Can I learn to fly in a flight sim?

FlyingSinger wrote this thorough article in the year 2000 using FLY!. Read on as he ventures back into real flying and sees just how useful flight sims can be as you learn to fly.

Can I learn to fly in a flight sim?
Yes, and also no.
Disclaimer: Skills learned in computer flight sims are no substitute for flight lessons in a real airplane with a real, certified instructor.
Don't assume that what you can do in a sim, you can do in real life.
One overzealous flight simmer in Japan assumed this and hijacked an airliner, intending to fly it under Tokyo's Rainbow Bridge and into a loop, claiming he had done this in his flight sim. He was stopped but not before he had tragically stabbed the pilot to death -- the copilot landed safely -- this guy obviously had problems with reality that extended way beyond flight sims!
I'm a low-time student pilot with a lot of time in PC flight sims ... said FlyingSinger.
Most of that time is in combat jet sims, though I have also played with some civilian sims as I will report. So the following comments are based on my experience and opinions. Your mileage may vary!
That being said, I believe that today's civilian flight sims can be a useful supplement to real flight lessons. I recently started back with flight lessons after a 10 month layoff, flying a Cessna 152 trainer with a new instructor, from a new airport. I'm now flying from Worcester Regional Airport, a controlled airport in Worcester, Massachusetts (KORH).
At about the same time, I heard about a utility called TerraScene for the FLY! Flight sim. This utility lets you create realistic and fairly detailed scenery for FLY!based on USGS data available on the web. So I bought FLY! and created the scenery for my area.
High and fast...
FLY! already includes all the airports, navaids, and sectional charts for the USA (and many airports world-wide as well). So now I have a virtual flying world that matches my REAL flying world pretty well. It may be possible to do similar things with other sims, but here I will just talk about my experience with FLY!(simulated Cessna 172R) and my real lessons (real Cessna 152).
What's the same?
First of all, airports and navaids are in their correct positions and elevations, and larger airports (including ORH) have proper taxiways and lighting in addition to correct runways. With the TerraScene scenery, the waterways (lakes, ponds, and reservoirs) look about right, as do the major roads. Urban areas look urban, and fields and forests look about right too.
Other than large radio towers, there aren't any structures or buildings (though you can add some with the FLY!Editor if you like -- it's easy, but so far I've only added a few buildings at ORH and a radio tower that disappeared from the FLY!default set when I placed the TS scenery).
Wachusett Reservoir
I can tune in the Gardner VOR and the navigation instruments will behave correctly based on my position, which I can view in a pop-up window of the sectional chart, or on the real sectional chart on my desk. In fact the entire instrument panel in FLY!is mouse-active. You can even follow correct engine starting procedures if you like. The basic flight instruments are arranged in the standard format in the sim and in the real plane. The response to controls and the flight performance seem very similar, though they are in fact different planes (the two seat C152 is lighter and has less power than the four-place C172R in FLY!).
The sounds are very authentic -- you can judge engine power from the sound, and you can hear when the wheels leave the runway. The views are good too -- if you put the runway half-way up the left wing strut on left downwind to get the correct offset, do it in the sim, and you get the correct offset. The runway looks about the same from pattern altitude in the plane and in the sim (2000 feet at ORH, which has elevation 1009 feet).
Instruments in FLY!
The bottom line: this is not virtual reality, but the simulated and real worlds are close enough to allow similar actions with very similar results in performance, instrument feedback, visual feedback, and sounds.

What's Different?

Looking around is quite different. Although the views in FLY!are good, it's hard to simulate the casual way you can glance to the left, right, and front to check that your wings are level and you are climbing at the right angle after takeoff. You tend to rely more on instruments in the sim to make up for this.
You also have no control feel (FLY!supports force feedback sticks but I don't have one). This is important for trimming the airplane -- something I'm learning to do more instinctively in the real plane after developing a non-trim habit in sims (you trim for the desired airspeed after establishing it with pitch and power -- part of this is visual, nose position, but part is feel, trimming out the control pressure so you can fly more or less hands-off, or at least with a very light touch).
Trim is very important if you want to be a smooth flyer in a real airplane. And right now, my controls are different. I have a USB stick and game port-based CH Rudder Pedals. FLY!supports this duel configuration, but the pedals are jumpy, and the stick feels wrong. I just ordered a CH Flight Yoke and Pro Pedals, both for USB. This will help the experience a lot, I'm sure.

What can I do?

