My first experience with a flight simulator was as a kid. It was Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer, sometime in the early 90’s. At the time, I was in awe of my big brother’s friend who had the computer and joystick. That experience with a flight simulator as a kid was one of the major elements that led me to start my flight training in my 20’s. Now I have a son, Reid, who at the time of writing is 8 years old. He’s been flying with me a few times in the real airplane, but I love to see him behind the controls of my home flight simulator. He’s had his fair share of practice with the basics of the controls on top of watching my YouTube videos. He’ll buzz around and often cut his engine and try to land back on the airport. It’s good fun, but I want to inspire him with the aspects of aviation that inspire me to be a pilot. To do this, I’ve begun putting together a series of challenges for him on the simulator. It’s a way to let him stretch his wings a bit and hone in on some core principles that will help him when he gets behind the controls of a real airplane later in life (he can’t wait to learn to fly). Much like a pre-test in school gauges where you are, often with information you haven’t mastered yet, I decided that his first challenge should be a full flight from one airport to another, just to see if he could get there without any help.
Nothing But A Map
There is a new feature in X-Plane 11 that I wasn’t able to enjoy on my old version 9. X-Plane will now display your airplane’s simulator location on the digital sectional chart in Forflight on your iPad. It’s a great way to bring the real world tools I use in the airplane to the simulator. I can use nearly all of the real world functionality of Foreflight including planning fights and accessing airport information. One little realism bonus is that X-Plane has a weather option to download real world weather. Couple that with the weather data and radar information from Foreflight on the iPad and you have a pretty realistic world of weather to immerse yourself in.
I set up my iPad with the map showing a little blue dot at his starting location of Smyrna airport (KMQY) just south of Nashville, Tennessee. My challenge to him was to take off and fly to Shelbyville (about 27 miles south) using the map and what he saw outside. I pointed out the two airports on the map and let him fly.
While Reid has a general understanding of the operation of the airplane, he tends to fly visually. Like we are taught to fly as student pilots, he isn’t looking too much at any instruments, but relies on the sight picture outside. I’ve taught him to climb out at 80mph as a reference, but a more effective tip for him was to keep the nose on the horizon.
Taking off and turning to the south, I could see he was rather fixated on the map, causing his overall control to drift. This is something that most pilots have to be reminded about. “Fly the plane,” we are told. It sounds simple, but there are enough distractions that sometimes we can let basic control of the aircraft (the most important part) drift. Specifically, as he was climbing, turning south AND looking at the map for his orientation, the stall horn started to chirp as he got a little slow. I gave him a quick word on flying the plane and he was on his way.
I was curious where he would level off. I wondered if it would be a couple hundred feet, buzzing the ground the whole time, or if he would just keep climbing. Without any prompting, he naturally made his way up to around 4000 feet. While I haven’t reviewed the concept of trim, he found a stable cruise at full power. Once he was passing west of Murphreesboro on the map, I asked what he thought he’d see if he looked off his left wing. He appropriately pointed to the airport on the map and was excited to see it when he changed his view.
Once he got above the magenta ring of the lower class E airspace around Shelbyville, he announced that he was “in the circle.” Knowing that the airport should be visible soon, I began looking for it with him. Still pretty high, it was a bit tough to spot, but not long after I saw it, I simply let him know that I saw it and he was able to see it, too. He chopped his power and added flaps to get down to the runway. An expectedly steep approach put him right over the runway numbers for a smooth landing, albeit a bit fast. Mission successful.
Airplanes seem to be embedded in the fabric of our childhood. Many of the clothes and toys have airplanes on them. It’s not at all hard to find a “daddy’s little copilot” shirt at Target. Kids seem to love airplanes, but somewhere along the way aviation seems to become less accessible. My goal with Clayviation is to help make aviation more accessible to young or aspiring pilots – really anyone with a curiosity. Much like a building a puzzle requires seeing the final product to motivate you to spend the time on each little piece, my goal with this flight simulator session was to show my son the “puzzle box” so we can start working on the individual pieces. For many, firing up a flight simulator is simply starting on the runway with the engine running, slamming the throttle forward, finding yourself airborne, having a few “weee this is fun” moments and then getting bored, not knowing what to do next. I’ll build little lessons in as appropriate. Lessons on airspeed and it’s relationship to pitch and power. Lessons on altitude and leveling off. Lessons on basic navigation. I’ll share them with you as we go, but my hope is that I can help inspire in my son the things that drive me to fly. By making the most of all the tools you have in the airplane, flight moves from being a visual thrill to the satisfaction of operating as precisely as possible in a complex system.
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