20 years. That is how long I have been flying the 737. After so long it is probably no surprise to learn that I am actively trying to bid off it. The “guppy” (as my legacy United friends call her) has given me a great run but the time has come to move on. Over the years, I have flown the -300 (round dial), the -300 EFIS, the -500 and the “NGs” (the -7, 8, 9, 900ER). In another month or two I will probably get a chance to fly the Max9. All of those planes have their own differences, large and small. And even though 35 years of technology separate the variants, they all share a common type rating. The 737-200, an airplane I have never touched, also shares that same type rating. The FAA says I could fly one as pilot in command. If I didn’t know better than to attempt that before, the FlyJSim 737-200 version 3 for X-Plane, has certainly schooled me into knowing better now. I believe the lesson has been a legitimate one. Which is another way of saying that I believe the plane has been modeled remarkably well.
To discuss the model I will operate a flight from Chicago O’Hare to New York’s LaGuardia and fly the always-fun Expressway Visual to runway 31. I set up and flew this flight real-time using TrackIR. It has been so long since I’ve used TrackIR that it took half an hour to find the little clip for my baseball cap. I was forced to revert to 2D to overcome some issues with how this particular plane plays back in X-Plane after having been recorded. This forced the screenshots to be taken real time. But this plane really needs to be appreciated in VR. I will come back to that theme a few times even though I know for a fact that a kitten dies every time a fan pitches VR in a public space. (‘meow’. There goes another one!). So to keep the tedium to a minimum I am going to get all of the kitten killing out of the way in Part 1. You can avoid the carnage by skipping to Part 2 and you won’t miss a thing.
Part 1: The obligatory VR gush.
Playing any good sim in VR can sometimes take your breath away. When this happens, it’s beautiful. You don’t even need to play. Just sit or stand in the space and take it all in. But I have never had the experience of sitting virtually in a place as familiar to me as the 737, a second home for nearly half my life. The FJS version is not the first 737 I have flown in VR. The previous planes (X-plane’s stock 737 and the excellent and free x737) are both very nicely done. But the details are off: the colors, the lighting, the wear and tear, how I fit in a familiar yet somehow foreign space. Not so here. The first time I “sat in the seat” my heart skipped a beat. There they were: the four wing tank fuel pumps 8 inches from my forehead. Everything is exactly proportionally correct. The shade of grey. The warm hue of the background lighting spilling out of the switches. The grease stains. After 10 hours I still grab for throttles and hit my joystick instead. The suspension of disbelief has never been so complete. I think maybe the other reason this particular version struck me the way it has is how nice it is to see round dials again after all these years. Back when we had them, most pilots thumbed their noses at the -300. (The plane that is. Most of us still have our noses.) Everyone agreed that the “classics” flew beautifully and were easily the most forgiving landing planes of the fleet. But those old steam gauges and the single line ACARS were throwbacks to a another time. I loved it though. It forced you to use some imagination to build a precise situational picture. I found the gauges to be clearer than the displays we were using at the time. So seeing those same instruments again presented vividly in VR was a gift. I use a pixel override in the Oculus Debug Tool of 1.5. But the gauges are all easily readable with no adjustment. In 2D I don’t think the seat position matters so much. But in VR I found myself well out of position. Seat position is a personal preference and my airline has very little to say about what is ideal. You might like it as is. But to get it the way I like to fly it, use the “<,>” keys to place your torso roughly in line with the NAV control heads on the pedestal. Then use the UP arrow until you can just barely make out the top of the glareshield. You should now see most of the left wiper (Same wiper motor as the B-29, btw).
Part 2: So THIS is what dad used to fly.
Almost ready to push. Looks like I forgot the Gasper Fan. Apparently the flight attendants forgot to beg for Galley Power. I should have capped the battery.
