Flying The “Sim”


Flying under Instrument Flight Rules, or IFR, is like no other kind of flying. It is truly being master of the sky, without being able to see out the front window, while using various electronic instruments to track of your position in a dynamic 3-D environment.

One of the requirements of exercising your instrument privileges is to remain “instrument current”, per the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs). Instrument skills deteriorate rather quickly when not used, and flying in the clouds without currency is not safe or legal. Instrument currency is important for safely navigating through the weather and flying an instrument approach to an airport, without hitting any towers, buildings or terrain in the process.

FAR 61.57 calls for tracking and intercepting courses, ATC holds, and a minimum of 6 approaches at least every 6 months, while in actual or simulated instrument conditions. These activities must be logged. Keeping current with actual instrument approaches in Florida is sometimes difficult. In the summertime “instrument meteorological conditions”, or IMC, usually goes hand-in-hand with thunderstorms. In the winter, skies are normally clear and there are few days with low clouds. 

For many General Aviation pilots, staying instrument current boils down to one of two choices: Flying the plane “under the hood” with a safety pilot, or in an FAA approved flight simulator.

Last week, I made an appointment with Air Orlando Flight Operations for some time in their flight simulator and with an Instrument Flight Instructor, or CFII. My goal was to brush off some “rust” and maintain currency. Air Orlando has a MOTUS Flight Simulator that is approved by the FAA for training and currency requirements. As with all simulators, the MOTUS is very sensitive in both pitch and roll. Initially it can be frustrating just keeping the aircraft straight and level.

The MOTUS is a full-size, 6 degree motion simulator. It is nothing like flying MS Flight Sim on a PC, using a joystick and a 20 inch monitor. These units use multiple wrap-around full screens to give you the illusion you are in a real cockpit.

MOTUS Panel

MOTUS "cockpit"

Instructor Control Station

For me, using a “sim” is a very time and cost-effective way of staying instrument current. In 2.5 hours I was able to perform the required tracking, intercepts and approaches under simulated IMC without ever leaving the ground. My CFII, with the click of a mouse, was able to place me at or near any airport in the country. He could (and did) throw system failures at me, and change the weather on a whim. It is foolhardy to go out in an aircraft at night into a level 4 thunderstorm to shoot approaches. It can safely be done in the simulator. With a Sim, the instructor can spend 100% of his/her time teaching, rather than looking for traffic.

With my instructor manning the computer screens at the control station behind me, I completed 6 instrument approaches; three at Orlando Executive and three at Ft. Myers-Page in SW Florida.

Beginning at KORL, I “departed” RW 7, went into the “clouds” at 500 feet. I then intercepted the ORL 309 radial outbound, to a hold at MAMBO intersection. After two turns in the hold, I proceeded south to intercept the localizer for the ILS 7 back at Orlando and completed the approach.

Next, my instructor repositioned me just northwest of Melbourne, KMLB, to set up for the Backcourse Localizer approach to RW 25 at KORL. This is where an HSI really shines. On a backcourse approach, the course selector is set to the inbound course, or in this case 070 degrees. This eliminates the reverse-sensing issue you encounter when flying a BC approach with a normal VOR/LOC indicator. With an HSI, you fly towards the needle as though you were on the inbound course.

ORL ILS 7

ORL LOC BC 25

ORL GPS 7

After flying the GPS 7 approach at ORL, my instructor then repositioned my “aircraft” 6 miles east of the Lee County VOR, RSW. Acting as ATC, he cleared me for the full approach to the ILS 5 at Ft Myers-Page Field, KFMY, via the Lee County VOR Transition. Over CALOO, the Locator Outer Marker, I turned southwest to track the localizer outbound for the procedure turn and the approach.

The next approach was the VOR 13 at KFMY. My CFII “cleared” me to depart SERFS intersection and intercept the 187 degree bearing to the CALOO NDB/Outer Marker. Using the movable card RMI, I intercepted and tracked the bearing southbound to FIVER intersection, the IAF. From there I tracked the 129 degree radial inbound to the airport to complete the approach.

FMY ILS 5

FMY GPS 23

FMY VOR 13

The last approach of the day was the GPS RW 23 at Ft Myers. This approach was the simplest of all because it is charted as a traditional GPS “T” approach. I navigated direct to MESIK, the IAF, and followed it to APASY intersection, and then the final approach course inbound.

After the end of each approach, the instructor paused the Sim and critiqued my performance. Using his computer screen, he showed me my various ground tracks and any altitude deviations. He was able to point out my strengths and weaknesses right after each segment, something not really possible when flying a real airplane and having to scan for traffic.

At the end my session I was worn out, but confident that I am current again in the airplane. If you struggle like me to log sufficient actual approaches while IMC, I recommend you check out your local flight school to see if they have a simulator you can use to stay current. It is well worth the time and effort. And most likely cheaper than using an aircraft.

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