IFR flying is hard

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So it's been a couple of weeks since my last post. Since then, I've received my copy of X-Plane in the mail (only took a couple of days – great service on the part of the x-plane.org store!). Overall, I've been very happy with it and will probably post a more thorough review of it shortly. However, I'm going to talk about something else here: IFR flying. I'll be approaching this from the viewpoint of simulated IFR flying (hence why this is also in the Gaming category), but I think it could also apply to the real thing.

In reading various articles about how whether or not PC flight simulators are an aid or a hindrance towards helping beginning pilots get their licenses, one of the biggest complaints I saw is that PC pilots often spend way too much time looking at their instruments and not enough time looking out the "window," which is what real pilots do under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) conditions -- i.e. pretty much when the weather is good, the skies are clear, and you're not flying at jet airliner altitudes. A proper pilot relies on seeing what direction the nose of his airplane is pointing at to determine his general direction and looks at his wings and the angle of his dashboard relative to the horizon out the window to determine if he's flying level, with only the occasional peek at instruments such as the compass, heading indicator, and artificial horizon. Simulator pilots, because they really don't have a "window," often rely way too much on these instruments and this can often hamper their flight training as they have to unlearn this habit.

In my case, after reading up about flying and mistakes made by simulator pilots when they start flying for real, I tried to do things the "right way" whenever possible -- looking out the "window," etc. for roll (the side to side "tilt" of the plane) and pitch (whether the nose of the plane is pointing up or down) indications and avoiding the instruments. I still do "cheat" a bit due to the limitations of the simulator -- typically I use the heading indicator when I turn instead of turning towards a landmark because simulated scenery sometimes tends to be fairly sparse with respect to usable landmarks. However, by and large, I think I'm mostly doing it right. This made things quite interesting when I decided to stop using perfect weather conditions and instead practice flying under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) conditions…

Anyway, I've gotten to the point where I feel like I've more or less mastered VFR flying with calm winds on my simulator: plot a course, take off, climb to cruising altitude, descend near the target airport, and land in one piece. I do kind of cheat a bit on course plotting, however. Instead of using a real chart with a flight course plotter (neither of which I have nor do I wish to spend money on just for playing with simulators), I instead use FltPlan.com to figure out my headings, etc., for me and then set my course appropriately. It all works pretty well, although I still do make the odd mistake (never assume than an airport in a coastal state is near sea level -- I got bitten when I flew to Worcester Airport which turned out to be on a hill at over 1,000 feet above sea level).

After figuring out how to fly VFR (more or less), I figured it was time to practice flying IFR. I started following some simulator IFR lessons. While some of these lessons do take place with calm winds and perfectly clear skies, many of them take place with total cloud cover (i.e. you see nothing but gray out of your window) and strong winds. What's worse is that X-Plane, much like what apparently happens in real life, makes flying through clouds very turbulent. So other than the first challenge of relying entirely on the artificial horizon to determine if my plane is level (trickier than it sounds when you're used to looking at the real thing), but those instruments are going haywire as the turbulence buffets your little Cessna around like balls in a bingo machine. Keeping straight and level at constant altitude and airspeed was not easy and even the autopilot had difficulty with it. However, there is nothing like the feeling of relief when you descent below the cloud cover and can see your destination airport ahead after such a grueling flight.

Given my own experience with simulated IFR flying, it's no wonder why the FAA requires 40 hours of actual or simulated IFR instruction in addition to 50 hours of solo cross-country flying (although certain flight school classes can have this requirement waived) before you're allowed to fly IFR. Every last hour of training/practice you can get is well-worth it -- especially when lives are on the line in a real plane.

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