Last weekend I had the pleasure of going on a 90-min session in the Flight-Experience (FE) 737-NG sim at their branch in Hamilton. The family got together for my last birthday and shelled out for a voucher for me, bless them, so into garden-place I went in Hamilton with my father-in-law Dennis who’s also a virtual flyer.
A quick chat with the staff on duty, fessed up to being a simmer, then we got a plan together for how to spend the 90-mins. Up into the sim, strap into the left seat, check Dennis into the jump-seat, then do a nervous scan over the panels to make sure I could spot where the elements were I figured we’d be fiddling with. Just sitting in the cockpit is fantastic experience on its own. I don’t know whether its an early or later build, and I don’t think it matters coz the guys assembling these things really do an awesome job. Every knob, switch, dial, screen and slider seemed to be present and active. I may never get to sit in the pointy-end of a real Baby Boeing so I figure this is about as close as I’ll get.
I knew in advance that the visual imagery seen out the window was driven through FS2004 and like most regular simmers I’ve seen the big NZ aerodromes through Microsoft’s eyes so many times that to be honest my main attraction to the sim experience was less to do with looking over the bonnet and more to immerse myself in the truly 3D equivalent of the 2D and virtual panels we’re used to. To soak up its spatial glory, touch, rotate, slide, flick, press and toggle all those things that usually we only get to clumsily click with the mouse.
We managed to sneak in a surprising amount of action in the 90-mins. Here’s how it went down.
I wanted to do an approach into Queenstown (NZQN) for a bit of fun so first up was a leg there from Christchurch (NZCH). I also wanted to do a cold-n-dark start-up so that’s what we began with on the ground in NZCH. Actually the battery was already on, IRS aligned and APU running so it was kind of a warm-but-quiet start-up really, but I got to work through much of the remaining check-lists to start-up, taxi to RWY02 and take-off and climb out of NZCH to cruise where we went to 4xRate to get us down to approach NZQN in quick order.
The main panel in the FE sim is based on an NG-737 so there are some differences compared to our current ANZ classic-737 which has a few more steam-gauges where the NG has a couple of meaty CRTs, but if like me you’ve been blasting about in the Wilco 737 you’ll be pretty comfortable when you drop into one of these FE sim seats. Pretty much everything is where you expect it to be, and once you get over handling and feedback of the yoke, using pedals and the brakes mounted on them, and actually moving the gear handle, parking brake etc, instead of hitting some keyboard
combination, you’ll be away laughing.
The approach into NZQN went well. My co-pilot (ok, he was in charge really lets face it) configured the FMC for a custom approach over the SH VOR, out past down-town NZQN and towards western arm of the lake. I made a slow left hand turn at AFTON and round Kelvin Heights while descending quietly to pass back over the aerodrome at 7000′. Then down to a final approach via another slow turn to the right over Arrowtown and Lake Hayes to land RWY23. Although I was following the FD and the way-points configured on the FMC the whole approach was hand-flown with airspeed/auto-throttle support.
Having the wrap-around visual display out the window, and having to manage the yoke and air-speed, and really paying attention to bank-angle (apparently my co-pilot wasn’t as tolerant to “BANK ANGLE” warnings blaring out of the panel as I am) meant the whole approach was way more intense than I’m used to in the PC based sim. It really was quite a thrill.
Next up was a circuit around Wellington, taking off RWY34 heading to the north, out over Paraparaumu, a couple of right hand turns to come back to the Cook St and a final right to intercept the ILS as a guide and manually land back at RWY34. This time I tried to focus on managing the throttle quadrant a little better at take-off as I’d made a mess of it leaving NZCH. One thing I’m not used to with the Wilco-733 was advancing throttles to let N1 build up then hit the TOGA switch to allow the auto-throttle to advance to take-off power.
This was pretty cool to watch seeing the levers advance on their own and meant I could focus a bit more on steering the beast down the centre line which I also had trouble with at NZCH. As you can imagine using pedals, and especially braking on them with your toes is TOTALLY different to hitting F11/F12 or ‘.’ on the keyboard at home. By now I was thinkin we must be running out of time but apparently not. Greg (I think it was, damn I’m terrible with names) reconfigured the sim to place us at the new Hong Kong airport for a short hop over the island to land at infamous Kai Tak, and to make things more interesting, if it needed to be any more challenging, it was gonna be a night flight.
