Learning to fly but I ain't got wings - a sim pilot's diary

Background / purpose of the diary

I’m back from a couple of weeks of annual leave, much of which I spent hiking in remote locations with no cellphone coverage or ability to check work emails…so the evenings were spent reading and thinking, which was wonderful.

Long story short, the Christmas challenge got me thinking about learning more about general aviation and learning the basics of flight in a bit more organised manner than my usual “read Chuck’s guide -> throttles to firewall -> let’s see what happens” way.

This may eventually lead to pursuing a private pilot’s licence, but I suspect that’ll be a year away at least (baby # 1 is due in a couple of months - I anticipate life to get a bit hectic).

I started by downloading the following 2 Kindle books for holiday reading:

MS Flight Simulator X for Pilots: Real World Training (Van West, Lane Cummings)
The Student Pilot’s Flight Manual: From first flight to Pilot Certificate - 10th edition (Kershner)

I’m going to start flying simple beginner scenarios while reading about the relevant topics and hopefully become a better sim pilot in the process.

I should point out that this is primarily intended for the sim hobby: I know this isn’t in any way equivalent to real life training by a professional instructor - but at least the theory / physics part may help me later if / when I do go for real life lessons.

I thought I’d keep an online log as a forum topic (this thread), the idea being:

  1. Keep a record of my practice sessions and my study notes
  2. Note down questions as they arise and get feedback from others
  3. Hopefully write about it in a way that’s interesting / entertaining and could perhaps help other fledgling sim pilots.

Hopefully that’s in line with the spirit of the forum - any feedback is welcome.

Cheers, Hedge

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Looking forward to reading about it…! Kershner writes some great books…I think I have a couple of them in my library. And if you want one with some humor and great insights - Rod Machado can’t be beat for his writing style:

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Thanks for that! That volume isn’t on Kindle yet, sadly - but I may order a hard copy at some point, looks like a good one.

Just a suggestion. If you are spending all that academic time, why not study for your PPL written exam and knock that out? You don’t actually need an instructor for the written. Self study is allowed. Not trying to unfocus you from simming, but time is time, and the written is one more step toward your Private.

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Hi @chipwich, I wasn’t aware you could do that - that’s a great idea.

I’ll have to find out how all that works in New Zealand, but it would make sense…and time is time, couldn’t agree more.

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+1 on the Rod Machado recommendation. He has a way of making dry material very readable and entertaining.

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Comparison of the books

I’ve started reading the two books I got and completed a quick skim-through to understand the scope / approach of both the publications.

I’m going to find out how to get the actual PPL exam material but figured I’d kick off with what I have now, anyway.

The Student Pilot’s Flight Manual: From first flight to Pilot Certificate

Table of contents:

Part One: Before the Flight

  1. Starting to fly
  2. The airplane and how it flies
  3. Cockpit - instruments and systems
  4. Preflight check
  5. Starting the Airplane
  6. Taxiing
  7. Pretakeoff or Cockpit Check Procedure

Part Two: Presolo

  1. Effects of Controls
  2. The Four Fundamentals
  3. Elementary precision maneuvers
  4. Elementary emergency landings
  5. Stalls and slow flight
  6. Takeoffs and landings

Part Three: Postsolo maneuvers

  1. Advanced stalls
  2. Emergency flying by reference to instruments - private pilot
  3. Postsolo precision maneuvers
  4. Special takeoff and landing procedures
  5. High-altitude emergencies

Part Four: Cross-country and night flying

  1. The navigation idea
  2. The chart and other printed aids
  3. Using the radio
  4. Weather information
  5. The cross-country - knowing your airplane
  6. Navigation planning
  7. Flying the cross-country
  8. Introduction to night flying - private pilot

Part Five: The knowledge and practical (flight) tests

  1. The knowledge test review
  2. The practical (flight) test

Part Six: Syllabus - private certificate syllabus

MS Flight Simulator X for Pilots: Real World Training

Table of Contents:

Part One: Preflight

  1. Flight School Setup
  2. First Flight in the Piper J-3 Cub

Part Two: Sport Pilot

  1. Ground reference maneuvers
  2. Airport operations
  3. Old-fashioned navigation
  4. Emergencies
  5. Performance takeoffs and landings
  6. Slow flight, stalls and spins
  7. First flight in the Cessna 172SP

