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X-Plane switch from Airfoil Labs to Reality Expansion Pack Cessna 172

X-Plane comes with a Cessna 172 by default. It’s a competent plane and it is what I have flown since I got X-Plane 11 back in May of 2017. I wanted more realism so I purchased the after-market Cessna 172 by Airfoil Labs.

It was buggy and presented several challenges to flying. I had to learn how to land all over again. There were several graphical issues that prevented me from flying the AFL 172 at all. I got fed up and uninstalled it.

After reading posts from other sim pilots on X-Plane.org’s forum, I discovered another approach. Now, I fly the default Cessna 172 with the SimCoders.com Reality Expansion Pack ($19.99) installed on top of it.

The aircraft experience feels more immersive, because I’m not just flying a virtual plane, I’m managing the entire aircraft from when I approach it on the tarmac to take-off to flight to landing and finally when I park it. I even conduct maintenance on it like I would a real airplane.

The REP has been very stable, too. There was one sound error that occurred, but removing the Cessna 172 from the list of possible AI aircraft fixed the problem.

So far, I’m very impressed with this approach.

Crosswind landings in X-Plane

I’ve spent several hours practicing pattern work, but I’ve always done it with clear weather and no wind. Lately, I’ve attempted to add crosswinds to the mix to simulate more real-world conditions. It hasn’t gone well.

I set up a 6 kt 90 degree crosswind at Aurora Muni (KUAO) and took off in the X-Plane default Cessna 172. Take-off and flying the left-hand pattern went relatively well, but when I came in on final and entered the glideslope, things seemed to get wonky.

My approach was made on runway 35 so the wind should have been directly from my left. The windsock showed this to be true. However, my plane seemed to be drifting to the left. I attempted a forward slip with a little right aileron and a small amount of left rudder, and things went wonky even more.

It was crazy trying to get the plane lined up with the runway, yet the wind was only 6 knots, with no gusts configured. I gunned the engine, raised my flaps, and conducted a go-around.

As I was flying the pattern again, I paid close attention to what the wind seemed to be doing to the aircraft. At pattern altitude of 1,000 feet AGL, it seemed to be getting blown to the west. That’s incorrect — the wind was configured to be blowing from the west. I turned onto the base leg and the groundspeed slowed, again indicating I had a headwind from the east. When I turned onto the final leg, once again I had fits getting a line on the runway.

I’ve heard that X-Plane 11 has notoriously inaccurate ground effect winds and handling. This seems to be the case. When I got my wheels on the ground, I turned my ailerons fully to the left, to the west and the direction the windsock indicated the wind was blowing, and got shot far to the right and onto the grass.

I can’t confirm it, but it very much acted like the wind was blowing the exact opposite direction the windsock was indicating (and the weather configuration specified).

UPDATE 01-29-2018: I have confirmed the wind and windsock are behaving correctly in X-Plane. It’s operator error on my part.

Windows updates and maintaining a flight simulation system

After a recent Windows 10 update from Microsoft, many features of my flight simulator (running X-Plane v11.21) stopped working. Specifically, all of my Saitek Flight Instrument Panel (FIP) gauges stopped working, and my Buttkicker stopped as well.

To get the FIP gauges working again, I had to reset their USB power management settings. The Windows update reverts those settings back to their default state. Why does an operating system feel it has the authority to change user-managed settings like this? Turning their power management back to off is a tedious process.

The Buttkicker stopped working because the software that manages the sound signals stopped working and had to be reinstalled. It also changed the assignment of which sound device fed the Buttkicker its sounds. Again, why does Windows do this?

After a bit of tedious settings management and some more trial and error, I got everything working again. The simulator is running normally.

On the X-Plane side, after updating it, I noticed the Cirrus Vision default airplane starts off with its control surfaces defaulted to full-left, making it impossible to fly. Calibrating the yoke and rudder pedals doesn’t fix it. Finally, X-Plane 11.21 gives me a warning that my Reality Expansion Pack Cessna 172 won’t look right. I click the OKAY button and then fly it as normal. I can’t tell what’s different visually.

