Dekalb Peachtree airport is roughly five miles from my house which is located in the north part of Atlanta. Since PDK is the second busiest airport in the state of Georgia, it wouldn’t be my first choice of jumping back into the aviation scene as smoothly and inexpensively as possible. However, I rationalized since it is convenient, I would be more likely to want to rent a plane there, and it would prepare me to fly in the most challenging ATC environments, something my previous experience was lacking. In the past I had flown in an out of crowded airspace, but it had always been more stressful than routine. By continually exposing myself to a busy airport and the sharp, accurate, and formal communications required to operate within, what was once stressful, would hopefully now become routine. Commercial pilots are allowed to chuckle at this point. Remember, not for the grace of a Cessna 152 go thou.
My initial flight training had been at an uncontrolled field renting light two seat training aircraft for around $35 and hour wet, $50 with an instructor. Surprise, my FBO of choice is a Cessna Training Center and the least expensive aircraft is an IFR certified Cessna 172R for $130 per hour. If you want the dude or dudette sitting in the right seat to be more qualified than the official chart holder, that will cost you another $55 an hour. Since they are out of production, C152s are harder to come by. There is an operation on the other side of the field renting the new Austrian plastic fantastic Diamond DA20, but the price is nearly the same as my chosen Skyhawk. Anyway, it would be hard to kill yourself in the 1955 design, even when flown by a ham-handed fifty-two year old like Chipwich. “Dancing with the one who brung me”, seemed like a reasonable path to follow.
If you haven’t flown or sat in the current rendition of the ubiquitous 172, or in any newer general aviation aircraft as was the case with me, you might be in for a shock. I estimate that most likely twenty percent of the current training fleet have glass panels, usually the Garmin G1000 with its twin large multi function displays (MFD). Respectively, they are the primary flight display (PFD) and the navigation display (ND). As of today, my FBO of choice has two G1000 equipped Cessnas, a 182 and 172, and I have visited FBOs that run an all glass fleet. A student pilot or one simply renting, can easily find glass transition training being offered at most FBOs.
The remaining aircraft are usually well equipped with a moving map GPS, sometimes a larger slaved MFD, and I was surprised to learn that all of ours have two axis autopilots with altitude intercept. I imagine that Piper and Diamond training centers offer much the same, with the later offering even more technology than the traditional manufacturers. The point is that you pay more, but you get more aircraft as well.
The Real N109TJ at PDK Flight Academy
With FBO chosen, I searched AOPA online for an FAA certified MD, got through my medical exam, and signed up for some dual “recurrent” instruction. Selecting a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) amounted to finding someone who could train on weekends, and preferably the first couple of hours of the flight schedule. I wanted avoid afternoon thunderstorms, as well as take advantage of the smoother air experienced during the morning hours. Weighing my previous flight experience, the time since spent in PC simulations, and not a small amount of enthusiasm, I estimated that I would probably need three to five hours of dual flight instruction with a CFI, which would do double duty as the aircraft checkout required by every FBO and their underwriters before they will cut you loose in one. There was also the hour of ground review needed to satisfy the FAA requirements of the Biennial Flight Review (BFR). I picked up the latest copy of the popular Gleim’s Private Pilot written exam review, along with a little publication from ASA entitled, “Guide to the Flight Review”. I studied the Gleim book as if I were preparing for the written, and reviewed the ASA BFR guide in prep for the ground review. This probably sounds like overkill to you real life pilot types, but the truth is in 18 years I had forgotten a lot of the knowledge required to safely pilot an aircraft, and furthermore in that time the FAA had decided to completely reclassify the airspace.
To prep for the flying part, I had MS Flight Simulator X, and CH Products USB yoke, throttle quadrant, and pedals. FSX has a very competent Cessna 172SP, but suspecting that the default flight model could be improved upon, and knowing I would be doing real life flying in the R version, I looked for a third party add-on with an accurate cockpit, complete checklist, and improved FM. I found most of that in Flight 1 Software’s 172 Skyhawk add-on for FS9 and FSX. The AVSIM review is here.
