Go big or go home: How "Pilot Dave" flies virtually...around the world

9:22 PM

G1000 panel of Tidwell's T182 flying over real-time WX
Part 2 of 2. Read part one here.

By Dan Pimentel
and Dave Tidwell

Exclusive to Airplanista

In part one of this lengthy exclusive interview with "Pilot Dave" Tidwell from the U.K., he described why he is flying a virtual journey around the world. It is quite a large undertaking, and with very few exceptions, you might have to search a while to find a person who is using a desktop flight simulator for a project as bold as Tidwell's. So sit back, and enjoy the rest of this story, and when you are through, make sure to visit his site at The Pilot Club and follow the flights in real-time.

Airplanista: So walk our readers through the actual mechanics of planning and executing a flight.

Tidwell: To begin a flight, I launch FSX and always start the legs at dawn, local time. I then start Active Sky 2012, and allow the historic data downloads to complete. AS2012 syncs to the FSX date and time so I get a good download to the relevant date. I then import the FSX flight plan into AS2012 and get my full trip weather report including winds aloft and the weather at departure/arrival airports and all waypoints. If the weather looks good and I have time to enjoy the flight I set parking brakes and start FS Flight Keeper, connect it to FSX, and then start a new flight in the Flight Keeper. The plan, weather and full aircraft specifics are uploaded into a local database, as well as being transmitted in real time to the server at http://www.thepilotclub.com.

Next, I connect the Flight Keeper to the live ACARS system on the server, so all flight messages are viewable by anyone watching the flight in real time on the flight operations part of the site. I then do a quick Tweet (@RTWFpilot) with the details of the flight and the links to the live monitoring function if anyone wants to watch the route on a live moving map, the ACARS messages and so on. I apply the beacon and nav lights on the aircraft, master on, battery on, this triggers the flight tracker to begin reporting.

Once airborne and safely on my way above 1,000 feet and on route, I use the flight time to update the website. I always write a new article about each route. I describe what I’m seeing, the geography and do a little background research on the place I’m flying to and what I’m flying over. It’s actually extremely interesting. It makes the flight more ‘immersive’ and I get a stronger sense of ‘belonging’ in the scenario as a result. I don’t have to worry about the math, statistics and data. The automated integration with Flight Keeper to the web server does that for me. It is a pretty heavy thing to integrate if you have no web and database experience; but once done it’s an awesome tool.

Airplanista: How have you equipped the virtual T182? Does it have virtual ferry tanks?

Tidwell: I use stock aircraft with stock fuel capacities. I’m not a ferry-pilot for this one! I’m flying it as I would in real life. If I don’t have the range to do the flight safely using stock fuel then I find another way of getting to where I need to be. Now, that being said I may end up in places in the world where my 700-1000nm range (dependent much on weather and atmospheric conditions) mean that I couldn’t proceed. In that case I reserve the following ‘get out of jail free card’!

I will put 400lbs of fuel on the back seat. This is the same weight as 2 adult males sitting back there. As my tanks run dry I’ll remove the 400lbs from the back seat and put it back into the wings! That’s the only way I could accurately model the flight dynamics of weight and balance in a ferry-pilot scenario. I would even do it 50lbs at a time so the change in weight and balance is less acute.

All settings on the simulator are realistic; even to Horizontal Situation Indicator creep. The only ‘cheat’ I’ve applied is to not let the battery drain. The stock models drain the battery in less than 5 minutes; which doesn’t help me much when my pre-flight takes 10 or 15 minutes prior to taxi.

If the flight is over open water, I add 40-70 pounds of weight in the boot for life raft etc. Otherwise I fly as light as possible with every ounce of carrying capacity given up for fuel. I can eat at the other end! Sometimes I model carrying a passenger or friend with me. It depends on the flight segment and duration/endurance needs.

Pilot Dave has spent a few "dark and stormy
nights flying virtually over hostile terrain and open water
Airplanista: How much time is this endeavor taking, and how do you find the time assuming you have a life too?

Tidwell: Yes, it takes time. That’s for sure, but once you have a routine down, then it’s really not much worse than watching TV for a couple of hours in the evening. Most flights are not over two hours in duration. It’s just enough time to slot a segment in. It just means I’m missing the news on TV. My daughters sit and work doing their homework with me in the office, so there are typically three of us in here anyway. It takes me about 20 minutes to get airborne and on route; then I can spend the time focusing on them, with occasional supervision of flight progress. It is an adventure, but one that takes place firmly within the natural windows of time I have to do it.

