, with full flaps and sideslipping with none, everything went off without a hitch.
On one particularly long final approach (due to some other traffic that got in ahead of me), I was suddenly struck by what excellent preparation all those years of flying in Flight Sims had provided. Sometimes the benefits are easy to track; things like understanding how systems and instruments work, and how to navigate using a VOR. Yesterday, however, I realized how many intangible benefits there are as well. I was setting up an approach, eyeballing the runway and trying to get positioned correctly on glideslope to make a smooth landing. It all just felt so comfortable and familiar, although I hadn’t done it in months in “real life”. Flying in a simulator had given me a good understanding of the way a runway should look when the plane is on a correct angle of approach. That kind of spatial understanding, especially when it becomes second nature, is essential to good piloting. I would be much less advanced in my training right now had it not been for the practice I’ve had sitting in front of my computer all those nights.
So don’t let anyone tell you simulators don’t have their place in training. I’ve found my copy of Flight Simulator 2004 to be an extraordinarily good investment that’s paid for itself many times over by cutting down on the time it’s taken me to grasp concepts when sitting in a real cockpit. Besides which, if I hadn’t picked it up in the computer store so many years ago on a whim, I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t be within striking distance of a private pilot’s license right now! Thanks, Microsoft.