Pretending to Fly

When I need to switch off after a week working on software development projects, the flight simulator has become something of a crutch. I suppose in many ways, anything that requires focus and concentration works. You might argue that learning how to operate a commercial airliner is a bit extreme, but somehow it seems to work.

Earlier today I arranged a virtual flight from Melbourne to Sydney in Australia – accompanied by my middle daughter, and my Dad – all via the internet, communicating over the radios, and seeing each other in our virtual worlds.

The photo accompanying the post shows the turn towards one of the “standard instrument approach routes” at Sydney International – with the Warragamba river in the background.

While flying along, making conversation with my daughter and Dad, I wondered how much this might help her sense of the world – of where the big cities are in relation to one-another – of where the various countries of the world are.

Next week a new simulator arrives – “Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020” – after twenty-something years, Microsoft is re-entering the fray, and something like a million people have pre-ordered. I’m on the pre-order list. Here’s the launch trailer:

It’s a little bit unfair in some ways – Microsoft are going to leverage Bing Maps, and Azure AI to generate accurate scenery for the entire planet. For the first time, most people will be able to fly over their own house and actually see it – the temptation to do exactly that as soon as I get it running will be incredibly strong.

Who’s up for some Zoom calls to fly around their neighbourhood – I’ll fly, and follow your directions.


Life Support

It’s nearly a week since my last blog post. In terms of “falling off the blogging horse”, this isn’t so much “fallen off the horse”, as “let the horse free, and haven’t really thought about it since”. I guess you could say the blog is on life support.

Talking of life support, our cat is doing much better. After a couple of weeks locked in the house after two rounds of surgery – wiping out our bank balance in the process – he has had the “cone of shame” removed, and is allowed out in the garden once again. He wasted no time in establishing authority – bullying neighbourhood cats out of the garden one after another. Unfortunately he looks rather comical while doing so – with his back end shaved, he looks kind of like a poor excuse for a miniature lion.

Work continues on. I’m back working full time – although still working from home. For the last few days I have been running training sessions online – helping somebody build a proof-of-concept for something.

When not washing up, washing clothes, or hobbling around the house (my broken toe is getting better – but still hurts like hell), I have carried on playing with the flight simulator. My Dad chipped in to help me buy a new plane for it – knowing we are very very broke at the moment – so now I am busy learning to operate an Airbus A321 – the same kind of plane I have flown on to Germany so many times in the past.

I’ve taken part in several group “flights” now too – organised for the group to fly various simulated aircraft from and to different destinations – on Tuesday night my 16 year old daughter acted as co-pilot while we flew a Boeing 737 from Paraguay to Brazil. Her short term memory is much better than mine, which helps a lot with carrying out air traffic control instructions. For the first time so far, the entire flight went like clockwork – from “cold and dark” at the departure airport, through to power-down at the destination.

She hasn’t seen the Airbus yet.

I watched the horror movie “The Conjuring” with my eldest daughter last night – a supposedly true story about a haunted house in 1970s America. Apparently it’s the first of a series of movies about hauntings. Now I want to watch the rest (but not too late – I’ll never sleep).

Oh. More developments today. The car packed up (broken brake caliper), and my daughter’s car needed a battery replacement. Several hundred further into the red. We’re deep into credit card territory now for the first time ever.


Virtual Flight

This “virtual flight” thing is addictive. While most people have been reading books, and watching TV shows during lockdown, I have been learning how to operate and fly a Boeing 737.

I’m not even sure why.

I’ve always been interested in aircraft. I grew up next to one of the busiest Air Force bases in England, so they were unavoidable really – always in the air overhead, or rumbling away in the distance.

Perhaps it’s to do with the complexity – the challenge of mastering something complex. Taking a commercial airliner from cold and dark on the tarmac to a humming, hissing, roaring, fifty ton lump of metal thundering down the runway and into the air – and navigating across contintents via GPS, navigation beacons, and radio communication requires a certain mindset.

In many ways I suppose the attention to detail, following of procedures, planning ahead, and working through scenarios have parallels with my real-life work. My real life work doesn’t involve travelling at thirty six thousand feet with a few hundred people’s lives depending on my skill though.

