Saturday, 22 September 2012

Still chasing the white whale!

You'd think it would be simple.  A short-to-medium haul flight across Europe, carried out every week by a low-cost airline.

Todays latest attempt to recreate the Manchester-Rhodes flight ended in yet another failure, caused by a combination of three factors.  Firstly, I tried this in the FSX 737-800.  Previous attempts have been in the Bombardier CRJ-700 or with a freeware 737-300 in FS9.  Of course using the -800 for this flight isn't strictly accurate, since the flight operator Jet2 mainly uses the older -300s in its fleet, but I wanted to do this in FSX so I could get the benefit of my latest toys (MCE & GSX).  I did, of course, locate a Jet2 livery for the default 737-800, so things weren't completely crazy.

The second factor was that I decided to up the realism again by sitting down and doing some proper flight planning in terms of initial fuel load.  Nothing fancy, just taking the estimated fuel burn from FSX and adding a 30% buffer to allow for climbs, taxis and go-around.  In the end that gave me a figure that was only 2000kg about 2000kg less than the default fuel load.

Finally, having gone through the take-off and climbout without so much as a hitch, I set the autopilot and handed the radios over to the MCE copilot, before nipping back into the cabin to catch the in-flight movie (i.e. left the sim running to go watch TV).

When I returned I realised that I hadn't quite set the autopilot GPS/NAV Hold correctly.  Though only a few degrees off, a couple of hours flight had put me hundreds of miles east of that purple line. I fumbled with the controls until the MFD showed "LOC" ("Ah so that's what it should have said!") and headed back on course.  But a quick look at the fuel gauge told me that the wing tanks were completely empty and what was left in the centre tank would certainly not be enough to reach our destination.

I bumped the time acceleration up to 16x to at least bring us back onto the course, then looked around for an alternate airport to divert to.  The "Find nearest airport" option only gave me a couple of very small uncontrolled strips and I really wanted to make it to a "proper" airport, but by the time my fuel got down to the last 1000kg, I finally realised that those small strips were the only things that were in range.

Autopilot off.  Time for some handflying.

The approach was possibly a little steeper than the customers would have liked, but I was watching that fuel gauge ticking down the digits.   I might possibly have clipped the grass a little on my original touchdown, but nothing broke or caught fire and at least the passengers were down on the ground safely.  I started to taxi looking for some sort of airfield building but before I'd gone half the length of the strip, the engines flamed out.  I'd touched down with under a hundred kilos of fuel remaining.

IF I hadn't been flying the unfamiliar 737-800 for the first time... I'd have realised the GPS Hold wasn't correctly set...
IF I hadn't done the flight planning and reduced the fuel load... I probably still wouldn't have had enough to make it to Diagoras, but the options for the diversion would have been a little better.
IF I hadn't left the flight deck for as long as I did, I would have spotted us drifting off-course soon enough to correct it and continue.

The white whale of the Manchester/Diagoras flight continues to elude me.  At least this time the simulated passengers survived the experience, albeit stranded in a deserted field in Serbia.

Friday, 21 September 2012

It's all in the little things.

Today I managed to squeeze in not one but two flying sessions.  The first was inspired by a friend of mine who's currently posted with 'Er Majesties Armed Forces to the wonderful country of Kenya, for the purposes of training other soldiers how best to not get ganked by short angry men.  I asked my friend for the names of any airports, bases or fields in his general area and he gave me a couple of names.  They turned out to be only 12 miles from eachother, so I did a couple of quick ferry runs back and forth with the DC3 (good landing and takeoff practice) then did another slightly longer and slower flight in a microlight.

This afternoon I found myself with an hour to spare, so I fired up FSX again with the DC3, this time starting at my home base of EGCC Manchester.  I decided to try the run I used practice in the CRJ-700, down to EGNX East Midlands Airport.  With weather conditions pretty poor and lots of low level cloud, it took a bit more "proper" flying to keep to the VFR rules, and finding EMA at the end of the flight was harder than you'd expect.  But a slightly bumpy landing later I found myself taxiing to the parking area.

Now, in the DC3 I've taken to turning off the Multi Crew Experience copilot and only using it for talking to ATC, a task for which it works well.  Talking directly to ATC, rather than pushing buttons and hearing my strange, American accented voice talking to them, just feels a whole lot more natural and... I hate to use the word realistic but... it feels more like I'm captaining a vehicle than playing a computer game.  Does that make sense?  It's only a tiny little difference, but I think it's the tiny little differences like this that build up to make a good sim experience.

