Sunday, August 31, 2008

New Orleans - Atlanta / Boeing 767-300ER / IFR

Real-world pilots avoid bad weather, since storms are pilot-killers. But in the world of flight simulation, bad weather is like a red flag to a bull … sim pilots flock to the storm centers to test their mettle against thunderstorms, and even hurricanes.

Today I was contemplating flight in a hurricane, and I finally decided to duplicate a Delta flight, Flight 22 from New Orleans to Atlanta. When I went online, I was surprised to see quite a crowd gathering at the airport, with all sorts of flights preparing to depart. I guess everyone wants to get out of New Orleans. There were dozens of flights in the air in the local area (that's a lot for VATSIM), and half a dozen or so on the ground at KMSY.

The real Flight 22 was an MD-11, but I don't have an MD-11 and I don't like them, so I climbed into my 767 for the flight. We both pushed at the same time, and actually I think the real-world flight reached take-off first. But my aircraft was faster, even with the slowpoke real-world cost index that I had put into it, and I reached Atlanta about 15 minutes before the real Delta flight. There was a lot of traffic on the way, and when I taxied to my arrival gate, there were other aircraft milling about. It's always nice to see lots of traffic—that's another one of the things about simulation that is the opposite of the real world. Real-world traffic is just a headache; simulated traffic is fun.

I'm still getting used to the 767, and I had some issues with the automation on the way out of KMSY, mainly trying to stay in HDG SEL until I was vectored to PCU, and keeping an eye on the automatics for my climb with ATC constraints. Once I was in cruise I could relax a bit. There was no ATC for the arrival, so I managed that myself, and lo! … the aircraft actually met the altitude constraints in VNAV. Maybe it was because I was coasting along so slowly. I had nearly 3° of nose-up in cruise, and I was still beating the real-world flight—but perhaps because I just got a head start, because we both had the same ground speed. As I've said, though, I was in a 767 and the real thing was a MD-11, and also I was very lightly loaded, except for fuel (60K pounds on board, way more than I needed).

Anyway, the weather didn't look much like a hurricane, and I landed in Atlanta with no trouble, smoothly and on time.

Phoenix - Los Angeles / Boeing 737-800 / IFR

This afternoon I flew a very successful flight that exactly duplicated Southwest Airlines Flight 1811, from Phoenix to Los Angeles, in real time. We both closed the doors and pushed back at the same time, and we both arrived in Los Angeles at the same time. I had to crank my cost index in the FMC way down to match the extremely Spartan settings of a real-world airline, otherwise I would have beaten the real flight to Los Angeles rather handily (most airliners aren't flown at anywhere near their maximum speed today, but I routinely put the pedal to the metal, so to speak).

Weather in Phoenix still had a lot of fluffy but dangerous clouds, with what looked like a thunderstorm brewing in the southwest, again. I missed the huge storm of Thursday (although I was tempted to crank back the time and weather in the sim to that evening just to see what it was like), but it still looks a bit stormy in Phoenix now. It's very strange for Phoenix to get so much rain and thunderstorms, although more rain would certainly be a nice thing in that desert town.

The flight was uneventful. I chose to take off from 8 because of the wind, but it looks like the real flight might have taken 26 or one of the 25s. However, I caught up quickly, and in fact I had to adjust the speed constraints in the FMC in order to get down to the 431 KTAS in the flight plan.

I made some mistakes, as usual. When I was handed off to ZLA, I reported my altitude as FL320, when in fact I had stopped at FL280 because I had set the MCP for a flight to Las Vegas instead of LAX. I also dropped slightly beneath the profile after being cleared to descend via the SEAVU1 arrival; ATC had to have me maintain 5000 up to GAATE. I was trying to follow the profile by hand, glancing at the plate and resetting the MCP every minute or two. The arrival was quite a handful of work for a single pilot.

