Aviate. Navigate. Simulate.
Air Facts Journal

Before you think this is some kind of long diatribe on the benefits of flight sim, it’s not. I’m confident that you already accept the fact that “simming” is an extremely valuable training tool for staying proficient. But did you know it can also revolutionize the way you preflight your real flights too? I’m serious. Let me explain.

Microsoft Flight Simulator

The visuals on modern desktop simulators are almost indistinguishable from the real world.

APPROACH TO KMVL

The approach to KMVL.

A few years ago, for my birthday, I decided to fly up to Stowe, VT (KMVL). The mission: Heady Topper. A day before my scheduled departure, I anxiously awaited the TAF, looked at the MOS, and soon came to the startling conclusion that my wife had clearly paid Mother Nature off since three high-pressure systems were hovering over New England and it was severe clear all the way up.

However, when I looked at the Sectional, things started to get interesting: KMVL is nestled right between two mountain ranges, one of them topping at a little over 4,000 feet while the other was just a little below that. Now, I’m sure my flying colleagues from the West are laughing at me right about now, but keep in mind that being a pilot based out of New Jersey meant that I had never flown near anything even remotely considered mountainous and I was genuinely intimated.

rnav a kmvl

The approach contained several step downs and multiple turns.

Alright, no problem, this airport has got to have a few approaches that can help me get down without smashing into the side of a mountain. The winds were clearly out of the north so I expected I would be landing on Runway 1. And sure enough, there is indeed the RNAV-A approach that looked promising. But after pulling my neck just looking at it, that approach only exacerbated my anxiety as it contained several step downs and multiple turns to avoid, you guessed it, those pesky mountains. Yeah, I’m sure I could have flown it just fine, but the whole route was less than ideal. Another option would be to fly past the airport, do a 180 degree turn, and then enter the traffic pattern from the north.

In these kinds of situations, I’ve found that having even a basic home flight sim can prove to be invaluable. Here’s what I mean: I loaded up the last leg of my trip into the sim and then proceeded to not only fly that leg but decided to survey the entire area, virtually, to familiarize myself with both the terrain and any notable landmarks as well. For instance, the Sectional shows the Waterbury Towers as a visual checkpoint, and while flying in the sim, these towers proved to be an excellent reference point to get in and out of Stowe. So, I added those towers to my real flight plan!

This kind of prep work in the sim made the actual flight an order of magnitude less stressful. When I saw those towers during the flight, I knew exactly where to turn my head to have the field insight. And there it was. Easy peasy.

approach to groton, CT

By the time the tower told me to enter the right downwind for Runway 23, it almost felt like deja-vu.

Here is another example: I was taking the family to Mystic, CT, which meant landing at the Groton-New London Airport (KGON), an airport I’ve never been to before. Again, as part of my preflight, I flew the last two legs in both simulated VFR and IFR conditions to get a sense of how I would mostly likely enter the pattern or get vectored for an approach. By the time the tower told me to enter the right downwind for Runway 23, it almost felt like deja-vu.

The astute reader might point out that a home flight sim may not generate scenery accurately, which could lead to expectation bias during the actual flight. No argument from me. But I would counter that using a flight simulator to familiarize yourself with unfamiliar or challenging territory, or a new airport is analogous to getting a weather briefing.  It’s never going to be completely accurate, but it can give you a synoptic view of the overall landscape and help you devise alternative plans when the unexpected arises – all from the comfort of your home.

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