The Experiment, Part Two

Can someone with only flight simulator experience take off and land an airplane on the first try? I wanted to find out

…continued from Part One.

Saturday was a perfect day, with the winds forecast to be five knots or less all day. We arrived at the airport, and after checking out the airplane (a Cessna 172), it was time for Tyler and me to start our experiment. First he set up some cameras in the plane. He had two iPhones, which he set up on top of the forward panel, one directed at each of us. A digital camera was mounted on top of the center of the panel facing forward. Another camera was on a tripod placed behind the seats, with one leg in each of the seat back pockets. Lastly, he had a digital audio recorder that he plugged in to one of the audio phone outlets in the back seat.

We got in the plane and strapped in, Tyler in the left seat and me in the right. (Since this was a trainer, we had identical dual yoke and controls.) Before starting the engine, I went over the panel so that he understood where all the controls are. To anyone who might say that this “instruction” is beyond the scope of the experiment, I would point out that the plane and the sim aren’t identical in layout. In fact, if we looked at each of the C-172s on the ramp we’d see differences among the various models. For example, in some of them the flap handle has labeled detents for each flap setting (and that’s what Tyler was expecting). But in this plane, the flap handle was a three position toggle switch. To put flaps down, hold the toggle down and watch the flap indicator to see how much flaps you have. Flip the toggle up and the flaps retract without the need to hold the switch. I wanted to be sure he understood the operation, as it’s easy to accidentally retract flaps by moving the switch inadvertently past the center detent.

Besides the flap handle, the only other things that Tyler would need to touch during the flight were the yoke, the throttle and the trim wheel. I showed him the operation of the trim wheel and explained its use. It’s a convenience, used to alleviate elevator control pressure, but not a requirement. You can muscle through those control forces, but it makes things a lot easier if you have the plane trimmed for fingertip control.

Next, I pointed out the Directional Gyro (DG) and explained that we would set it to runway heading just prior to takeoff. Tyler was hoping for runway 12L, which he had flown on his simulator. He was used to the headings needed for the pattern from this runway.

After turning all the cameras on, I started the engine and contacted Ground Control for taxi clearance, requesting a closed pattern (i.e., we would be returning to land), and we proceeded to the runway. On a straightaway portion of the taxiway, I let Tyler put his feet on the rudders just to get the feel of taxiing the plane. We got to the run up area and ran the Before Takeoff checklist, ensuring that everything was ready to go. I then called the tower and advised the controller that we were ready for takeoff.

The tower controller threw us a curve, clearing us for takeoff on Runway 7 with instructions to land on Runway 12L. This is a significant change, since it wouldn’t be a standard rectangular pattern, and I felt that it was unfair to not briefly discuss what he had to do. You only get one chance to make a first attempt and I didn’t want to see it ruined for Tyler because he was having trouble with situational awareness. So I told the controller that I had a student pilot on board and we needed a minute. I took out the airport diagram and showed Tyler the relation of the runways and how he could takeoff and simply turn to enter the downwind for 12L. He was satisfied, and I advised the Tower that we were ready. My biggest regret about the experiment is that I didn’t simply ask the controller for a takeoff on 12L, which I am sure would have been approved.

Here’s where I made a serious omission: I neglected to verify and set runway heading on the DG once we lined up on the runway. I got us on the centerline and told Sparks “Your airplane.” He advanced the throttle, a little timidly at first, and we started rolling. As I expected, he began drifting left of centerline. The plane wants to go left due to several factors, and right rudder is required to keep it tracking straight ahead.

He had drifted halfway from the centerline to the left edge of the runway, and I was mentally allowing him about five more feet before I would take over. But at this point, he finally applied sufficient rudder to stop the drift. (By the way, if I had taken over, my plan was to initiate the climb and then turn the plane back over to him to see if he could make the landing.) His takeoff was very good and I was pleasantly surprised to see that he didn’t over-rotate, another very common error for first-timers. If you rotate too fast or too much, the airspeed can bleed off dangerously, running the risk of a stall very low to the ground.