I haven't done all that much yet, but it already seems useful. I notice that I tend to flare high in the sim -- just like I do in the plane! Once I get better controls, I expect that my "procedure" practice will be more effective. I expect to practice emergency procedures too -- kill the engine and make an emergency landing. I hope to NOT do that in real life (though you learn, discuss and rehearse the procedures, and learn to always look for likely places to land in case of emergency).

What can't I do?

I haven't tried stalls and slow flight in FLY!yet -- they will work fine, I'm sure, but I don't think that would be very useful practice. There you really need to feel what is going on (e.g., the mushy control feel) and be able to quickly glance at the wingtips to keep the plane level. This is true for the "feel" of landings too, but there are procedural aspects that still make pattern work useful.
A high flare
I can't do real radio work in FLY!as I do in the real plane (FLY! has ATC features that I haven't used yet, but it's not the same as talking to the tower and being told to extend your downwind for an arriving helicopter). I'm sure there are other limitations, but there are certainly plenty of useful things to practice, and as long as I keep the differences and limitations in mind, I think it will help me learn to be a better pilot.
Of course Microsoft Flight Simulator is the most famous civilian sim, but I haven't used it since FS 5.1, so I don't know the current capabilities. I have played a bit with Flight Unlimited II (FU2) -- it's a good sim with many of the same features as FLY!, but its panels are not as realistic, and it is restricted to the San Francisco area (FU3 is Seattle).
FLY! has a lot of features beyond what I discussed above -- it has a great flight planner interface and several other planes including a business jet with full instrumentation. Sounds like fun, but I think I will get my Cessna landings a little smoother before I tackle a biz jet. Besides, when I fly jets, I like them to have guns!
FlyingSinger's house as seen from space

June 5th - First Night Flight

Night Flight at ORH (1.0 hours dual, June 5, 2000)
Note: Screen shots are from FLY!with the scenery for the Worcester, Massachusetts area generated using TerraScene.
One good flight deserves another, right? Well, the next couple of weeks will be busy, so I decided to take another lesson yesterday -- nothing for 10 months then two in two days!
We got a late start on the scheduled 7:00 pm lesson (the plane was late from its previous lesson) and decided to stay in the ORH pattern (landing runway 11 this time, vs. 29 yesterday). This means we were landing a little south of east, 110º -- there was a crosswind from the north, so I had to crab to the right on the downwind, angling slightly north of the nominal 290º downwind heading to keep from toeing in and crowding the runway on downwind (something I tend to do anyway). It also increased my ground speed on base (tail wind) which contributed to my late turn to final (something I also tend to do anyway!).
I was so wide on the first one that I did a go-around. I tried to parallel the runway as if it were an "upwind leg" but Mario told me I should be right over the runway for a go-around, so I flew over there - need to ask him about this. Good thing there was no other traffic there last night!
I never really "visualized" this crosswind...
... and I think this is what made my landings so rough. Since I was going EAST on final with a wind from the NORTH (left to right), I needed to crab into the wind to have the correct ground track -- bank to the left. Mario wanted me to hold in this bank (left yoke) and straighten the nose to track straight ahead by using RIGHT RUDDER.
This is a cross-control maneuver, essentially a slip, something I never really did before in an actual landing, though I practiced it at altitude on one of my early lessons. I more or less did this, but with overshoots and corrections, I was swinging all over the runway (good thing it's so wide). We did five touch-and-goes, with Mario calling the tower to report left base each time.
Starting base
I was too task-saturated to think about the radio calls -- once he was so busy explaining something that he forgot to call base and got a mild reprimand from the tower -- "you seem to be on final, you can go ahead and land if you want" -- that's a real no-no at a controlled field, but it was otherwise dead there -- the controller was cool about it and Mario apologized.
Meanwhile, thanks to our late start) it was getting dark...
... another first for my flight lessons -- so the last two were basically night landings.
On all of the pattern work, I was quite tense and this showed on the yoke, PIO all over the place (pilot induced oscillation). As usual, when I'm busy I forget about trim, and I also tend to notice any control overshoots late and then jerk the yoke Back to where it should have been -- bad move! Things to remember and do:
One cool thing that Mario demoed and I then tried was flying the pattern with ONLY trim and rudder, no yoke!
Adverse yaw gives you your turns (right rudder to bank left), trim controls your nose (pitch) and therefore speed. This was a lot smoother than when I was horsing the yoke around. Mario says we will work on things like this to get me more comfortable with ALL the controls in the airplane (people have had primary control failures and used trim and rudder to land -- it can be done, and it could save your life).
I've started to work on some of these procedure things in FLY! though my PC flight control situation is poor right now for a non-combat sim. The game port CH Pedals work (FLY!supports multiple attached controls, USB stick and game port pedals), but I can't really get them calibrated -- they seem to produce random control inputs.
So I ordered a new USB CH Flight Yoke and CH Pro Pedals (also USB) I think I'll be able to work on pattern stuff that way, even with crosswinds -- set my RPM, watch my descent, crab or slip against the crosswind depending on the situation. Some of this is just getting the procedure to be totally routine, and I think FLY!is close enough to reality for this (though it's a fuel-injected C172R with no carb heat to pull, vs. the 1980 C152 we are flying IRL - no biggy at this level, I think).
I felt very overwhelmed and not very slick last night...
...especially when Mario had to save a couple of the landings after a big bounce, but he said I'm doing fine for this stage, typical problems, and I'm not that far from solo. We need to work more on pattern and landings of course, and also on emergency procedures.
He wants to put me under the IFR hood for a bit too, since I've never done that and it's important if you end up in a cloud. Mario seems very down-to-earth, patient, and positive -- it's only been two lessons with him, but I think he will be a good CFI for me.
I bought a POH (pilot's operating handbook) for the C152 and my own fuel-tester -- it's good to have this stuff. Need to study the POH and make copies of the checklists to keep in my flight bag so I don't get fuel and oil all over the book. Yesterday I also got the E6B flight computer I ordered from Sporty's -- I prefer this over the slide rule thingy for the various calculations you need for flight planning. On my Korea trip, I will concentrate on completing the FliteSchool CD-ROM ground school course so I can take the FAA written test in July.
Depending on weather and other schedule factors...<
I hope to get 6 to 10 lessons in by September and solo the airplane.
I have to stay focused and take time to prepare for each flight so I get the most out of every hour in the air. It's hard to believe I have over 18 flight hours! I've done a lot of stuff in the airplane, essentially all of the basic tasks you need to solo. But those hours are spread over about three years, so I still need a lot of review before I can solo. But there's really no need to rush -- I'm getting there.