Lights dimmed, dash elements spring to life in the darkness like a Christmas tree, parking brake off, throttles advance.. 60% N1 stabilised… hit TO/GA… we’re off charging down the runway… 80kts …. V1 … rotate…. positive rate of climb… gear up… I level off at 3,000 for the short level flight towards Kai Tak. I was pretty apprehensive about this one having screwed it up so many times at home and this time I’m in a full-on sim and in the dark to boot and only a couple of minutes flying time to get the heart-rate under control. Quickly the strobe lights appear in the distance, we’re over Kowloon and descending now. The city starts to swallow up the horizon either side, my co-pilot’s calmly providing hints as to how to align for approach, we’re over the strobes now.. more flaps.. gear down.. there’s the runway, a firm right turn drop the nose a little more… throttles back and touch down not far past the thresh-hold as the PAX in the back breath a sigh of relief. Pretty happy with that one, only I was on the right of the centre-line, but hey cant complain really.
By now I’m thinking about just how much action there really is in the cockpit, and appreciating how AWESOME it is to have another head beside you making calls, working the check-list, prompting and supporting, and operating the radios. It really is a hell of a task for one operator. For that HKK flight I managed to improve a couple of things a little, getting throttles off and flaring was a bit better, and by now I’m starting to get a handle on watching the bank-angle queues on the EFIS (thanx to Greg for pointing out where the hell they were). The night flight was so cool, sure you can dim the lights in the Wilco but the physical impression the back-lit panel and components make in the commercial sim are a joy to behold.
But that’s not all folks.. you also get this free set of steak knives… Or in my case an approach into the even more infamous Paro Airport in Bhutan, supposedly rated by pilots who’ve flown there as the “scariest runway in the world”.
The set-up this time was about 10 miles out, in the middle of a wide, steep-walled valley at about 16,000ft with our target runway at the end of a s-bend through the valley ahead. Seemed all very convivial at first, the sim was resumed immediately so not too much time for briefing. This turned out to be a good thing coz as my instructor leaked out tid-bits of info about what lay ahead I actually started to feel kinda nervous. This place is a total death-trap. The runway lies in the bottom of a basin at 6,000′ AGL. You approach through the s-bend, turn right out of the last turn when you first catch sight of the runway, continue descending at a healthy rate until you cross what can only be described as a cliff-face at the near end at which point you must nose down at full pitch, you lose a couple of hundred feet in a few brief seconds at which point you have to pull full-back on the yoke so you don’t smash into terra-firma, then actually level off and slightly nose-down so you contact the runway rather than float and miss the threshold at which point you’re screwed coz the runway is so short and another earthen wall of death greets you at the other end.
The instructor had a slightly different tone to his usually calm voice this time. I think he was secretly hoping I would grease it coz it sounds like most punters end with a disaster of one form or another. It actually ended up going reasonably well, and there were no PAX fatalities that I was aware of. I did float a little before touching down though at which point Greg cried out in anguish! (well it was more like a Homer Simpson Doh!) and to make contact I had to hit the tarmac pretty hard, but we ended up coming to a halt a 100yds or so before the end of the runway on full-reverse thrust and max auto-brakes. I think this was the first time I managed to get the reversers deployed anything like smoothly despite my desperate yoke action leading up to that point. It sounds terrifying and it is. Go on, try it at home, you know you want to.
There’s an excellent real-world video on YouTube of the approach into Paro, as you watch it consider that 737s and BAe146s regularly fly into this place.
And that was all the time we had left for.
Thinking about the experience afterwards I’m picking that many of the FE punters are not necessarily hard-core simmers, and that loads are attending out of interest, out of the blue and/or through the generosity of their family/friends. But I also now know that it was worthwhile for me and would be for most simmers. Sure you hear cynics claim “you can do this at home with FS9” but clearly the accuracy and complexity of the physical interface/hardware components really aren’t achievable without a huge budget, lots of skill, loads of time and a VERY understanding partner.
As a regular PC-based sim user of 737s the things that stood out for me as value from the FE were a much greater understanding of cockpit layout and general spatial awareness, better appreciation of the team work and sequencing, getting a good handle on realistic feedback and aircraft responsiveness from the yoke and pedals, and a better idea about use of VNAV and other MCP and FMC features from talking with the instructor during the low-workload moments. The instructor gave me almost enough rope to hang myself but would calmly but firmly point me back in the right direction when things were going awry. This was subtle enough to not be condescending which is important, you don’t want to be treated like you’re in a lecture you are trying to get a real experience of your own.
Knowing what I do now I’d definitely shell the money out of my own pocket to go again. One thing I would say if you are considering it is to really add value to the experience make sure you are real familiar with all the panel layouts in the 737, and by all means ask the instructor to give you the time to locate controls or switches rather than prompt you too much. Its so much fun having them read out the check-list and you actually knowing where the required control is to actuate it yourself rather than have them direct you to it.
If you’ve got an FE in your city pop in and take a squiz. I reckon you’ll be tempted, or at least motivated to start dropping hints for your next birthday or xmas pressie. Its not the cheapest hour or so of entertainment you’ll ever spend but it definitely hit the sweet spot of education and fun for me.