The down-side of ATC sessions
That dial is going backwards
Standard words and phrases
George is flying
The Phonetic Code
Like the real thing, landing in FSX is probably the most critical phase of any flight. It has been said that a crash is an uncontrolled landing, while a landing is a controlled crash. There are many ways to crash an aircraft but not as many ways seem to present themselves as when it is time to come back to Earth. Its seems likely that there are a few 'natural' pilots out there who'll always land with ease, but the mere mortals among us (like me) can struggle with this crucial phase of flight.
But before considering the perils of landing, one has to take-off. So for starters, have you got permission to take off? If not, and you are in an ATC controlled session, it is likely that your flight will be short. If you attempted such a thing in real life it is a good bet you would have your license revoked. But FSX is a game and the likely response of the host will be to eject you from the game. Taking off without permission is one of the biggest rules to break, you'll get no thanks for it and it is all but certain that you are spoiling the game for someone else.
Have you lined up on the correct active runway? Is your plane capable of getting airborne? Have you listened to any ATIS report? Are you sure the runway is in fact clear to enter or take-off from? Are you really at the end of the runway, or are you in fact only part way along it? Did the tower say you were clear for immediate take off and can you comply with that? And lastly, is your plane correctly configured for take-off? You'll probably guess that I'm coming to something here, and you'd be right.
Something I have seen several times is a plane, anything from a CRJ700 and up, struggling vainly to get airborne. It is almost painful to watch; the nose lifts (too early), nothing, and as airspeed continues to build it finally, reluctantly, grudgingly creeps upward into the sky. Sometimes the wheels don't even get off the ground. Mirroring something that has happened in real life, often with tragic loss of life, was a single omission. In that time holding short, or lining up for take-off, were a few seconds where a checklist, mental or otherwise, was not followed. I have tried this myself on different aircraft on short runways and I'm sad to say that take-off was doomed from the moment I failed to check something - FLAPS!
Moving on, you are thundering down the runway, speed is building rapidly, the engines growl, scream, or bark in response to advancing the throttles. Do you know when to rotate, that is, lift the nose? Too early and you'll stall, too late and you'll plough the ground beyond the runway with ruts. At this point you may be wondering about the significance of all those indicators on the air speed indicator. Below are a few things to look out for on the kneeboard for your plane as well as clues on the instrument panel itself.
All aircraft have a set of performance factors such as range, maximum take-off weight, fuel capacity, and so forth. Like a car an aircraft has a 'top speed' - and a whole load of other speeds to reckon on as well. Some of them are critical to that aircraft and knowledge of them is a must. Listed below are some of the speeds you need to be aware of.
Also, bear in mind that there are maximum speeds at which the different flap settings may be used as well as a maximum speed at which you may enter turbulence. Some aircraft have a maximum manoeuvring speed as well. Something else to be aware of is that because airspace tends to get congested, especially around airports, a maximum speed is enforced. Typically, this is a maximum speed of 250kts below 10000 feet (FL100) in controlled airspace.
So, you've lifted off the runway, you've checked that you are maintaining a positive rate of climb, you retract the landing gear. What next? Keep the nose up, but not too much or you'll stall. Retract the flaps in stages, decrease throttle settings, level off or climb to your assigned altitude, regulate speed, and stabilise the plane. Enjoy the flight, the next challenge is getting down in one piece. But before that there are other things to do.
Having taken off and climbed safely away you will have three options: Either you are coming straight back to the airfield you have just taken off from; Or you will be returning to the same airfield after some excursion; Or you are en-route to some other airfield, near or far.
If you are coming straight back to the same airfield you will have to complete a circuit. The circuit is the simplest way of having a short flight and getting in lots of take-offs and landings in a short space of time. The parameters of a circuit can vary a fair amount: Direction (Left or Right); Altitude (may be locally stated or set by the tower); Size (may be dictated by local conditions, obstacles, aircraft size etc). Each stage of a circuit may be referred to as a ‘Leg’.
Upwind / Runway. Irrespective of these variations the parts of a circuit are always the same. The start (and finish) of the circuit is the runway itself. Unless the conditions are calm take-off is always into the wind, that is, you take-off with the wind against you (you will also land in the same direction). Unless the wind has changed or is variable the same runway will be active until further notice. The 'circuit' has several stages and this could be referred to as the ‘runway’ leg of the circuit or ‘upwind’.
Crosswind. The circuit will have a direction, left or right. By left or right I mean that for a left hand circuit all turns are made to the left to complete the circuit, and vice-versa. After take-off comes the next leg of the circuit where you make a turn of at least 90 degrees (and another 90 degree turn shortly after) or a single turn of no more than 180 degrees in total. This stage is called the 'Crosswind' leg. In some cases the crosswind leg may be a single turn of 180 degrees onto a reciprocal heading, that is, in the opposite direction of the runway you have just taken off from.
Downwind. If you have completed the crosswind leg of the circuit and are now on the reciprocal heading you are on the 'Downwind' leg. The downwind leg takes you parallel to the runway and onwards for the next section of the circuit. Generally this leg of the circuit is flown straight and level at the designated height. It would be normal to continue downwind for a mile or two (or even more) beyond the runway before making the next turn.
