• Going Solo!

    Going Solo!

    By Chris Liddell (13 October 2010)

    My introduction to flight simulation began when I purchased FS2004 in October 2005. I have been a member of FlightSim.Com since around that time, and have thoroughly enjoyed reading the various articles on the site, both relating to flight simulation, and real world aviation. These articles are intended to give a personal comment on my experience as a flight simulation enthusiast, working towards a PPL. I hope they remind many of the qualified pilots who use this site of their early training days, and prove to be of interest to others who share this wonderful hobby of flight simulation.

    From an early age, I always had a fascination for aircraft. My bedroom was a 'shrine' to Airfix models, and I had a large collection of aircraft related books. My first actual experience of flying was at the age of 12, when I was on holiday in Orkney. My mother and I went on a trip from the mainland to some of the smaller islands, and we flew in a Britten-Norman Islander operated by Loganair. One of the legs was in the Guinness book of records as being the shortest scheduled airline flight in the world, and we had no sooner taken off, than we landed again, as we hopped from one island to another. I even got to sit beside the pilot, and remember finding the whole experience very exciting! Time moved on, and as I had an ambition to have a career in music, my flying interest was put on hold, and other factors in my life took priority. Fast forward about 25 years or so, and I chanced upon Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004 'A Century of Flight'. Not being very interested in computer games, I was amazed at how fascinating it was, how much I enjoyed it, and the level of immersion possible, even with a very basic set up. I rapidly became 'hooked' and soon I had purchased a more powerful PC, yoke, rudder pedals, throttle quadrant, and TrackIR (rarely sim without it now), plus numerous add-ons of aircraft and scenery - I am sure most of the readers of this site can relate to that!

    From day one, I never really saw flight simulation as a game, and always treated it as a representation of a real world activity. Using the imagination, it is so easy to 'be there' when simming, and I found my new hobby to be very absorbing and immersive. Eventually I came to a point, which may be inevitable, and began to wonder what it would be like to fly for real. Now before I continue, I have to say that I am not a fantasist, who thought that I could climb into an aircraft and fly for real using the knowledge gained in computer simulation, but decided to look into the possibility of learning to fly. I am by profession a music teacher, and by chance had discovered that one of my most talented pupils was taking flying lessons, so I spoke to him at length and listened with great interest to his experiences. My next step was to book a trial lesson with the Cumbernauld Flying Centre, and it was with a great sense of excitement that I arrived at Cumbernauld Airport on a fine sunny day in June. These trips are intended to give the individual an experience of flying, and to give some idea of whether they might want to begin lessons. Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the flight, feeling at home in the cockpit of the Diamond Katana DA20.

    Cumbernauld flying

    Beside Robin 200 after air experience summer 2009

    All the basic instruments and controls were familiar due to my simming experience, and I had a great time! There was a crosswind, so the instructor dealt with the takeoff and landing, but other than that I was allowed to 'play' with the aircraft for the rest of the hour. We flew East towards Edinburgh, within sight of the Forth Road Bridge, and followed an anti clockwise route over the Stirling area and eventually back to Cumbernauld. Arriving back with a huge grin on my face, I knew that I would really like to take this further, the main obstacle being the costs involved.

    My simming continued, and about a year later, I was given a great birthday present (from my sister) of a trial lesson in a DH Chipmunk, and the flight from Prestwick Airport was a great experience. The instructor, being an ex RAF fast jet and commercial pilot, impressed me with his thorough approach, which included a detailed pre flight briefing, and a post flight opportunity to answer any questions that I had. During the hours flight we worked through most of the basic in flight manoeuvres, including stalling, which made me think a bit, as the Chipmunk's wing dropped rapidly, and we were pointed almost vertically downwards! Later he commented that the Chipmunk, unlike many modern training aircraft hadn't had all its vices eradicated as a deliberate policy, due to the fact that it was to be used to train pilots that would be moving on to service types. The cockpit instruments were very similar in style to the ones found in a Spitfire!

