Friday, 19 October 2012

I fell in love with a plane

So the last few days I've found myself succumbing to "tinker-itis".  It's that terrible condition when you start up FSX with the full intention of doing some flying, but then wind up tinkering and tweaking a few things "while you think of it".  As a result you spend more time messing around with config files than actually flying.

When I have, finally made it into the air, things haven't been entirely glorious.  Let's just say my default practice destination of Dublin (EIDW) is in need of a little landscape gardening, after I've ploughed up their grass a couple of times.  Both were the indirect result of crappy MS ATC and its merry go-around.  ATC also cost me another flight when taking off from Manchester (EGCC) an AI plane crossed 23R as I was throttling up to take off.

But on a brighter note, I finally took the plunge and replaced my Logitech USB  headset with a newer Microsoft LifeChat 3000.  This seems to have cleared up the problems I was having with the MCE copilot constantly hearing his own voice and misinterpreting it as voice commands (so that he'd get himself into an infinite loop saying things like "Got that.  Sorry what was that?  I can only handle so many things at once. You're welcome."  etc etc.).

And this morning I fell in love with a plane.

The Airspeed Ambassador is a British twin-engined prop airliner that flew in the late 40s, 1950s and 1960s.  It was designed to be a replacement for the DC-3 for short to medium haul flights.

A chap by the name of Rob Richardson has produced an absolutely stunning freeware recreation of the Ambassador, with a full virtual cockpit.  Someone posted screenshots of a flight with it at, and as soon as I saw it I just knew I had to fly her.

Look at her, isn't she a beauty?  That tri-tail and the long boat-like nose just scream "yesteryear" don't they? Unlike the tail-dragging DC3 the Ambassador has a modern tricycle landing gear arrangement, which makes taxi-ing a lot easier.

In the air she's nice and stately, and the VC seemed to be fully functional.  I struggled to get the autopilot working, but then again I don't generally use autopilot when flying this sort of aircraft.  The only fly in the ointment, I felt, were the sounds.  They're aliased to the default Grumman Goose, which sounded OK on the whole, but on a couple of occasions the sounds didn't quite match the sim.  For example, when I started the engines, the full engine idle sound didn't kick in until I'd started the second engine, and it came on suddenly rather than sounding like a natural result of starting the engine.

My first shakedown flight turned into a bit of an adventure.  I took off from Manchester from the active runway and just headed north VFR while I tried working out all the sim's systems.  After a while at 6000 feet I noticed the cloud getting a bit thick below me, so I decided to drop down below the cloud cover.. only problem was, there was no "below" cloud cover.  with zero visibility down well under 1000', I decided to play safe and pull back up above the clouds.  It looked like Cumbria was not a safe place for VFR flying.

I finally got the radios working and called up the nearest airfield asking for permission to land, and something happened that I'd never experienced in FSX before.  They refused, citing the poor weather conditions restricting them to IFR flights only.

In the end I turned around and headed back south hoping to get back ahead of the cloud, and contacted Leeds Bradford (EGNM) who cleared me for a landing.  With a few verbal directions and by getting the GPS working again, I found the field and landed without further incident.

(I know it sounds like a cheat, using modern GPS in a classic bird, but to be brutally honest I just don't quite grok VOR/DME navigation yet.  I understand the principles, but in practice it just hasn't quite clicked for me yet, at least not enough to actually use it in a sim flight.)

Anyway Rob's freeware Ambassador is a fantastic plane, and I'm definitely adding her to my "fly for fun" hangar.  He's also created an Avro Shackleton which I'm looking forward to trying, as well as a whole slew of vintage British fighter jets.

There are some fantastic freeware planes out there - I've also downloaded the impressive looking Basler BT-67, another DC3 replacement (actually a DC3 turboprop upgrade) which I'll try out, as soon as it doesn't feel like I'm cheating on my new love!


  1. Looks great - just my cup of tea :)

  2. For me the DC3 takes some beating,.. back in the days of designing planes by eye not wind tunnel. Those graceful lines, the slightly bulbous nose and tapered wings are just perfect.

    There's a saying that if a plane looks like it'll fly then it probably will.

    The ambassador obviously takes much of the same DNA and adds the newer technology (of the time), but you don't see too many tri-tails around these days. Essentially this kept the plane rudder responsive in higher angles of climb, but at the expense of increased drag. I'd imagine there'd be quite a bit of extra weight there too, so perhaps a shorter tail, or wings moved further back to keep the CoG.

