All seven (I added one that I will probably tell you about later) of my New Year's resolutions are on track, despite all the time I used creating the ultimate spreadsheet to track my progress at each in comparison to progress through the year 2011. (Today, as I write this, it's January 14th and we're 3.56% through the year, but I have earned at least four percent of the arbitrary points available for each item). Go me!
My sim progress is in part thanks to X-Plane Mobile, recommended by a reader. I feel stupid saying this, but I am playing with a flight simulator game the size of my hand, and it's a valid simulation of a real instrument scan and some of the thought processes and multi-tasking that go with flying an actual airplane. I was looking for a clunky little app that simulated hold entries, descent profiles, or some other semi-intelligent task, just to elevate my bored moments from Pac-Man and Mahjong to something more skill-enhancing. And what I got was a full flight simulator for ten bucks.
The iPod becomes both the flight yoke and the instrument panel. You control elevator and ailerons by tilting the device, and the rudder autocoordinates, including for slips on crosswind landings, while you are airborne. There's a slider for the rudder if you want to control it, and the same slider operates rudder/nosewheel steering while you are on the ground. There are also sliders for the flaps and throttle which appear when you put your fingers on them, then fade away again once they are set. You can fly it visually--yes, it has full, realistic-looking graphics--with a simulated HUD overlay, or press an onscreen button to be in panel mode and fly by instruments. A clever feature for visual pilots is a little arrow that points to the nearest airport. I know I lose track of airports when I'm visual in a flight sim, trying to fly a circuit but there is only a forward view. There are seven different airplane model options including singles, twins, jets and props. The ones that I've flown seem reasonably modelled. All but the basic Cessna 172 panel include VORs and ILSes but not NDBs, and there are six regions to fly in, five in the United States and one crazy mountainous one in Austria. You can even set the weather, time of day and the weight and loading of the airplane.
The regions are quite small, so if you go bombing around in a fast airplane you'll scroll off the end of the screen and wrap around again, which is kind of confusing, but you can always hop out to the map to see where you are. People who use flight simulators in order to look at the pretty scenery will find it repetitive, but I say if you want to look at scenery, just cruise around Google Earth. I start it up, take off, slam it into panel mode and stay there for most of the time.
That in itself poses a little problem. The HUD screen is the hub of the simulator. You have to be in HUD mode in order to operate the landing gear, see the gear position indicator, or access the map. On the jet panel you can scroll down to find a gear button above the nav radio, but not on the King Air. The way I normally fly an instrument departure is to set the power, look out the front window until rotation then right away I'm on the instruments. I confirm a nose up attitude and a positive rate of climb, then raise the gear. With this sim I need to pause, switch to HUD mode, unpause, raise the gear, pause, switch back to panel view, and back on the instruments. The same routine applies at glideslope intercept on the ILS approach. If I do it without pausing I tend to get off track or altitude. Maybe it's just something for me to practise.
You have to get the instrument plates to fly approaches. I was sort of surprised that the app or at least the support page didn't include them. The US ones are all available easily from links on AirNav, but I had to search through a few dead links to find the Austrian ones; there's just one airport, Innsbruck LOWI, depicted for that region.
After the mobile fun got me psyched to try the Microsoft one again, I grumbled my way through loading it into memory. It actually required me to insert one of the CDs, I'm not sure if that was for copy protection or because I did a minimum install. I wish there were a "no scenery" or "wireframe scenery" option for these things. They'd be a lot faster. They don't make the Microsoft version anymore, but the full version of X-Plane runs on a PC. The Microsoft one is good enough, but I took a peek to see how much the X-Plane one goes for. It's $30. I thought a full flight sim program would cost five times that. I fell silly buying a full on simulator when I never look at the scenery, but pretty soon I'll have had $30 worth of aggravation out of this seven year old Microsoft program. If my hardware can handle it, I may have to switch. Would you believe that X-Plane even has technical support where you e-mail them questions, and a real person e-mails you back? He called me "sir" but then ATC does that sometimes too. I guess my pilot voice isn't much more girly than my typing.
If you prefer your flights of fancy to have some chance of getting you somewhere, and have some multimedia skills, check out Cathay Pacific's Around the World in Eighty Days promotion. Air tickets, hotels and spending money everywhere their network goes for eighty days. Don't forget to stop in Siem Reap and see Angkor Wat.