June 13th - Starting to Get it!

Starting to Get It! C152 at ORH (1.1 hrs dual TT 20.2 hrs).
It was cloudy and light rain at ORH, but when I called Mario, he said OK as long as we stay in the pattern (low ceiling, clouds coming in, but still VFR). So we did, and I had a GREAT lesson! I did 6 touch-and-goes and one full stop landing, and two of them were actually pretty good.
The others were bouncy, high-flare jobs, but Mario only had to take over on one of them (I added power to salvage one bouncer myself). I felt good, felt like I was actually doing most of the things I know I should do. I was fairly relaxed and felt in control of the airplane and myself. And Mario says I'm just about ready to solo! He said I was really flying the airplane out there last night. One or two more lessons and we will get that psychological barrier and life milestone out of the way. Unfortunately this will be in early July since I leave Saturday for my business trip.
The good news items include:

The BAD news items include:

I let Mario do one pattern and landing while I took some pattern photos (despite the gray conditions). May send these to MiGMan, but probably will try to redo them on another day and/or night (with runway lighting). Not perfect, but with this lesson, the good news outweighs the bad, and I feel like I finally am really starting to "get it." Landing an airplane is starting to feel like a normal thing to do. I think I should be able to solo after maybe two more lessons (one to catch up after 2+ weeks away, then final prep and solo).


I got the CH Yoke and Pro Pedals to use with FLY!on the PC, but learned today in a forum that FLY! has a bad problem with rudder behavior in flight (not enough yaw, too much roll), so you can't slip or even do real coordinated turns. They work great for taxi though, including the toe brakes. Not much time to fiddle with this now. But the real lessons are more important anyway - I'm glad I got one more in before my trip.

First solo flight

July 29th - First solo! ! !