While talking to some friends about my idiotic new hobby earlier, they asked if flying an airliner was actually pretty straightforward then – given that I had learned it in a few weeks. I responded that yes, it was pretty easy – as long as everything went as planned. I have learned just enough to operate a perfectly working machine. If anything untoward happens though, I’m in trouble.

Have you ever seen a pilot being tested in a simulator? The only time they really use simulators is to throw Kobyashi Maru style tests at them (unwinnable situations) – to test their decision making skills – to find out if they follow procedures when under stress.

There’s a wonderful moment in the movie “Sully” – about the landing of the plane on the Hudson in New York – where the air accident investigation board suggested that pilots in simulators had been able to get back to a runway in the city after the bird-strike that wiped out the engines. They had one crucial advantage – they knew what was going to happen in advance.

One unexpected outcome of playing around with the simulator is taking friends on virtual flights. I’ve done a couple now. This morning I flew from Melbourne to Canberra in Australia – while being watched both by my teenage daughter (sitting next to me), and a friend on the internet (sitting at home in Melbourne, Australia).

If you would like to tag along for the ride, sit in the virtual cockpit with me, and fly from and to somewhere in the world while talking about anything and everything, let me know – all you’ll need is Zoom. If you’re scared of flying, it might even be a good way of “pulling back the curtain” – seeing what the flight crew do, and how the plane really works.


Coffee. I need another coffee. I think I might be continuing from Canberra to Sydney a little later this evening.


Heathrow to Bastia

After a few days preparation, I joined my Dad and his friends online last night for my first experience “flying” online. Twice a week the group meet up to fly between two locations around the world, using a variety of flight simulators – which through the miracles of modern software and connectivity, allow them to appear within each other’s games, and to talk to one another.

You might think it would be enough for them to operate the ridiculously accurate aircraft together and have some fun chattering while doing so – and you would be wrong. Two of the group work as air traffic controllers during the evening – alternating between the various hats involved in directing the big jets around the world – from ground, to departures, to control centres, to arrivals, tower, and back to ground.

I hadn’t planned on doing any talking at all over the radio while joining them for their flight – I was no more than an interested onlooker. Sure, I put some time into learning the systems of the plane I was flying to make sure I could get it from A to B (a Boeing 737-800 – in the picture accompanying the post) – programming the route into the on-board computers, and operating the autopilot – but other than that it was all pretty much “seat of pants” stuff.

I think I got away with it. It’s amazing how quickly you can learn quite a lot when thrown in at the deep end. Operating the aircraft wasn’t the problem (well, it kind of was, but I’ll get to that) – talking on the radio was. There is a very specific language used in communication with air traffic control – and the people I joined knew it, were practiced at it, and were comfortable with it. I kind of did my best, and it wasn’t that good. I’m tempted to read up on the correct phraseology ready for a “next time”, but in reality I don’t know when next time might be – work and home life have been all consuming recently.

I had a few glitches with the plane on-route – mostly because I’ve paid the absolute minimum to get to where I am. The plane I used came free with the simulator, and it has some – how can you put this – idiocyncracies?

The flight management computer crashed while sitting on the tarmac at Heathrow, causing me to re-load the entire simulator while everybody else was busy chattering among themselves, and re-input the entire flight plan. While on approach to Bastia airport in Corsica at the end of the flight, it went on the fritz again – turning half of the cockpit into a fruit machine, and somehow stopping the airbrakes from deploying, and the wheelbrakes from engaging at all. Long story short – I arrived very fast, and went on something of a gardening expedition.

I’m going to use a different aircraft next time – possibly a commercial one that’s – you know – been tested…


Here are some photos of the flight, which took about four hours, end-to-end:

Could this be a new hobby? Maybe.

For those that are interested, the simulator is X-Plane, the ATC voice software was TeamSpeak, I used a route planner called LittleNavMap, and a piece of software called JoinFS enabled us to see each other’s aircraft across three or four different flight simulator platforms.