The Land(ing) Ethic

This blog really has no point. I don’t provide incisive social commentary. I don’t provide stunning little vignettes of beautifully mundane episodes of daily life. And I don’t even make people piss themselves laughing. What I am going to do today, however, is contribute something that is at least useful to the world wide web. Namely, a guide on how to land a big jet in a computer flight simulator. This is not going to send my readership through the roof like that American girl who found the fake Apple stores, but if it helps to expand my readership beyond its current loyal following (hello Al, Mike and Scott) then it can only be a good thing.

Leaving Kyushu - note the kick-ass bridge below

I’ve taken a bit of a shine to X-Plane in the last six months, largely because it doesn’t induce the unhealthy rage that Pro Evo or Gran Turismo bring on. There is something oddly serene (and more than a bit nerdy) about sailing about in the skies, kind of like an interactive Google Maps around which one can breeze at one’s kerosene-fueled leisure. Unfortunately, however, landing is damn difficult, and when I started playing (I say ‘playing’ and not ‘flying’ because I am, after all, a gamer and not a simmer, and like to think I still remember the distinction between virtual reality and the real world) I couldn’t find a single piece of information on the internet that would tell me how to land a jumbo jet manually. There were screeds and screeds of guidelines on how to work the ILS, locate the glidescope and punch a flightplan into the computer, but nothing that showed me how to switch all the computers off and just land the blasted thing with my own fair hands. Now, the reason for this is more than likely that real pilots never land things Biggles-style any more, but if – like me – you just want to potter about in the skies at your own leisure, I reckon you’re going to want the satisfaction of being able to watch the replay and say ‘I did that all by myself’…

With that in mind, I have complied the following brief guide. I shall illustrate this guide with a flight I did last night from Kita-Kyushu in southern Japan to Fukui on the western seaboard of the Land of the Rising Sun’s main island. Incidentally, I was ‘flying’ an Air France Airbus A330, one of the nicest free-to-download jets available for X-Plane and developed by Samen, Thomas Ruth and their team.

1. Figure out where you’re going and what direction the runway is. If, like me, you’re just into flying around like a loon and kind of like the colonial sense of adventure that comes with not knowing what’s at your destination, chances are you haven’t put together a flight plan and are just going to rock up at wherever you fancy going and see what happens. To aid your approach, you may wish to consider using Google Maps or your iWhatever (or even, *shudder*, an atlas) to get a rough idea of where you’re going and what direction the runway faces – something like Google Maps will let you zoom right in and see what side of the city the airport’s on, what direction the runway faces etc. This will help you to point your plane in the right direction – just line it up to the satellite map in the game and to the hard bits at the side of the sea below you;

Remember these? They do exist outside the geography classroom!

2. Descend slowly and gradually. Planes are very heavy and will accelerate very quickly if you point them downwards. Paradoxically, most of the time they also want to fly, and as such take a lot longer than you think to plunge to earth. So what you want to do is start to descend early, and do so at a controlled speed. A good way to think about when to start descending is to make a mental note of how long it took you to reach your cruising altitude from the airport you took off at – quite simply, when you get up to cruising altitude, have a look at where you are on the in-sim map, and clock the kind of distance you covered to get there since taking off. Just start descending at the same distance out from your arrival destination – plus a little more to give you plenty of time, of course. For a shorter flight where you might not get all the way up, just start your descent a little before halfway;

En route from Kita-Kyushu. Just before halfway, so a good time to start slowly descending.

3. Watch your speeds and rates. Following on from the above, if you just point the plane nose-down and aim for the ground you will die. You want to keep the plane at a reasonable speed (big airliners will have ‘overspeed’ markers at about 320 knots – if you go over that the jet will shake itself to bits) and descend at a reasonable rate (about 500 feet per minute, maybe a bit more early on in the descent if you feel you need to get down quicker). I know this is only a quick guide and the idea is to be able to land without being overly realistic, but keeping the speeds/rates in check early on will stop you having a massive accident when you get to the runway;

Appropriate sustenance is a key part of virtual aviation.

4. Keep an eye on your progress. Keep checking the map and looking out the window to see where you are in relation where you want to land. In particular, keep an eye on your altitude in relation to distance to the airport – if you feel you’re a bit high, it’s better and safer to lose the altitude sooner rather than later, i.e. consider upping your descent rate for a bit then slowing it again. Also keep watching your trajectory in relation to the runway/approach path. Make adjustments to your course as necessary to make sure you’re going to arrive at the airport on the right heading for the approach – or at least know where to make turns. If X-Plane hasn’t ‘loaded’ your chosen destination yet (might happen if you’re computer’s a bit rubbish like mine), consult your trusty atlas to get an idea of where your plane is in relation to the scenery around you and your final destination. Make adjustments as necessary;

We can see from here that Fukui Airport runs from 180 degrees to 360 degrees, i.e. due north to due south, so we want to come at it on a heading of due north.

N.B. for people who really do just want the absolute bare minimum of info to be able to land, this is where to start reading…
5. Get psyched about 20nm out. When you get to about 20nm out, start to get in the zone for landing. You’ll know it’s about 20nm out because you’ll be at the edge of the red circle that comes up when you click on the airport on the map whilst on minimum zoom. At this point, you want to be slowing down to about 250 knots and coming down (slowly!) through an altitude of about 8,000 feet. This is also a good time to make sure you’re on track for the runway – check your plane’s on course to come in through the ILS ‘cone’ coming out from the runway, or if it’s a smaller strip, go into high-speed view and check you’re going to approach the runway from the right angle;

20nm out. Game face on.