With that in mind, this week I picked up Ground Services X, an add-on which gives you things like baggage carts, passenger stairs and catering vans while on the ground, as well as a greatly improved push-back service.  This is nicely supported by MCE, at least at the departure end of the journey, so I can request all these services by voice.  Now on the surface this is an absurd thing to spend your flightsimming budget on.  Having a bus pull up alongside your parked plane for a few minutes before departing for the terminal building, does absolutely nothing to enhance the act of simulated flying.

In reality... well frankly I was surprised.  Somehow that extra act of passenger deboarding at the end of the flight makes for a really nice closure to a flight session.  I found myself watching the DC3 sitting on the tarmac while the bus disappeared into the distance gave a strange sense of... completion I suppose.

At this point, I can't really afford the BIG changes that would have a BIG impact on the simming experience, like switching from a joystick to a yoke, quadrant and pedals... or even moving to a proper sim cockpit rather than a tricked out computer desk.  So little things like this are helping the sim experience to grow and evolve.

Next on the agenda - On the one hand I really want to make the transition from the Bombardier CRJ700 to a "proper" airliner i.e. Boeing or Airbus.  On the other, I'm growing quite fond of doing "semi-bush" flying VFR in the DC3 and would like to scope out some new routes with interesting scenery.  I've said it before and I'll say it again... it's great that flight simming offers so many different aspects within the one hobby.  With such variety, if things grow stale there's always something new to try.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Back to basics

I've had a little mini-break from simming, brought about by a weekend away at the Lincoln Asylum Steampunk Festival, which for the uninitiated is basically an excuse to dress up an quasi-Victorian gear, promenade around all day and consume vast quantities of tea and cake.  I must confess I was seriously considering asking to borrow a friend's laptop and seeing if we couldn't load it up with FlightGear and a few vintage flyers, to keep with the tone of the weekend, but in the end it was a welcome break away from the 21st Century.

The trip wasn't entirely without an aviation element however.  On the drive over to Lincoln we were overtaken quite rudely by a BAE Hawk trainer flying a couple of hundred feet overhead.  It was in fact one of the Red Arrows RAF Aerobatic display team presumably going through a bit of a shakedown flight.  Later in the weekend, we were actually treated to a random fly-past of the whole team in diamond nine formation over the city.

It was quite a sight, and took me back to the days of the Barton Airshow, when as a child I used to stand in our back garden and watch the display aircraft fly overhead.  One year as a young man I actually managed to make it to the show itself, but to be honest I think the child in the back garden enjoyed it more than the young man at the airfield.

Anyway on the way back from the Asylum we actually passed RAF Scampton, the Arrows' home base.  I took this as a sign from the gods of simulated aviation that this ought to be the inspiration for a flight or too.  But Real World(TM) has been getting in the way of sim time for me this last week, and so I haven't gotten around to doing anything about it until today.

I did look around to see if there was a freeware BAE Hawk I could download.  The only one I could find was on a website that requires a paid subscription, which I'm not quite ready to sign up for.  Besides flying a singleton Red Arrow would be nothing without the other 8 members of the team to fly in formation with, display aerobatics is a lot more fun to watch than it is to play.  So I started thinking about things to try and came up with the idea of flying VFR from Barton to Scampton.  Just another trip in the Cessna wouldn't be special enough, and I've been doing a lot of "autopilot follow the purple line" flying recently, so I decided to keep with the Asylum weekend's "back in time" feel and try the venerable Douglas DC-3.  The plan was to handfly the whole way under 5000ft, solo without the benefit of MCE's copilot (though still using MCE for ATC comms).  I did allow myself to use a GPS to steer me in the right general direction though.

Well OK, it's not exactly steampunk, but it's certainly a piece of aviation history and it's an absolute beauty of an airplane.  I'd played around with the DC3 in FS9 a few weeks back, and even installed the tweaked flight dynamics recommended by a couple of sites, which made it fly much more like a transport than FS9's default settings.  But I'd not tried the FSX version of the bird, which made for a bit of a nervous start.

I started by revisiting a youtube video I'd seen outlining the DC-3 start-up procedure, which is very different from a Cessna or a modern jet.  Then I found myself plunked down at the start of runway 20 at Barton Aerodrome and had to repeat the process for myself.  After a couple of false starts, both engines were roaring away and I contacted Barton Ground... only to be given clearance to taxi to runway 27 instead.

