• FlightSimExpo Day 1

    Expo 2018 part 1 - A Day in Elf Hill

    I had heard the stories, and read the articles -- the ones about the flight sim enthusiasts who ante up the money to sit in the big Level D airline simulators and try their hand at flying the real thing, or at least as close to it as any of us can get without the millions to actually go out and buy our own 737! And the tales of many of them actually doing a great job of it, of really being able to fly it nearly as well as the guys and gals with the big checkbooks! But I had never witnessed it firsthand. Not until this morning, at any rate.

    But let's back up a bit. With Flight Sim Expo 2018 now ensconced in Glitter Gulch, otherwise known as Las Vegas Nevada, an interesting number of possibilities opened up for some value-added adventures, and I don't mean a side trip to the Bunny Ranch! One lucky group will be going out to Nellis AFB, the home of the USAF Thunderbirds, for a guided tour. But others, to my mind even luckier, will have the opportunity to strap on a real Level D flight simulator, thanks to Airline Captain for a Day.

    Airline Captain for a Day is the brainchild of Captain Rod McClennon, a retired airline pilot with a background that includes everything from DC-3's to 747's. Now settled in Las Vegas as a simulator instructor for the Pan American International Flight Academy (among other ventures) Rod has set up a sideline accommodating pilots, real or virtual, who want to sit in the seat with the best corner-office view in the world and try their hand at the big iron. Through Airline Captain for a Day any of us can set up an hour in one of a variety of full motion full visual simulators during periods when Pan Am's airline clients are not using them. The cost of all of this, which includes a full briefing prior to entering the sim, is more modest than you might think; especially compared to what the major airlines used to demand back before 9-11, when some of them dined out on this interest.

    When I discovered that the convention-formerly-known-as-FlightsimCon was heeding the advice of one Horace Greeley ("Go West, young man!") and setting up shop at KLAS this year, I immediately wondered if there might not be some kind of a simulator fantasy flight operation in the Vegas area - after all, what better place to possibly wake up with a few hundred bucks in your pocket and no idea how it got there! And, of course, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and an hour in a sim is a much better bet than anything you can place on the tables downtown.

    I mentioned this to Evan Reiter of Boston Virtual, the originator and organizer of this series of conventions, and went looking around to see if something like that was indeed in the area. I had to look no farther than Google, which came up with Airline Captain for a Day. I envisioned a setup using products from Flight Deck Solutions or something similar. I was pleasantly surprised to find that AC4AD used real airline FAA Level D simulators! Here, I thought, was an ideal opportunity for the simulator enthusiast to not only soak up Flight Sim Expo, but also tame the mighty 737. So when Nels asked me to serve as an unofficial official correspondent for FlightSim.com, I decided that part one of our coverage might as well be a trip to Elf Hill once again (some of you may remember the earlier series I wrote, A Night in Elf Hill, about Joe Maldonado's Boeing 727 setup down in Puerto Rico).

    Rod McClennon kindly invited me over to see the setup and perhaps sit in on one of the sessions. I happen to be in Vegas at this time due to a CAP mission out here that I often participate in, so the stars had all aligned. Promptly at 0930 I reported to the Pan Am academy in Henderson, a bit southeast of KLAS, and introduced myself to Rod, who regaled me with tales of his many adventures in a flying career that spanned many airlines and many decades. In due course, our flight crew arrived - a wonderfully pleasant couple from the vicinity of Vancouver BC, Sean Latimer and Fran Fagan, the latter also known as Mrs. Latimer! Sean would be our captain,by virtue of many years experience with PC based flight simulators culminating in Prepar3d V4 and the PMDG 737 NG. Fran would pull the gear for him, to say nothing of the flaps! Sean and Fran kindly allowed me to witness the entire evolution, thus making possible this missive, and my thanks to them for sharing their adventure with all of us.

    First things first - a thorough briefing by Captain Rod in a device we knew, in my airline days, as a wooden indian, or paper trainer. This consisted of full scale photos of every panel in the cockpit, mounted and laminated onto plastic panels for durability. Having spent hours both instructing and being tormented (instructed!) in such devices, I know their worth well. Rod went over the plan for the session, and explained the major controls to Fran, who has considerably less experience than Sean at this sort of thing. Sean nodded sagely, not unlike a senior captain back for recurrent.

    We then made the trek down to Elf Hill itself, the simulator room. We entered at floor level, unlike the cab level entry at the American Airlines Flight Academy, and climbed up the steps to the beast, which towered above us all gleaming white and somewhat bulbous. Modern sim cabs include the entire visual system as well as the instructor station, and no longer bear any resemblance, from outside at least, to an airplane nose section, as they once did decades ago. When we were all aboard and the operation of the seats had been explained, we belted up as proof against the heavings and lungings of the motion system, which awaited but a push of a button to come to life.