After going through all this, I’ve since disabled Windows updates. Having a tightly controlled system like this requires only modifying it when necessary, and random changes imposed by OS updates can cause a lot of headaches. I only use this system for flight simulation, and it is well protected behind dual firewalls, so I’m not concerned about security. I don’t even surf the web from that machine.

Flight logs

Logbook
Printable logbook

Back in 2012 I took a solo motorcycle trip from Oregon to Colorado that spanned 10 different states in 16 days (Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Wyoming (again), Montana, Idaho, and back to Oregon). One of my goals after setting up my flight simulator was to take that same trip virtually in a Cessna 172.

I began that virtual trip a few weeks ago and am currently parked at an airstrip in Durango, Colorado. I have mapped the trip to include takeoffs and landings at the same towns where I had overnight stays on my original motorcycle trip, and I even have landings and takeoffs in towns where I stopped for lunch. I’m trying to mimic the same route as realistically as possible, just in the transportation medium of flight.

One of the aspects of this trip I have implemented is detailed flight logs. I started by making notes in a spiral notebook as I flew, writing down flight date, departure airport, destination airport, and a few minor details along the way such as waypoints and altitude. I refined those notes to include more detail, then decided to use a formal flight log form that I fill out for each flight.

I used a spreadsheet to create a printable form that I put on a clipboard and fill out as I fly. I make notes every time I change course or altitude, with timestamps. About the only thing I don’t write down is my airspeed.

So far the logs have worked great, and I have really enjoyed the detail-oriented aspect of the process. Flying, once you’re at cruising altitude, can be somewhat boring, especially if you use autopilot. Making notes as you fly keeps your brain occupied, and gives you a reason to pay attention to your gauges and the other aspects of the flight, rather than just zoning out and getting bored.

You may download a printable PDF version of the logbook here.

The original Excel spreadsheet is available here [XLSX].

The Delta column is for denoting changes in altitude or bearing. I often use < or > to show changes in course for left or right, respectively, and up or down arrows with X fps or -X fps to show changes in altitude. For Altitude, I write the altitude I was at when I began the delta.

If you want to teach, here’s a great example

I recently decided to take up guitar again. I used to play back in the 90’s and gave it up when I traded my guitar rig (Epiphone Les Paul and Line 6 POD) for a laptop around 2003 or 2004. I messed around with bass guitar for about a year and had some fun with that, but I wasn’t playing it often enough to continue so I sold my bass.

Recently I bought another Les Paul and a Digitech multi-effects pedal and decided to try my hand at electric guitar once again. I was never very good at it, but I always enjoyed it.

Training videos didn’t exist the last time I had an electric guitar. My, how times have changed! With the advent of YouTube, you can practically watch videos explaining how to perform brain surgery in the comfort of your own home (where is Gary Larson when you need him?)

The first thing I searched for were charts of scales and chords. Those are easy enough to find and print out. The next thing I searched for were YouTube videos produced by guitar teachers. I found the best there is:

JustinGuitar.com

Justin has been teaching guitar for most of his career and is a natural. There are those who are great at something but can’t teach it effectively. There are those who are great teachers but not that great at the skill itself. Justin is both. After watching some of his videos and reviewing his web site (I’m now a member), it’s obvious he’s both a very hard worker and a genuinely nice chap.

Membership to JustinGuitar.com is free, although donations are happily accepted. His videos are freely available on YouTube, although I strongly suggest those that are interested in learning guitar sign up for a free membership and make a donation. Its cheaper than in-person lessons and you can watch them in any order you wish, as often as you wish, or watch the same ones multiple times.

One of the biggest advantages of setting up an account at JustinGuitar.com is the lesson plans. Justin maps out lesson courses based on your skill level and goals. Following the lesson plans are easy and you can check each lesson off as you complete them.

Justin’s teaching style is very approachable and he has an affable personality that makes the beginner feel very comfortable and at ease.

One of the things I’m impressed about the most, though, is Justin’s approach to teaching in general. It is thorough yet approachable, it is complete yet easy to follow, and it is encouraging throughout the entire experience. Justin not only has a knack for teaching, but he has an organized approach and method that I think would be a valuable lesson to anyone seeking to teach others.

Justin, good on ya!

Video: My Closet Simulator

I created a narrated video tour of my closet flight simulator and posted it on YouTube.