The overhead is not quite identical to the old -300 I once flew. The hydraulics are labeled “A” and “B” just as they would be in later models. But here “A” refers to the two engine driven pumps and “B”, to the two electric pumps powered by different sides of the electrical system. It is easy to see why it was changed to the current logic. Pilots of multiengine airplanes are accustomed to view systems as left and right. But those engineers back in the early 60’s used equally sensible logic in separating them by source. I won’t bore you with too much more of the systems differences. There are quite a few but they don’t really matter much operationally unless something breaks. A fun detail to demonstrate how well Boeing has economized the 737 production line is to look at the electrical panel. Notice the round cutouts for the AC gauges above the BUS TRANSFER switch. Now look at my shot from last night in the -700. The cutouts are still there even though the gauges have been moved and digitized. This is also true with the Max. That is 50 years of producing the same little plastic panel and not even going through the modest expense of reengineering it to be flat.
Weird color and angle…Don’t judge the virtual version by this shot
When I first flew the -300, one of my bigger fears was demonstrating the Standby Power Check to Jim Walsh, my Check Airman and former Cambodia POW. It was pretty simple to do but I sweated it nonetheless. The NGs don’t require the check and I haven’t done it since 2010. I am happy to report that I still remember how and, more importantly (if my memory serves), the FJS -200 responds appropriately at each step. Now let’s talk about the Delco Carousel INS platform and control head, sometimes referred to as CIVA. I bought this out of nostalgia. We used Carousels on the DC-10 and honestly I just wanted to see if I remembered anything about it. I don’t, really. I am not even sure it was exactly the same unit. I had never heard of a “CIVA” until I bought the plugin for X-Plane, so maybe it wasn’t. Anyway, I enjoy using it and I appreciate the way the devs have integrated it. But I doubt it had a big number of actual -200 customers back in the day. The inertial platform was big and very heavy. That extra weight equals revenue left at the gate. The FJS 727 is probably a more realistic fit for the CIVA. It was longer range jet that did plenty of overwater flying during its long and successful run. What isn’t available but was in wide use on later 737-200’s and -200 Adv was the PDCS. This was a computer system that provided rudimentary FMC-like performance calculations and could even drive an autothrottle system if installed.
Lacking a PDCS or any sort of serious Class II (non-ground based) navigation capability, what we have in the FJS -200 is an early version of the plane equipped with a Sperry 77 autopilot. But not so fast! Because that is not exactly true. Our autopilot has two features that were not available on the 77: IAS hold and altitude capture. Where we have “IAS hold” (airspeed hold) labeled on our simulated autopilot should instead be “TURB”. When selected, TURB forced the autopilot into a gentler rate mode more appropriate for bumpy conditions. IAS hold and Alt. Capture were part of the Sperry 177 autopilot installed in later -200s. But that unit looked and functioned nothing like the 77 and was in fact nearly identical to the the MCP/autopilot installed in every 737 to come after, including the newest Max. If I seem to be going off into the autopilot weeds here, it is for a reason. Through this exercise, I really learned something about how a pilot (like my dad) flew back in the day. FJS very intentionally added those two functions to an autopilot that was never equipped with them. As pilots flying alone we should be grateful they did. Altitude capture alone frees up half your time which you can then devote to navigation. Because without it, you would be forced to fly in CWS (control wheel steering). CWS is basically point and shoot. Wherever you point the nose, it will stay–until the plane stalls or hits something. In the real world, the roll half of the autopilot would hold heading or a VOR radial (VOR/LOC) and the pitch half would hold whatever pitch angle the pilot set with the yoke. When you reached your desired altitude you hit Altitude Hold. The altitude selector below the engine instruments was not intended, as it is today, to ARM the altitude capture feature. It was there simply as a reminder and alerter. On a climb to cruise pilots are typically given a dozen intermediate level-offs. In my 20 years on our more modern 737s, I have never “busted” an altitude (knock on wood). I am pretty sure if I had been flying this old dog, I would have had a bust at least once monthly. Another concession for our workload is how some of the functions selected with the autopilot are automatically selected on the flight director as well. In the real airplane these two systems are separate and unrelated. If you wanted proper flight director commands with the autopilot on, you had to hit “Alt Hold” twice, once on each unit. Same for “HDG SEL”. Our -200 does this for us. The last concession is the integration of a “GPS” switch that allows the VOR/LOC function to follow the CIVA or the stock GNS. The actual Sperry 77 equipped -200 had no such feature (that I am aware of).