    At a place like Pan Am, which serves airlines from all over the world, the simulators are programmed with just about every major airport in the world, unlike those at my alma mater which featured mainly our own destinations. Sean thus had a wide choice of venues for the gala opening of his airline career! Being from up north, he chose to start from Vancouver International, and Rod set things up quickly. Since we only had a hour, Sean chose to forgo the dubious pleasures of engine start and taxi. Instead, he started from the runway; and in a few moments, after Fran had seen to the proper flap settings, he engaged the auto throttles and began his takeoff roll.

    It struck me early on how smoothly he handled the ship, keeping to the centerline of the runway as we accelerated. At VR Rod called for rotation and up came the nose. The small bumping some that the motion system offered up for the takeoff roll ceased and we were up and away. Fran's big moment came quickly, as Captain Sean called for the gear to be raised, a task that his wife performed flawlessly. Then we spent some time flying around the mountains surrounding Vancouver as Sean got more of a feel for the simulator.

    Rod vectored us on downwind and onto our first approach, to the west runway at CYVR. I could tell that the visual system has been improved since I retired 10 years ago - it now looks much more like a really good add-on for MSFS! Sean handled the ship confidently, in truth pretty much as well as I would have done, having not touched one of these things in a decade.

    In due course we found ourselves on final approach. Now even at the airline, most pilots over control a simulator for the first 10 minutes or so. After all, they have been flying the real thing and even a Level D lash-up does not fully replicate everything, especially the motion. On the other hand, pilots who regularly fly the PC based simulations typically do less over controlling, because you learn that lesson early on with either Microsoft or XPlane. Looking at Sean flying, I could see that this maxim holds true. He was definitely not over controlling, even as we got close to the runway. The timing of the flare took him a few landings to master, just like it does for us big jet guys and gals, but even his first landing was better than some first landings I have seen in recurrent training sessions, including one or two of mine!

    After the first trip around the pattern, Rod suggested that we devote the remainder of our hour to repeated resets to the outer marker, the better to maximize the number of actual landings that we could squeeze in. So Sean tried several more at CYVR, and by the third one he was landing as well as most airline pilots can land a simulator. Having been sated on Vancouver, he then asked for a new challenge. Well aware of the main-stage cachet of St Maarten, he decided to take his moment in the spotlight over Maho Beach. As it turned out, TNCM is not one of the really high resolution airports in the sim data base, but the runway was there, and the overall configuration of the island. As he flew the final approach, Rod and I regaled him with tales of our own moments of fame on this world famous stage. And Sean nailed the landing, to the delight of his wife!

    How do you keep them down on the farm, after they've seem St Maarten? Try the Canarsie Approach, otherwise known as the VOR/GPS runway 13L/R at my old home base, KJFK. This can be a tricky approach for the uninitiated, and to spice things up (actually to make the approach lights show up better!) Rod turned the sim from day to night. With a little coaching from the two retired airline pilots in the back of the sim, Sean flew the entire approach from Canarsie VOR all the way around to a really good landing on 13L. With just a few minutes left on the clock, Sean chose to taxi in and park at a gate with an animated marshaller. Brakes Parked, Seat Belt Sign Off, APU available, Cut 'Em! Just like that it was over.

    I'm glad Sean and Fran gave me the opportunity to witness their hour of challenge and success. We've all seen the videos of kids aceing a Level D sim, but it is an impressive experience indeed to actually witness it. Those of you who invest time and money in computers, software, hardware and the study and practice that it takes to perform like this for real are to be commended.

    If any of you want to experience this for yourselves, go to ac4ad.com. The website has all the information and answers to your questions. Rod runs an absolutely outstanding operation and I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity to fly the big iron! And the price is definitely right. One day, on some later CAP mission, I may well find myself no longer able to resist revisiting this aspect of my former life. I just hope that when that day comes, I can do it as well as Sean!

    Happy (virtual) Landings!

    Tony Vallillo live from Las Vegas

    1. dogdish's Avatar
      dogdish -
      OUCH! $789.00 per hour for simulator time?
    1. hawtrey's Avatar
      hawtrey -
      Quote Originally Posted by dogdish View Post
      OUCH! $789.00 per hour for simulator time?
      There's a $200 discount for FlightSimExpo attendees; The other simulators that Rod has access to are a bit less expensive but they use older display technologies and there are fewer airports in their databases.

      If you think of it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, maybe it's not so bad. Alternatively, you could put $800 down on red 32 at the roulette table and hope for the best :-)
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