4:33 minutes

Not pictured is my gaming chair and the attached Buttkicker Gamer 2 transducer. See previous posts for details on that.

Using a Buttkicker Gamer 2 in X-Plane 11

To improve the sense of immersion in my home flight simulator, I purchased and installed a Buttkicker Gamer 2 transducer. This is a device that bolts to the base of an office chair and transmits vibrations into the chair based on sounds generated by the flight simulator. It’s like a subwoofer with vibration only, no sound.

Update Dec 17, 2020: I currently use the Buttkicker in X-Plane 11, Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, and DCS World 2.x. All three use the Simshaker software utility referenced below.

Buttkicker Gamer 2
Buttkicker Gamer 2

I purchased the Buttkicker from FullCompass.com, with free shipping, and it left their warehouse the day after I ordered it. Many other vendors I researched were either out of stock or sold them at above MSRP (Amazon, what the hell?) The Gamer 2 edition comes with the transducer, a dedicated power amplifier, and all the cables you need to connect it to your flight simulator.

Installation took about a half hour, and most of that time was spent feeding the wires around and out of the way behind my simulator. After getting it plugged into the sound-out jack on the back of my PC, I fired it up and tested it out. It really startled me the first time it vibrated my seat. Even though I knew it was going to happen, the amount of vibration it can produce was startling. I reduced the sound levels and did some more testing.

Buttkicker amplifier
Buttkicker amplifier

From all I’d read on the forums, I learned that although the Buttkicker can be used directly with X-Plane 11, the experience isn’t as specific as it can be. The solution is a pair of software solutions working in tandem, one free and one payware. Simshaker for Aviators is the free part, and Simshaker Sound Module is the payware part (about $30 USD; it’s from a guy named Andre in Vologograd, Russia, so the exchange rate will vary).

Using these two apps, you can fine-tune the types of simulated events that produce vibrations and the amount of relative vibration for each event. Otherwise, without these apps, it vibrates generically with any low-frequency sound.

My flight simulator is located in a spare bedroom on the second floor of my house. There was some noticeable vibration in the room beneath on the first floor. This was because the Buttkicker was attached to my office chair, which was sitting on its wheels pressed into the carpeted floor directly above. I needed some way to reduce or eliminate the vibrations being transmitted through the floor.

Sorbothane anti-vibration pads, 2 1/4 in. wide by 1/4 in. thick

I ordered some sorbothane anti-vibration isolation pads from Amazon. They are 2.25″ wide and about 1/4″ thick. I opened the package and let them air out overnight in the garage as they have an off-putting smell when you first open them.

The pads are very sticky and I read reports that they can stain carpet, so I cut circles of waxed paper and stuck them to one side of the sorbothane pads. I purchased some square furniture cups from the local hardware store and stuck the pads to the bottom of those. I tried sitting the chair’s wheels into these cups but the sides weren’t high enough to keep the wheels in place, so I removed the wheels from my chair entirely and placed them in the cups. (In the picture, you can’t see the sorbothane pads; they are pressed against the carpet under the brown furniture cups.)

Pads installed under furniture cups

This reduced the amount of vibration being transmitted into the room below by at least half. It was quieter than the noises generated by my forced air furnace.

Once I got all that set up and got the software installed, it was time for some test flying in X-Plane 11. I started in Boston and flew to Nantucket in a Cessna 172, then over to Martha’s Vineyard. The Buttkicker conveys a predictable engine vibration, along with other events like flaps going up or down. The most exciting vibration event is when the wheels first touch down while landing.

I still have a lot of experimentation to do, both with the amplifier settings and with the software settings.

So far I would say it was a worthwhile investment for those wishing to increase the level of apparent immersion in their home flight simulator.

Forgive me Father, for I have simmed.

I have been very busy lately, but not with what you may expect. As you may know, I have been a motorcyclist for over a decade now, riding both a 2007 Suzuki V-Strom 650 adventure bike, and a 2012 Suzuki GSX-R750 sport bike. I had wanted to ride motorcycles ever since I was a kid, and have enjoyed doing so very much, racking up over 80,000 miles in 10 years of riding.