Part 3: Enough with the systems. Let’s fly!
A couple of weeks ago @BeachAV8R posted a thread called Do you LOFT?. The flight we are about to do definitely qualifies. It also does something a little deeper for me. I often tell myself that modern procedures and systems have not only made my job more complex, they might even have made it harder. This flight in fine weather and in a mechanically sound machine will put that bit of revisionism to rest. That I once flew this way, raw data and often single-pilot at night, is really hard to believe in retrospect.
Today we are taking a classic jet on a classic United milk run: Chicago O’Hare to LaGuardia; departing in the dark and scheduled to arrive at LGA at 0650. We arrive at a cold and dark jet just the way we love it. Emergency Exit lights, Battery, Fire Test, a leftt fuel pump, APU. With the APU up (blue light on) let’s “cover the buses”. “Clunk, Clunk.” I had forgotten that sound. In the NGs you barely hear it. But the old jets had loud relays that could easily be heard behind the P-6 panel. The old memories are coming back. This flight is going to be nearly full. We’ll bring along about 17000 pounds of gas in the wings giving us a takeoff weight of 100,000 pounds. Cruising at 31000 feet (FL310) we will have a quartering tailwind pushing us along about 30 knots over true. Chicago keeps things simple with just one available SID: basically radar vectors to 5000 feet. We are going to take a heading northeast over the Lake to join J584 out from Northbrook (OBK) to Carlton (CRL). From there we’ll go direct Milton (MIP) and continue via the Milton 4 arrival into LGA. The arrival ends at “PROUD” where we should be able to see Prospect Park and the twin tanks at “DIALS”. But I’m telling you I have NEVER seen those tanks. They certainly don’t exist in X-Plane but no matter. I am convinced that they don’t exist in real life either. And even if they did, they’d be surrounded by Brooklyn. Try to find anything down there other than the bridge and the park. Yes, I know someone will post a perfectly clear shot of them from Google. I am just telling you it’s fake news. They don’t exist. So this is the only fix that will have any meaning in the Carousel. “DIALS” will be assigned to waypoint 1 and KLGA will be waypoint 2. During the flight it’s nice to have a distance and rough time to destination. So waypoint 2 will be up on the CIVA until I need “DIALS” for the visual. Otherwise this flight will be raw data (VOR) only.
We pushback and start 'em both. These days, we do a lot of single engine taxiing. But the nosewheel seems to be made of butter in X-plane and taxiing with that much asymmetry is difficult in the sim currently. X-plane is as good as it gets in my opinion. Still, it is far from perfect. The slippery nosewheel is one imperfection. The other which is very apparent on this morning’s takeoff is how the sim handles crosswinds in a large plane. The real 737, like any plane, requires lots of opposite rudder to counteract the weathervane tendency of that big vertical stab. But a plane this large does not actually bank during the takeoff roll. That won’t happen until after rotation if left uncorrected. The real 737 gives a little advice about how much aileron will be needed by letting you relax your feet when the amount of yoke input is sufficient. X-Plane takes this to an extreme. It requires so much yoke displacement that you deploy spoilers on the upwind wing. Some things are dead on, though. One odd trait that fools every new 737 pilot is the extra haul on the yoke that is required to get past about 8 degrees. This is due to the shift in rotational focus from the wheels to the CG as the airplane begins flight. The FJS -200 gets this exactly right. Now, raise the gear and listen. Do you hear the sound of the nose tires rolling to a stop against the snubbers inside the well? That is again exactly right. In fact all of the sounds are done extremely well. My benchmark for great sound is the Dreamfoil Creations Bell 407. This -200 is every bit as good. One thing I did have to do is reduce the “exterior sound” in the settings tab from 800 to 80. This may be a bug because the sound settings look like they were intended to be on a 100 scale. Once we are safe at cruise, it is worth taking a stroll through the cabin. The sound as you “walk” seems to have a slight doppler effect that provides a spatial sense of location even with your eyes closed. Most everything works back there–even the window shades. Entry doors and integrated stairs operate and are nicely animated.