Since my FBO’s Cessnas were primarily equipped with Bendix / King avionics stacks, including the KLN94 GPS with moving map, I searched for a replacement to both the FSX default and Flight 1 Skyhawk Garmin equipped panels. I found a relatively accurate, inexpensive, and easy to install add-on from Friendly Panels. Their Gauge Pack 1 – Version 2 fit the bill nicely.
Flight1 Skyhawk with Friendly Panels Popup Gauge and KLN94
Running the Friendly Panel install procedure resulted in the FSX default Cessna 172SP now having three new versions of the aircraft equipped with three different 2D pop up panels, all Bendix / King stacks. Each new aircraft sported one of three different GPS units included with the Gauges 1 package, the KLN89B, the KLN94, or lastly one equipped with the Garmin GNS530. It should be noted that these replaced the default pop-up radio panels only. To add them to your 2D panel, a little more editing would be in store. Fortunately, some recent issues of Computer Pilot had a good overview of panel editing in FSX. With a little trial and error, I was able to redraw the default Cessna 172SP panel to have the identical configuration as the aircraft that I was to train in.
Pilots of Flight1 Software aircraft will likely be familiar with the included utility, Text-O-Matic, which facilitates adding aircraft repaints without a lot of drama. On Avsim I even found a repaint of the Flight 1 Skyhawk that closely resembled N109TJ, the aircraft that I had reserved for the next Saturday and Sunday mornings. A little bit of Photoshop and Text-O-Matic later, my add-on aircraft now sported the same registration number and panel equipment as the real aircraft that I would be flying. A small issue, the panel registration placard will remain unchanged, until I can learn a little bit more about editing DDS files.
The Virtual N109TJ Waiting Patiently on the Ramp for The Next Adventure
Now we are talking… I’ve got a simulated aircraft that looks, flies, and for the most part functions just like the one that I would be renting from the FBO. On eBay I found an Aircraft Information Manual for the 172R published by the Cessna Aircraft Company in new condition. Armed with the 172R AIM I had access to the actual check lists, normal and emergency operating procedures, limitations, and weight and balance data that I would be expected to know or find quickly. To simulate a training flight, I created a “cold and dark” flight in FSX with the C172R parked on the West ramp at PDK. Each time that I would fly the simulated aircraft, I would diligently go through a simulated walk-around, preflight, start-up, run-up, and departure. By the time I actually had to shell out big bucks for some dual flight training, I had already spent a bunch of hours getting familiar with the aircraft systems and avionics. For instance, the start-up procedure for a fuel injected aircraft is different from the carbureted versions that I had previously flown. Furthermore, I had familiarized myself with PDK airport, and had a feel for finding the various runways in the the Atlanta metropolitan area during day and night. My final step in preparation was to spend an afternoon sitting on a bench with a hand-held aviation radio monitoring traffic, ground, and ATIS frequencies in order to get a feel for the normal comms flow at PDK. I was ready.
Loading the Newly Skinned Flight1 Skyhawk
My flying, I’m very happy to say, while not perfect, was not too shabby. It helps that I had probably flown a couple of thousand hours in Flight Simulator. I ended up finishing my Biennial Flight Review and aircraft checkout in about 3 hours. I could hold altitude and heading, perform slow flight, and stall recoveries with a minimum of prodding. The biggest challenge was relearning the intricacies of a good landing, and not just getting the bird on the ground. The runways at PDK are long and tolerant of sloppy pattern work and arrivals with too much airspeed and altitude. Fortunately, my CFIs were not, and they diligently whipped me back in to respectable flying shape. Eventually, I began flying good patterns on speed, and was able to consistently get the aircraft in proper attitude and airspeed long before the rubber touched asphalt. In CFI speak, “He’s not going to kill himself, cause an aircraft loss, or end up loosing his ticket to the Feds”.