Base. Having completed the downwind leg you have to make another turn(s) to complete the next leg, known as 'Base'. The base leg is a single 180 degree turn (or maybe two separate 90 degree turns) back onto the runway heading. At this point you may be starting to descend in preparation for landing. If your turn or turns are accurate enough you should now be on the runway heading, pointed more or less at the start of the runway.
Final. Having completed 'Base', with the aircraft now heading towards the runway and descending as well, you are said to be on 'Final'. (If the distance to the runway is short, perhaps only a mile or two, and you are only a few hundred feet above the runway height you may be termed as being on ‘Short Finals’. If, on the other hand, you are perhaps as much as 10 miles away, you could be said to be on ‘Long Finals’.) You fly the aircraft to line up with the runway, continue descending, and hopefully land without mishap. Maybe you won't stop and as soon as you've touched down you open the throttle again for another circuit, this being known as a 'Touch and Go'. If, on the other hand, you stop on the runway you've made a 'Full stop landing' - either way you have now completed a circuit.
If you stay within controlled airspace and are under the directions of an ATC some of your navigation is done for you. The circuit requires little navigation, your primary fix is the runway itself and the chances are that you'll be in sight of the airfield and never very far away from it.
If you are not staying in circuit but plan to return the ATC may give you some directions and then tell you to make your own navigation. And this is where navigation comes into its own. There are many ways you can do this. Navigation by maps, compass and watch, dead reckoning if you like, is a skill worthy of a book in its own right. But I expect that many of you will use the GPS or any of the navaids at your disposal, or a combination of both.
Compass. The first and simplest method is to use the magnetic or gyro compass. For example, if you take-off and then head north and return to the same airfield later on, your return will be on a southerly heading. You could perhaps have a quick look at a map and the place you are flying to is west of the airfield. So you fly out west and continue for 20 minutes before returning. On your return you fly back east for 20 minutes. That is about as simple navigation as you could make.
ADF. You may however want to make use of radio navigation aids for greater accuracy. The simplest is the ADF, the Automatic Direction Finder. You'll need to consult some maps or charts to find these but there are dozens of beacons dotted about, several may serve just one airfield. For this you will have to find the frequency for one of these (NDB - Non-Directional Beacon) and enter that into the ADF on the radio stack. If you switch on the audio for that NDB you should hear the Morse code ‘beeps’ identifying the beacon. This helps you confirm that you are in range of the beacon and that you can confirm the identify of which beacon you are tuned into.
Once done the needle for the ADF instrument will then point to where that beacon/NDB is relative to the aircraft so long as you stay in range of it. If the NDB is part of the locator beacons for an airfield and its approaches the range may be as little as 15 miles. But NDB's that mark airways may have a range in excess of 100 miles at altitude. One little real aviation note here, ADF's can be notoriously unreliable if there are nearby thunderstorms, they have been known to point towards the storm!
VOR/DME. The next kind of radio beacon is the VOR/DME. (VOR - VHF Omni-directional Rangefinder; DME - Distance Measuring Equipment.) These are really two beacons coupled on the same frequency, one part does the VOR (sometimes referred to as the Localiser), the other does the DME. Taking the DME first, if you tune into one of these beacons and you are in reception range of it there will be a read-out on the instrument panel that tells you how far you are away from that beacon. Some DME read-outs also tell you your speed relative to the beacon and how long it will take you to reach it at your current speed. DME coupled to a VOR will have a range of over 150 miles at altitude and on its own DME is a powerful navigational tool, distance to or from that beacon, or if two beacons are used you could pinpoint your position on map without referring to a GPS.
The VOR works in a similar fashion to the ADF, but is more accurate, more reliable, and has more functions. You tune into the beacon on the radio stack and the instrument should show some activity, usually the needle swinging one way or another. Also, like ADF it has audio so you can hear the Morse code identity of the beacon you are tuned to. Some aircraft avionics will display the identity code letters for you to help you ensure you are tuned to the correct beacon.
On the VOR instrument (or elsewhere with 'glass cockpits') you will see a knob on which you can set a course, either to or from that beacon. Say for example you wish to make a westerly course to a beacon but are not flying west just yet. If you then dial a course of 270 degrees into the instrument the needle will deflect one way. If the needle deflects to the left (or right) steer left (or right) of a course of 270. When you intercept that heading the needle will centralise. Now turn onto the course of 270. You will now be heading west towards that beacon. To confirm this look at the instrument and there should be a little flag that says 'To' or a flag that points up.
This method of navigation works in reverse as well and you could be flying away from a beacon at a set course. The needle will deflect one way or the other if you are off course. Also, there may be a little flag that says 'From' or points down to confirm your outbound track from the beacon. You may imagine that each degree of the compass is a like a single spoke of a wheel radiating out from the beacon. The idea of VOR navigation is to find one or more of those spokes and fly along it, either to or from the beacon. This practice is known as flying 'Radials'. For example you may be to flying on a heading of 135 degrees to a beacon, in which case you could be said to be 'Flying the 135 radial to (Ident) VOR'.
