Fun with .. Cardboard

We had our fair share of rain at Hahei last week, so one day I ripped open a cardboard box, attacked it with scissors and cellotape and made Paige this fort to play with.

Well boys would call it a “Fort”, she called it a “Fairy Princess Castle”. It was a TOTAL HIT. Pretty much the whole day was spent dabbling about with it using chess pieces as Princes and Princesses. Great fun, and FREE !!

It was the little details that seemed to make the difference. e.g. the gate made P’s game-play much more involved and introduced rules Kym and I had to to follow on no uncertain terms, oh and I built some wall-walks around the top of each wall thinking this would be defensive places for guards and archers but no … turns out these were to be seats for watching the dancing performances that ensued in the courtyard !!! kids are funny

Asia/Pacific repaints for the Simcheck Airbus A300

I’m a recent convert to the lovely Simcheck A300 Airbus model for Microsoft’s FSX simulator and I love it. The A300 was the first Airbus aircraft model and the first of any manufacturer to explore fly-by-wire technology. I really have a soft spot for the old 300 and this Simcheck model is fantastic.

I figuired I’d turn my hand to some repaints and thought why not do a few from the Asia/Pacific region (esp as I live in New Zealand). I’ve done three so far and all have been uploaded to but will hopefully be hosted at eventually if they think they’re ok. Do a search for the filenames I mention following.

First one was an Air Hong Kong freighter (rego B-LDD). It’s actually a 600-series so slightly fictional but its a cool livery so grabbed my attention. (filename:…
Air Hong Kong A300

Next up was a Qantas Pax 200 series (rego: VH-TAA) which was operated by Qantas after they inherited the TAA (Trans Austrailan Airlines) fleet following an acquisition in the 90′s. Were some interesting details on this one, the retro Kangaroo and QANTAS font, and added some freight door detailing which wasnt in the repaint kit, so was fun to do
Qantas A300

Finally tonight I finished an Air Macau A300-203F (rego: N504TA) using the cargo kit. Macau leased a 200 series from Tradewinds (a US based cargo carrier) in the 90′s, I’ve done two repaints, both with the Air Macau tail and fuselage livery but one with the original Tradewinds logo, the other with the hastily overlayed “Air Macau Cargo” details that the real-world machine wore briefly in 1995. Was an interesting repaint to do, had an additional outlet port of some sort on the engine casings, and trying to keep the look of the temporary overlays was a challenge (filename: A300-AirMacau-Simcheck)
Air Macau Cargo A300

I’m planning to carry on and do a few more real world repaints from this region (e.g. Air Niugini, Garuda, Malaysian etc) so will see how many I can crank out over christmas. And if I have time I may even get to fly the old bird :)

A simmers dream come true – Jumpseat ride in an Air New Zealand 737

I’ve just figuratively come back down to earth after what to me was the ultimate boys own adventure. A few weeks ago now I got to take a daytime jump-seat ride from Auckland to Queenstown return in an Air New Zealand 737. Yes, for those that know I’m a simmer, this time it was a real live airplane!

I’d gotten to know the skipper recently and he generously offered to get me on-board under the cockpit familiarisation program. (please no Airplane movie quotes about grown men naked) It took a few weeks to organise the paperwork, involving a security/background check and the help and support of other staff at the airline, and next thing I knew my tickets arrived by email and we were all go.

Being a flight-sim junkie and a Boeing fan in particular to say i was stoked to get to ride in the pointy end of a 737-300 (my personal favorite) would be the understatement of the millennium. Instructions arrived for where and when to meet, I turned up on time for one of the first times in my life, then we were through the security gate (skipping the queue of course) and into the briefing room for prep for the flight.

Was fascinating to sit in on the flight preparation process being a fly on the wall as the guys worked diligently through fuel, passenger and freight loading, weather conditions and forecast, and how they would affect alternate airport selection. At the time of the flight we’d just had a non-stop week long storm all over the country and the flights were to be right in the middle of it. Miraculously winds seemed to calm a little on the morning of the flight, and you’d hardly know it was still blowing during push back, taxi, takeoff and climb out to the south.

The skipper politely but firmly asked for a quiet cockpit below 10,000’ on departure and the same when on approach so I did my best to stick to the plan and bite my tongue, sitting quietly taking it all in with a huge and no doubt stupid looking grin across my face. Taking off is a buzz back in the cabin anyway right but it’s a whole different perspective and thrill from the cockpit. We were relatively heavy with a full passenger load and enough fuel to return to the North Island if necessary but even so the sporty 737 was up and away in no time.