I did it!
I soloed in a Cessna 152 (N67661) today at Worcester airport, where I resumed my flight lessons with a new instructor in early June. Worcester Airport (ORH) is only 20 minutes from home and is a tower-controlled airport with light airline traffic.
I now have a whopping zero-point-five hours as pilot in command.
The weather was the usual for Worcester -- cloudy, wanting to rain. I arrived early and spent over an hour with Mario going over my pre-solo written test. That was pretty easy MiGMan thanks all the ground school study. Meanwhile, I'm sweating the weather, since ORH started the day with fog and 100 foot ceilings. By 11 a.m. it was up to 1100 feet, but we need 1500 to meet minimum VFR (500 feet below any clouds, and pattern altitude is 1000 ft AGL, 2000 ft MSL -- visibility was fine, 10 miles). By 12:30 it had crept up to 1500 so we decided to try it -- winds were calm to 6 knots and mostly west, little crosswind.
We took off a little after 1 pm
... after a careful pre-flight -- Betty and Caroline had also just arrived to see me off and take pictures -- I sent them down to the approach end of runway 29 -- should get those Back tomorrow). We didn't expect to have much time, since a thunderstorm was expected later in the afternoon, and as that moved in, wind and wind-shear could be a problem.
One odd thing was that the ATIS frequency was off the air for some reason, so I had to telephone for the pre-flight ATIS info (that's actually a good idea since the phone call is free, while copying from the radio with the engine running costs Hobbes meter time).
Mario once again was deliberately silent (and hands off and I did three pretty decent touch-and-goes. The fourth was to be full-stop, but I flared WAY too high, bounced a lot and drifted to the right, so he said "let's see that one again". I took it around the pattern and landed OK. We taxied Back to Amity, and I left the engine running while Mario gave me some final words and hopped out (he had already signed my logbook and student certificate). His main advice was "no pressure - don't rush for ANYBODY".
I got a little stressed last lesson when we were sandwiched between two turboprop commuters and two Pipers in the runup area. When you are cleared for takeoff, take your time to do what you need to do, the other guys, big or small, can wait.
Once he was out, it seemed very..... routine!
I consciously looked down at the empty seat, said "that's odd", finished my checklist, and called ground for permission to taxi.
Just following procedures.
When I called the tower at the intersection of taxiway bravo and runway 29, I was told to hold short while another small plane landed (a Mooney I think -- I had seen him on base and final so I expected this). This gave me a minute to look for Betty and Caroline -- they were at the fence and Betty waved Back to me. Then I got "taxi into position and hold" followed shortly by "clear for takeoff, make left closed traffic". So I took off.
This didn't feel the least bit scary or odd to me, though as I expected, the C152 climbs a lot better with only one person aboard! I got maybe 1000 fpm rather than 500 or less with Mario aboard. I was careful to watch my airspeed and to stay coordinated. I remembered carb heat, radio calls midfield downwind, power reduction, and all stages of flaps.
I was not as consistent on my turns to base and final as I wanted to be, and I overshot the first one badly (shallow S-turn Back to line up, keeping the ball centered pretty well), the second one a bit, but the third was just right. I picked my landing spots each time, but didn't really stick with the decision (I added a bit of power when I felt like I was getting low a couple of times, though the VASI lights generally showed me as high - high is better than low).
The first landing was a bit "firm" but OK.
... and I kept good control as I rolled out, raised flaps, killed carb heat, and applied full power for the touch-and-go. The second landing seemed smoother, though it was long because I started to flare very slightly when I was still a bit high (hey, I got 7000 feet of runway to play with).
The third landing was full-stop, and I think the flare was good, but when the nose wheel came down, it started shaking like crazy. I pulled back gingerly on the yoke (offload the nose wheel, aerodynamic braking) while I also applied the brakes pretty hard, wanting to exit at the usual taxiway delta. ATC told me to take that exit and contact ground. I switched to 123.85 and reported "Worcester ground, Cessna 67661, clear of the active".
They told me to taxi to Amity, so I did. No special words from the tower (I hadn't mentioned first solo to them, though Mario had called them on the phone to let them know to watch out for me). But when I taxied back, Mario was there with a big grin and a Polaroid camera.
The traditional shirt ripping
Mario the patient one! - He said I did a great job.
Good on yer Dad!
Betty and Caroline showed up a moment later and we took more pictures. It was only three landings, 0.5 hours in my logbook (plus 0.7 more with Mario), but this was my first solo flight, first PIC time, so it's really REALLY cool. Now I know I can finish this private pilot's license, hopefully this year -- sure I still have a lot to learn, but that first solo is really a confidence builder after three years of start-and-stop lessons (now up to about 29 hours total time).
Mario did the traditional shirt-ripping and writing "first solo" etc on the back. I was prepared for this with an extra shirt in my flight bag so Caroline wasn't embarassed when we went to get a meatball sub on the way home. Ten year olds don't like to be embarassed by their dads, even on the day of their first solo!

