I arrived at Cirrus Aviation about five minutes before my scheduled 10am Redbird lesson. Up until now, my only experience with a full-motion flight simulator had been in an old World War Two Link Trainer in my sophomore year of college. Today, I was going to train in the cutting-edge Redbird FMX.
No disrespect to the venerable old Link, but it had its share of limitations. For one thing, the pilot had to supply the technology for the visual part of the simulation. It was called “Your Imagination”. Second, what I remember most about the Link was that it would nearly fall over and make a loud “thunk” whenever I attempted a left turn.
The Redbird is a totally different animal. With its wrap-around visual displays, digital glass panel, three-axis movement, and realistic control feedback and feel, the Redbird is true-to-life simulation. This was going to be fun.
My preparation for the lesson was minimal. The first order of business was to find my old logbook. After that, I googled “Redbird glass panel”. I’d never flown with a glass panel before (yes, I’m a “steam gauge” guy), and I wanted to see how it displayed instrument readings before I actually had to use it.
I walked into the Cirrus student center at five minutes before ten and was greeted by Zubair, my instructor for today’s lesson. He shook my hand and asked what I wanted to work on in the Redbird.
“Well,” I said, “let me give you a little background first.” I laid my logbook down on the desk and opened it to the last entry. “I’m a CFI, but my last flight was on June 28th, 1997. I just need to work the rust off before I go up for an aerobatics lesson next week in the Super Decathlon.”
Zubair took it all in stride, but he couldn’t resist the urge to needle me a bit. He glanced up after looking at my logbook and smiled. “So, we’re starting you at the beginning then?” Funny guy. I liked Zubair already.
He fired up the Redbird and we climbed inside. The plan for today’s lesson was a pretty straightforward checkout: turns to headings to get the feel, then slow flight, a stall series, and finish up with touch and goes.
Zubair lined me up for a straight out departure from runway 32 at SRQ, and I took the controls for a normal takeoff and climbout. I was surprised at how realistic the views were from the cockpit, and was amazed at the feel and backpressure I got from the controls (and no loud “thunks” when making a turn!)
Zubair talked me through the turns, stalls, and slow flight, and though I wasn’t nailing the headings and altitudes with checkride-worthy precision, I wasn’t that far off. But the fun part was the touch and goes. We did seven or eight trips around the pattern in various wind conditions, and I actually felt like I was back in a Skyhawk again, craning my head around to get a peek at the runway to determine the beginning of my turn to base, and again when I was preparing to turn to final.
When he was satisfied that we’d met our goal of getting me ready for my aerobatic lesson, Zubair decided that it was time to have some fun. He reset the Redbird for San Diego, and set me up on a northbound course just off the coast. After chuckling to himself and making some inputs to the sim program, Zubair looked at me and said, “Just try and keep it in the air.”
The next 20 minutes was a series of wild rides, with a one thousand pound man in the backseat and a ridiculously aft CG, to variable winds at what seemed like hurricane velocities, coupled with engine failures and total electrical system failures.
We ended the Redbird lesson at 1.0 on the hobbs, and Zubair wrote the first entry in my logbook in eighteen years. The aim had been simply to work out the kinks in preparation for my aerobatic lesson, and we certainly managed that. But I also walked away with much more.
First of all, I’d started my lesson in the Redbird wondering if I still even knew how to fly after eighteen years. But I quickly realized that all of those hours of flight training and practice were still in me just waiting to be accessed. In response to control feel, visual cues from the displays, and instrument indications, my hands, feet, and eyes just seemed to know where to go even before my mind appreciated what was happening.
Second, I am now a major fan of simulation-based training. The realism of the Redbird makes it incredibly useful and time/cost efficient for all kinds of training scenarios from instrument training, to emergency procedures, to simple practice of most any training maneuver.
Even the “wild” rides we did for fun in the last 20 minutes proved useful. Zubair programmed the simulation so that the airplane was operating outside of normal approved limitations, effectively making me a test pilot. Each of those scenarios forced me to quickly assess what the airplane was doing and why, and what I needed to do as a result to try and get the plane safely on the ground.
Our mission had been accomplished. When I got into the Redbird, I thought I would need ten or more hours before I could fly the 172 again. When I climbed out, I was convinced I could do it in two or three, and I was starting to look forward to my aerobatic lesson with Michael Christmann.