Part Three: Private Pilot

  1. Radio navigation with traditional avionics
  2. First flight with the G1000
  3. Night flight
  4. Weather
  5. Maximising performance

Part Four: Instrument rating

  1. Basic attitude instrument flying
  2. IFR flight
  3. Instrument approaches
  4. GPS approaches
  5. Additional instrument approaches
  6. IFR emergencies

Part Five: Commercial licence

  1. Multiengine flying in the Beechcraft Baron
  2. Commercial flight maneuvers
  3. Flying with one feathered

Part six: ATP and beyond

24: Multiplayer
25: Virtual airlines and online flying
26: Virtual air traffic control
27: Conclusion

My initial impression is that the Student Pilot’s Flight Manual is a lot more detailed in its approach in comparison - I guess this isn’t surprising, the FSX book is for a virtual pilot after all. The FSX book covers a lot more areas but in much less detail.

Still, the FSX book will come in handy - while I fly in X-Plane rather than FSX, the practice exercises have been explained well and they will be easy to reproduce in X-Plane.

The FSX book takes the student pilots through their initial flights in the Cub - I think I may do these exercises in the 172SP instead, as I don’t have an X-Plane Cub module. No need to worry about carburetor ice / heating either, as the Cessna doesn’t have any!

I’ve started the chapter-by-chapter read through of the Student Pilot’s Flight Manual and so far it has been really enjoyable: it feels like the concepts such as lift, angle of attack, laminar / turbulent flow etc. are easier to understand for a sim pilot than to someone completely new to the topic - even if I haven’t read about them ‘properly’ before.

Eager to do a bit of flight training between studying, I got the Cessna 172 SP REP and started my first practice flights from Ardmore aerodrome. Ardmore is one of the couple of possible airfields for my actual PPL training.

I also installed X-camera to limit the head movement of TrackIR to the cockpit shape - very happy I did that.

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I’ve managed to squeeze in a few hours of flying and reading.

I’m surprised how interesting I am finding the descriptions of how the instruments, gyros etc. work. Understanding the mechanics behind the faces of the instruments really makes a difference to how you view the information they provide.

So far I’ve been reading about the basic instruments, preflight procedure and ground handling in detail, while on the simulator side I’ve been a bit less disciplined and taken the 172SP out for 5 short ‘introductory flights’, mainly pattern work and a little bit of getting my bearings for pilotage over the Auckland region.

The default X-Plane 11 Ardmore Airport is a ‘3-D’ one, plain but quite nice - the layout is reasonably accurate and the buildings are in the right places (they don’t look the same, of course).

I’d call it ‘functional’ rather than pretty but my framerates quite like the excessive tree pruning the Ardmore ground keepers in X-Plane have done:

The 172SP REP introduces a few extra things to the standard Cessna. Manual towing, walk-around checks, a maintenance log and various checklists are nice for immersion. It is also nice that the settings carry over from flight to flight - I’ll need to do an oil change after 50 hours and so on.

Judging from Youtube preflight videos, the POH and the Student Pilot’s Flight Manual (I’m going to call it “SPFM”) comments about preflight in general, the procedure is accurate, although not quite as detailed as in real life - still, going through the aircraft like this does add to the experience.

It is easy to flood the engine during start-up, but following the checklist guidance helped - a 1-2 second squirt of rich mixture with the auxiliary pump on does the trick.

I initially found the ground handling quite challenging - the Cessna seemed to want to wallow its nose all over the place from the smallest rudder inputs.

I removed all control dampening and that actually made things easier - the inputs required are still tiny, just thinking of the adjustment direction is enough, but it is manageable now. I’m comfortable with taxiing, but after a dozen or so takeoffs I’m still finding it a challenge to keep the nose on the runway centreline without slight over-correction during the takeoff acceleration.

Another feature modelled in REP is spark plug fouling: I assume this is something that a real-life pilot would learn about early on, but I had never heard about it before. For those who don’t know - spark plug fouling is when the firing tip of the spark plug becomes coated with lead(I think?) and at least in the REP Cessna seems to happen when your mixture is rich and your RPM is low.

