A taxi driver who regularly flew Boeings to Paris? We were on our way back to Cromer airfield, or North Reps International, depending on your take on it. Our cabbie was regaling us with his prowess in the air. You guessed – the virtual air. He wasn’t really interested in flying the real stuff.
I was reminded of that incident when the Notams and an unknown dignitary kept us locked down at Stoke waiting for the D-Day flypast. I couldn’t even practise my circuits there, much to my dismay. Instead, Greg Burns, who runs the flying club TwoTwoFly, showed us his treasure trove – a simulator.
It is a magnificent piece of kit, with no fewer than six screens that take you in the air at Stoke itself. The programme covers the whole South East of England, so students can fly from Stoke to Little Gransden, both of TwoTwoFly’s airfields, in it.
Greg says, “It’s predominantly used for radio training, as we have headsets, so that is where I can give a student a situation and they have to handle it.” He told us there is an international army of air traffic controllers one can actually book to have on hand to take you through any type of radiophonic situation if you wish.
“The simulator also helps when talking about basic principles and spinning awareness. It’s a safe environment where we can stop at any time we like to have a look at angles and have a look at ailerons, discuss and appraise, so it’s more for technical teaching, not actual teaching,” he adds. “It’s also useful for a novice instructor to go through the exercises and practise their patter there.”
He switched it on and then had to leave us to it. It was an interesting experiment with four very different pilots playing around. James was first up, trying to get the hang of it, then Den had a go and did a neat circuit once he figured out how to position himself correctly for the runway. He neatly taxied to the hold, lining it all up for me. I didn’t do too badly, at first, but then I was too high and tried to go around before abandoning it all.
It was when Dan took over that I saw the real advantage of equipment like this. He carefully showed us how to do a barrel roll like the Spitfires do, with all the technical finesse of a guy used to flying model aircraft. I did recall that being taken up for one close to thirty years ago was what made me decide never to fly again. Dan did it twice – “You force the nose down, build up airspeed, then take it over, but then you need to make sure you push the stick forward while you are inverted, or you get to Vne real quick.”
In the UK with its variable weather, I can see that a simulator of that quality must be a massive addition to a flying school. We all found the controls were lighter than we are used to, which is why we struggled initially. I don’t like the visuals of gaming, but even I was impressed with how accurately I could see the landmarks we had crossed only a little while earlier.
I can imagine that once used to that, your mechanical prowess must be fantastic, but does it make you a good pilot? The single thing that was missing for me, was peripheral vision. I know at any given time where I am in relation to the ground. Here I had to keep dipping the nose to find out. It did make me happy that finally I obviously do what my instructor despaired of teaching me and land an aircraft on visual clues – height and angle, rather than looking at the instruments. How often haven’t I heard, “It’s all about attitude and power.”
Ian, one of the pilots at Stoke, admits a simulator doesn’t give the real feel of flying, but, “it does mean one can practise procedures and navigation very well.” He found it a useful tool having one at home while learning, and now, with his licence, does dry runs of trips where he can connect to his Skydemon and take in the VFR scenery along the way.
So no-one is heading off to Paris from Stoke, at least not in their jumbo jet, although as a teaching tool it is fantastic! But nothing beats the real thing, I thought as we chased around the rain showers heading home later than we had planned that evening.