Cloud was blanketing the Auckland approach area at about 9,000’ so soon after breaking off the LENGU1A departure on runway 23L the skipper spotted a 737-sized hole in the cover which we slipped gracefully through (for passenger comfort of course) to a lovely clear blue expanse of sky above which we remained in till cruise and all the way down the west coast of both Islands.

Though we were heading into a brisk sou’wester, and had a fierce jet-stream below at one point, we made pretty good time tracking the upper airways to pass near New Plymouth, to the west of Nelson then down over the southern alps for a top of descent near Mt Riley.

As we passed the northern tip of the South Island the guys pointed out an approaching aircraft on the TCAS traffic warning system. A few moments later we spotted the company 733 on a parallel track 1000’ above us heading back in the opposite direction to Auckland. It arced silently by in the distance with the morning sun glimmering off the hull, vanishing out of view to the north as quickly as it had appeared.

I was able to listen along to ATC radio comms via the jump-seat headset as the crew were passed from Auckland departures, tower and approach then the various regional Christchurch control sectors as we headed south, and finally to Queenstown tower on approach there.

queenstown approach

The approach into Queenstown was via the rather technical RNAV 23Z approach which passes over Cromwell then weaves and winds along the Kawarau gorge descending gently along the way until finals for Queenstown. It’s a spectacular approach as a passenger as for much of it you are looking at the tops of mountains that are above you as the aircraft is descending along the gorge. From the cockpit the view was simply amazing. I think I just sat there mouth open or grinning like a schoolboy for most of it. It sure is a tough day at the office for these guys when the weathers like that.

Got to learn a lot from the crew about the RNAV capability (this approach cannot be hand-flown) and the limitations and history of the system. Very cool stuff which saves a huge number of missed approaches when operating in reduced visibility conditions at Queenstown. On this day however there were few clouds and very scattered, much to the skippers dismay, I’m sure he was hoping it would clag in to give me an impression of the feel and tension of flying a low visibility approach in such hostile terrain.

On the ground in Queenstown I also got to go on the walk-around inspection with the first officer wearing one of those super fashionable fluro-vests. The tarmac was warm, the air was full of the smell of jet fuel, the APU was still roaring at the back of the aircraft, and the aircraft surfaces glistening in the bright central Otago sunshine, which all meant it was complete and fantastic sensory overload, and another nice touch on the whole experience. I did my best to listen in as the F/O explained the elements and states he was looking for, and did lots of head-nodding and pretending to look like I knew what he was talking about.

After a slight delay with refueling we were back in the seat, paperwork signed off, security doors closed, passengers in place, and we were pushing back for the start-up and return to Auckland. Takeoff from QN was even sprightlier than before with engines uprated a little and packs off due to heavy load and local environment. The 737 leapt into the air and climbed purposefully out to the west up and over Frankton then turning on the climb around Kelvin Heights to double back over the airfield before joining the track back to the North Island.

737 cockpit

The return leg was another dream experience for me, getting to watch out for other procedures I’d missed on the way down, listening in on the ATC conversations a little more intently, and to hear a little more from the guys about their chosen career, their flying histories, impact on lifestyle and family and their near term prospects given the imminent retirement of the 737 airframe and movement of staff to the A320 platform.

Being the simming uber-nerd that I am I kept the guys busy with questions and luckily for me they were more than happy to answer, and then some. Was thrilled to discover the panels are very well modeled in the simulator as compared to the real thing so was great to see some familiar processes going on, and to learn as much as I could about some others in the 1:45 or so of flight time per leg.

I got so much out of the experience its hard to know what and how much to write about it so I figure I’ll keep it pretty brief. I have to acknowledge the obvious though, that it was a huge privilege to get to fly these two legs with the crew. In these days of heightened security, and time-poor and competitive professional and service demands there really aren’t many opportunities like this available now.

To the crew that hosted me on the day, your guys are awesome!. Kiwis are well served by our national airline, should be proud of how well if operates and fares in the modern age of global airline competition, and if you two are anything to go by we’re in bloody great hands when we do choose to fly. Thanks so much guys.

Flight Experience – ‘as real as it gets’ without leaving the ground

Captain StringerLast 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.

737-ng panelThe 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.

EHSILights 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.

throttle 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.

Chocks away!!!

10 Signs you’re a Flight-sim Addict

Hi. I’m Dean and I’m an Addict

I just checked the other day and realised that I’ve been playing various versions of Microsoft’s Flight-Simulator since the mid-eighties, which means around 20-years of on and off activity in one game. I really don’t play many others, sure there’s the odd bought of PlayStation fever (Gran Turismo, GTA, MotoGP etc) but as far as PC gaming goes FlightSim is about it for me.