    Chipmunk air experience from Prestwick

    Power checks

    Time moved on, and on leaving my previous teaching post, knowing of my interest in flying, my pupils clubbed together and bought me another trial flight - again with Cumbernauld Flying Centre. I was beginning to feel like the worlds most experienced trial pilot, and on a beautiful summers day I was taking to the skies again - this time in a Robin 200 for a trip over Loch Lomond and Glasgow. Sebastian, my instructor, got me involved from the start, allowing me to do a (supervised) takeoff, and pretty much all of the flying down to very short finals! It was a wonderful feeling to be able to see Glasgow Airport - where I had landed back from holiday only the day before in a Boeing 757! Having the UK 2000 payware Glasgow Airport add-on on my sim, I can attest to how realistic it looks when compared to the real thing! I don't rush into things generally (master of the obvious!) but between that flight and Christmas, I decided either to give up my ambition to learn to fly once and for all, or to just bite the bullet and go for it! Having squared the matter with the 'chancellor of the exchequer' aka my wife I visited Cumbernauld Flying Centre in late December, and signed up for my best Christmas present ever...

    Over Glasgow city center

    View of Glasgow Airport

    Let's face it - Scotland isn't renowned for its year round good weather, and I waited to see if my first few lessons would actually happen, but luck was with me, and on a snowy winters day in January 2010 I was in the air again, but this time with a greater sense of purpose - I was beginning my flying training! It really was a dream come true!

    The basic PPL syllabus is readily available for anyone curious enough to read it, and I began to work my way through the various 'exercises' which make up the course. The first part of the course is devoted to learning the basics of flying, and I was soon enjoying getting to grips with all the nuts and bolts of controlling the aircraft. I covered: pre flight inspection, taxiing, straight and level flight, trimming, climbs, descents with and without power, slow cruise, flying with flaps extended, medium rate turns, climbing and descending turns, and moved on to stalling, incipient spins, and then onto circuits. There are two excellent full time instructors in the school, who are knowledgeable, approachable, and encouraging. My main instructor is Sam Rosa, who is a very encouraging and patient teacher.

    January flying

    More snow conditions, January 2010

    My initial reason for writing these articles was to try to make a comment on any connection between flight simulation and real life aviation, so the obvious question - had I felt that my simming had helped me in my lessons so far? It's hard to say how things would have progressed had I never tried flight simulator, but in general terms I think the answer has to be yes - in so far as having an understanding (in theory) of many of the flight exercises prior to performing them in real life. Please don't misunderstand me - as I don't mean this in a naive way. I always adopted the principle of 'turning up and shutting up', keeping any of my preconceived notions to myself and waited to see what common ground between reality and simulation there might be. Very often there was, and as such I feel I have been able to take advantage of my theoretical knowledge and use it in real life flying where possible. Although perhaps covering one or at the most two exercises per lesson, my instructor has always allowed me to get involved as much possible with all phases of flight during each lesson, from pre-flight checks, taxiing, radio calls, to take offs and landings, which I have appreciated and enjoyed.

    I have the Aerosoft Diamond Katana add-on, and it models very closely the aircraft that I fly, allowing me to go through all the checklists in the comfort of my own home, and giving me the chance to do some home study, and keep things fresh in my mind between lessons. As I start to work on circuits, I realise only too clearly how difficult and overwhelming the actual process of landing a real aircraft can be...

    The Katana is such a light aircraft, that it can be blown around considerably on final to land, and I have had more than a few good approaches spoilt at the last minute with a sudden gust coming from nowhere, blowing me off the centerline, prompting a go around! Becoming more confident with handling the aircraft is a great feeling, and every lesson passes very quickly! Now having 12 hours in my logbook, I am advised to start studying the material for the 'aviation law and operational procedures' examination, and to arrange to have my medical. Both the exam and the medical must be passed as a prerequisite for the first solo flight, and I begin to realise that this is a challenge which I will have to face in the not too distant future...