I leave Phoenix from the same gate as the real flight, and arrived in Los Angeles and parked at the same gate as the real flight. I was told to follow company traffic on Echo (or maybe it was Delta) on the way to the gate, but since the other traffic had (probably) default scenery and I had an add-on, he appeared to be rolling over the grass (and I probably appeared the same way to him), and for the ground controller it must have been perplexing. That's one of the drawbacks of sims on a network, alas!

I didn't take any pictures because, even though I was in Southwest livery to everyone else, in my own sim I still had the default PMDG livery, because, for some reason, nobody has developed Southwest livery for the 737-800 (it's true that SWA doesn't actually operate any of the -800 models in real life, but still … I don't have any of the models they do operate on hand!).

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Philipsburg - San Juan / Boeing 767-300ER / IFR

I thought I'd fly a quick night flight from Princess Juliana Airport in the Netherlands Antilles (St. Maarten) to Luis Munoz Marin in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It's only 170 nm, so it's very fast in a heavy airliner.

I flew as Delta, even though Delta doesn't serve St. Maarten as far as I know (?).

All went well from pushback to climb, with nice weather and good scenery. Unfortunately, as I approached San Juan, the sim froze, so I had to stop right there. I couldn't get it started again. Some sort of freak accident, I suppose. Oh well.

Fly Tampa's scenery for St. Maarten and several surrounding islands is superlative—you can gaze at the hotels and see the cars and bicycles driving around as you taxi out to the active. The Imagine scenery for San Juan is good, also. That, plus the short distances involved and the harrowing position (and corresponding challenge) of Princess Juliana airport, make this a fun area in which to fly for me.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Denver - Aspen / Beechcraft Baron 58 / IFR

Tonight (Mountain Daylight Time) I took up the challenge of a night flight from Denver to Aspen. I flew offline because Aspen doesn't allow arrivals after 2300Z, and I didn't want to be fined by the airport. I had three volunteer passengers to accompany me, persuaded to come along because it was a free, quick ride to Aspen.

The weather was poor in Denver, with lots of scary-looking clouds and distant thunder. In real life, this would have been reason enough to cancel the flight, but Danger is my middle name in simulation, so I laughed at the nearby thunderstorms and taxied out to 17R for my departure. It was a long taxi, since everything in Denver seems to be ten miles long, and since I got a bit lost on the taxiways trying to find my way to 17R. This did not inspire confidence in my passengers, who were already a bit nervous about the thunder and lightning that they could see in the distance. But eventually I—we—got there.

This flight was IFR, and the MEAs are somewhat challenging for a small prop aircraft. The Baron is up to the challenge, however, and additionally I have a lovely suite of fancy avionics in the cockpit to keep me safe during the flight. Dreamfleet's Baron model (which I adore) already includes a Sandel SN3308 EHSI, but I've also installed other stuff, such as Sandel's ST3400 TAWS/RMI. I have just about everything I could want, except weather radar (oddly enough, my Bonanza has that).

This flight requires a mighty climb out of Denver to 16000 feet, and I just barely squeaked up to that altitude a bit after the waypoint where it was required (but well before the mountains). Lots of turbulence during the climb and east of the mountains, promptly my gutless passengers to question the wisdom of making this trip. It wasn't particularly cold but with all that moisture I turned on all the deicing gadgets, just to be safe (without telling my passengers, of course). I was able to maintain 1000 fpm for most of the climb.

Soon after, I was over the mountains. There are lots of mountains in Colorado, especially around these parts. At night all I could see was a bit of light in the sky, just enough to outline some looming dark shapes, some of which projected rather ominously above my horizon (but I'd be flying well clear of those). With my fancy avionics, navigation wasn't particularly difficult; I had the GPS filled with my route, and the TAWS to warn me of terrain (although there shouldn't be any of note along my route), and I set the EHSI to show lightning strikes just for good measure.