Recently however my interest in simming has apparently turned into more of an obsession. Something my domestic accountant has been quick to point out, and this has led me to consider how it was I transformed from casual player to hard-core addict. Like most addictions it turns out there are a number of tell-tale signs that I present to you should you have a friend or loved one you are worried about.

10 Signs your a flight-sim addict

1. installing custom aircraft or scenery
The out of the box sim experience is very engaging and there is an awful lot to learn if you want a successful landing percentage, and a low rate of aircraft destruction. Very soon you realise though that the standard scenery just doesn’t cut the mustard. with a little effort you source and install freeware scenery packs to make your local airstrip look a little more like the real thing.
2. installing AI aircraft and real-world schedules
Scenery looks good, and you have all your favourite aircraft installed, but now you begin to realise the other aircraft in the skies don’t resemble the real-world. Now you devote some time to learning how to install AI aircraft and install skins for them representing your local airlines, and setting up AI schedules so they leave and depart at the exact times they do in real life. This is an early sign you are struggling to differentiate between the real, and the illusion.
3. paying for commercial add-ons
Once you’ve downloaded a few dozen freeware scenery or aircraft add-ons you begin to wonder what it would be like to lift the appearance a little more by paying for a commercial add-on. Like any drug however this short-term change to the fix is really just an illusion and you only end up wanting even higher quality and features. The credit card is getting stretched now, you are thinkin about stealing from your family or spouse
4. creating or modifying your local airports
Soon the airports don’t quite seem accurate enough, you notice a missing taxiway, the signage on buildings isn’t quite right, the trees are in the wrong place. Now you are actually engaging so much with the make-believe you are actively modifying or fabricating the world around you to suit your distored view.
5. upgrading your PC
You’ve loaded up the environment now with so many plug-ins and add-ons that the hardware is finally pushed to the limit and you convince yourself that its time to upgrade, even though the sim is probably the only thing that gets anywhere near the limits of the machine. Its time for a second-mortgage on the house at this point as you couldn’t possibly stand not buying the latest and greatest CPU/video-card/mb/ram/HDD combo and of course that liquid-cooled case. After the upgrade you also feel compelled to share the details of the upgrade, as if its some life changing experience that has liberated you from a low-grade addictive experience.
6. buying a second (or third) monitor
At this point your mental addiction is turning into a physical one such that your visual systems are not satiated any longer by the sight of a single monitor. This next step involves adding at least two additional monitors, all wide-screen of course, the panorama is spectacular, gauges and panels are liberally placed on monitor locations that resemble their placement in a real-world cabin. Your physical thirst seems to be met, for the short term.
7. flying online with simulated ATC
The environment seems to be about as good as it gets and your localised personal experience has reached nirvana, or so you think. Its about now you realise that you must share your addiction with others by flying with others online over an Internet connection. The drive for this is partly due to imagined synergistic ecstasy, and partly to share responsibility for your developing dependency with others, shifting the blame.
8. registering with a virtual airline
Things are getting dangerous now. You are going beyond differentiating between real-life and the simulation, pushing through the mist to join a virtual online airline. You sign up as a junior pilot, interact with other confused addicts in a virtual business, training and moving from one aircraft to another, receiving virtual awards, promotions, recognition for good flying practice, reprimand for the bad. You are clearly in the Matrix now and there’s no going back
9. fantasising about being a commercial pilot
Finally you begin to have serious delusions of grandeur, you actually believe that through your virtual airline experience that you are now ready to fly a real aircraft, or in practice the next best thing, which is a commercial flight simulator. You buy yourself a white business shirt, fit some lapels and find a pilots hat in a fancy-dress store, and off down to the mall to strap yourself into a 737. There is a positive aspect to this advanced stage of addiction, at least now you are out an about a little, interacting with people in the real world. This doesn’t last long though.
10. building your own home simulator
The final sorry stage of this awful disease is retiring to your basement to begin construction of a full-scale home-based simulation of your favourite aircraft. There is no escape at this point, the task is enormous and will never be complete, the further the project goes the more terrible the prospect of the work to come and the likelihood of it failing. Total withdrawal from society commences, certain divorce and disengagement from family, the days, weeks and years drift by as pizza boxes stack up at the bottom of the stairs. No form of intervention will work at this point. All is lost.

Please forward this information on to anyone you think is at risk. Even Stephen Spielberg recently confessed to having logged 3,000 hours in “Flight Simulator” so if powerful folks like him are vulnerable then we all need to be alert.