August 5th - Mini Cross Country

All-dual, 1.7 hours C152
There have been a lot of days when I've been outside, looked at the sky and thought, "what a gorgeous day -- I wish I were flying!". Well Saturday was one of those days, and I WAS flying. Blue skies with a scattering of puffy white fair-weather cumulus. A little bumpy here and there, but nice. This was all-dual, 1.7 hours C152 with Mario.
I used the airport directory and NY sectional chart to do most of the pre-flight planning for a mini-cross-country, flying ORH to ORE (Orange Muni, just N of the Quabbin) to FIT (Fitchburg, along Rt. 2, over Gardner -- even saw the Gardner VOR) and back over Sterling to ORH. I hoped to detour E to fly over West Boylston and the Wachusett Rsvr., but the first part of the flight took longer than expected.
Even though it was too short to be an official cross-country, I figured it would be good practice to get all the info, mark up the chart, fill in the forms, and all that. Then on the flight, following the chart, looking for visual checkpoints, finding and approaching unfamiliar airports, etc. -- just like a real x-country. It's purely a "local" flight for Mario, but I never flew into any of these airports, so it was authentic to me! Total ground distance was only 68 NM, but flying around to properly enter the patterns probably doubled that!
Fueling up with 100LL
Over Sterling Wachusett Reservoir
Mario was impressed with my flight planning
I even got the weather and winds aloft at 3000 feet (only 6 kts at 20 degrees) but I didn't complete the corrections in my navigation log. It was harder than I expected to follow the chart on my lap while juggling 6 or 7 frequencies (ORH's 120.5, ASOS and CTAF for ORE and FIT, CTAF for Gardner when we overflew the airport at 3000 feet, ATIS for ORH, Back to 120.5). I also had to look for check point landmarks, plan my entry to each pattern, and fly the airplane! I forgot a lot of stuff along the way, but Mario said I did OK.
Things to note:
Frequency congestion is a big problem -- 3 or 4 area uncontrolled airports use 122.8 as CTAF, including ORE, and it was very noisy. It took a while to figure out that 32 was the active runway, and it took me even longer to figure out how to enter the downwind at 45 degrees for this since I was approaching the airport on the runway heading! A straight-in approach is bad form at uncontrolled fields (people need to see where you are before you just show up on final). I ended up doing a big circle around the airport which took a long time.
Watch altitude and airpseed!
I climbed to 3300 or deccended to 2800 a few times from my planned 3000 (not a normal VFR cruise altitude, but OK for less than 3000' AGL). I should have cruised faster on some legs -- 100 knots maybe. Pitch, power, trim! I should try using the rudders more for slight corrections to course (due to bumps or my wandering attention). If the airplane is trimmed well, it won't climb or drift so much when I'm fiddling with the radios. With flight-floowing on future x-countries, ATC will expect you to stay at your planned altitude.
I need to practice forward slips at altitude! I came in high into FIT and Mario told me to do a forward slip. I aggressively pushed full right rudder as he had done earlier, and rolled left at the same time, but I pulled back on the yoke! BAD MOVE. Perfect cross-control set-up for a spin at maybe 1000 feet AGL. People die this way. Fortunately the C152 is forgiving and Mario caught it in time. I need work on this!
I did OK finding the airports, though I didn't hold my planned magnetic course very well, and I didn't re-adjust the directional gyro to the whiskey compass until I passed Gardner and realized the heading could not be right if I were heading right for FIT (which I was). I got a few of my checkpoints, missed others.
Overflying Sterling is a bad plan due to glider traffic there.
-- we stayed further west, passing just east of Mt. Wachusett. We saw two gliders well above us to the SE. There were also "parachuters away at 9500 feet" over ORE. These things made Mario a bit nervous. I was not worried (big sky theory, or maybe just naive?).
GET ATIS! Before calling ORH on return I forgot to get ATIS until Mario hinted that I had forgotten something. I also need to review arrival and departure plans. It would have been nice to know the active runways before I got so close to ORE and FIT. I wish N67661 had a better radio (one with a button to toggle between active and standby frequencies -- then you can tune in the next one when you have a free moment and just flip it in when needed -- 261 has this but it climbs like a dead dog, so I'll stay with 661 when I can).
I need a knee board for flights like this -- juggling the loose chart and the other paper where I had written the TPA and CTAF info was distracting. This is a small taste of cockpit management -- I could see this being VERY important on longer x-countries. I need a timer too -- and maybe bifocals! The text on the sectional is small and looking at my watch is distracting, but I need to be timing the legs of the flight, and restarting the timer at each leg!
Gardner VOR 3000ft
On departure, from uncontrolled fields, you need to climb straight out to TPA and depart on a 45 degree turn (R or L) from there. Then turn to heading when you are at least 500' above TPA. At a controlled field, if you get "right turn approved," you can turn to course any time, though you usually should clear the end of the runway first (but OK if you are not at TPA yet).
Photos were cool since it was such a clear day.
BUT... it IS distracting, even when I say "your airplane" for the shot. PLUS I need a point-and-shoot camera with telephoto. The wide-angle Samsung doesn't cut it.
TRIM, TRIM, TRIM! Both for cruise and for pattern/approach. Trim for the speed I need! I don't do this enough, and I'm not consistent on altitudes because of this. I also play too much with the power, which is bad because it messes up your speed (and trim), which you are counting on to meet your flight plan. There are a lot of things to keep in mind up there!
Need to practice VOR intercepts and localization in Fly! or X-plane -- I used the Gardner VOR (GDM, 110.6) one time to figure out where were along the first leg (since I couldn't find the Barre race track, my second check point), but I was awkward with it. Another thing to juggle!
Quabbin reservoir near Orange
I've scheduled my first totally solo flight for tomorrow (8/8) at 5 pm, to practice pattern work on my own at ORH, if the weather is OK and cross-wind is less than 4 knots. This is followed by an hour of ground time with Mario to plan a longer cross-country together. I need to do some prep for this tonight!

