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  • FS Academy VFR – Visual Flight training for MSFS

       (Overall rating from this review)
    VFR training course goes above and beyond the built-in tutorials.

    Note: this review was conducted on a PC before Sim Update 5. According to the developer’s web site, the training course is suitable for both PC and XBOX versions of MSFS.

    Introduction.

    FS Academy VFR is a training course for Microsoft Flight Simulator. It takes the forms of a series of voice-guided lessons, accessed via the Activities – Bush Trips menu  (although not strictly speaking ‘bush trips’ the sim doesn’t currently allow for any better classification). Your instructor is a real airline captain.

    The training ‘missions’ take place across several countries, using procedures and terminology appropriate to each country. This helps to give a truly global feel to the sim. ATC interactions are scripted and narrated, we’re spared the (IMHO truly awful) built-in ATC.

    There is a 75 page PDF manual included. It’s well worth reading, printing out even, as it forms an integral part of the training. It includes maps and charts that you’ll need, as well as the ground school elements of the course.

    FS Academy VFR is available from a variety of stores: Orbx, Aerosoft, SimMarket, Flightsim.com, and the MSFS Marketplace. It’s priced at approximately €22 inc. VAT.

    01 Principles of Flight

    The first lesson sees us in a Cessna 152, on the apron at Liverpool John Lennon airport in the northwest of England. ATC will clear us for a specific departure route via the Seaforth VRP (I said you’d need the charts in the manual!). Once we’re well away from the airport, we get to the meat of the lesson, the somewhat boringly titled ‘General Handling’.  We’ll learn climbing, descending, straight & level, turning, slow flight, stalls and stall recovery. And we’ll learn to do them properly, not just ‘whack in the throttle and pull back the stick’. You’ll learn the ‘sight picture’ for different phases of flight, and be able to hold a heading, maintain altitude to within plus or minus 100ft, and maintain a specified speed, even while turning, or changing altitude etc. It’s a bit like rubbing your belly while rubbing your hair, but with practice you’ll get good at it. Time spent practicing these general handling exercises will pay dividends later.

    The instructor is pre-recorded, and his voice comes over the speakers as if he’s sat in the aeroplane next to you. ATC is also pre-recorded, provided by voice talent rather than the built-in text-to-speech algorithms, and sounds very naturalistic. The instructor will nag at you if your speed or heading or altitude begins to drift, “It feels like we’re getting slow…”

    At the end of the lesson, the flight does not appear in your MSFS logbook (although external programs such as Plan-G etc. will correctly log it). This is apparently a bug in MSFS.

    02 Approach

    The first lesson ends in mid air (you’re free to continue practising, or land at one of the nearby airports), and the second lesson starts more or less where the first ends. There’s no way to segue directly from one to the next; you have to exit back to the menu.

    We start the lesson by practising slow flight, and descending, using flaps, and getting used to the descent attitude. Then we’ll return to Liverpool via two visual reference points (VRPs): Kirkby town, and the Jaguar car factory. Finally, we’ll join the circuit to land on runway 27.

    03 Circuits

    We head off to Tauranga in New Zealand’s North Island to fly circuits in the Robin DR400. Circuits, Touch & Gos, or Pattern Work, is what every pilot will do whenever they get the chance to fly and there’s nowhere to go. Why? Because every circuit is a complete flight. It has everything: take off, climb, level off, turns, straight & level, slow flight, descent, landing. All in one small package. It’s good training – the flying equivalent of doing reps. In this lesson we also learn downwind checks (BUMFICH – Brakes Undercarriage Mixture Fuel Instruments Carb heat Hatches & harnesses), plus go arounds, and low level ‘bad weather’ circuits.

    04 Local Flight

    We leave the airport environment and fly cross country to another airport. In this instance we’re still in New Zealand, flying from Thames airfield to Matamata (aka Hobbiton in the Lord of the Rings movies). We navigate by a technique known as pilotage. In the process we learn some of the rules governing VFR flight, and a VFR arrival procedure, the overhead join.

