Logging Virtual Flight Time at AirVenture

By Scott Spangler on July 29th, 2017


One of the most frustrating aspects of getting excited while watching others fly, like the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, is not being able to immediately feed that emotional and physical craving. It figures that technology provided some relief with some virtual flight time in disparate aircraft at the EAA Innovation Center.

Having never before flown a gyroplane or replaced my glasses with virtual reality goggles, I didn’t know what to expect as I reached for the stick, throttle, and rudder pedals (which I slid forward on the floor—ah, legroom at last) of the PAL-V Liberty, a (three-wheel) car that flies and a (gyro) plane that drives.

JW-VR-1When Dave started the simulation, which put me on Runway 18 at Wittman Regional Airport (OSH), my first impression was a very real case of spatial disorientation. I can’t remember the last time I had such a strong case of vertigo. I fought through it, following Dave’s instruction to hold the brakes, apply full power, and to hold a neutral stick when I released the brakes.

The steep climb angle—it’s normal, Dave said—only made my vertigo worse. While my eyes and inner ears argued with the seat of my pants, I looked around. Hey, there’s Lake Winnebago, and the four exhibit hangars. Where are all the people? But I must admit it was nice having the place to myself.

Pulling the power to idle abeam the numbers, I started a 180-degree turn to landing. Dave warned me to back off the bank angle a bit. Without any haptic feedback from the controls or the seat of my pants, it was nice to have the aural warning. As usual, I over controlled on final, but I managed to conclude my 2-minute virtual flight by landing to the left of centerline without breaking or bending anything. Removing the goggles, I sat there for a moment to let my eyes, ears, and sit-down parts reach consensus.

JW-VR-2At the other end of the Innovation Center aisle was EAA’s powered paraglider simulator. These flying machines have long fascinated me, and I’d watched them fly early that morning, so a virtual flight was the last item on my AirVenture to-do list that needed a tick mark.

After scooting my butt all the way back into the harness, the sim operator pulled the Velcro strap on the throttle on my right hand. A lever like a bicycle hand brake, I’d squeeze it with my fourth and little fingers add power and climb. With my index and middle fingers I’d grab the toggle, which I’d pull to turn in that direction. All four fingers worked the left toggle, and pulling both of them simultaneously was like putting on the brakes.

Unlike all of the pilots who preceded me, I chose the Village Flight, not the Combat Challenge, because shooting at tanks and helicopters and towers would be a distraction. I was going to teach myself how to fly this thing—to climb, cruise, turn, and descend—during my virtual flight time of 90 seconds. The first view of the goggles explained the controls and showed what happened when you pulled the toggles. Cool!

I was just starting to slalom around the trees and buildings when the goggles went dark and the double-barreled fan-supplied slipstream died. But the virtual flight inspired me to seek out training in the real thing, and Google led me to the US Powered Paragliding Association.

JW-VR-3Walking back toward Boeing Plaza I passed the Jack Link’s tent. In it, four people were sitting in a tandem-tandem facsimile of a cockpit, each wearing a helmet and virtual reality goggles with mirrored aviator sunglasses stuck on the front. I got in line and had an exiting aerobatic flight with John Klatt in the Jack Link’s sponsored Screamin’ Sasquatch Jet Waco.

The vertigo from my first virtual flight of the day did not return, probably because I was too busy “flying” the maneuvers with him, trying to remember my aerobatic training and where to look to guide the path of each maneuver. Snap rolls were interesting, but not as interesting as the jet powered flat (that’s what it looked like to me) spin. Happy after the multi-minute routine, they treated me to lunch, two samples of Jack Link’s beefsteak protein snacks, which is still jerky to me. –Scott Spangler, Editor


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