With a fresh BFR endorsement in my logbook and the blessings of the FBO, I set out on a few short flights to local airports to further refine pattern work and communications protocol. One Saturday morning while tooling around on my own in the Skyhawk, I checked in on the Unicom frequency at Gainesville (GNV) when I was about 8 miles out and inbound from the south for landing. A helo was departing the same end of the field and we had a short conversation about getting eyeballs on each other. Shortly afterward I heard a somewhat familiar voice in my headset, “Is tha-at you Da-an?” You see in the South my name is mostly pronounced as having two syllables.
At uncontrolled fields on certain occasions the locals may exercise what they deem as their inalienable right to occasionally divert from standard FAA approved communications protocol. “Good morning Winn. I thought that you would have departed a few hours ago.”, I remarked as I looked to to see a Mooney having just completed run-up and heading for the active runway. “Getting a late start today. Be careful, the winds tend to swirl at the south end of the field near the numbers. Now watch this sum beech roll!. With that the pilot in command of the sleek low wing personal fighter with seating for four began its take-off roll. I knew Winn was probably sitting right seat and a couple of lovely ladies would be in the back. It didn’t take long for the Mooney to break its earthly bonds and start climbing in earnest. Still, I had airspeed and altitude. At 500 ft. AGL the Mooney banked left to start a southerly departure towards its destination of Tybee Island. This corresponded nicely to my left turn over mid field to enter a left downwind for the active.
“Guns, guns, guns! The Cessna has the Mooney!”, was a the call that I made as I placed an imaginary reticle over my quickly accelerating foe. Chuckles and goodbyes were exchanged as my friends by this time were doing a pretty good scolded dog impersonation.
For this brief moment, all of the time and expense studying and training in order to get current became suddenly immaterial. My victory savored, I snapped back to the task at hand, completed the planned five touch and goes, and then returned the Cessna safely to its domicile.
Good use of airplane #2 came a couple of weeks later when I picked up my wife in Charlotte at the end of her business trip. She was working on a NHRA sponsorship with a popular sports drink, and we were able to take in the inaugural race at the new Z-Max Dragway adjacent to Lowe’s Motor Speedway. When the race was over, we dropped her rental car at Concord Regional, the airport grounds being home to several NASCAR teams. As we taxied out for departure, we marveled at the size of some of the hangers owned by the team’s flight departments. We arrived back into Atlanta just at sunset, dropped off the Cessna’s flight bag, and were home 15 minutes after tie-down.
Certainly, I could have gotten current and back in the air without FSX, the Flight 1 Cessna 172, and Friendly Panels. However, it most likely would have required a couple of more flight hours, especially with the reliance these days on GPS navigation. At around $200 per hour, it does take long to get an ROI on the afore mentioned software. When the CFI says “Take us back to the field”, you can save face and a bit of flight time by knowing how to quickly call up and use the GPS’s Direct-To function. Now, as part of my flight planning to an unfamiliar field, I’ll fly at a minimum the visual and perhaps some instrument approaches at the destination a couple of days before flying. Although not every airport, runway, frequency, or navaid is accurately represented in MS Flight Simulator, a lot of it is spot on, especially the terrain. Always check with the current charts. For instance, the tower frequency at PDK is not correct, although Ground Control and ATIS are. One of these days I’ll figure out how to correct that.
The Internet also offers up a host of online flight planning tools, one of the coolest being an overlay of low altitude Sectionals on Google Earth. Advances in flight simulation technology have kept pace with real aircraft development, and in some cases while not a substitution for actual flight training, real or FAA approved simulated, they can keep the mind and heart in the game. So dust off that logbook, get out to your local FBO, and get back in the air. With FSX and a few inexpensive add-ons, it is a lot easier than it used to be.
On The Ground at Concord, NC
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