    Lessons come and go, and my time in the circuit is growing. Some days the weather makes things pretty challenging, and I wonder if I am getting better or worse! I pass my first written exam, and my medical. My instructor is encouraging, and I accept the poor landings as part of the learning process. We move on to the emergency procedures, such as simulated engine failure on take off, and simulated forced landings. These lessons are interesting, as well as being a change from circuits, and I realise that I am now at the point where I could be given the chance to solo. I now have the dilemma which I suspect faces most student pilots - part of me really wants to solo, but the other part wonders how I will cope - it's very handy having an instructor ready to take over when things go wrong! Weather isn't too good for my next lesson, so I begin some basic navigation, and I really enjoy the opportunity to plan a route, and then try to follow it in the air!

    The following lesson comes up soon, and it's on a really nice day - little if any wind, and hardly a cloud in the sky. 'Circuits today' - is Sam's comment, and we go out to the Katana, where I do the start up procedures and checks, taxi to the holding point, backtrack along the runway, and soon we are taking off to begin the lesson. I do five touch and goes, the 3rd one being less than stunning, but as I begin my 6th turn onto base, Sam says - 'make this one a full stop - would you like to do one on your own?' I feel slightly numb, but respond 'yeh that's fine' in an attempt at nonchalance, which probably wouldn't fool anyone...

    We pull off the runway, and go to the fuelling area, where we top up our fuel. 'Right - off you go! - one circuit and landing - and if you need to go around - it's no problem!' and Sam walks away to the airport building, leaving me with a set of keys, and a Diamond Katana. It feels slightly surreal, but I am confident that my training has prepared me well for this moment, and I know that my instructor is the best judge of my flying ability. I am really excited, but in a good way, so I hop into the Katana, and begin to run through my start up checklist, make my radio calls, and taxi to the holding point for power checks. I backtrack to the end of runway 08, line up, take a deep breath, and announce my intention to take off. At this point, training kicks in, and I begin my takeoff roll. Gradually increasing power, I correct the nose swing with rudder, and accelerate down the runway...40 kts and quickly check the engine gauges, 51kts and rotate...I'm flying!

    Three hundred feet above aerodrome level and I retract the flaps, and pull the prop control back to 2400rpm. Reaching 500 feet, I turn crosswind, while maintaining my climb speed of 65 kts - up to 1000 feet and level off, then turn downwind...phew! I make my downwind checks and radio call, which then gives me some time to savour the moment! This is fantastic! - I feel relaxed, and so far things have gone well!

    Before I know it, I have reached the end of my downwind leg, and am turning base. Now for the tricky bit! Throttle back, lower flaps one stage, and descend at 65 kts...turn final, go full flap, make my radio call and concentrate on runway and speed. The plane doesn't want to descend, due to the lighter load, but soon I am at the threshold and begin to slow the descent...power back and flare...hold...hold...hold...and thump! I'm down! I clear the runway, and do my after landing checks, before taxiing to the parking area, then shut down. Phew - I made it! Time for photos to mark the event! I thank Sam for his help and Ted, who is the operations manager of the school presents me with a large printed photo of me standing beside the aircraft at the end of my first solo flight.

    They say that you never forget your first solo. I can assure you that I will never forget this experience, and as I get out of the aircraft, I feel elated, relieved, but most of all satisfied and grateful that I have been trained to the point where I have flown an aircraft on my own. It's a small but major step in my pilot training, and I am very fortunate and privileged to have come this far. Microsoft Flight Simulator has a lot to answer for! It's a dream come true! So - what next? Well I am currently continuing with my training, and am consolidating my flying skills as well as moving through the syllabus. In parallel, I am continuing to study for my written exams, which at the time of writing I have passed four of the seven required.

    I will continue with a future article to update on my flying experiences. Watch this space...

    Chris Liddell
    [email protected]

    Other Parts Of This Series

    Going Solo Part 1
    Going Solo Part 2
    Going Solo Part 3
    Going Solo Part 4

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