So, you have been flying your flight simulator and got really good at it. You have practiced takeoffs and landings, went cross country, operated the radios, checked the ATIS and understood how a VOR works. Congratulations! Now you are thinking that maybe, just maybe, you wouldn’t mind get on a real aircraft and check it out. Or take flight lessons, or perhaps you got an intro flight at a nearby flight school as a present. Whatever the circumstances, you’ll find that this post may answer some of the questions you have about flight school. But first let’s step back.
If you, like many, got your sim installed on your PC, Mac or Linux box, chances are that you learned on the fly, no pun intended. You added some throttle, got the speed up, controlled the direction with your mouse, keyboard, joystick or yoke and finally got airborne. Then you turned around, found the airport again and attempted a landing. You made it first try, or you repeated a few before nailing it. Believe it, it’s a lot more difficult than flying the real thing. Kind of. Then you added rudder pedals and a throttle quadrant and the everything started feeling more real. You now play Air Force stunts or professional B747 aircrew.
You learned more from (many) YouTube videos, posts on your FB groups, how tos, do nots, and enjoyed them all. So much to discover about the wonderful world of flying. Your simulator, in the meantime, got another engine, you went from the C172 to the Baron, then it became a jet, now it goes really, really fast. Lots of screens and dials and switches to get to know, figure out what they mean, and how they work. So much fun. All of a sudden it doesn’t feel like a game anymore, it feels like something you want to do more with.
So what can you do to prepare for your real flight? It would be tempting to say “learn it all over again” but it would also be unwise. You actually did a lot from flying your sim. But a few tips can help you extract even more from your sim as you transition from your chair in your home to a seat 5,000 feet above the ground. Here is how:
Stay with a basic aircraft.
It may sound boring to stay with a basic aircraft, but there are lots of complexities with multi-engine aircraft and jets, that are not needed when you are just starting out. Pick a basic C172 with analog six-pack instruments. Each instrument tells a story and each one is backed up by another instrument in case it fails. Your instructor will spend time telling you all of them, but you can already start learning the aircraft’s in and outs by getting a normal operation checklist and learn how to use it in each phase of flight. Checklists are useful because we tend to forget things, even when we are experienced pilots and think we know it all.
Another good thing to look at is the Pilot Operating Handbook for that aircraft. It tells the story of how the plane likes to be treated and why. Have a read through the emergency procedures, things you do if something goes wrong. But most importantly, read the speeds. Vx and Vy : the first when you have to climb quickly, maybe there are trees at the end of the runway, the latter when you like to climb efficiently. Get familiar with the stall speeds, the green and white arc on your airspeed indicator. And learn why the speed you read is often not the same as the ground speed on your GPS.
Practice a few basic manoeuvres on your sim.
X-Plane does this remarkably well, thanks to its inner flight model, but all simulators should give you a good idea of what happens, say if you fly very slowly, as they say “at the bottom of the white (arc)”. The plane becomes sluggish and you will feel that the control inputs on your yoke or joystick will not be met with a great, quick response. Slow down a little more, you will hear the stall warning. On a real airplane you will feel what goes under the name of “buffeting” – just the airplane letting you know that it can’t really stay up there like this. Either you add power or you put the nose down, or both. Even though on the sim you can’t feel the buffeting, unless your sim is pretty advanced with motion and all, you will still get the idea.
Use an ATC service
One of the main fears of student pilots is taking to ATC or other traffic on the radio. Fortunately there is help and it REALLY makes a difference. Simulated ATC comes in different forms. You can get plugins or add-ons with digitized voices, which may even be already in your simulator, although not fully interactively. But by far the best option is using one of the three leading ATC services: Vatsim, PilotEdge or IVAO. These services follow your position and perform ATC functions for you, calling traffic, clearing for approaches, offering radar services and a lot more. They also organize events, group flights and each have great pilot training features that translate well to real life.
Get a learning syllabus
See what’s involved. There are lots of great syllabi for private pilots or sport pilots, like the ones from Gleim which publishes a private pilot guide which helps you to learn what you need, all the way up to your exams, if you choose to go that far. If you are using FSX, “MS FSX for Pilot Training” will give you a good idea of how to leverage your sim as a real pilot from sport to commercial ratings.
What to expect on you first flight
Exciting, flying rocks! As great as the temptation of taking a million selfies in a real cockpit can be, try to concentrate on what’s happening. If your first flight is also your first lesson, your instructor will likely take you for a “walk-around”, an inspection of the aircraft that is performed before each flight. You will check the fuel, the oil, the many “ports” that make some instrument sense speed, altitude and more flight parameters, the functioning of the controls and many other things.
Once strapped on board, the instructor will ask you to grab the checklist and start going through the engine startup procedure. This is something, by the way, that you can practice today on your sim. Then you may have some radio work to do if on a tower airport, or you will start to taxi toward the runway controlling the direction of the aircraft with your feet (read = pedals). Just before you get there you will do the “run-up” a final check of the engine and some engine-related controls.
In the air
Once you have accelerated to takeoff speed (the instructor will probably help you maintain directional control right over the runway’s center-line), you will leap into the air. There is no other feeling like it! The sky becomes bigger, the ground smaller and farther. If it’s summer or windy you may get bumped around, and you may think you are not cut out for this turbulence. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it quickly. In the air, the instructor will ask you to look out of the cockpit, to the horizon, and get a good feel of flying “straight and level. ” Straight and level is the foundation of flying. Get that right and everything else will fall into place.
After a bit, it will be time to go back. Your first landing! You will follow something called a “pattern” around the airport, to get lined up for landing and in the “flow” of traffic landing before or after you. You will need to get the speed right using both pitch (in and out on your yoke) and power (your throttle). Your instructor will be help you with this. And then the magic happens, the wheels touch down with a squeak and you roll down the runway until you turn out into the taxiway at a very slow speed.
Once you are back home, repeat your flight on your simulator. You will now have a completely different appreciation of what it means to fly, and you will probably want to fly more, both the plane and your sim…
A few years later…
A commercial, instrument rated pilot? Read our story about AFSBI Member Evan Reiter, who went from flying Microsoft FSX to First Officer on an Embraer 175. Yes, it is possible.