Getting to FL310 took some time–about what I remember in a heavily laden -300. I used 280/M.70 in the climb and M.76 at cruise. Fuel burn in all phases was pretty well what I expected. Unfortunately I don’t have access to any performance tables but a total fuel flow at altitude of about 5500 lbs/hr seems plausible. The descent rates at idle were in line with the -500, the model I flew that was closest in size to the -200. Anybody who thinks modern FMS systems make life harder really needs to take the -200 on a realistic IFR cross-country. Every 20 to 40 miles finds you tuning one active VOR, then that side’s standby VOR. Then you tune your standby. Then you set the next OBS. Then, before switching radials or before station crossover, come out of VOR/LOC and switch to HDG to avoid any surprise turns. Not once did I think to listen for an ID. In fact, I didn’t think of it until just now.
Using plenty of speedbrakes for no other reason than that I can. I should have deselected the HF antenna option. No HF radios on board.
I got so busy planning the numerous turns on the MIP4 arrival that I decided to be conservative and begin an early descent to make the FL180 restriction at MAARC. I got to FL180 10NM west of MIP, 30 miles early! What’s 200 pounds of wasted gas among friends? There was a time when I thought NDBs were an art and VORs a modern ease for pilots who needed crutches to fly. How far I have fallen! Using the VOR’s accurately was such an underappreciated art. I think I can safely report that I mostly remembered how to do it. That alone was worth the price of this little exercise. (We do still use them but only as RMI backups and DME. Rarely do we reference a CDI.)
That’s Prospect Park just over the glareshield. Can you see tanks? (The “dirty window” option may have been a mistake for screenshots. It’s just one of the many options that make this add-on special)
LGA was the last station to tune. Once I hit its 225 radial I switched over to waypoint 1 on the Delco, DIALS, and looked for Prospect Park. Avoid overflying the tanks and then aiming directly for City Field. I made that mistake the first time I flew this approach and paid for it trying to avoid an airshow base to final. The key is to keep it slightly wide of the expressway and keep the descent stable and continuous. The FJS -200 continues to feel right as I configure. The flaps come with the right amount of drag and Flaps 5 particularly has the right amount of balloon that requires a bunch of trim to check. I can’t really say that the FJS lands correctly. The -200, like the -300 and -500, is one of the easier airliners to land consistently smoothly. Currently though, it requires considerable pull starting at about 75 feet and this makes predicting the rest of the flare difficult. It is likely that this has nothing to do with the FlyJSims model and can instead be blamed on ground effect issues that Laminar promises to fix soon.
This is way wider than required by the procedure. But I wanted to get Flushing Meadows and City Field in the shot.
Part 4: Put her to bed.
For most X-plane customers, including me, the sim is as much a learning tool as it is an entertainment platform. I may like to think that there isn’t much I can learn from a desktop sim about a machine I’ve been flying for almost a generation. Truth is, I have learned more than I could ever wish to learn, in a model that is downright spooky in how well it represents my other home.
Nice touch. The mirror on the flight deck door works. It’s always good to check your teeth and your tie before facing the public to hear about how "you must’ve flew in the Navy!"
Postscript: I didn’t want to conclude with one of those lists of Pros and Cons. Nothing against them, I just haven’t bought enough 3rd party add-ons to be an educated judge on what is great and what is sub-par relative to what’s available. My respect for this creation by FlyJSim is hopefully clear. I do however want to readdress the autopilot. (Yes, in the autopilot weeds again!) The added capability was a huge help in flying the above route accurately enough that I could take screenshots without risk of bent metal or a friendly letter from the FAA. I used the crutch and was grateful for it. But in retrospect I don’t think the user who buys such an accurate model with an expectation of the most realistic experience possible is served. The Sperry 77’s limitations are part of the charm. At the least, the user should be given the option to leave the crutches by the door and depart the gate knowing that he is going to have to pay attention to just about every mile of his flight.
NYC scenery by Drezwiecki Design