The weather improved as I reached the mountains, with a solid overcast just above me and clear skies below, and less turbulence. I could just barely make out dangerous, dark shapes around me; there was no way to actually see any terrain, though. Although I was IFR, I did have my VFR charts with me in the cockpit, and I periodically checked to see if everything looked okay (to the extent that I could see anything at all below). I spotted state route 9 and the Green Mountain Reservoir, right where they were supposed to be. I flew almost directly over Vail, after crossing some high peaks beyond DOBEE, but I couldn't see many lights. Interstate 70 turned up exactly where expected. Progress was really slow, though, as I had a wicked headwind to deal with. Thank goodness I always depart with full main tanks (I leave the tip tanks empty, though). That gives me a good 4.5 hours at least of fuel.

I finally reached Red Table. There was no visual way to confirm this, but all my instruments swore to me that I was passing right over it. At that point I started a steep descent to try to get to 13000 by JARGU (which is only a few miles further on). I set my ILS frequency and let the autopilot capture and turn, but I noticed that I could already see the field from my position in the clear air, so I disengaged the AP and flew the approach by hand. Seeing the field seemed to reassure my passengers.

The approach was delicate but not really scary, apart from the general spookiness of flying around big mountains at night. I've flown into Aspen many times, so I know the terrain moderately well. I had to listen to constant GPWS warnings as I worked my way down to the field, but I knew I was clear (barely). The highway had little traffic, but enough to help. I was a bit below the glide slope at some points and sweated over that a bit (very bad to be low in the mountains), but things worked out. Touchdown was pretty smooth.

A quick taxi to the ramp, shut everything down, and it was time for a yogurt drink.

Sooner or later I'll probably try this in the Cessna 182. I'm still thinking about that. The safety margins are a lot smaller.

Tampa - Atlanta / Boeing 767-300ER / IFR

Early this morning I decided to duplicate a real-world Delta flight (DAL886) from Tampa to Atlanta, in my 767. I figured this would be good practice, since I've never flown this route before. New routes are always a bit nerve-wracking, through, since I'm rather absent-minded at times and I tend to forget things when doing a new route.

The real flight today had to divert to Columbia, SC (KCAE) due to really bad weather getting in its way, but I flew the flight somewhat later than the real world, and the weather had cleared up a lot by then. That's just as well, since I'm not very experienced at diversions, although I did consider putting an alternate route in the FMC just in case.

Tampa is a nice-looking airport, thanks to the add-on scenery I have for it (which came as part of a package of several airports). I started at Airside E, the Delta terminal, and took 18R out of the airport, which was right behind me at the gate.

The only ATC online was Jacksonville Center, and according to my IFR charts, I was on their turf, so I contacted them to get my clearance. It turns out, though, that KTPA is actually under Miami, so I ended up taking off without ATC coverage. After continuing north for a while, Jax called me (I had remained on their frequency since I knew they'd be calling back very shortly). The trip through their airspace was uneventful, as I was already at cruise when I was handed off, and they signed off before I reached my top of descent (which was in Atlanta Center's airspace, anyway).

KATL was unattended, but the CTAF was atwitter with traffic, all of it big iron, apparently. It's difficult to land a lot of traffic at a major international airport without air traffic controllers. I had aircraft in front of and behind me as I made my arrival and approach, and once on the ground, I was delighted to see that I wasn't the only Delta aircraft at the airport—a gate near mine was occupied, and another flight landed and taxied in as I secured the aircraft at the gate. In real life, that would be a slow day indeed, but on a flight simulation network, that counts as a bustling crowd.

One problem with KATL in simulation is that the sim version lacks the new runway 28/10 on the south side of the field. I've added the runway with AFCAD, but it's on uneven terrain and I can't find any info on how to level that terrain, so I can't really use the new runway for now. Then again, neither can anybody else, as I don't think anyone has created scenery with the new runway yet. No matter … there are four others and the skies are never busy enough in simulation to occupy all four runways at once.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Phoenix - Los Angeles / Boeing 767-300ER / IFR

After practicing and reading and watching video tutorials for endless hours, I finally decided to fly the Level-D 767-300ER online with ATC. For my first flight, I chose a route I can fly blindfolded: Phoenix Sky Harbor to Los Angeles International.