You will need to have access to aviation charts or books to find where these beacons are and what their frequency is, but this information can also be found in FSX's 'Flight Planner'. Many airfields have their own VOR/DME beacons and many of these beacons are dotted about, often where airways intersect. Lastly, you can make use of VOR/DME's with either the Nav 1 or Nav 2 radio settings. For more advanced route planning and navigation you could use both Nav 1 and Nav 2 radios tuned to different beacons. Also, with most NAV radios having an active AND standby frequency it is possible to use up to 4 beacons, two at a time, for navigation by switching frequencies.
ILS. The ILS system of beacons is a special case and will provide a pilot with crucial information for approach and landing on an ILS equipped runway. The information picked up by the navigation radio and instruments in the aircraft has 3 primary parts: 1. Runway centreline (Localiser); 2. Approach and descent path (Glideslope); 3. Distance to runway (DME). The whole ILS set-up is finely tuned and has a range of 25-30nm.
The localiser (LOC or LLZ) is used for runway centreline guidance and the respective instrument will have a vertical ‘needle’ to tell you if you are on the correct heading. If you are to the right of centreline the needle will deflect to the left, which means that you have to fly left to close in on the centreline. If you are to the left of the centreline the needle will deflect to the right, which means you have to steer to the right to intercept the centreline. On conventional or analogue instruments there will typically be two knobs to adjust, it is usually the left knob that adjusts the course (CRS). (The right hand knob is usually for the autopilot heading selection (HDG).) So, for example, if the runway heading of the ILS you are tuned into has a heading of 268 degrees you will have to adjust the course knob to that heading. On glass cockpits and more complex autopilot panels there will be a knob marked ‘Course’ or ‘CRS’ but the appearance on the screen will be similar to that of an old fashioned analogue instrument.
The glideslope or approach path indicator (GS) on the instrument (or screen) will be a horizontal line or marker that tells you if you are above or below the glideslope. Whereas the localiser is aligned with the runway centreline, the glideslope is a horizontal ‘beam’ set at an angle relative to the end of the runway. A typical glideslope will have an angle of about 3 degrees but there are a few other angles used as well. If your approach is too high the needle will be deflected downwards indicating that you need to point the nose of the aircraft down and increase the rate of descent. If you are too low the needle is at the top of the screen or instrument indicating that you must level off or decrease your rate of descent.
The DME is simple, it tells you how far away from the runway you are. The overall aim of ILS is to get the two needles to form a cross central on the indication which tells you that you are on the correct heading and approach angle for a landing. In conclusion, the combination of these 3 indications can help you make a landing on a suitably equipped runway, day or night, and in low visibility. (Note that the Nav 1 radio should be used for ILS/DME, the Nav 2 radio does not usually receive glideslope information and cannot be used for complete ILS landing information.)
Many runways have ILS for each end of the runway (there will be a 3 or 4 letter identifier for either end) on the same frequency though in a few cases a single runway may have two separate frequencies, one for each end. Another case is where a runway has ILS for one end of the runway only, if you approach from the opposite end you will get runway centreline (LOC) and DME, but no glideslope information. This situation, obviously, is not the same as an ILS approach but it is still a recognised instrument approach procedure.
GPS. Finally, a brief mention of GPS (Global Positioning System). Orbiting above Earth a series of satellites that broadcast radio signals along with very accurate time references. A suitably equipped receiver can interpret these signals and calculate where the receiver is in reference to the satellites it can detect. The system is global, that is, it can be received anywhere, and its accuracy is only limited by the number of satellites above the horizon (and be ‘seen’ by the receiver), and some obstructions such as buildings, trees, or mountains.
At home I have and still use a small handheld marine GPS receiver that is 15 years old, its accuracy is typically better than 50 feet, sometimes good to 25 feet. Some military grade receivers will be accurate to just 3 feet or less. Upon switching on, the receiver picks up the GPS signals and sometimes within 15 seconds can tell me my precise location on Earth as well as altitude. Now, put that ability into a device that has an on-board map memory and you have a fabulously powerful navigation tool. Mariners of less that a century ago could only have dreamed of such instant and accurate positional fixes. It is only natural that such technology has found its way in to the cockpit.
The use of GPS would require a small book in its own right, it has so many functions if you care to explore what the various buttons and selections do. But even without serious button pressing the GPS will display a real-time moving map of the airspace around you. It will tell you your speed, heading and position without you doing a thing. The moving map can be zoomed in or out and will display airfields, beacons, terrain, airspace in relation to your current position, and much else besides. Flight plans can be fed into the GPS and some planes can even fly a programmed route laid into it by the pilot. Other information and references are at your disposal should you care to explore them.
With all these instruments at your disposal there seems to be little excuse for getting lost - assuming you know how to use them! The above are brief, simple descriptions of navigation aids. Complete in-depth articles about these can be read on FSX's 'Learning Center'.
© Derek Haselden 2017