One of my goals for this year was to start fly more airliners. Microsoft Flight Simulator has three good, if not full fidelity, airliners and I thought maybe this was the place for me to start. After some basic training, I flew a quick test from Los Angeles to San Francisco. That went well so I decided to start a series of flights crossing my home country – Canada. This journal is a summary of each flight and some of the things that I learned or learned that I need to learn along the way. At the end I’ll also share my thoughts about flying airliners for the first time in Microsoft Flight Simulator. Read on!
Goals of the journey
The first goal was to fly the Airbus A320 and start to learn how to fly it while taking it on some medium length trips. The aircraft has some in-game tutorials as well as several community created tutorials which made understanding it’s system’s easier to do.
My second goal was to visit a wide variety of destinations during my journey. I decided to start on the west coast and work my way east flying into major hubs and destinations along the way. I wasn’t intending to see all of Canada, if that was even possible, but I did try and fly into many major cities. Seeing the whole thing isn’t really practical as Canada is the second largest country in the world by landmass and stretches out across 9,984,670 km2 or 3,855,100 sq mi (source) of coastal regions, towering mountain ranges, flat prairie, shield rock, fields, expansive forests, towns and cities.
Finally, I wanted to spend more time understanding the IFR style of flying and use the IFR flight planner in Microsoft Flight Simulator. There’s a lot to understand and I made a lot of mistakes along the way but this is the beginning of that journey in the simulator.
Hop 1: Vancouver (CYVR) to Calgary (CYYC)
My first hop might be a journey that you’ve already read about because it was the subject of a Flight Journal piece on its own. This was the start of my journey and the second full flight that I took in the A320neo after some training and watching of tutorial videos.
Every step of the way I learned something new about the A320 and how to fly the default version in Flight Simulator. Planning out IFR flight routes, operating the jet, using the autopilot as well as hand flying, all of it came together here but not always to perfection.
Departure from Vancouver was done using live weather and in heavy driving rain. Breaking through the clouds was a memorable moment on this flight, perhaps more than others, as it was the first times that I did it in the A320. I didn’t get to see much of the Rocky Mountains on this flight as they were mostly covered in thick clouds but I did see them as I neared Calgary. My approach brought me in in from the north with and I was treated to the silhouette of the Rockies out the right side and Calgary and the prairies on the left. Beautiful!
The ILS approach and flight plan, for some reason, didn’t work properly but I hand flew it in on the first try. This prompted me to learn a bit more about ILS, something that I continue to understand through the rest of this piece.
When I posted the journal, it was suggested to me that I should get some airliner liveries for my next flights, so I did!
Hop 2: Calgary (CYYC) to Winnipeg (CYWG)
My next hop was Calgary to Winnipeg. Apologies to any readers from Saskachewan, I had considered flying into Saskatoon (I flew in there in 2019) but thought that hop was a bit too short and I wanted to do a slightly longer leg for the next part.
This flight started out under thick overcast live weather in Calgary in the late afternoon with the sun rapidly setting at my back. Taking off from Calgary and getting up high enough to see the cloud was once again gratifying as were the beautiful colours of Microsoft Flight Simulator with the sunlight reflecting brilliantly on the white and black scheme on all recently repainted Air Canada aircraft. I should take a brief moment to note that Air Canada does fly plenty of A320 series aircraft but not the A320neo specifically (they instead bought the 737MAX).
Flying this in early January, it gets very dark very quickly in these northern latitudes and so by the time I was approaching Winnipeg there was only the slightest amount of light on the horizon. My landing was done in pitch dark minus the bright city lights and, of course, the runway lights at Winnipeg’s International Airport.
Hop 3: Winnipeg (CYWG) to Toronto (CYYZ)
The last flight ended at night and so to keep things up, I picked up a start time in the early morning with just a ray of sunlight on the horizon. Dawn was coming and my flight was set to go. Not too long after take-off, the sky brightened and I was treated once again to some beautiful colours and stunning cloudscapes.