Climbout was pretty good. We drifted a little more left, but now that we were airborne there was no major concern with that. At about 500′ above the ground (2700′ msl) Tyler started a left turn to bring the plane around to downwind for 12L. He was looking for a heading of 300° and at this time he noticed that the heading on the gyro was way off from what it should have been. I quickly reset the gyro to our magnetic heading (indicated by a magnetic compass attached to the center of the windshield). Ugh, I felt horrible for missing that before takeoff!

Tyler leveled off at pattern altitude of 3000′ msl and began accelerating much more than he should have for staying in the landing pattern. We got up to almost 120 knots before he realized that he needed to reduce power. As we continued on downwind, I finally made a small gesture, pointing left, to indicate that we needed to turn base soon. I wouldn’t have done this if we had been at an uncontrolled field, but I didn’t want the Tower to have to call us to ask about our extended downwind.

At this point, I watched as Sparks slowed the plane and extended flaps. He settled on 20° of flaps, which was his plan ahead of time and is fine for landing. As we turned final, we were really coming to the critical part of the experiment. As long as we were in the air, there was really little he could do to put us in immediate danger. But close to the ground I had to be ready to take the plane. Of course, that’s true for any student pilot making a first landing. The main difference is that I would normally be giving constant verbal feedback during this phase. But the rules were that I couldn’t say anything.

His glide path control was pretty good. We got a little low at one point, but he recognized it and shallowed the descent until we were back on path. As we got closer, the VASI (Visual Approach Slope Indicator) became discernible and I pointed it out. Again, there might be some who find fault with that, and perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything. Maybe it’s the flight instructor in me, but I didn’t see any problem with pointing it out. I didn’t discuss how to interpret it or make any suggestions about his control of the plane.

Coming up on the runway threshold, I was waiting to see if he would make some of the classic first-time mistakes. It’s very easy to misjudge the round-out of the descent and the flare for landing. A common mistake is to pull back too much, causing the plane to balloon upward as the airspeed drops off toward stall. If this happened, I’d have to take over. Another mistake is simply to fly the plane into the ground without breaking the glide at all. This will cause a nose wheel strike, which can damage the plane (though it will usually be a survivable landing). I couldn’t risk damage to the plane, and I’d have to take over if I saw this coming too.

But Tyler did a beautiful job, bleeding off the power as he shallowed the descent. We drifted a little right, but not as much as he drifted left during takeoff. I was watching airspeed and descent rate closely, with my attention constantly shifting from outside to the instruments. We touched down at a very acceptable speed and began rolling down the runway with power at idle. At this point, I was satisfied that he had done it, and said “I’ve got the airplane.”

Tower had cleared us for “the option,” which meant that we could have done either of four things: (1) make a low pass and go around, (2) make a touch and go (i.e. land, than apply power and take off), (3) make a stop and go (land, come to a full stop, then apply power and takeoff), or (4) make a full stop landing and taxi clear of the runway. I told Tyler I had the plane and I retracted the flaps and applied power for takeoff. It was my turn.

Once on downwind, I asked Tyler if he wanted to go do some more flying and I could actually give him instruction, but he was happy to call it a day, so we just returned for a full-stop landing. As we taxied in, I congratulated him and told him that he had just made a mockery of my entire life. When we tied down the airplane, we had logged .5 hours on the plane.

Afterward, we headed off for lunch and relived the experience. I think we both agreed that the perfect weather, especially dead calm winds, made it possible, but that doesn’t take away from the accomplishment. Tyler acknowledged that the real airplane is a whole lot different than flying the simulation software, but it obviously gave him the basics. I think he also said that some of the online discussion beforehand about what to expect actually helped him.

Even though the experiment was a success, I can’t say how common Tyler’s experience would be. So if you’ve spent a few hours flying Microsoft Flight Simulator, and now think you’re ready to solo, I’d still say: Don’t.

After he got home, Tyler posted this YouTube video of the flight. Unfortunately, the backseat camera video, which was supposed to show the instrument panel, was not usable.


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