Sunday, December 17, 2006

Starting to hibernate

The weather has been unseasonably warm this weekend and I did take advantage of it for a short flight yesterday, but for the most part I've been concentrating on in-house projects. Yesterday we had winds from the south at 11 gusting 15 and a high overcast at about 25,000' which was fine for a short hop to exercise the equipment and brain, but wasn't really a clarion call to spend a lot of time outside.

Since I was to be flying simply for the sake of flying, I picked an item from my practice list to work on. I deciced to do a few stalls, then investigate the edges of the stall around the type of crossed-control situations that cause spins. One of the more deadly traps a pilot can fall into is the "stall-spin" while landing. A number of things can lead to the stall-spin, but they fundamentally all share some constants: cross-control input (right rudder & left aileron, for example) and insufficient airspeed (or excessive angle of attack; they go hand-in-hand for the most part). A stall-spin from the landing pattern typically occurs on the base to final leg turn, where your altitude doesn't allow for a recovery before hitting the ground.

I started at 4,500' and slowed to stall speed, adding more and more rudder as I slowed. I counteracted the rolling tendencies from the rudder with opposite aileron. The normal stall in the RV-6 is a bit more abrupt than that of the typical rental, but not shockingly so. The cross-controlled stall (aka spin entry) is similar, but much more spectacular. A couple of fast burbles and BAM! I'm facing 180 degrees opposite heading and the nose has dropped to what appeared to be a nearly vertical attitude. Releasing the controls (keeping the rudder in would have kept the rotation going and I would have been in a spin) and gently pulling out of the resulting dive resulted in at least a 500' drop, probably more, before I achieved level flight. I climbed back up and did a few more like that, and some of the more benign straight ahead stalls before heading back to an acceptable crosswind landing.

As I arrived at Bolton, I assessed my normal landing pattern in light of what I had just learned about the stall characteristics of my plane. I fly a fairly wide pattern and I usually try to compensate for the winds just like we all practiced in those interminable ground reference maneuvers way back when, so I don't typically present myself with a reason to over bank or get my airspeed too slow. I did seem to keep a slightly keener eye on the airspeed indicator, though....

The hibernation project that allowed a brief 20 minute flight to sufficiently address my flying needs is to assess and review another piece of PC hardware attached to my PC-based flight simulator. Every now and then, a new piece of gear comes along that addresses a long-hated hassle in the control interface between human and virtual airplane. The most recent had been the NaturalPoint TrackIR system that captures my real-world head movements and translates them into the electronic commands that command an indentical movement in the virtual world. TrackIR, by far, was the coolest thing that every happened to fight sims. With the computer view tracked to physical head motion, it was as close to actually being in a cockpit as you can get, except for one thing: to operate switches, knobs, etc. it was necessary to "look" at the knob, then click on it with the mouse cursor. Well, that wasn't that easy. It was very hard to hold my head still enough to keep the knob from moving away from my mouse cursor. There was a way to lock the view while I clicked on the knob, but that was extremely invasive to the flying experience. Similarly, I also hated having to use the keyboard to type certain commands, primarily digits associated with menued ATC responses.

Enter the CH Products Multifunction Panel (MFP). It's basically a collection of 25 individual buttons, very much like the buttons on your keyboard. Each button can be placed anywhere on a 9" x 6" clear plastic surface. A printed picture can be inserted underneath the plastic surface. Each of the 25 buttons can be programmed to emulate a keyboard stroke. These mappings can then be used within the flight simulator to perform various functions.

After a few hours of figuring out how to program it, I had a configuration that let me set comm and nav radio frequencies, set the CRS and HDG bugs on the PFD, choose appropriate responses from the ATC menu, and use the Direct and Menu buttons on the GPS. I then made a series of IFR flights in the G1000 equipped Cessna 172, Mooney Something-or-Other, and Beechcraft Baron. The difference was astonishing! After swearing never to "fly" without the TrackIR again, I easily spent 4 hours using the 2D panels (no TrackIR) and the CH MFP. Once I get my USB hub moved from the other PC onto the fligth sim PC, I'll be able to use both!

Beyond being more realistic, it was also much easier to interact with the radios and ATC by using the buttons. It helped that I had taken a screenshot of the G1000 from within the flight sim and printed it on my photo printer. That made it easy to locate the buttons I needed to perform various functions with just a glance over at the MFP.

I have a lot more research to do with the MFP before I can write a full review, but so far this looks like it will be on the list with the TrackIR as another must-have item for flight sim flying.

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