Category Archives: Flying in the Real World

Fanboy Friday: Getting the Itch

I’m getting it bad, people. Maybe it’s the recent spate of good weather we’ve been having, or the release of a beautiful patch of FSX scenery that covers my own back yard. Hell, maybe I just have a perverse need to spend thousands of dollars on something fun but relatively useless. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? Continue reading

Fanboy Friday Gets Real

As real as it gets… that’s the simmer’s nirvana. We all have our varying ideas on what constitutes “real”, and often it’s hard to articulate what draws us into a simulated environment to the point where we forget that we’re watching a screen. All we know is, when that rare magic strikes, it puts a grin on our faces that lasts for days. Well, I’m still grinning from an experience I had last weekend that was just the opposite of that. Continue reading

Alaska Bush Flying At Its Best

For anyone who’s ever been tempted by the wide open spaces of Alaska by air, this blog entry is for you. The sight of those Cubs all parked side by side on a sandbar… it’s a bush flyer’s dream. I was especially tickled to see a pic of Petersburg, an airport I’ve modeled for FS previously, in the Tongass Fjords project. Enjoy! Thanks Simflight for bringing this post to my attention.

If it ain’t Boeing, I might consider going

My wife and I trekked up to Seattle this weekend to witness a friend’s graduation from college. We had a great time, celebrated a remarkable achievment, and enjoyed visiting with some friends we hadn’t seen in ages. After leaving Snohomish on Sunday, we decided to do some long-overdue touring in the area before heading back to Portland. High on my list of must-sees was the Boeing assembly plant tour in nearby Everett.

For aviation geeks like myself, it doesn’t get any more fascinating than seeing the birthplace of so many huge airliners — or so I thought. Approaching the “Future of Flight” building, where the tours start, is impressive. The aircraft assembly building is massive, a cavernous hulk dominating nearly 100 acres. My palms were sweaty as we turned into the parking lot.

My first clue that I was descending into a corporate self-lovefest was the short video presentation that begins the tour. It consisted of a montage of various planes, from the Monomail to the B-1 bomber, all streaking across the skies to soaring background music. There’s a handful of employees in the ’20’s, applying fabric to the wings – cut – there’s the space shuttle roaring from the launchpad – cut – there’s a B17 taking off from England to crush Hitler – cut – there’s a 747 floating into a sunset – cut – and on, and on, and on. Never was a word spoken, nor a single bit of information exchanged. It was a feel-good fluff piece that looked more like a commercial than the start of an informational tour.

Then we were herded onto buses and driven across the complex to the assembly building, all the while listening to the lightweight patter of a vaguely disinterested tourguide. She spun off wondrous facts like “The first Boeing airliner was the 707. Since then, the 7 codes have incremented until we finally see the newest product – the 787!” Fascinating. Also not quite true. She pointed to the hundred-foot-tall picture of the woman plastered on one of the massive hangar doors, staring skyward in anticipation. “That image was actually taken from a German cookie ad,” she droned. Okaaaaaay. And…?

You can’t help but be awed by the assembly lines themselves. We were lofted to a fourth-floor observation deck and given a quick rundown of which plane was made where, and how they moved through the assembly process. The rooms seem to stretch for miles. The gleaming silver fuselages below us were 777’s, tagged with their recipients (Air Canada and Emirates Air had dibs on these). Naturally, I wanted to get down closer and actually see how they were put together. As if anticipating my curiosity, our guide launched into a discussion of the heating and air conditioning systems built into the hangar (they have neither), and before we knew what was happening we were being prodded back onto the buses.

Dumped at the gift shop, we saw the first trace of excitement on our guide’s face as she watched us toddle off into the store. All in all, an unsatisfying, quick, and nearly informationless tour, that was surprisingly expensive, considering. Come on, Boeing… would it really hurt so much to inform a little, maybe educate? I was left shaking my head at yet another example of the corporate navel-gazing that’s sweeping the nation. Oh well, scratch one must-see off the list.

Massive Assembly Building Paint Hangars Boeing “Dreamlifter” Transport

Boys and Their Toys

Lest I come off like a sad sack for all my moaning about the weather in Hawaii, there were some definite highlights to the trip. One of them was being the guest of the Paradise Flyers, a radio-controlled aircraft club that fly on weekends at the Kaneohe Marine Base. I spent last Sunday morning with them, and was knocked out by the variety of aircraft on display, from WWII fighters to civilian aerobatics birds–even a brace of jets! That’s right, some of these fellas actually build and fly jet-powered RC fighters. I knew this technology existed, but hadn’t seen it in action before. They’re not small, and from the peek I had inside, they’re definitely complex beasts. But when they light the fires, oh baby… the smell of kerosene permeating the air, the roar of that miniature jet, the rush of hot wind as the nozzle turns your way. It’s magic! I’ve uploaded a vid of an F-16 in action.

By the way, if you start thinking about how much these things must cost, I’ll remind you that if you tally up the expense of buying and maintaining a bleeding-edge computer, along with all the software and add-ons required for a top-notch flight simulating experience, you’re probably already in league with these tiny jet drivers. It’s something to think about… just don’t let your wife know you’re thinking it.

Home Again

My better half and I got back into Portland on Tuesday night, the sand still in our toes even though we had to bundle up against the chilly Oregon night. All in all, we’ve had better trips than this foray into Hawaii, but the vacation had its high points. Flying-wise, it was pretty interesting. I took a drive up the north shore on Saturday, around to Dillingham airfield (PHDH), which I discovered was a charming little airport, full of local character. I was so enamored with it that I whipped out my camera and commenced to photographing every angle of it I could find, with the idea of perhaps creating versions for FS9 and FSX at some point soon.