I boarded the aircraft at B2, which is kind of squished into a corner. The ramp keeps flickering, which is a bug in the Simflyer KPHX scenery; I tried lots of things to make it stop, but without success—it can be distracting.

Anyway, preflight and boarding was routine. No ATC available in KPHX (as usual, the ATC that had been there when I started planning the flight was gone by the time I boarded the aircraft), but Los Angeles Center was online, which would carry me from outside Blythe into Los Angeles.

I have reason to be nervous, as there are significant differences between the 767-300 and the 747-400 and 747-800, the other two airliners I fly. I know the 747-400 very well, and the 737-800 quite well also, although I usually fly the heavy. The 767 is somewhat different. To complicate things, the airliners I know best are modeled by PMDG, whereas the 767 is modeled by Level-D, and there are always differences between models, even for the same aircraft. It takes a while to get used to the aircraft itself, and it takes a while to get used to the different philosophy applied to the model by different software companies.

I had previously discovered during my training that the FMC on the 767 isn't terribly reliable when it comes to following descent profiles beyond the first altitude constraint, and apparently the real thing has a similar problem. In the 747, I can trust the FMC to meet the constraints in many cases; in the 767, it hardly ever meets them. So, on the advice of other pilots, I've started using FLCH or V/S to meet the constraints on the 767. As long as you know that you have to do this and you anticipate, it works okay.

Another problem is the FMS database. The PORTE3 departure out of KSFO was all messed up, and it's not the only one. I ended up laboriously recoding it via the CDU; now it works well. Whoever is coming up with the procedures isn't getting things right a lot of the time. It's especially not fun when you get your runway assignment late in the game and you discover that the FMS procedure for the runway is messed up.

Anyway, finally got pax on board, very light load (I like light loads). I elected to start from the APU after pushback. It was a tight spot at this gate and I had to be pushed way back so that I could turn left directly; the tug couldn't turn me. Anyway, with nice but extremely hot weather at dusk, I taxied out to runway 08 for departure.

While I was coasting along towards my runway (the 767 seems to roll even with engines idle), I watched another arrival on 08 flickering all over the place. When aircraft behave like alien spacecraft in simulation, it's usually a problem with the communication between sims over the network; irregular updates cause the aircraft to bounce around in the air. However, it can also be a pilot cheating, if he discovers that he's way off the mark on landing and decides to slew the aircraft to cover his tracks. Anyway, this one came bouncing in and proceeded to plow beneath the runway (but that's also sim idiosyncrasy in most cases). By the time I reached the runway, I was glad to see that he had cleared the runway and moved towards the terminal.

Take-off was uneventful. I set 70% power, watched the engines spool up, then let the autothrottle set take-off power. I flew the aircraft by hand for only a few seconds, until the flight director indicated a turn. I started the turn and handed control over to the computers.

The sky and the city looked nice as I climbed out of Phoenix. Phoenix is a dump, but its one strong point is that it looks beautiful from the air at night. And of course it's always a happy occasion to be leaving the city instead of arriving. Soon the 108° temperature outside had fallen to a pleasant 56°, although it would later go much lower at altitude. My lightly loaded 767 climbed like the proverbial bat out of the underworld, and we were at cruise altitude in no time (with no ATC online, I deleted the 7000 constraint to Buckeye shortly after leaving the Class B).

Approaching MESSI on J4, I called in to Los Angeles Center, since I knew from memory that the Center boundary was right about there. All went smoothly. Before I reached Twentynine Palms, I got my crossing constraint for 17000 at KONZL. Now the fun began, because I figured the FMC would not descend me correctly. I started the descent early and watched the FMC. Nope, it wasn't descending fast enough, so I resorted to FLCH instead, and then V/S, so that I could set the green arc where I wanted. I also lowered the cruise and descent speeds in the FMC, since, with the cost indices I use, I'm always at redline on speed, and sometimes I overspeed at the top of descent (on the 767 specifically).