My aircraft for this flight was a scheme based on the new WestJet paint scheme. WestJet is Canada’s second largest airline and I thought I should make use of several schemes as I flew each leg.
As the journey towards Toronto continued the skies began to clear and as I entered into Ontario things had cleared out almost completely. I was treated to some great views of Sault Ste. Marie. Before too long, I was flying over Lake Huron, Georgian Bay, and into southern Ontario. My approach into Toronto took me over Lake Ontario before hooking left and back in to runway 33R. I’ve not typically seen aircraft land on this runway, however, winds were coming from the north and it seemed logical.
I’ll admit that my nearly two hour flight came to an unfortunate end when I forgot to lower the landing gear. Yes, there is an audible warning that gear is not down, but I was so focused on trying to capture the ILS system and get the glideslope right that I was distracted. I reflew the last piece so I could learn from my mistake. I’m guessing the passengers weren’t going to be too happy about that one.
Hop 4: Toronto (CYYZ) to Quebec City (CYQB)
Another day and another flight. This time it was a slightly shorter hop from Toronto Pearson Airport to the east and over to historic Quebec City. Although Montreal is the larger city and a bigger aviation hub, it was a little too short of a flight.
The paint scheme this time is in the colours of Air Transat, Canada’s third largest carrier and one that typically services destinations in 25-countries (although that’s not the case right now).
The flight was a relatively straightforward one taking of from Toronto airport and climbing up under high overcast skies. As the flight neared Ottawa the skies began to clear and the relief of the terrain began to take on more shape. A large area of Canada is covered in exposed shield rock – Precambrian igneous and metamorphic rocks for the geologists out there. The rock has been scoured by the retreat of the glaciers of the last ice age leaving numerous small lakes and small valleys – a few of these were on display was we flew north east towards Quebec City.
My arrival into the city brought us north and then back towards the east for a landing on a snow-covered runway 24. This was one of my better landings coming in at roughly the right height and speed to get a good solid touchdown.
Hop 5: Quebec City (CYQB) to Halifax (CYHZ)
For my next hop, I selected another community Air Canada livery – the older ‘ice’ style with the blue tail and contrasting red maple leaf. This journey took me from the cold and quiet skies over Quebec city, across the U.S. state of Maine, over the Bay of Fundy and then into Halifax International Airport. The Bay of Fundy, notably, due to its shape and underwater geography, has the highest tides in the world with a tidal range of 16 meters or 52 feet. Halifax, located in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, is located in a maritime climate that is moderated by the influence of the Atlantic ocean and the gulf stream although this also makes it the recipient of some impressive storms, and, more commonly, fog.
Although fog did not disrupt my landing, Microsoft Flight Simulator did choose to show off some building clouds and low fog patches as I was coming in for a landing with low cloud hanging out just beyond the runway. It made for a dramatic visual with the sun beginning to set.
Hop 6: Halifax (CYHZ) to St. John’s (CYYT)
This next hop was relatively uneventful to start. None of the fog that was around for my last flight was present for this one and most of the flight was done under clear skies at higher altitudes – once we climbed through the multi-layered cumulus clouds. During this part of the journey I started to reflect on what this trip would be like during the summer rather than winter months. Heavy cloud was typical of my journey and it was not uncommon to see mostly clouds during my flights. When Newfoundland did briefly appear it was worth remarking on before it too disappeared into cloud.
My landing at St John’s was a challenge as there was low visibility all the way in. The clouds didn’t break until I was over and beyond the runway. A clear indication that my ability to understand how the ILS and overall landing approach is not yet where it needs to be. I did manage to save the situation by going around and staying low enough to see the airport and bring the jet in. I’m sure this is non-standard but it worked for me in the limited time that I had. It also gave me more time actually flying the A320 rather than managing it on autopilot.
Hop 7: St. John’s (CYYT) to Goose Bay (CYYR)
Another day and another flight. This time with a flight up to Goose Bay. Takeoff was done once again in low visibility with heavy clouds and icing being part of the experience of climbing away from St. John’s. In-fact, I didn’t get to see the city at all as was the case with Halifax.