I love aviation, sure, but I need to recharge my own batteries after long hard days at work. Being an exec officer of a high tech company is no easy task. It’s extremely demanding for sure. It is a heavy priority in every day. The family though always comes first. After my demands are met I use this flight as ‘my time’ but it’s often shared. My wife, Jacqueline asks me how I’m doing and shows an active interest in it. My daughters are less interested; often asking me to turn down the incessant background drone of the sound system whilst they do their homework!

The big advantage here is that each hour of enjoyment is costing me relaxation time; not $200 an hour wet! When I submitted this interview to Airplanista, I had completed 4,198 nautical miles of flying in 30.53 hours of flying time. At $200 an hour to rent a flying club aircraft I’ve saved my family $6,106 is another way of looking at it. Maybe one day I’ll revalidate my licenses, become current, and get back in the air. For now, with the heavy demands of work and family this is my way of living out my love for flying. It’s working for me. It does however give me a hell of an itch to fly again. The itch gets worse with each flight, not less! Watch out!

Airplanista: Have there been any surprises so far along the route?

Tidwell: I’m actually amazed that big challenges are actually not daunting if you break them down into manageable chunks!

The weirdest moment is landing up at CYLT, Alert, at Nunavut in Upper Canada. I mean the real Upper Canada, not the suburbs of Toronto! It is the most northerly permanent landing strip in the world. I arrived to find trees growing out the runway. It was an ice and gravel runway, with some water on one side and about 22F (-10C) on landing. Not a nice place to end up crashing! Very interesting to do a short field approach into a runway with big trees on the threshold and smaller ones scattered about the runway surface. Given I’ve got crash detection with scenery set to ON and I’d just completed 5 hours and 41 minutes of server tracked flight, I wasn’t going to cheat. I dropped her in at 50 knots, full flaps, and teased my way through the trees! I had to chuckle at that one; thanks to Dynamic scenery! For a start I don’t think any trees grow at all up at 82 degrees north! I’m still chuckling though that I’ve managed to fly a commoner-garden Cessna from Cambridge in the UK all the way to Alert in Canada. I have the skills to do it in real life and it feels fantastic to have achieved it knowing that if push came to a big shove that I could do this trip for real. If I ever get to a point where I think I’m doing something I couldn’t do in real life then I’d not do it.

Airplanista: Are you planning on doing any virtual tourist stuff along the way?

Tidwell: Ah, good question. I’ve lived and worked all over the world. So, yes, in short, I will be visiting all the places we’ve lived, which includes Africa, Americas and Europe of course. I also did a stint in my youth in the military and served in interesting places around the world. I’ll be sure to visit them too! I’m far less familiar with the Far East, so I’m looking forward to exploring there a lot more. The real bit of the whole flight that is worrying me is how to get from North America into Asia. There aren’t a lot of options. I haven’t got to the point where I’m really planning that element yet. For now, at the time of this interview, I’ve made my way from the UK to the top of the Americas. I’ll now leave to head south down the east coast of the America’s all the way to the bottom and visit the Antarctic region, then back up the west coast of the America’s to find my way from the top again into Asia. Nuts, eh?

That’s where the story behind each flight will really begin to come alive. It will tie my real-world experiences to the places, people and airports. Each flight is in its own way its own little story. As a whole they’ll make a nice digital shadow of my life and my thoughts and philosophy for people to enjoy. The social media side is interesting to me. One day, in 100 years’ time when I’m long gone my family will be able to redo the flights with me, one by one, by reading my Twitter/Facebook biography step by step. In the old days you largely disappear once dead; not now; not with social and digital media. Your digital shadow lives on. It would be a shame if all they saw of me was my digital activities that related to my professional life. There’s lots of that, so this is a bit of ‘me’ for digital prosperity. The website will disappear as soon as the hosting decays on it. The stuff I’ve recorded in social media will live on in the US Library of Congress forever. As much as I’ll be telling the pilots story I’ll also be telling my own. It may be interesting to just a few people now. Maybe not!

Airplanista: Are you enjoying writing about this flight?

Tidwell: I think so. I think this is a common thread amongst passionate aviators. Enjoying it yourself is not enough. Sharing the enjoyment is the only way to exercise the itch that comes with the passion! I like writing. I like the technical stuff. I like flying. So, yes, I’m enjoying it. It would be a stupid thing to do if I didn’t enjoy it!

If you are intrigued by this virtual world flight, be sure to track all of Pilot Dave Tidwell's flights at The Pilot Club or on Twitter.

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