Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Danger of Microsoft Flight Simulator

Some time ago I flew from the east coast to Orange County airport on an A320. The flight was uneventful right up to the final approach. As we lined up on the runway, the pilot veered off and accelerated. He announced over the PA system: “Well, folks, some days everything just seems to go smoothly, and other days is doesn’t.”

Why is it that all airline pilots sound like they were raised in west Texas and have names like Billy Roy?

Our pilot, Billy Roy, continued: “The on-board computer seemed to think that the flaps weren’t balanced, so it automatically retracted the flaps. We’re going to run a quick diagnostic and we’ll have you on the ground right away.”

Why is it that the notion of being in the ground right away is supposed to inspire confidence? There are times when I’d be more confident if I know we could stay up in the air until everything was fixed.

After a few moments, Billy Roy got back on the PA system: “So the flaps are up and the computer is sure that they aren’t balanced, so we’re just gonna scoot up to LAX and land there. They’ve got real long runways so we’ll be just fine.”

At this point everyone in the front of the plane, where I happened to be for this trip, got very nervous. We all had played with Microsoft Flight Simulator, and we all know what happened when you tried to land with zero flaps. Basically, the plane can’t slow as much as the pilot would like, because the flaps provide extra lift at lower speeds. If you try to slow down too much without any flaps, your aircraft will stall and fall out of the sky. So when you land with no flaps, you hit the runway about 40 or 50 knots faster than you would like. This puts extra stress on the brakes, which might fail. Even if the brakes hold up, you’ll take up a lot of tarmac before you get to a stop. Hopefully not all of it.

Billy Roy got back on the mic: “So we’re gonna land here at LAX and just as a routine procedure you might notice some equipment along the runway, but again this is simply a routine procedure and we’ll be fine. Once we get to the gate we’ll get this all sorted out and we’ll just get on down to Orange County and have you folks home real soon.” Orange County airport is also known as John Wayne Airport. It seemed to me that Billy Roy was trying to channel the Duke.

We came in at about 240 knots, and sure enough there was some equipment along the runway: Ambulances, fire trucks, and a couple of other vehicles I couldn’t name, although I thought I’d seen them in the final scene of the movie Airplane!

When we did come to a stop, about 15 yards from the end of the 2-mile long runway, Billy Roy got back on the air: “We’ll be transferring your luggage to busses for the short drive to Orange County. If you would like to make other arrangements, please see the agent at the gate to collect your bags at the baggage carousel.” I called my favorite car rental company from my seat and booked a Taurus. And I promised not to make any zero flaps landings on Flight Simulator again.