Once broken through the clouds I was on my way into the north. Goose Bay was more of a stopover for my flying, not interested in doing a 4 hour flight (or a bit less with time compression), but it did make an ideal midway point and a place that I had never been to.
Happy Valley-Goose Bay is the largest population centre in the region and is located central to much of Labrador. The airport there was first created in 1941 as part of the military supply operations ferrying equipment, supplies and aircraft between North America and Europe. This airport is off the beaten path for Flight Simulator pilots and I did not see any other traffic while I was flying in here.
This is an area that was also affected by the recent issues with terrain geometry in the sim. Some spikes and boxy ridges point up out of the terrain in several places and there are some quirks with how the sim handles some of the river banks as well with some becoming unnaturally elevated. Less of a problem was me learning about how to display the terrain radar on the A320’s many screens. This would have been helpful in my descent into St. John’s on the last flight although here I had clear skies.
Hop 8: Goose Bay (CYYR) to Iqaluit (CYFB)
This was the last trip of the journey and one that I was interested to do. Although most of Canada is located in the southern parts of the country, the northern territories comprise a huge amount of landmass. In recent years, the airport at Iqaluit has been the site of significant air activity for a few reasons.
First, the facilities here have been significantly updated and can now handle a wide variety of aircraft types making it a gateway hub airport for northern travelers. This has made it an ideal location for companies to test their newest aircraft in some of the coldest conditions in the world. It’s also made it an ideal recovery airport for aircraft on the transatlantic route that have experienced technical malfunctions. The airport has seen a wide variety of aircraft as a result.
Second, the airport has significance to Canada as well and I wanted to land here to recognize not only the more southern areas of the country both east and west but also the northern areas of the country. Iqaluit and the territory of Nunavut is home to both French and English speaking settlers as well as the Inuit peoples who have lived in the area for many thousands of years. It’s a vast and rugged terrain and, for the most part, the simulator copes well with this terrain. Some of the screenshots I managed to grab here both during the flight and on the approach up Frobisher bay were stunning.
The setting sun being symbolic of both the flight and my journey across Canada.
Thoughts on airliners and what I learned
To do this journey, I learned a fair bit about airliner operation. That is not to be confused with airline operations which I largely ignored flying my own route and choosing my own cities to fly into. I learned about just how automated these aircraft are and the number of systems required to fully manage them. I also learned a fair bit about how much simplification has been done by Asobo to make the A320neo flyable but not at a study level.
There are a lot of people who have spoken negatively about the basic A320neo, however, I see several bright patches here. First, for fans of study level aircraft, they are coming with both the team at FlyByWire working hard to make the default A320neo into something closer to a study level aircraft and with Aerosoft who are set to make several Airbus aircraft for the sim. And second, because I had so little understanding of his these big airbuses in the sky operated, having a simplified aircraft to start with was not a bad thing. For combat sim pilots, its the rough equivalent of starting with the DCS Flaming Cliffs 3 level F-15 and then jumping into the F-16 later.
If you’re new to flight sims or new to airliners, don’t let the complexity and the size of the big aircraft scare you. A few tutorials and a bit of practice on takeoff and landing and I was feeling pretty capable with the jet. With Microsoft Flight Simulator letting you plug in a route into the FMC without a lot of programming, you can also get up and going quickly without having to fuss around with programming it yourself. A nice bonus if you just want to fly a route.
I also want to say that this type of flying offered a relatively laid back experience. On more than one flight, I flew up to cruise altitude and then did something else including cleaning around the house, doing the dishes, and so on. If you have the opportunity to fly but may not be able to devote full attention at all times, this offers another way to do that so long as you time out the parts where you need to be present (i.e. during landing). You can and may also want to stay laser focused on your flying but this kind of experience is open to many different methods.
I really enjoyed doing this and I will be doing some more airliner flying in the future. I have a 787 flight lined up as my next experience to share so look for that soon!