I crossed KONZL at my altitude and was cleared to descend via the SEAVU1 arrival. I used V/S to meet the constraints on the arrival. Surprisingly, I was assigned 25L for arrival (usually I get 24R, but maybe this was because I was flying as Delta and their gates are on the south side). This required some FMC manipulation, as I had assumed 24R. Unfortunately, the approach for 25L was missing a truckload of waypoints, and had waypoints that were not on the plate. I inserted LUVYN (which I have to do on the 737 and 747, too) to get my turn right, and by then I was cleared for the ILS approach, so I just flew in the direction of the runway and eased the aircraft down without trying to look up the altitude constraints—there just wasn't time.

A big surprise awaited me as I was handed off to the tower: I was asked to sidestep to 25R instead of 25L, apparently because some big iron was hot on my tail. I'm conservative on approaches and I tend to slow down early so that I can be right on the money for the approach, but I know that many heavy pilots on VATSIM come blazing down out of the flight levels at full speed, leaving them scrambling to slow and descend before they flash past their destination airport. I had received and executed a speed reduction to 250 upon reaching 17000, and once that was lifted I continued to slow, down to about 170-180 by the time the localizer came alive. Thus, I probably had traffic breathing down my neck from behind.

Normally changing runways would be surprise enough, but this was my first time online with ATC in the 767, and I've had very little practice hand-flying this beast. Tower gave me the ILS frequency, but since I was flying alone, there was no time to set up the ILS (in real life, there would be a copilot who could do this). So I bit the bullet and pulled the autopilot to fly the approach by hand. Shortly thereafter I pulled the autothrottle as well.

I turned right to line up with 25R, overshot a bit, and came back. Soon I was nicely lined up, but a bit low. For a visual approach I like to have the instrument panel out of the way, but that made it hard to track my airspeed and altitude. I came in beneath the glide slope but still at a safe altitude. By the time I reached the threshold I was aligned and on the glide slope. I flared much better than I had expected and touchdown was very gentle. Rollout was fine and I had stopped in no time. It went a lot better than I had been expecting, but it made me pretty nervous.

Switching to ground, I was still preoccupied and misunderstood my taxi instructions. I finally got it straight that I was to take Bravo (no surprise there) to C9 and then to the terminal, because that's where Delta parks. Once I knew which way Ground wanted me to go, I got there with no problem, and lined up nicely at the gate (53B). Shut everything down, connected power and air, engines off and opened the doors, and I was done.

Quite a fun flight.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Gila Bend - Phoenix / Cessna 182RG-II / VFR

Picked up my three passengers and returned to Sky Harbor. It was misty as I climbed out and, as usual, I started following the wrong road, but I noticed the scenery quickly enough and turned northeast to pick up State Route 85 again. The flight back was unremarkable, and I parked in almost exactly the same spot on the northwest corner of the field that I had left earlier today.

Phoenix - Gila Bend / Cessna 182RG-II / VFR

Clear skies but very hot in Phoenix, quite different from the heavy rain and near-thunderstorm I encountered last night (well, it was hot last night, too, but it was raining). An airliner was on the way in as I taxied out to runway 8; I held short for a while until he was down and out of the way.

The flight was uneventful. Much cooler once I was well off the ground. I did a pretty good job of holding altitude (4500) in the C182, which has only a single-axis autopilot. I used the Nav-O-Matic most of the way, and I was in no hurry.

I'm used to the route. After a left downwind departure from Sky Harbor, I continued west, passing north of Goodyear and following Interstate 10 west. At the “crook in the road,” where the Interstate dips south briefly, I turned south to follow State Route 85 to Gila Bend. I turned a bit east as I descended and then lined up for runway 22, the usual runway at E63.

Landed without incident, parked on the ramp, went to look for my pax.