Sept 10th - First Dual Cross Country Flight

This was my first official dual cross-country (greater than 50 nm from home).
10th September 2000
10:30 am to 12:30 pm
Pittsfield Cross-country
(C152, ORH-PSF-ORH -- 2.2 hrs dual, TT .....
It was a good one, with a lot of points to remember, so I better write it down while it's still fresh in my mind. The cross-country planning went pretty well - I got all the airport info (just PSF and ORH, 64 nm, no third leg this time), estimated based on 90 knots airspeed, and did approximate calculations with zero winds.
When I called 1-800-WXBRIEF and got the standard weather briefing with winds aloft, the 3000' and 6000' winds were both 6 knots, and the interpolated direction for 4500' was 25? -- so not much wind and a gorgeous day all the way around (I actually called for a briefing at 8:30 am and was told ORH-PSF was VFR not recommended due to low ceilings and fog, so I briefly considered flying to Concord, NH instead - but when Mario arrived, I called again, and PSF was clear, so we stayed with plan A).
The first big problem was that the plane wouldn't start (it was N47261 - plan was for 661, but it was in the shop for a new engine). The battery was dead - someone had flown a night flight with the alternator light on, apparently (you should look for this and cycle the alternator half of the master switch in this plane). We spent half an hour trying to hand-prop the plane, and it finally turned over (with help from Bob Karman and another CFI, Bill - Mario hates hand-propping but he was the one who finally did it after maybe 20 tries).
So we were off at 10:30 a.m.

