Friend Doug and I paid a visit to the new Redbird Skyport facility in San Marcos airfield. It opened just the other day, so I wanted to go and see what it was all about. The Skyport is both an FBO and a new pilot training centre, housed in a fabulous new building next to the new control tower.
Redbird is a local company that makes flight simulator machines. They make both desktop and full motion simulators, which are configurable to become a wide variety of different aircraft, and at a very afforable price so that more flight schools can get their hands on them. The Skyport's emphasis is on using the simulators for a large part of the flight training syllabus.
Their aim is to get students trained to their Private Pilot Licence within three weeks, and use the simulators for half of their instruction. The other half will be done in one of Redbird's two extra shiny new Cessna 172s, fresh out of the factory. These have full glass cockpits, leather seats and are a million miles away from your average training bird.
While time in an actual aircraft remains greatly important, the simulators offer new capabilities. Students can train in whatever weather is present at the time of their class. It only rains in the sim if you want it to. There's also a 'pause' button, so when the student gets into a sticky situation, the student and instructor can have a discussion about how it came to be, without any other distractions (like having to fly the plane, for example). The instructors can also introduce engine or instrument failures, without the giveaway of the instructor reaching for the mixture knob, so the student has to identify what has gone wrong before she can fix it. Simulators are also a lot cheaper to operate than an aircraft - prices range from $25 to $55 per hour depending on which machine you are using.
I was lucky enough to be given a chance to try one of the full motion simulators. Here's a picture Doug took of me in it:
Regular readers will know that while I have been pretty lucky in the getting-stick-time department, I have yet to undergo any formal flight training. And when someone lets you fly their plane, it tends to be control of the stick and rudder and maybe the trim. I think I have operated the throttle once (last year sometime) and have yet to use the flaps in anger in a real aircraft. So you'll understand that being suddenly presented with the full kit and caboodle was a bit of an eye opener!
The simulator was set to being a Cessna 172 and we were parked at the hold for runway 13 at San Marcos. Just like it would be if we stepped outside. I pushed in the throttle a little ways; found out I needed a bit more - going too fast! - pull it back. Step on the right rudder to try and turn onto the runway. Nothing happens. Turn the wheel just in case; no, that wasn't going to work - step harder on the rudder - oh, there we go. I lined up in a very wobbly fashion - never taxied an aircraft before! - and pushed the throttle in about 3/4 of the way. The engine spins up, the aircraft leans forward and we're moving. Push it in the rest of the way for takeoff.
Airspeed increased to about 80 knots and I haven't the faintest idea what takeoff speed in a Cessna is meant to be, but it's probably around there somewhere so I pulled back on the stick and up we went. Sure enough, San Marcos airfield is visible below.
Here is where it gets interesting. The sim is certainly very realistic looking straight forward. The panel is laid out before you in the exact configuration you'd see if you went outside and sat in the real Cessna. In the picture below, you can see the instruments, which are drawn on another computer screen. You might be able to see the black knobs next to some of the instruments; these are affixed to a perspex panel that can be removed and changed when another aircraft type is required.
You can really feel the motion in the sim, too. I made a left turn out of the airfield and the control forces were very apparent. The horizon tilts, along with the whole machine, and you really feel like you're turning. Apparently the machine doesn't actually move as much as you think it does but your brain gets fooled into feeling the motion. There's a lot of wriggling and vibration too; not enough to annoy but enough to make you believe you're in a moving aircraft.
However there are also limits. The wraparound screen is great with its 180 degree field of view, but you can't look back over your shoulder, or above or below the screen arc. This makes it hard to gauge where you are in relation to the airfield when you're flying away or parallel to it. I was also tending to massively overcorrect in my control inputs; I'm not sure why that should be, but my left turn went into a bit of a dive before I could wrangle it back into approximately level flight. Then, I wanted to try landing it, but when I turned back around I was way too close to the runway. You can't tell, during a turn, until you're within 30-40 degrees of where you need to be pointing.
I went around again, paying better attention to my turn this time, and attempted to fly further away from the airfield to have a better chance of lining up. I think I rolled out just inside the bare minimum distance at which one might properly attempt a landing... but being concious of using our host's time, I wanted to get this puppy on the ground. So there I am, at a thousand feet with the runway not very far away. I pulled the throttle back to slow down a bit. What's next? Oh yeah; need some flaps.
Here is where I forgot that the flap switch really isn't an 'on-off' device, there are increments in there too. I flicked it all the way down, at 100 knots. I am sure the aviators reading this will be laughing here - can you guess what happens next? Yup, the barn doors hang off the back and I nearly ripped the wings off.... the nose yoinks up (you can feel that one alright), we get floaty and higher and I am internally cursing. Back off the throttle and wrestle the nose down... kind of aiming at the runway now in a dive-bombery sort of way... round it out, flare, plant it a tad too firmly on the tarmac with only minor damage to the undercarriage, honest! Once reminded of the toe brakes, I pulled the throttle all the way out and halted the aircraft.
I have always wanted to know if I'd be able to land a plane if I had to. I guess the answer is 'probably', as long as you don't necessarily expect it to be usable afterwards... but then, this kind of thing is what simulators are for. And they say that any landing you can walk away from is a good one, right?
Thank you to the staff of Redbird Skyport for being so accommodating, enthusiastic and friendly. I hope one day perhaps to return as a student.