I just wanted to thank everyone at Mudspike for making this Christmas Island challenge so much fun! I’ve learned so much and I thought I’d make a quick summary that explains why I think such events are one of the best things ever for a flight sim community.
- A sense of purpose
I’ll be honest: coming mainly from the world of combat flight sims, I didn’t really see a point in flying from point A to point B like a glorified bus driver. However, the Mudspike challenge brought a whole new dimension to the world of civilian flight sims: purpose. My flights, whether it’s in DCS or Cliffs of Dover or Battle of Stalingrad, always have a mission. This time, I actually had a different mission: takeoff from Montreal and find a way to reach Christmas Island. Keep in mind that at that point, I’m familiar with how aircraft like the 737 and the A320 work, but I used them in short regional flights in controlled conditions (daylight, clear weather, no traffic, standard barometric pressure). The challenge was not as much as fly from A to B while not trying to die of boredom, but it was more about the actual planning of flying in conditions that I don’t control. This is what I like about DCS: missions have a certain level of unpredictability about them since most of your missions make you face opposition like enemy fighters, or AAA defenses. This time, nature is the opposition. I swear, almost every flight I did had problems I had to solve. I was faced with life-or-virtual-death situations. The decision-making process confronted me with what real life pilots can potentially live through and it made me realize the value of training, experience and proper planning.
- Weather and Terrain
Flying with real weather was another aspect that I particularly enjoyed with that challenge. Every flight felt fresh and there was an obvious incentive in making sure your barometric pressure was always set properly on landing since the atmospheric conditions varied from place to place. The wind was sometimes strong and unpredictable. This is where I discovered that autopilots can actually disconnect automatically if a crosswind is strong enough. Landing in less than ideal conditions (mainly low visibility and low cloud cover) also forced me to do use the ILS instead of trying to land manually every time. I learned the hard way that terrain can be really treacherous if you’re not careful. This was a lesson I learned after crashing in the mountains south of Anchorage: it’s often better to be safe than sorry, especially when avoiding obstacles like mountains. Weather made everything exciting, especially when it was bad. I could feel the whole structure of my 747 squeak and rattle under a typhoon-like storm over Japan. Another really interesting aspect of weather that I’ve learned about was that accidents are often the result of a number of small, seemingly insignificant but often related things. To take my crash in Anchorage as an example, I had an oil leak, which eventually caused an engine seizure. Weather being bad, I was faced with a decision: try to go to Anchorage in low cloud cover, or find an alternate. I chose to start my descent for Anchorage, which eventually lead me down to the mountains. Eventually, the clouds eventually forced to make yet another decision: make a detour around the mountains or go through the clouds to gain back altitude. I chose to climb, but my wing anti-ice system had failed and ice accumulation cause my aircraft to stall. This tragedy was caused by a series of bad decisions on my part, a bit like the butterfly effect.
- Charts, planning…
Doing 9 legs to get to Christmas Island, I had to do a bit of planning. I found that part to be a bit tedious at first but I eventually gained an appreciation for it. There’s a certain sense of satisfaction when you know you’ve done everything right. This is where “military” flight sims fall short in my opinion: commercial flight sims explore a side of aviation that is often overlooked by newcomers to the genre, which is doing things “by the book”. The sky is such an intricate network of airways, waypoints, speed limits and regulations… I’m glad all that information is starting to sink in.
I also noticed that as I progressed through my trip, I became much more proeficient at finding and fixing mistakes in my flight plan (finding and fixing FMC discontinuities or oddities for instance). Knowing how to react to unforeseen situations like an airport that’s not showing in FSX because it’s too recent was such a situation. I knew exactly how to edit my flight plan and re-route to the alternate. Really satisfying.
- Learning the intended use of systems
As I flew more and more, I also learned the intended use of certain systems. The TCAS (Traffic & Collision Avoidance System) saved my virtual life as I was going on final approach at Bangkok. I was landing a bit too high, but there was an aircraft also landing right under me. The TCAS told me what was going on and I was glad to finally understand why such systems are so important. An aircraft is so complex that there are always some systems that you know are there but don’t really know how to use them or what they do. I tend to develop a curiosity as I fly an aircraft more and more.
- Learning about aircraft
I decided to use multiple aircraft and simulators through my trip. I flew the 737, 747, A320, CRJ900, Q400 and MD80. Each aircraft felt different, and the learning curve was pretty steep for some of them. It truly was an amazing learning experience. Inevitably, at some point you end up comparing different company designs to each other. The commonality between Boeing cockpits made me understand the ease for pilots to transition from one aircraft to another one of the same family. I also saw first-hand the difficulty of transitioning between products of different manufacturers. While Airbus cockpits are remarkable from an ergonomy perspective, the McDonnell Douglas MD80 cockpit was quite different and some features seemed a bit odd (like the two levers aft of the central pedestal to open the bleed air valves). That’s part of the charm of it, I think. Still, the aircraft had insane acceleration and deceleration capabilities, which made my flight from Tokyo to Hong Kong a much different experience. Also, the Bombardier CRJ was radically different in other ways, mainly its lack of autothrottle. Understanding how the aircraft autopilot worked without it was challenging but I believe having figured it out will make me a better virtual pilot. Strangely enough, the Q400 seemed like it was an alien design. The FMC was completely different from what I’m used to (Boeing, Airbus), but there were lots of small neat things that felt like the aircraft was designed by smart engineers. The throttle stopper above flight idle, the ground speed indicator displaying a safe taxi speed, the ground vs flight spoiler mode switch… all these things seem insignificant at first but make you go “aaah, that’s cool!” when you actually figure out why it’s there.
- Seeing other people’s progress
Reading other people’s updates is fascinating, since everyone’s mileage and experiences vary. It almost feels like watching a reality show, or some kind of race for nerds like me. I love the friendly competition between us fellow virtual (and some not so virtual) aviators, it makes the whole challenge that much more enticing.
- Breaking free of the fear of novelty
The Christmas Challenge was a series of firsts for me. First long haul. First night flight. FIrst time using dynamic weather. First time having to change my flight plan halfway through. First time planning my flights by hand, scribbled on a crumpled sheet of paper. I know I have a certain “fear of trying new things”, especially with flight simulators. Now that I’ve done it and lived to tell the tale, I’m hooked. I sort of had that kind of paralyzing fear that will just make you insecure at first. I love the fact that the Christmas Challenge forced me to face my fears/uncertainties and tackle them head on. Shia Labeouf said it best: Just. Do. It.
- Failure is sometimes the best way to learn
I’m not ashamed to admit it, I messed up a number of times during the Challenge. Taking wrong routes,beginning my descent too late, inputting the wrong ILS frequency, failing to account for fuel for an alternate airport, taking wrong decisions… all of these things made me learn so much. That’s what I liked the most about this Mudspike event. There isn’t a single flight where I didn’t learn anything, where I didn’t become better at something. The whole experience wasn’t about going from point A to point B… it was about the journey, the satisfaction of overcoming obstacles and coming out on top. It truly felt like an epic adventure, and I want to thank the whole Mudspike community for organizing it, participating and making it so much fun.