Saturday, October 6, 2007

flying the virtual skies, again.

So I'm doodling along in my little airplane again, for a quick jaunt over to Martha's Vineyard.

Fifteen miles out, I radio the tower at Vineyard Haven to get landing clearance, and they curtly respond that my "request is denied--airport is presently IFR only", meaning they'll only allow instrument landings via their fancy-schmancy ILS system. I, however, am VFR at present.

Well, I'm too lazy to file an IFR flight plan fifteen miles from the destination airport, and it's only virtual ATC anyway, so I do what no real-life pilot should do if they value their airman certificate: I switch off the radio, fire up the GPS, and ride the sucker in without landing clearance, just for fun. Hey, the weather outside doesn't look that bad, and with the GPS and its approach path display, I can practically get her onto the ground on autopilot, right? Besides, I shelled out three quarters of a c-note for this game, and I'll land my freakin' airplane wherever and whenever I please. (Actually, most of the time I dutifully follow ATC instructions, and I never even request a different runway when they direct me to the least convenient one, where the approach pattern requires three loops around the airfield from my current position.)

I fly with real-world weather, updated every fifteen minutes, and it turns out that Martha's Vineyard is fogged in this evening like you would not believe. I follow the final approach indicator on the GPS screen, and let Robby the Robot take me down the glide slope in 500-foot increments. At 600 feet and a quarter mile out from the runway threshold, I still don't see any runway lights. Guess they weren't kidding when they said "airport is currently IFR." If it wasn't for my steam gauges and the GPS in front of me, I'd have no idea whether I'm even upside down or right side up.

I miss the runway completely, of course. I'm overflying it at 500 feet AGL and 80 knots airspeed, and I don't see so much as a flicker of runway lights until I've already passed the threshold on the far side of the runway, and momentarily catch a glimpse of the runway lighting in the right rear window. The fog is so thick that I never see so much as a bulb of the ALS, even as I pass over it at 500 feet.

Quick 360 to re-acquire the runway....ah, there it is, the lights barely visible even at 300 feet AGL. I drop full flaps, bank fifteen degrees to the left to line up with the runway, and nudge her down. By the time the rubber meets the asphalt, I'm already halfway down the runway, but luckily I am flying a Maule Orion, which can stop on a dollar bill and leave room for fifty cents of change. The taildragger sets down the rear wheel at fifty knots, I hit the brakes, and a hundred feet later, I'm stopped.

Now, I'll grant that the adrenaline factor would have been about a hundred times worse in a real airplane with my real hide at stake, but it was an educational experience nonetheless. Tamara says that she can't understand the appeal of a simulator that lets you fly from A to B without engaging something with machine guns or AA missiles along the way, but flying a little general aviation bird at night and in instrument meteorological conditions can be every bit as exciting as blotting virtual MiGs out of the sky.

Yeah, my hobbies are capital-N nerdy. You take care of two kids all day long, and there's not much energy or money left for dirt bike racing or Cowboy Action Shooting. At least digital avgas is cheap, and engine overhauls on a virtual airframe are totally affordable.

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