    I could talk about planes all day, espcially these old birds from the 40's an 50's. The Bt-67 is a new one on me though, love to see some plane's just don't die.

    Mind you I still have a soft spot for old biplanes.

    1. Wow, I knew you were a bit of an RC flyer in your youth, but I never realised you were into the real thing. Next summer we'll have to arrange a "boys day out" to your local aviation park. The one at Manchester Airport charges a fortune to get in, then they're after another £20 if you want to tour the interior of any of their airplanes.

      You're not wrong about the DC3 being close to perfect - the fact that companies like Basler are still refitting them for the 21st century makes that clear, but she's the clean-cut, nice girl who cooks and cleans house like a trooper. The Ambassador is like the glossy Hollywood starlet in a sparkly evening dress who tempts you with hard liquor and fast living.

      If you like biplanes, there's a very highly rated Tiger Moth that I've been meaning to try out sometime. Watch this space.

  3. I may waste most of my time in front of a computer but at heart I'm an engineer.

    There's a certain elegance that goes with most flying machines, in a similar way that boats have. Essentially an engine pushes it along and the rest is all due to flow of air or liquid. In some instances both, like did you know the step in the hull of a flying boat allows the plane to break free of the suction the water has upon it.

    When you make flying models you tend to know first hand the sort of structures and centre of gravity required. You learn what dihedral and polyhedral mean, and what impact it has on stability. You learn about having to offset the effect of the engine (which in a model is simply adjusting the engine mount so the prop pulls the opposite way), Or what flaps will be big enough to control the plane.

    And the more you learn, the simpler these things appear to be. You get to recognise what will be stable and sedate, and what others (like the fokker D1, or Pitts Special) can be more of a handful but incredibly agile because of it.

    Then there's things like tip-stall, or aerofoil shapes (whether they have camber or not) which is where the glider boys really take notice.

    Did you know the spitfire had 3 basic wing patterns, the normal shape, clipped for lower level maneuverability, or tapered for high altitude stuff.

    Modern jets can be amazing such as the SR71 Blackbird (if you could call that modern), but generally I prefer the old prop driven stuff designed by hand. (though who couldn't be amazed at the Vampire)

    So I probably see the Ambassador in a different way to you, more of an offshoot along the evolutionary path to jetliners and probably not stopping for a moment to give it a nod to it's inherent beauty.

    Certainly can do the Aeropark again (not been for a few years). Last time I took my airband receiver and almost got talked into helping restore their exhibits. Maybe when the boys are older - just not enough time.

    1. "did you know the step in the hull of a flying boat allows the plane to break free of the suction the water has upon it."

      I did not know that, but now you mention it, I can see exactly how that works.

      "Did you know the spitfire had 3 basic wing patterns, the normal shape, clipped for lower level maneuverability, or tapered for high altitude stuff."

      I sort of knew that. Looking around for a nice WW2 era fighter to tool around in, I found a freeware model of a Supermarine Spiteful, which was a short-lived successor to the Spitfire (they even carried over the numbering scheme, so the first prototype was dubbed the Mk IV after the Spitfire it was converted from) It sported the clipped wing design along with a Griffon engine delivering 2300hp, double that of the classic MkV.

      Unfortunately all those horses produce a ton of torque and that combined with the smaller wing surface meant I could barely manage to keep the Spiteful from flipping onto its back right after takeoff - something I heard the late-model Spits were prone to do to novice pilots who couldn't get a handle on them.

    2. Yes it's true that you couldn't exceed 2/3 throttle on takeoff until the airspeed was high enough that the trim tabs could even out the twisting thrust.

      The Spiteful was obsolete as soon as it was produced. The german jet planes showed the RAF that they couldnt ignore the technology any longer.

      Obviously they changed the design of the spitfire as much as they could to make the successor fly faster and higher until as jet replacement came along. Incidentally a jet plane was designed using the new wing, which I didn't know about (look up Attacker), and looking at pictures it's difficult to see it's origins.

      Changing the subject slightly,.. you know how people mix up the spitfire and hurricane.... have you ever looked at the constructional differences between these two planes? One's an all aluminium monocoque design, the other's a metal box for the pilot with a tubular frame rear covered in painted canvas. It's hard to believe they from the same era!