It can be avoided by leaning the mixture aggressively during ground operations - I’m still in the process of learning this, as it seems to be a balancing act.

When taxiing slowly, I want to pull the throttle right down to idle, which causes fouling if the mixture is too rich or high EGT if mixture is too lean…but then I’m trying to minimise brake usage as well and braking with the RPM at 1000 seems like a good way to heat the brakes unnecessarily.

I’m sure a few lessons in a real aircraft will quickly teach me what the real deal is.

The run-up takes a little while but the oil temperature arrow creeps up after a while.

I did learn the importance of checking the oil pressure and temperature after start-up and before take-off when I tried a startup in a cold winter morning in Finland: I must have used the wrong kind of oil and the engine cut off in the take-off climb. I was in a climbing turn and had enough altitude to turn around to the adjacent runway - the deadstick landing was successful but I definitely learned something!

Next up I’ll keep reading through Part One and Two of the SPFM and set up a few basic lessons from the MSX book - ground reference maneuvers, coordinated turns and anticipating the compass lead / lag and so on.

Having a great time so far.

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Very cool stuff! I started ground school a few weeks ago and I intend to start flying in March-April once the weather gets a bit warmer.

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Awesome, good work! Do you know what aircraft you’ll be learning in?

I’m doing a bit of due diligence re who to contact at the moment about getting the PPL ground school material.

Rather than contacting a flight school directly (as I assume they’ll just market themselves) I’ve been trying to find an industry umbrella organisation contact to have a chat with in the first place…but it might be easier just to call a handful of flight schools and build a picture about what’s what that way.

It’s very likely going to be a Cessna 152 (maybe a 172 but I doubt it) since this is what most flight schools in my area are equipped with.

Ground school material is fairly straightforward. In Canada we use “From the Ground Up”, which covers pretty much everything.

If you’re trying to find a flight school I would ask pilots I know if I were you. They’ll tell you what school charges too much, whether or not you’re stuck in a high-traffic area or not, what to look for, that sort of thing. It helped me tremendously to know how to guide my research. They’ll also help you in clarifying what kind of license you want or should aim for based on your budget (recreational, private, commercial and ATPL licenses involve veeery different sums of money).

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Taxiing practice

Today and last night I added a bit of wind and gusts and practiced the use of ailerons and elevator whilst taxiing in windy conditions.

Placing the heading bug of the heading indicator to point towards the wind makes the practice easier.

Interestingly there seems to be different schools of thought as to the elevator usage with front quarter winds - some say neutral elevator, some say ‘climb into the wind’ and use both up aileron and pull yoke / stick back.

With X-Plane 172SP REP it seems to be better to have the elevator neutral at a quartering headwind, as a strong gust can actually lighten the nosewheel or even lift it off if the full up elevator is used.

taxi

Thinking about the yoke (well, stick as I don’t own a yoke) position does add to the taxiing workload.

Idling the RPM during taxi (and accepting a degree of spark plug fouling) seems necessary to keep the going slow enough to be able to keep one’s attention outside, the nosewheel on the taxiway centreline and the turns accurate and slow enough to avoid swerving.

I also dropped my Cessna to Auckland International Airport to have a bigger tarmac to practice taxiing in windy conditions and was slightly terrified to find it reasonably busy with airliners! Makes sense - I just didn’t realise the default X-Plane traffic I’ve seen in the skies actually takes off and lands at the airports.

I’m sure ground control was thrilled to see me weave between the 747’s practicing my taxiing skills - luckily jet blast doesn’t appear to be modelled!

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I haven’t flown the C172 since flightschool, but I don’t remember leaning on ground, ever. Never did that with the other aircraft we flew, either; Piper PA28, PA34, MFI-15 and Grob 115.

That engine failure you got, taking off in cold weather. Could it have been carburettor icing?

That’s a really cool feature. I haven’t picked up that airplane yet…but your report is compelling me that way…!

I wonder if you could further refine that by reducing your rudder axis sensitivity in the game? Although you’ll want to make sure it does eventually reach the limits toward the end of the rudder throw because you’ll need that full authority for things like forward slips and spin recovery later on…

Yes, it most definitely does occur. It used to happen in Prescott, AZ if you were running the mixture too rich while taxiing (the airport is around 5,000’ MSL)…cool that they modeled that.