There is something I’ve wanted to do from an even earlier age.

Fly.

I had the opportunity to take flying lessons when I was in my late teens but opted out because of the expense. Learning to fly is expensive, and flying once you get your license is expensive as well. So despite my passion and desire to fly since I was a very young boy, I have never pursued it.

Recently I heard about X-Plane, the flight simulation software that is arguably the de facto king of realistic simulation for the consumer (and professional) market. I ran a demo version of the software on my Macbook Pro and was blown away by the realism and depth.

Digging more, I found YouTube videos [ like this one ] of home-built cockpits and flight simulation rigs people are building in their own homes. Something clicked, and I realized I could get much closer to the experience of flying but at much lower cost and no risk to life-and-limb.

To get that desired realism, however, I would need a system a bit more involved than just a laptop and second screen. I began to research the kind of computer systems required to obtain the level of realism I needed, all based around X-Plane, and the flight simulation gear such as flight controls and gauges that would enhance the realism.

I purchased books about flying from both a theoretical and practical standpoint. I investigated products and vendors and watched hours of YouTube videos posted by home flight simmers. I produced a budget for what my desired system would cost.

Unwilling to incur debt, I was also unwilling to tap into savings. I had to find the money from another source. Doing some soul searching, I realized it would be better to own one motorcycle and a flight simulator than to own two motorcycles and no flight simulator.

So I sold the Gixxer.

Using the sale money from the motorcycle, I had the financial side of the project covered. Based on my vendor and product research, I had a shopping list ready to go. All I needed to do was start placing orders.

The heart of the flight simulator is the computer. I chose a high-end Windows PC purchased from X-Force PC, based in South Carolina. They partner with Laminar Research, the company that makes X-Plane, to provide LR with the systems used in X-Plane development and testing. This would ensure high compatibility and reliability. After a phone call with Michael Brown, the chief builder and head honcho at X-Force PC, I had a system ordered. I also purchased my Saitek gauges and flight controls. The service I got from X-Force PC in general and Michael specifically was fantastic.

Closet shelf
Monitors, desk, and cockpit panel
Panel, yoke, rudder pedals, and computer
In-flight, showing LED lights around cockpit panel
Full system with gauges

Another key aspect of this system was location. Where would I put it? My home doesn’t have a basement, so I got creative. I emptied the closet of a spare room, mounted an adjustable shelf on the back wall to hold my video screens, and repurposed a small desk. The system is half in the closet, half out (no sociological puns intended). I have plans to build an enclosure around the seating area to mimic the realism of being inside an actual cockpit.

Flying is complex. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of knowledge. Operating the airplane is challenging enough on a perfect day, but when you factor in weather, topography, air traffic control, mechanics, and the myriad bits of information constantly deserving your attention, it quickly becomes an immersive experience that can eat up years of time and dedication.

This is something I won’t outgrow anytime soon.

I sold my Saitek gear and cockpit panel

I have been flying in my home simulator based on a Cessna 172 cockpit for almost two years now. My gear is focused on the tactile fidelity of a real cockpit, using a yoke and throttle quadrant and simulated gauges. Everything runs wonderfully with X-Plane 11 and is super easy to configure. This is probably the most common and well-supported gear you can get for a home cockpit.

Lately I have been wanting to fly other types of aircraft, including fighter jets, and the narrowly focused nature of my gear doesn’t handle the versatility I need. As a result, I have sold all of my current avionics (other than my rudder pedals) and am switching to a touch screen for gauges and a Thrustmaster H.O.T.A.S. ‘Warthog’ joystick and throttle for flight controls.

I have sold the following items as a package to a small airport in Michigan.

Saitek Pro Flight Yoke and Throttle quadrant.

Saitek Flight Instrument Panels (six gauges).

Saitek Radio Panel.

Saitek Switch Panel.

Saitek Multi-panel.

Volair Sim Avionics Cockpit Panel. Read this thorough review: https://www.avsim.com/home/reviews/hardware/review-avionics-panel-by-volair-r3904/

Saitek flight instrument panel
Saitek radio panel
Saitek switch panel
Saitek multi panel
Volair Sim avionics cockpit panel
Cockpit panel showing blanks