Proficiency: Flying while grounded

The ticket for keeping your sanity as well as your proficiency

February 1, 2013

I’ve always been a guy to search for the bright side of things. Maybe that’s why I always wanted to be a pilot: to search the clouds for a silver lining.

So that’s how I could see an upside in my 4-year-old daughter giving me a stiff knee to the left undercarriage while I was sleeping on the couch. My 2-year-old son caught me in the same spot with a perfect little arc off his short legs that would make a future Olympic soccer coach proud.

These encounters would make any man uncomfortable, but for me the discomfort didn’t fade. Next came the doctors, the tests, and the upside: Those kicks meant we detected this issue as stage-one cancer.

I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. My only addictions are ice cream, my beautiful wife, and flying. Thankfully two of those are still available to me, but the FAA’s medical policy on cancer means the very thing I need to lift my spirits—flying—is off limits to me for at least a few months, maybe much longer. It’s enough to make a guy want to take up drinking.

A friend suggested I get an hour in a simulator that had been installed at a nearby airport. It’s a full-motion sim specifically for light piston singles. He knows I’m a 200-hour, VFR pilot whose primary flying is hamburger and foliage flights around New England in a club Cessna 172. But he thought this new machine might be realistic enough to give me the flying fix I needed and keep me relatively proficient to boot.

Instructor Robert Nguyen of Southern Maine Aviation gave me a short training session on how to set up the sim and run the laptop that controls it. His thinking was that today would be dual, but given my basic mission of mental health and proficiency, I could reserve the machine for solo work in the future.

The experience was not love at first flight. People say simulators are more difficult to fly because they’re so sensitive, but my first problem was keeping my eyes outside the cockpit. I’m so used to the sounds of our club 172 that without the noise of wind leaking around the doorsill or alternator noise on the radio, it was hard to immerse myself in the illusion.

This machine has a terrific wraparound view over several screens, so there’s plenty to look at out there as you fly. To help, we relocated to Carrabasset Regional Airport with its weaving approach through low mountains that I know in the real world. The mountains lacked the detail of real foliage, but the shape and position were realistic enough for visual pattern work. Adding terrain you have to avoid helps immensely in forcing you to look outside, even if crashing results in a simple reset rather that a search and rescue operation.

Landing was a bit awkward, and I did crash a couple times. I could blame limited depth perception or light controls, but truth be told, it was me. My landings in the real 172 don’t require looking up the club’s insurance deductible, but they can use some work as well. The better my airspeed control and approach angle, the better the resulting landing. My real-world instructor said the same thing about my real-world landings in the real 172 some time back. Maybe there’s more to this VFR work in the simulator than meets the eye.

I tried several other airports I knew or hoped to fly to some day: Katama Airpark on Martha’s Vineyard, Martin State Airport in Maryland, and Sanford, Maine, flying to the virtual version of the real airport just outside the room where I was flying a sim. The more distinct the visuals outside the simulator—like the ocean around Katama on the southeast tip of Martha’s Vineyard—the easier it was to use the visuals outside the virtual cockpit, and the more it felt like I was practicing in a real airplane.

Crosswind landings were a challenge. My impression is that the simulator is much more sensitive to control inputs than the real Cessna. This forced me to focus much more than I usually do on exactly where the wind was coming from and how strong it was, so I could put in just enough correction to stay centered—but no more.

I was shocked by how much the simulator moved while making a slip to landing. It was like a mechanical bull ride and could get out of control quickly unless I forced myself to stay light on the inputs. The marks on the floor are signs of some wild rides in the past.

This simulator is simply superb for emergency procedures. One thing I’ve always wanted to try was a return to the airport after a low-altitude engine failure on climbout. We read about this in magazines all the time: If you have an engine failure below 1,000 feet agl, it’s probably best to try to land straight ahead rather than stall and spin attempting a return to the airport. It’s not something I’d do in the real airplane, but this seemed like a perfect opportunity. Maybe I’m a hot enough stick that I can make the return work at 700 feet. Maybe 500 feet. Maybe not. Nguyen had me try returns to the airport from 500 and 700 feet. I didn’t make it either time. From 1,000 feet it wasn’t pretty, but I would have lived to fly another day. The airplane, not so much.

When we tried landing straight ahead, the big revelation was how much time I actually had to focus on picking an area with the skinniest trees. Even from low altitude, I could practice pushing the nose over—and you have to push quite a bit, even in the sim—and making a controlled crash that would at least be survivable. On long runways, it was more like a late landing that turned into an overrun.

I think the simulator is ideal for this stuff: Practicing emergencies so if it happens in the real airplane you don’t think too much. You just act. My best landings were during these emergency maneuvers as well. Now that I think about it, some of my best landings in the real 172 were at the end of a practice emergency maneuver. Maybe I’m just over-thinking my landings, period.

Stalls and slow flight didn’t seem to have as much left-turning tendency. But the rudder controls also seemed more sensitive at slow speed than our club bird, so I’m not sure how those two balanced each other out. We didn’t try spins.

All flight maneuvers at speed, like steep turns, felt spot on. I was pretty happy with my performance there. Actually, all the flight characteristics above very low speed felt pretty good and had me getting lost in the illusion that I was flying a real airplane.

There were several ways it was better than a real airplane. I want one of those “pause” buttons installed in our club 172 so I can just freeze the flight and talk about it with the instructor—or just get all the time I want to puzzle out the mess I’ve gotten myself into. The sim would be the first place I’d go to study a new aircraft, or even just a new aircraft panel, like a glass cockpit. (We’re a working-man’s flight club, but hey, a guy has to dream.) Nguyen said the sim can be used for 50 hours of flight training for my instrument rating and commercial certificate. Its full-retail hourly rate is better than our super-reasonable club-member rate for Hobbs time. And there’s no lost time taxiing out or waiting for the regional jet on a six-mile final to land.

Nguyen has signed me off for solo flight and I will be back, although I might need help getting everything reset after a sim-stopping crash. He’s already given me some good tips, such as pausing the device prior to a crash or adding power when repositioning from the ground to the air so it doesn’t suddenly come alive with zero airspeed (although the ensuing recovery is fun).

This sim can’t replace flying in a real Cessna 172—and I don’t care about that one bit. My biggest realization walking away from the simulator is that the machine is its own aircraft, similar enough to our club 172 that I can use all the same procedures and performance numbers but different enough for me to think about it as a separate entity.

There is one critical thing it offers that our club 172 does not: I can fly this one whenever I want. While I don’t think it will keep my landings in perfect shape, I think it will force me to work on skills gone lax in the real airplane and make me a better pilot when I get back my medical certificate. And who knows, I might just keep right on flying both.

You see, every cloud really can have a silver lining.

Sean Rabons is a private pilot who values every flight and looks forward to proving he can still fly left-hand patterns as well as he can fly right-hand ones.