Next challenge was getting to runway 11 - only two taxiways were open (construction), so back-taxi on runway was required, slowing everything down. We back-taxied only part way (tower said expedite, traffic on base!), then turned around and did a short-field take off (stay on brakes, 10 deg flaps, full power, release brakes).
We flew left base and departed downwind to the west (magnetic compass heading 297 deg according to my nav log). My timer and yoke mount worked well, as did the knee board with my nav log and sectional chart.
Mario had his GPS mounted but I could not see the screen - he cheated a couple of times, confirming or correcting my assumed positions (though it was really pilotage, holding a heading, timing, and VOR for 90% of the flight).
Once clear of ORH air space, climbing up to 4500' cruise altitude (west-bound, even thousands plus 500) we called Bridgeport radio (122.2) to activate the flight plan I had filed on the phone (a first for me). Then we called up Bradley Approach (119.0) and requested flight following (yet another first for me - we were near Tanner-Hiller airport and reported this).
Good thing I had recorded all those frequencies on my nav log! They gave us a squawk code and new frequency, which I wrote down and entered (only advantage of 261 is the dual-frequency radio, so you can queue up the next needed frequency). Flight following showed its value very soon, over the Quabbin Reservoir - they called out traffic at our altitude, crossing in front of us, 3 miles - we looked but Mario and I could not see the traffic (I missed my chance to say no joy on the radio!).
Bradley said if you don't have a visual, suggest you expedite descent to 4000 feet - Mario said my airplane and dived us down there pretty fast. We then looked up and saw a 172 passing left to right, just about where we had been, maybe ½ mile away. Close one!
We had a good view of Westover ARB to our SW at this point.
I had easily spotted Spencer Airport and the Quabbin south dam, and my next check point was Amherst, Mass - but we also had to avoid Northampton airport, just 4 nm away, due to parachute activity (jumpers away at 8500 feet).
I diverted a bit north of my planned track and flew right over the UMass campus - I spotted Becky's dorm area and took a quick picture (opposite). We had trouble spotting the airport, which is right at a bend in the (Connecticut?) river. I spotted what I thought was the airport, though it looked like a dirt strip ( says it's ashphalt, 14/32, 3500 x 50 feet, oh well).
On the outbound leg, I tended to gain altitude up to 4600 feet or so, but Mario reminded me that holding the planned 4500 and planned heading are especially important with flight following - you must report any altitude changes. Visibility was pretty good from 4500' though there was a lot of low haze.
Our next check point was Albert Airport, a small private strip in the Berkshires. I never saw it, but as a backup, I tuned in the Chester VOR and established that I was on the expected 022 deg radial. I also spotted a carrot-shaped lake with a dam at its S end about 10 nm SE of our position and noted this on the chart (distinctively shaped lakes or lakes with dams and radio towers seem to be the best landmarks).
Approaching Pittsfield
Now we were only 17 nm from Pittsfield, and I spotted a large town just over a hill with a radio tower - the chart confirmed that this was Pittsfield, and I spotted the airport just to the SW of the town, but very faint. I think Bradley terminated our flight following at this point, and I tuned in the ASOS to get winds and altimeter setting for PSF.
I then called up the CTAF (122.7) and gave our position, requesting the active runway. It was 26 with right traffic. As we got closer, we could see the reason for right traffic - two hefty mountains that would be right in the way of a left pattern for 26 and 32. I swung to the NW, passing over downtown Pittsfield and a high, wooded mountain ridge to enter the pattern on a 45 deg to the downwind (TPA 2200 feet).
With reminders from Mario, I called my position on each leg to Pittsfield traffic (which was nil at that point). I lined up and made a rather long, sloppy touch-and-go, climbing up over the hills that seemed to pop up rather quickly off the west end of the runway. Climbed Back to TPA, then turned right to take up my course.

Stick to the plan!
At this point I tuned in and called Bridgeport Radio (Flight Service Stations are called "something Radio" in flight) to close my flight plan to Pittsfield. Two strange things - I got Burlington FSS, and there was a mix-up on whether I had filed out and back (I had not, though I thought I did when I told the weather briefer that I was coming right back, only a momentary stop at PSF - Burlington FSS closed my flight plan for me). So we flew back without a flight plan, but we contacted Bradley on the last-used frequency (good thing I wrote it down!) and resumed flight following.
I got the Bradley guy a little annoyed when I made several course changes over the next few minutes, trying again to swing a little north and avoid the parachuters around Northampton. He had to call me out several times to other planes because my course was changing. We also missed one or two calls for us - bad move - but we were busy and Mario was telling me stuff. We again flew over UMass and I tried to take another couple of pictures, but Mario got annoyed with this, because we also were trying (and failing) to spot an airplane that radar had told us was nearby (our 11 o'clock, climbing through 4500 - we were at 5500' on the way home, as high as I have ever flown on my own).
Again I got my main checkpoints (Amherst, Quabbin dam) and we soon spotted ORH, a little patch of white just below the haze line to the east. We got Bradley's OK to switch frequencies briefly to monitor ATIS, then we shortly asked to discontinue flight following so I could call up the tower. We requested a straight-in approach from around 10 miles out (since my return heading was 109? and runway 11 is 110?), another first for me.
We were told to report 3 mile final (Spencer airport is a good reference for this, it's about 4 nm west of ORH). It was hard judging my descent from that far out, and I needed to keep my speed up because of following traffic. Tower said to land long (to avoid long taxi on runway) and turn left at taxiway Bravo, way down at the far end of 11, "no delay" due to following traffic (a 172 I think - the C152 is always the slowest thing in the pattern). I tend to land long anyway, so this was no problem!
All in all, a pretty good flight. I did most things right, kept track of my position, flew the airplane well (held 90 knots cruise and was right on 5500' on the trip home). Now I'm ready for a three-leg cross-country next Sunday in Los Angeles (EMT-F70-CNO, El Monte, French Valley, Chino).