Yeah, back when I learned it was “climb into, dive away”…but of course all that has to be tempered by the strength of the wind. In some cases, closer to neutral might be more appropriate.

Ah… Yes, of course. Didn’t think about high altitude airports.
Highest airport I have flown from is 1000ft, but not in a Cessna :slight_smile:

I guess you don’t lean at airports that are just a few hundred feet in altitude?

No…I never did. Just during the climb…

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With regard to taxi, @BeachAV8R has a good tip to put a curve in your rudder inputs. In general they seem to be way too sensitive near the center point. FWIW, I find it easier taxiing a real Skyhawk easier than in the sim. Likewise with adding rudder input to fly coordinated turns. After some time in the real airplane, you can almost feel the correct input without having to visually keep the ball centered. I suppose one day some enterprising person will invent FFB pedals. But until they do, it’s one of the less accurately simulated processes in a simulator.

IMO, REP needs to tone down the plug fowling. They need to make it conditional upon the altitude MSL. I don’t usually mess with mixture unless the engine was a little rough or the elevation was above 3000 MSL. In reality you do lean the mixture as you climb, but unless the field elevation is high enough, you are going to spend most of your time with the red knob all the way forward. The REP implementation penalizes you for low RPM, but then also for advancing the throttle with the engine cold. It does keep you mindful of minimum idle RPM, which if memory serves is usually around 800, but even at that it prods you to lean the mixture regardless of altitude. So you end up at sea level with your cold engine running at 1000 rpm and a 30% leaned mixture to get the pesky warning to go away.

This is a fairly amaturish attempt compared to the articles that @BeachAV8R produces, but back in 2009 I wrote an article for using FSX to polish up your skills before getting back into the air. Somewhat similar to how you are using it @Bearhedge. Perhaps you might find a wee bit of synergy. Rather autobiographical and verbose I afraid.

http://www.simhq.com/_air13/air_418a.html

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I’ll have a chat with my wife’s cousin when I see him, ask him a few questions (he is a kiwi flying Twotters for a private company in Papua New Guinea, heaps of remote strips etc. - I digress but it sounds like awesome flying).

I really want to just get cracking with the lessons right now like you but that would be silly with the baby on the way - so I’ll do the sim practice now and earmark some money for flight school each payday…have the cash ready for 12-24 months of flying when life allows in a year’s time or so.

As I understand it, the C172SP has fuel injection (there’s no carb heat switch either) - which can get icing too but I think this time it was oil: I saw the oil pressure gauge at 0 and knew the engine would cut out at any second, then maybe 10 seconds later the engine did stop and the REP failure message about the engine dying because of no oil lubricating it came up.

REP models 5 different oils for the various temperature ranges and I think the default one is a warm weather oil.

Given the cheap mechanics bills in X-Plane, I might try to reproduce the failure - you got me curious now. :slight_smile:

I’ll have a play at it, thanks for the tip - I also have a couple of alternative cams for the Crosswinds I could try out - only been flying with the cam that was installed on arrival.

@chipwich Thanks for your comment re the rudder, it makes sense - I’m sure having the inertia of the aircraft affecting your body would make it easier to anticipate the amount of inputs required etc.

It sounds like they may have overdone the plug fouling - REP does have the option of using a different kind of spark plug (“fine wire”) less prone to fouling, I’ll switch those in for the next flight.

Also really enjoyed reading your article, thanks for linking that!

So far I’ve been really enjoying the Cessna REP. It also comes with the G1000 version of C172SP, which I’ll try out at some stage - the books I have both have chapters about glass cockpits and G1000 in particular so that’ll tie in nicely.

The module I’ve been eyeing out a bit is Pilot2ATC…it would be really nice to have to do the proper voice calls, as that’s an area I’m a bit apprehensive about. It’s pretty expensive though, so I’m going to park that purchase for the time being. Might try the 124th ATC in the meantime.

World Traffic looks like a cool module also. It sounds like WT and Pilot2ATC aren’t talking to each other yet but once they do I’d imagine that would make for pretty good immersion.

Oh man…he’d be fun to sit down with over dinner. PNG is another one of those areas I just love flying around (virtually) because of all the cool and unique locations…