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Dean had been given a birthday present piloting a flight simulator and I accompanied Ann and Dean to Birmingham Airport where SoftekSim had a 'shop' in the arrivals hall fitted with a simulator for a Beechcraft 'King Air' turbo-prop aircraft. I say "had" because, sadly, this facility closed at the end of January 2016 and it's not yet clear whether it will re-open.
Flight Simulator: L-R: The Instructor, Ann and Dean.
I was surprised to discover that the simulator was built in Latvia by SoftekSim, who are based in Riga. Although I've been a passenger in a few Beechcraft aircraft, I've not been in the upmarket King Air which the simulator represented. This was a "glass cockpit" aircraft so all the basic flying instruments were on duplicate screens in front of the Pilot (left-hand seat) and Co-pilot (right-hand seat). A larger screen in the centre displayed map information together with a host of gauges. Together with all the flying and engine controls, a host of switches and alarm annunciators, it was all pretty impressive. A large, wrap-around display outside the cockpit showed the outside world and, we soon discovered, there was realistic sound and jacks provided the appropriate motion effects.
Dean took the left-hand seat and I squeezed into the right-hand seat, just for the ride.
The first task was to fly from London Heathrow to London City Airport in good weather. The map display and the wrap-around display showed that we were just clear of the eastern threshold of the northern runway at Heathrow, so we were going to take off to the west on runway 'Two-Seven Right'. The instructor ran briefly through some start-up checks and then had Dean start the turbo-props, producing a reassuring roar from the sound system. Power was increased and Dean taxied out, turning left (using the rudder pedals to steer on the ground) onto the runway centreline. Set take-off flap and more power, then the take-off roll commenced. The instructor prompted 'Rotate' as we achieved take-off speed and the aircraft started to climb. The instructor called for a left-hand climbing turn and, at a safe height, take-off flap setting was retracted, power was reduced and we settled into level flight heading east towards our destination.
Then, suddenly, we were nose-down, plummetting towards the ground, with the wrap-around display showing the buildings getting larger and larger! "Not your fault" shouted the instructor, hitting the main reset. As we all laughed with relief the instructor explained that they were experiencing an occasional software fault on the simulator and we'd been unlucky. This, he said, was the reason the Birmingham Airport facility was being closed, whilst the software problem was addressed in Latvia. The simulator used three computers running 'Windows' so it took a little while to re-boot.
Flight Simulator: The familiar 'Windows' screen appears in the cockpit and 'outside' as the system restarts.
The instructor was able to position the flight at the point where the problem occurred and Dean was able to continue to 'fly' the aircraft. Overflying Canary Wharf, I had a good view of the 'O2' from my side.
View of the 'O2' as we approached London City airport.
Flight Simulator: Approaching London City Airport. The 'grey' areas are water.
Dean safely 'let down' on the runway but had a bit of trouble steering on the ground (the 'yoke' controlling the ailerons are ineffective on the ground - only the rudder pedals work. We veered onto the grass and I was sure we we going to get a 'dunking' in the adjacent dock but Dean managed to stop just before we hit the chain link fence at the boundary. The instructor seemed quite impressed commenting "Any thing you walk away from is a 'perfect landing'".
There was time for Dean to make a second landing. This time, the instructor positioned the aircraft cruising up the valley between the mountains on the approach to Innsbruck International Airport in Tyrol, western Austria.
Flight Simulator: The mountains around Innsbruck, Tyrol, western Austria.
This time, Dean was able to land and brake in a straight line, impressing everybody. I'm sure Dean would have happily done it all again, but the next customers were already waiting for their 'slot'.
Flight Simulator: Coming in to land at Innsbruck airport.
Despite the 'hiccup' with the computers, Ann, Dean and I were very taken with the set-up and hope that SoftekSim will be able to resume operations in the future.