My foray into Google Adsense has paid off with enough "mad money" to set up a flight simulator in the basement office. After a little research I purchased a motherboard, CPU, memory, case, CD/DVD drive, hard drive, and OS. Building the computer was the easy part, getting XP and the hardware to play nice took a couple of nights.
Time to fly.
I flew a couple of flights just for the sake of goofing off. This version of flight simulator has many of the significant aircraft from the last 100 years of aviation. The Wright Brother's flyer, Spirit of St. Louis, DC3's, Piper Cubs, and of course the 747, Learjet, and many others. Climbing into the seat of Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis and seeing all of the fuel hoses and pipes, and NOT seeing anything out the front of the aircraft (there's a small periscope) really makes you wonder how the heck he could fly it for over 30 hours.
FS2004 includes a flight instruction section hosted by Rod Machado: the puniest man on the planet. The lessons get you up to speed on some of the theory followed by practice flights where you are talked through the maneuver and your performance evaluated. I also have books from aero club ground school back when I was in the Air Force.
It's a lot of fun. After getting familiar with the aircraft (mostly 172) I started teaching myself how to use the VOR/DME, localizer, and glide slope. This is equipment that I am very familiar with from an electronics perspective. I maintained these system when I worked for the FAA but never really got a chance to use and understand them from a pilot's perspective. Even though more and more navigation is moving over to GPSs (even in the simulator) these old navigational aids are an integral part of flying.
Originally I looked around for a Mac sim, but the field is pretty sparse, many of the companies long folded. Only after settling for FS2004 did I run across X-Plane. This looks like a small company, maybe just one guy, which has produced a great little flight sim that works on Windows and Macs. If you buy it in the next day you can slip under the wire before the product price increase.
Once you start looking around you'll find that there's a whole flight sim world out there and it is by no means a small hobby. People are installing real cockpits from aircraft in their garages. Looking for a wrap-around simulation setup? Wanna build an Airbus? Need a specific flight deck or console?
And I thought splurging on rudder pedals was excessive...
What do all of these folks do with their simulators and cockpits and wrap-around real-time scenery? Why, they fly of course. Many of them go to work each night for a virtual airline and shuffle virtual passengers or virtual cargo from airport to airport. They accumulate hours and experience, get promotions, and move up to bigger, better aircraft.
I don't think there's virtual passenger or virtual flight attendent organizations...yet.
"The skies must be virtually full, who's keeping us safe?"
Virtual Air Traffic Controllers of course.
And, yes, there's a virtual Airman's Bar & Grill.
Most of my flying is around the Lebanon airport in a Cessna 172. I practice touch and gos, sometimes flying further afield to have more time to setup for a landing and experiment with various trim and power levels.
After practicing for a while I'll usually go on a longer flight. The other day I flew down to Newburgh, NY to visit the in-laws (virtually, of course). I filed a VOR-to-VOR flight plan, took off, got a few miles south of town and realized I hadn't contacted Lebanon tower or ground and activated the flight plan. I would have been talking to the center but FS wouldn't let me send messages to anyone. The whole flight was in radio silence.
You can fly in the simulator without ever talking to or hearing from Air Traffic Control. After figuring out how to talk to them I got hooked and now any flight without ATC is kind of lonely and feels fake. Yeah, I know.
On the return flight I went through proper procedures, activated the flight plan, got clearance, and was handed off from ground to tower to departure to center and so on. I had my flight plan projected on the GPS screen but ATC had different ideas, routing south for a while, around an airport and then a steeper turn to get back on the VOR leg.
At which point I fell out of the sky.
Sometime after installing the latest microsoft mouse and keyboard drivers the USB flight yoke started having an intermittent "problem." The problem being that it suddenly disappears and flight simulator sends the plane into a dive. In the blink of an eye the airplane falls 2,000 feet. The only way to save the day is to quickly unplug and re-plug the USB cable and try to pull the airplane out of its spinning dive of doom.
All the while ATC is firmly telling me to expedite a return to altitude and get back on course. November One Seventy Six Charlie Mike do you copy?
After wrestling the plane back to altitude and following course corrections from ATC I got back on their good graces and we made it to Lebanon without further incident. I fly in real-time so it took a couple of hours for the trip back.
The flight culminated with ATC vectoring me into position (small tweaks to direction: fly 325 for a minute, back to 360) north of Lebanon, dropped to an altitude of 3500 feet, changed course heading to intersect with the localizer, and cut me loose. When the localizer needle started swinging to center I turned the airplane towards the airport and later, when the glide slope needle centered, I cut power back and tried to keep the proper descent rate.
The sun had set by that time so the airport was a bobbing set of lights in the distance. Putting faith in the instruments I followed them to the runway. Almost. I don't know if it's a bug in FS2004 or in my understanding but the localizer isn't centered on the runway. Localizer path here, runway lights over there. Hmm. I followed the localizer most of the way which meant a nervous landing further downfield.
Exhausted, physically and mentally I turned off the computer. It's a lot of work keeping everything straight, including the airplane. I was glad that I didn't have to tie up the airplane for the night.