November 7, 2008

Fam-in' on Flightsim

For better or for worse, I'm an information whore. I'm religiously curious. One of the many joys in life is the realization that I will never run out of things to know or learn. As I learn about the air traffic control system, I never seem satisfied with the Boston Center Area A specific perspective.

I have about 80 hours flying C172s and PA28s. I flew most of that time either out of Centennial, CO (APA) or Grand Forks, ND (GFK). Obviously, being an air traffic controller and being a pilot are two different trades that are interwoven within themselves. We get memos from management telling us not to give unrealistic crossing restrictions to aircraft, and then rely on the restriction being met to maintain separation. Well, if staring at a screen with yellow data blocks floating around is all I have to base my judgment on, I'm not going to be very successful at adhering to the memo, or ensuring separation.

As a center controller, I don't work many Skyhawks and Warriors, and rarely do I work them IFR. My previous real world flying experience isn't doing me much good. I had some roommates in college who were studying for various pilot ratings, and I have picked up a good portion of my IFR flight operations knowledge from helping them study for tests. Over the years, I've also had a few opportunities to fly fancy flight simulators at big airline flight training facilities. These exciting moments were few and far between. Not willing to settle for the basic skills and knowledge required to be a half-decent controller, where on earth can I find some additional tidbits to quench my need to know? The FAA no longer encourages familiarization trips to other facilities or flying in the cockpit of airliners. The latter has been shut down after 9/11. We rarely give tours at the Center, although they will be approved if you know who to ask (and you're a pilot...).

I've been playing flightsim since my dad got our first computer in the last 1980's. Flightsim 3 I believe it was. I learned using the keypad to control the plane on the black and orange screen, and boy was I hooked. Granted, at the time, I could have sworn I wanted to be an airline pilot when I grew up. As flightsim matured, so did my aviation knowledge base. In the past few years, I've invested in a few add-on aircraft for FS2004. These aircraft have extremely realistic system's modeled, including autopilots and flight management computers. I enjoy flying around the VIRTUAL earth like I'm a full fledged captain of an airline, just like I dreamed of doing when I was 9 years old playing FS3. My endless need for information has helped me procure help in flying these fake planes in a very realistic manner. This has led to a pleasant side effect...

I have gained experience in regards to the operational characteristics and procedures of the aircraft that I work everyday. I've learned different aspects of airline operations from different sources at different airlines, but together, I can piece together a pretty good picture of what's going on on the flightdeck as planes scream through my sector. Just as a controller can be much busier than might be obvious from the transmissions on the frequency, the same goes for pilots. As a result, I tend to be less impatient with pilots, although perhaps more concerned at certain times. I realize that some things I say may be confusing, or overwhelming, or could be misconstrued.

For example, "Cross one zero miles south of Delancey at FL190". "Roger, cross ten on this side at FL190" "Negative, its ten on the other side at FL190". "Roger center, thanks, we can make that one." Understanding how the pilots are entering the restriction into their computers help me clarify the clearance next time. They enter the fix (DNY) followed by either a -10 or +10 to tell the computer to create a new location along their flight path 10 miles from DNY and then FL190 is entered into the vertical profile to tell the plane when and how quickly to descend to meet that restriction. So next time "Cross one zero miles south, that's ten on the other side of DNY at FL190" "Roger, ten south at 190". They can read it back correctly AND enter it into their computer correctly. Now they won't hurt themselves.

I also understand how autopilots are used in climb and descent modes. Aircraft climb at a set thrust setting, and the pitch attitude and rate of climb is dependent on maintaining a predetermined speed. Increasing speed requires the nose to be lowered thus decreasing climb rate. In descent, aircraft tend to descend either in vertical speed mode at 1000 feet per minute, or in a reverse climb mode. They set a speed, set thrust to idle and maintain the speed with pitch. Asking a plane to slow down in this configuration would require flatting out the descent so the speed can bleed off, or use of spoilers, or both. Neither are very effective in short time. I do my best to assign the slowest required speed prior to issuing descents and restrictions. If I have more spacing than I thought, I can always assign a faster speed, which may result in a higher rate of descent (not a bad thing when descending quickly to make a restriction anyway).

When flying on flightsim, among many other details, I also pay attention to the correlation between indicated airspeed and Mach number at different cruise altitudes. That's something I can't do in a Skyhawk!

Till next time....

DM <-- The nerd :)

1 comment:

Level 7,000 said...

I may not be a jet jock but it get pretty close. There is more going on computer wise in a cockpit...Ahem, Flight Deck, than anything else now a days. I fly freight and the only thing that I care about is how slow ATC wants me to go. Then again I am always restricted below 10,000 and by VNE at 202. That's a Baron for you. It's nice to hear the other side of the mics story from time to time.