Oceanic Flight 815One of the more interesting finds on the field was a fenced-off area with aircraft wreckage. Fans of TV’s “LOST” will immediately know where this came from. And yes, the Beech B18 that bore Mr. Eko’s brother out of Africa, the one that later crushed Boone, was also lying in a rusty heap in the same scrap pile. Fun stuff!

That Certain Something

Flight Simulators have taken enormous strides in the last few years towards the holy grail of immersion, that point where your brain can trick you into thinking you’re actually piloting a real aircraft. One of the the cul-de-sacs that the realism conversation can become mired in is the simulation of night lighting in the virtual cockpit.

I had the opportunity to take my first ever night flight a couple of days ago, and I came away from the experience with a newfound respect for after-hours aviating. My in-cockpit nighttime adventure featured one aspect I’d never encountered in a simulated aircraft — no night lighting at all! We thumped and jiggled on the various dome and instrument light switches during the preflight, and managed to get a weak glow to emanate from a couple of the instrument faces, but it was purely token lighting, and not particularly helpful.

Seeing as how we had the required exterior lighting, my instructor and I decided to go for it and do the flight anyway. Having another soul in the front office is a big help in this sort of situation, as she could work the penlight, shining it on the instruments while I did my best to keep us airborne and on course. You’ve not truly experienced a night landing until you’ve done one in a gusty unpredictable crosswind, yelling “airspeed, airspeed” to the person sitting next to you, who has become fixated on the threshold and let her flashlight arm droop.

Curiously, the more I fly, the more forgiving I am of simulated aircraft and their quirks. I’ve begun to understand that any aircraft over five years old seems to have its own personality, nasty habits included. Any oddness in the flight model (within reason) or lack of a feature, like, say, cockpit lighting, is more apt to be considered “just part of the plane’s charm” for me at this point. It’s all just part of that certain ‘something’ that brings the simulated world an inch or two closer to reality.


I’ve seen very few days more beautiful than yesterday here in the Pacific Northwest. Since I had a few days’ notice that it would be gorgeous, I booked the 172 I usually fly, with the intention of doing my long 3-leg cross country flight required for my private pilot’s license. Oh man, let me tell you, it was just amazing up there. Most of my flying lately has been in the choppy springtime air, so I was delighted to find the air incredibly stable. Surface visibility was a little impaired, as it will be in such a stable atmosphere, but I could still see for many miles through the light haze.

I left Troutdale Airport (KTTD), and tracked inbound to the Newberg VOR (UBG), and then outbound using the V182 airway to Newport, Oregon on the coast (KONP). Climbing to 8500′ on the first leg, it was like driving a car over newly paved asphalt. It’s the first time I’ve been that high, and I was impressed by how easy pilotage is from this vantage point.

Arriving at Newport, I heard another aircraft taking off on runway 34. I swung out wide over the coast to enter the left downwind for 34, but heard the pilot who had just taken off request that I let him in front of me so he could do an emergency landing. He reported that he had “low power” and worried that his engine was on the fritz. Of course, I was happy to oblige, and circled over the ocean once so he could slip past me. On landing, I went inside the FBO to see a friend of mine who runs the show there. He and I watched the pilot who had been in trouble taking off again. Turns out his flaps were extended and he hadn’t realized it. That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m always afraid will happen to me when I’m flying! 😉

After a refreshing Snickers bar, I took to the sky again, traveling up the coast to Tillamook Airport (S47) for a touch and go, before climbing out over the coast range to return to Troutdale. As an aside for avid ‘simmers, one of my final checkpoints before returning to TTD was overflying the Flying M Ranch, of Georender fame. All it took was a glance to spot it, as I’ve flown into it many times before in FS! Yep, there was that squarish pond, just to the right of the runway. Richard really nailed that one.

If anyone is sitting on the fence about taking flying lessons, let me heartily recommend it. Unless you’re independently wealthy, it’s fairly irresponsible from a fiscal standpoint. But I wouldn’t trade the experience for all the zero credit card balances on earth.

B.B. in a boxcar

Some days just look like they’ll be perfect for flying. I got up this morning to an endless blue sky, light wind and cool (but not frigid) temps. I was feeling a little smug that I had reserved my trusty 172 for the afternoon, and was anxious to do some more short/soft field landing and takeoff practice over at Portland Mulino, a field for which I was just checked out last weekend.

Today was a good example of how different conditions on the surface and even a few thousand feet up can be, however. No sooner had I left Troutdale on my climbout than I started getting knocked around by some rogue wind gusts. I initiated a climb, hoping to get on top of the burbling air below me, but it was not to be. During the short flight to Mulino, I found myself white-knuckling the yoke, trying in vain to anticipate the dips and lifts. I did get a second to pat myself on the back for navigating directly to my destination using pilotage, arriving dead-on over the middle of the field just about when I thought I would, so that’s something I guess.

On my first pass around the pattern at Mulino, I caught a few hair-raising gusts, but managed to set the plane down pretty well on the center line, considering. As I lifted off again, however, I got knocked hard. This was the first time I’ve felt a twinge of fear since I’ve been flying. I mean, these gusts were really bouncing me all over the place. I cooled down pretty quickly once the air smoothed out, however, and managed to get in four landings before calling it quits and high-tailing it back to Troutdale.

This was one of those decision points for a pilot. I had to choose whether to stick with my landings and get some valuable crosswind practice, or cut and run and hope for smoother air another day. I made the choice to choke down my insecurity and get a grip on what was happening, and I’m glad I did. But I also know that had I encountered much more wind activity than I did, I would have just bagged it. That’s the advantage of being a 40-something student, I guess. I am many things at this point in my life, but daredevil is definitely not one of them.

From Desktop to Cloud Tops

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.