Folks, taxi-ing a big tail-dragger like the Dakota is not fun, since by definition your nose is way up in the air in front of you, obscuring your view of the path ahead.  Sadly FSX doesn't allow you to stick your head out of the side window to see where you're going, so I was forced to switch to the external view to make sure I was heading in the right direction.  Fortunately the taxi went without incident, and after lining up on 27, I throttled up and barrelled up the grass runway until takeoff, forgetting to set flaps but still getting airborne with plenty of clearance.

Folks, I have never instantly fallen in love with an airplane before, but the default FSX Dakota just blew me away.  It felt just like an 80 year old transport plane should, a world away from the tightly controlled chrome of the modern tubeliners and a lot more stately than the likes of the Cessna 172.  I found myself instantly thinking of the plane as "the old girl" and felt a need to fly her with respect, unlike the way I normally throw airframes around the sky in sims.

The flight was nice and uneventful and on reaching Scampton I slipped smoothly into the right hand pattern, bringing her round for a purely visual approach and landing.  I had been very nervous about the landng, since it was something I'd screwed up monumentally with the earlier FS9 trial.  After flying off the end of a runway in one of those flights, I looked up online and found that the secret to landing a big tail dragger was to touch down on the main gear first, then counterintuitively apply a gentle back-stick pressure in order to bring the tail down to the ground.  With that in mind I brought the DC-3 in for the landing and thankfully everything worked as it should.  Scampton Ground directed me to parking and all too soon the old girl was shut down and the flight was over.

Flying the DC-3 VFR felt, if you'll pardon the expression, like real flying.  It just brought home to me how vast the scope of the flight-simming hobby can be.  If you get bored of flying airliners, you can try your hand at bush flying.  If that grows dull, you could try flying vintage birds like the DC3.  When that get's dull, try firing up a modern jet fighter.  And that's not even starting on the rotorwing craft (or one of the rare lighter-than-air sims)

Anyway I've promised myself I'm going to do some more back-to-basics flights with the DC-3.  Given how ubiquitous they were throughout the world in the post-war years, they should take me to a few more interesting locations than the domestic airline hops I've been doing a lot of recently.

Speaking of which, a few days ago I tried unsuccessfully to get back into the flight-sim saddle with a test flight of the Just Flight 757 Jetliner Freemium.  I'm not quite ready for the full-on payware complex simulations, but the Justflight offering is (a) free and (b) part of their F-Lite range, which offers simplified simulations, a little more complex than the default FSX birds but a lot simpler to fly than the hardcore PMDG offerings.

I fired up the tutorial flight as per the Jetliner Freemium manual and got things started.  First thing that I found frustrating was that a lot of the panel functions only responded to mouseclicks and not keypresses.  I have two regular keyboards modified for flight-sim use, one over the screen with keys for most "overhead" functions and one below the screen for avionics, comms and flight controls.  Having gotten used to using them on the default birds and a few freeware aircraft, it was annoying to find that I couldn't start the APU by hitting the "APU start" key, but had to bring up the overhard console on screen and manually click with the mouse.

Anyway once that was completed and I got clearance to taxi - strangely the flight-plan in the tutorial was for a VFR flight, which I didn't think commercial airliners ever did.  Nonplussed I trundled down the Gatwick taxiway and joined the queue for 8R.  Now Gatwick, like Manchester, appears to have two parallel runways, unfortunately with the taxiway for the furthest one crossing the threshold of the nearest one.  The result, combined with my traffic setting of 40%, was a traffic queue blocking 8L.  This meant that all the incoming traffic was being directed to 8R, which meant that the aircraft on hold never got a chance to take off.  Which meant that the queue grew and grew and grew and grew.

I joined the queue with about a dozen aircraft in front of me.  In the time I was watching not one was able to actually take off, though several of them timed-out and disappeared allowing us to move up the queue.  After some minutes queue behind me grew quite impressive too.  And on top of that, about one incoming plane in three was getting the go-around as well, which meant there must have been a growing traffic jam in the sky as well.

In the end, after about a half hour sat on the taxiway with still nine or ten aircraft in front of me, I gave up on the idea and ended the simulation.  Waiting two hours before you can start a two-hour flight is not a good use of time, and frankly the experience had dulled my enthusiasm for flying at that time anyway.

Clearly this was one of those cases where the more primitive FSX ATC AI just can't handle even 40% of the Gatwick traffic without running into gridlock.  Next time I try this flight I'll swallow my pride and turn the traffic down to 25%, or maybe even use the accursed Time Acceleration to while away the hours on the taxiway.

Is it any wonder that after that, flying the DC-3 was such a delight?