Go big or go home: The insane mechanics of a virtual flight around the world

10:13 PM

Dave Tidwell
By Dan Pimentel
and Dave Tidwell

Exclusive to Airplanista

I think most pilots at one point or another have used some sort of computer flight simulator, either as a legit training device, or just a crazy fun video game. And if you're like me, the exercise of simulating flight can be littered with frustration as your simulation session degrades due to glitches and digital weirdness into a jittery mess of aviation nonsense that is anything but real.

But for one pilot in the UK, the simulation of flying has taken on new meaning. For Dave Tidwell, 46, a Chief Operating Officer of a high-tech company, an around-the-world flight is his way of staying in touch with aviation after allowing his pilot's licenses to lapse. He's owned shares of Cessna 172s in the UK and Canada, but now has embarked on an extremely ambitious virtual world flight using a simulation system that is dripping with technological goodness.

And the best part is, you can ride along with Tidwell - virtually of course - at his website, The Pilot Club or track all the action on Twitter by following @RTWFpilot.

As Airplanista investigated this story, the intrigue grew exponentially. And when Tidwell returned answers to some research questions, a colorful and multi-layered tale emerged, presented below in the first of a two-part exclusive interview. This article takes you from Tidwell's home in the U.K. to the extreme conditions of North Canada as he flies virtually around the globe, and begins with his set-up and reasons why he is flying the virtual flight in the first place.

In part two, Tidwell will present the actual nuts-and-bolts of how he streams the flights to his website, while presenting other interesting facts such as what he did when he virtually arrived at a Canadian airport only to find virtual trees growing out of the virtual runway.

How did the idea of a virtual around-the-world flight come about?

Tidwell: The virtual round the world tour came about after reading about Lockheed Martin Prepar3d (pronounced Prepared) adoption of the simulation engine originally produced by Microsoft. It intrigued me enough to buy the Lockheed engine (Version 1.4) and compare it to what I used to know as Microsoft Flight Simulator X. I was actually an invited beta test pilot on the original FSX team having met one of the product managers at an Airshow in Toronto back in 2005. I was, like many, deeply saddened at the closure of the Aces team in Microsoft. Many of the team are now over at Lockheed. I really wish them well. They did a brilliant job for the simulation community and they should be proud of themselves. I really hope that Lockheed doesn’t forget the 10’s of thousands of passionate simmers out here with their roadmap and licensing requirements. I’d been a dedicated fan of the flight simulator series since the earliest days when it shipped on a couple of 3.5” floppies.

Hopping into a virtual cockpit and throwing it around a virtual sky for 20 minutes is fun, sometimes. But, by far there’s more to it than that for me. I think I’m just trying to live out my passion for flight in the form that my current circumstances allow. That’s it really. It’s the most that I can do with the facilities, skills, time and environment around me at this point in my life as a pilot.

I did start the round the world flight using the Prepar3d engine, but quickly dropped back to FSX when I found I couldn’t legally use the 3rd party aircraft models I wanted in Prepar3d. Whilst I appreciate there are some substantial changes under the hood in Prepar3d versus FSX at a superficial level they are indeed, still one and the same at current releases. I didn’t want to do the flight at FL370 at 280 knots indicated. I wanted to do it more leisurely, and in a way that I could absolutely relate to.

Airplanista: What virtual airplanes are you flying on the virtual flight?

All of my actual flying experience was in Cessna 172’s. I couldn’t find any really good C172’s with a Garmin 1000 on board; so I fly a mixture of models (commercially available ones) from Carenado and Flight1. Any avid simmer will know exactly which ones I mean. I’m sticking religiously to G1000 equipped Turbo 182’s.

Airplanista: Why two models?

Virtual T182 with G1000 panel
Tidwell: The modeled G1000 features are different. The autopilot functions are different, and the terrain awareness modeling is different. The next leg of the route determines the one to use! If I need excellent terrain awareness because of inclement weather and mountainous terrain then I’ll use the Carenado. If I have a long range flight and don’t need terrain awareness so much I’ll fly the Flight1 model. Both are very good and have a consistent “Cessna” feel to them. It is all very familiar indeed. The G1000 is to ensure that I can fly IFR and don’t get so hemmed in by weather. Even if flying VFR I’ll setup the plan for IFR; just as I always did in the real world. VFR pilots always fly within a circle of uncertainty, peppered with islands of certainty as to absolute location. In the virtual world, because the geographic modeling is gross, not photographic, I use the IFR functions as the idiot check; excuse the wording!

Airplanista: This sounds like a huge endeavor. Why are you going to so much trouble to complete this flight?

Tidwell: Despite lapsed licenses I haven’t lost my passion for flight. Winter is approaching and I had a really nice PC setup to give it a go on. Seemed like a nice project for the long winter evenings. There’s actually a fair bit to do for every flight as every pilot would know and I like balancing that with the amount of time I have available. To make it a little easier on the reporting and progress front I integrated the simulator with flight tracking, reporting and analytics so that everything I do is actually transmitted in real-time to the server.

Many of my readers are total #avgeeks, real computer nerds. Give us the down low on your system, and leave no detail untold.

Tidwell: I have a high-end machine with an 8 Core, 4.62 GHz AMD processor based on an ASUS Sabertooth 990FX motherboard. (Overclocked to run at 4.62 GHz, but with stability. It could run a little faster). 64 bit Operating System (Windows 7) running 16 Gigabytes of RAM. The graphics card is the HD Radeon 6970. The monitor is a Dell U2711 at 2,560 by 1,440 and 32 bit colour. I drive it via HDMI. My simulation hardware is very simple and uses only the base CH Products Yoke and Pedals. They are stock standard and nothing special there. The hard disk is solid state Samsung 840 Pro (500 GB). An absolute must to get to textures and sceneries in real-time! It is lightning fast!

Airplanista: Describe the flight itself...how much planning are you putting into each leg, how much weather briefing time, everything pre-flight.

I probably spend as much time on pre-flight as I do actually flying the leg itself. A base rule of the adventure is to fly the entire trip using real world-weather and always within 24 hours of the current date. This means I do my flight planning very well in advance. I use a combination of FSTramp, Plan-G and Flight Sim Commander. I get VFR renderings from Plan-G, I get good IFR rendering and fuel planning from Flight Sim Commander. I always plan to fly on fuel capabilities of the stock aircraft, so about 6.5 hours is my maximum duration. With such a daunting adventure I have to pick the routes carefully to ensure I don’t fly into a scenario where I cannot logically continue with trip without cheating. And I have not cheated in the slightest in the first 4,000 nautical miles.

Stay tuned by following @Av8rdan on Twitter so read part two of this interview, or enter your email address in the "Subscribe to this Blog" field at the top right.

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