August 9, 2013

Flight Simulators, Pros and Cons

So last time I shared how my first interaction with a friend who was into RC taught me my first axiom...GET A SIMULATOR. Just the few minutes I spent trying to take off, bank, roll, and especially land, proved his point that this was going to be an acquired skill that was going to take some trial and error. And given my limited budget, error was a costly alternative.

So I reconciled myself to the fact that I was going to have to postpone my time line and get the basics down. And here is where I picked up my second piece of critical advice. On one of my many junkets to the local hobby store, the owner shared with me a gem of advice. "PUT YOURSELF IN THE COCKPIT", he said. It seems obvious at first, but I can't tell you how many times I have overheard guys teaching new flyers by using the third person perspective. "Now when the plane is coming at you, and you want to make it go to your left, then push the stick to your right". It is like memorizing a set of rules and then over time making them a muscle memory. What the owner of the store said was so simple, and it was what I wanted to experience...being the pilot! So as I ventured into the realm of simulation, I never forgot that my goal was to "be" in the plane, in whatever maneuver it was doing, and that would guide my instincts on which inputs to give the controls.

Now as I said before, everyone has their opinion, and heaven knows there are a zillion simulators to choose from. I chose the Phoenix Simulator, from Horizon Hobby (, and here's why. First, as I looked at the foam park flyers that were in my starter price range, the Horizon options seemed the best. They were more expensive, but they had a great reputation for quality and I would learn later, their support is unrivaled. The Phoenix simulator featured all of their mainstay planes as choices on their simulation, so I figured it would help me to decide which would be my first plane to purchase.

Next, and this was huge, the package came with a Spektrum DX-5 actual radio that I could later use with my first plane. The pricing of the simulator practically forced me to get it, as the program, with radio, was $175, and the radio alone was $60. To get the program with no radio was $130. Some of the other simulators have cables that will connect with your computer from whatever radio you already have, and others, like the one my friend had, just have a controller that is like a radio, but not actually useable as one. Again, magazines and the internet will give you a plethora of choices, but this is what I got, and I have been very happy with it.

At this point I should mention that the idea of a simulator was not well received at the hobby store, and elsewhere. Many I talked to "Poo Pooed" the need for simulators, saying that they just were not a legitimate substitute for the real thing. Their recommendation was to get a trainer plane, like the Park Zone Super Cub, that do not have ailerons, and turn using a rudder only. This prevents acute maneuvers and gets a beginner into the air with relatively low risk. The problem for me is that I am impatient, and I couldn't see myself being content with a plane like that for more than a month, so I wanted to get into the warbirds as fast as I could. Hence, the simulator.

I was also intrigued as I read the reviews online of the planes I was contemplating as my first purchase. Many would comment that a particular plane was not a good first plane, unless you had some simulation time. Others would talk about how many hours they had on a simulator before they purchased this plane, and how it turned out for them as a result. All of this was reassuring that I was on the right path, and I continued to research my dream planes as I waded into simulation.

It was Christmas, and the perfect time to get started. My simulator as my present, and I had some Holiday time to get started. I chose The Super Cub (ironically) as the first plane to fly, but I did get bored with it quickly and was soon playing with the Corsair, Spitfire, Thunderbolt, Bf-109, and others. The program offered tutorials on stunt maneuvers, games to play (lasar tag, balloon busting, and bomb dropping), and great training features like landing practice. I love landings! To me there's nothing more satisfying than greasing a smooth landing. It's like art! So needless to say, I was attracted to spending hours practicing and perfecting landings.

I started a log book, and tracked the hours I had. I'm currently up to 320 hours (a year and a half later), and I track my flight time in each of my planes too. But always, I was IN THE COCKPIT. The perspective of being at the controls in the plane and not watching the plane from a distance, was my constant goal. Soon enough it began to become second nature and it was thrilling to make the necessary corrections as purely second nature!

The simulator has been a great friend. When I get a new plane I use it to help me figure out the flight characteristics and learn that plane more quickly. I set the wind and weather features to match the conditions I find myself in so that I will not be intimidated by winds and cross winds. And yes, I practice landings with it to prepare me for the real thing!

Now I have to say, there are some downsides to simulation. IT'S NOT REAL! No matter how hard you try, and utilize all the available aspects of the program, there's no exact replication of what you will encounter when you go flying.

And, there can be dire consequences for those variances. For instance, the first  plane I purchased was the Corsair (a presumptive error that I will talk about later). On the simulator it would take off with almost 1/2 throttle no problem. One day I was at a baseball field, surrounded by chain link fence, and as I was taking off, to my horror, the plane was beginning to stall and pitch to the right. I was unable to recover and it went into the fence like a "Veg-A Matic"! It wasn't until later that I realized I had acquired the bad habit of not being more aggressive on my throttle on take off due to the simulator.

So enough on simulators for now. They're not for everybody, but mine has saved me a ton of money. Not that I still haven't found ways to spend lots of money, but if money comes hard to you as it does for me, it is worth the delayed gratification to get your skills down!

Speaking of which, if you're going to fly, there are some basics to flight that you need to become acquainted with. It's not the same as driving a car. That will be the subject of my next chapter.....