In my flight bag

Well, Tom Clancy can give you guided tours of fighter wings and carriers, but how about a flight bag? I thought not. Well, I can !
This was something I added to my own flight notes, just for the record. It's amazing how much stuff I have in there, and how it's grown as I've learned things from various flights.
What's in the bag?
I realized that my flight bag is a pretty important part of my flying, and its contents have really grown since I started my lessons. Some of the growth is based on safety concerns, some due to learning more convenient ways to do things. Anyway, here's a little guided tour of my flight bag today. You don't necessarily need ALL this stuff, but it gives you an idea of what one late-stage student pilot has found useful.
Head set - still using the SoftComm "Prince" that I bought a couple of years ago - low end but working OK for me. Someday I'll upgrade to David Clark, made right here in Worcester, the brand preferred by most professional pilots. But I'll wait until this one breaks or something.
Log book - I've got one of the small/medium versions, easy to carry, but not much room to write notes on the flights.
Current charts - I carry a current New York Sectional chart, covering this region, as well as the VFR Terminal Area Chart for Boston's Class B air space, even though I'm usually west or north of this area.
POH - Actually it's the "Information Manual" for the 1980 version of the Cessna 152 - the official POH (pilot's operating handbook) must be updated for any changes and is carried in each airplane. This has all the information on performance, procedures, checklists, equipment, weight and balance, etc. as needed for flight planning.
Preflight check list - The approved procedure on a single sheet from the flight school.
Flight Computers - I carry both electronic (Sporty's E6B) and a manual "whiz wheel" (Jeppesen) - I tend to use the electronic one though I can use the analog wheel if necessary.
Fuel tester - I finally bought a good one with a brass rod to replace the cheap plastic version that kept breaking - you can't count on finding one in a rental airplane.
Knee board - I have a Jeppesen three-fold model with pockets for notes and pens, a clipboard to hold your chart, and a Velcro strap to hold it on my leg. This is essential for cross-country flights, though there are other styles available (the three-fold is a bit large for the tight confines of a C152 cockpit on dual flights).
Plotter - Clear plastic ruler/protractor for flight planning (plus a small one in a knee board pocket).
Timer - I have a West Bend timer with large numbers and buttons. It has two independent timers, so it's good for timing cross-country flight legs as well as total time. I wish it had an off switch because it's forever beeping when I move my flight bag!
Yoke mounts - I have two of these C-clamp-spring things, one to hold the timer in view, the other for use with my GPS once I start officially using it. Very handy.
Flashlights - I have 3 or 4 of these in the bag, including a large one (8 AA cells) for night pre-flights and in case the landing light is lost. One small one clips to the lap board and has a small flexible neck and a red filter, for chart illumination. I have yet another one with a long flexible neck that I could position and aim somewhere on the panel if I needed it. Be prepared for night flights!
Batteries - A bunch of fresh AA's for the flashlights, GPS, and transceiver.
Post-It Notes - This is multi-purpose, but one reason to have this is to cover up an instrument that fails in flight. I had a vacuum system failure on a solo cross-country, so the attitude indicator and directional gyro showed crazy readings. I didn't have any Post-It notes, but it was clear VFR, so it wasn't a problem. But if I had needed to use the other instruments, those wrong reading instruments would have been very distracting. So now I'm ready.
Tools - A couple of small tools could save you a lot of trouble in flight. I have a small set of screwdrivers, a pocket knife, and a small pair of pliers. The latter is in case a knob falls off the radio and you have to tune by turning the metal shaft (this has actually happened to me).
Pens and pencils - Always losing these, of course. Roller ball types tend to leak at altitude, in my experience - I stick with regular ball points and pencils.
Transceiver - A wonderful recent gift from the Mrs., JRC-520 nav/comm radio. This could be a real life saver in the event of radio or electrical failure in the airplane. It works great (5 W transmit power), though I haven't tested the nav part (VOR) yet. It's very small and light, really quite an amazing little toy.
GPS - Yes, all the latest gear! This is a semi-aviation model, the Magellen 315 with the now-discontinued aviation database installed. It has great satellite reception and gives me all the US airports and VOR's, but none of the special use airspace and ground mapping features of the true aviation models. But this was less than US$200 and it works great for finding the nearest airport or any user-programmed object I may want to find (also tells you your actual ground speed and track). Not allowed for primary navigation, but a great safety backup.
Wow, a lot of stuff! Over US $ 900 worth, I would estimate, though a lot of this (about US $ 500) is in the GPS and transceiver, which are luxuries in a sense. This is all in a rather beat-up Land End utility bag - maybe someday I'll get an official flight bag, but this is working pretty well for now. "
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