6. Slow down and start to get the flaps ready. Between 10 and 15 nm out, you’re going to want to slow down to a speed at which you can start to wind out the flaps. You’ll want to be at about 5-6,000 feet here. On most big jets, the speed at which the flaps can start to come out is about 230 knots. Dial this into the autopilot, and/or use the speedbrakes to help you;
7. Get in the game. It’s not what’s really done in real life, but I like to kick out the autopilot at about 5,000 feet, get in the game nice and early and land by hand. Turn the autopilot off, give the controls a wiggle to get a feel for them (this is DEFINITELY not done in real life) and take back control of your plane;
8. Look out for the runway. This is a computer game after all, so at some point the appropriate graphics will load and the runway will ‘pop up’. The first thing you’ll see will be a yellow dot on the horizon. What to do now is to zoom right in on that, see where the runway is, and start to make adjustments to make sure you’re on the right track. Go into 3D view and zoom in rather than dipping the nose to get a better view – it’s a bit safer. Once you’ve sighted the runway, things start to unfold pretty quickly…

There it is! The alarmingly short runway at Fukui. The big airport just round the corner at Komatsu should have been a clue that this wouldn't be too big, but let's give it a bash anyway...

9. Bring out the flaps. As you slow down, start to extend the flaps. Bear in mind that you’ll need to be going slower and slower the more you extend the flaps, otherwise they’ll get ripped off and you will plummet to the ground in a tail of smoke and debris (in fact, fancy jets like the 777 and A340 will just flatly refuse to extend the flaps if you’re too fast). Also be mindful of the way a plane’s nose can rise when the flaps are extended, and be ready to counter this;
10. Manage your descent. Now that you’ve got sight of the runway and we are doing a completely ‘visual’ approach, there’s no need to worry too much about distances – because you can see exactly where you’re going. The trick now is to keep the plane’s descent fairly constant, slow, steady and smooth. Use thrust to manage the descent, keeping the nose up. Watch the altitude indicator, and adjust the nose/thrust accordingly to stop you from sinking too fast. As my favourite author and aviation non-expert Robert Twigger puts it in Real Men Eat Puffer Fish, don’t be tempted to try and ‘land’;

On a short runway, the view from the cockpit may be a little limited, so do the equivalent of peering forward and looking out the window...

...and switch to nose view briefly to get a better sense of what's going on, seeing as you can't move your head in the sim!

11. Drop the wheels. As the title suggests, when you’re coming in to land, with the runway in full view and just ahead of your plane, lower the undercarriage. At this point, move the speedbrakes up into the ‘arm’ position so that they deploy when you hit the ground. Note that the undercarriage will slow you down a lot!
12. Keep it smooth. As you approach the runway, you should be coming down through about 1,500 feet. You probably want to hear the comptuerised ‘one thousand’ call just before the start of the runway disappears under your plane. If you hear the annoying English woman saying ‘sink rate, sink rate, sink rate’, you’re falling too fast and will bounce or crash on landing. Apply a wee bit more thrust or a little more nose up to counter, but not so much that you start to rise again;
13. Land at a good angle. It goes without saying that all of this time, you should be making minor adjustments to ensure your plane is approaching the runway in the right direction. What you also need to do now is to make sure you land on the back wheels first. When the altitude voice (you won’t miss it) counts down through thirty, twenty, ten, raise the nose to about 7-8 degrees up. At ten feet, kill the thrust, keep the nose up and let gravity do its sweet thing;

Ready to land...

And the proof of the pudding is...

...in the eating! On the ground, albeit with a rather high nose.

*Those of you wanting only the bare minimum can stop reading now – good luck working out what to do once your plane’s wheels touch the ground! Just remember not to get blasé just because you’re on the ground – you are in control of a very heavy piece of metal that is still moving at a very high speed towards some very unforgiving terrain…
14. Get your bearings and figure out what’s going on. For relative novices like me, the period prior to landing is still punctuated with occasional gasps and the frequent swear word with elongated vowels. So once the rear wheels hit the ground, you’re going to need a moment to figure out what’s going on and what is unfolding. Have you bounced? Are you rising again? Is the nose wheel still in the air? Is the plane starting to slow down? Work out what’s happening before you do anything else. For the purposes of this exercise, let’s assume your wheels have connected with the ground, or have reconnected with the earth after a short bounce;
15. Start to slow the plane down. Don’t be in too much of a rush to bring the nose down – if you do it too quickly, the nose will bounce skywards again and you’ll be in a bit of a pickle. Rather, let the nose come down naturally and gently as the plane slows. When the front wheel has touched the ground and you feel the plane settle, apply the brakes and crank up the reverse thrust as required to slow the jet down. Keep the flaps and speedbrakes deployed until you’re practically stopped – you’d be surprised at how much momentum an airliner can carry;

Stopped on the runway, nothing broken and nothing smoking.

16. Get to a nice, controlled speed, then exit stage left. Once you’re under control and nearly stopped, bring up the flaps and retract the speedbrakes. I emphasise the nearly part of nearly stopped, because you’re going to want to be practically stationary before you even attempt to turn onto a taxiway. When you’re going slow enough, turn off the runway and head to a gate to park at your leisure. Miller time.

Made it! Docked and time to crack a beer.

or…15b. Control the bounce or go round and try again. If your approach and/or landing hasn’t gone entirely to plan, there is no shame whatsoever in powering up, looping back round to about 10nm out and coming in again, learning from what you did wrong the last time. In fact, many real-life aviation incidents happen because the pilots try to press on regardless and land too late, or with excessive speed, rather than going round and coming in sensibly. If you have bounced and think you have enough runway to bring it back under control, though, then remember to keep the nose up, add a little power if need be, and wait for the back wheels to connect with the hard stuff.
So there you have it. How to land totally unrealistically for those who don’t take their serious flying games too seriously. Kind of like winning Championship Manager by always playing 4-3-3 and buying Orri Freyr Oskarsson for every team you go to. Next week, loop-the-loops.
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