    05 Night VFR

    In many parts of the world, VFR at night is not allowed. In part that’s because the definition of VFR requires certain levels of visibility, including sight of the ground. If it’s dark… They also get around it with specific night ratings and qualifications. The flight around Toronto in this lesson illustrates some of the pitfalls and potential disorientations of flying at night.

    06 Crosswind

    Back to circuit training, this time at Sumburgh in Scotland, where strong winds are notorious. This lesson is all about aircraft handling in adverse conditions, and as such it applies regardless of the flight rules you are operating under. One issue I had was with the timing of the instructions. Turning when you’re told to does not get you lined up with the runway, you’ll need either to do a bit of extra manoeuvring or adjust your turning point. For good measure, it’s a short field landing, so you need to be accurate.

    07 Abnormals

    A lot of real world aviation training is how to handle things going wrong. This could be instrumentation failure, maybe a blocked or iced up pitot tube. Or an electrical failure, or an engine failure (maybe you forgot to switch fuel tanks and you’re out of fuel…).  The natural reaction will be to yell “Ohshitohshitohshit we’re all gonna die” as you go down in flames. Or alternatively you can put your training into practice and make a successful water landing on the Hudson. This lesson takes place in Sweden. Of course it will not go “to plan”…

    08 Mountain Flying

    Some of the nicest VFR flying is through the mountains, in the valleys and over the ridges. The scenery can be spectacular, but it can also be dangerous with strong updrafts and downdrafts just itching to smack your plane into the side of a mountain. This lesson takes place in the mountains around Telluride, USA. I did find that some of the instructions didn’t trigger, which could have been my inaccurate flying. But a second turn around the valley (putting into practice what I’d been taught), and it did eventually trip.

    09, 10, 11 Cross Country

    That pretty much covers the formal training in this course. The next three lessons take the form of standard MSFS bush trips. They’re short (for bush trips), each one taking around an hour, with a single intermediate landing. Unlike the other lessons in this series, these flights will appear in your MSFS logbook.

    The first trip takes place in south-eastern England, from Elstree to Biggin Hill to Shoreham. This is a particularly busy area, with major airports and lots of complex airspace. There are altitude restrictions too.

    The second trip is in the Pacific Northwest, from Renton Municipal past Seattle to Tacoma Narrows, and then over mountains and through valleys to Apex Airpark.

    The third trip is set in the iconic Southern Alps of New Zealand. Starting in Milford Sound, we head out to Martins Bay, and then returning through the mountains to land at Queenstown. In all cases, charts are provided, and we’re expected to follow published procedures.

    12 Skills Test

    This is the culmination of the training, and we must put into practice what we have learned.  The ‘lesson’ is a shortened version of the PPL skills test (checkride if you’re in the US). It’s set in Venice, Italy.  Follow the instructions and maintain the required heights headings and speeds. You can be failed if you don’t. (you’ll be nagged, as with the other lessons, but if you don’t correct, that’s a fail.) Sadly, there’s no certificate if you pass, just the knowledge that you can go on to the IFR course. Speaking of which…

    Conclusion

    VFR – Visual Flight Rules is a regime for flying in conditions of visibility where you are essentially clear of cloud and in sight of the surface (also known as Visual Meteorological Conditions, or VMC). This course seeks to teach the skills required to fly VFR to a standard similar to that of a basic PPL. Much of that skill, can be considered to be basic aircraft handling, and as such is applicable to all forms of flying: the ability to maintain a heading and an altitude, to change course or altitude correctly, and as such will take your skill levels well beyond “ram the throttle forward and click in the autopilot.”

    A lot of emphasis is placed on local procedures – variations in rules or ATC phraseology in different parts of the world. We learn several different ways of joining a circuit pattern for instance. While this is definitely applicable in the real world, in the sim its value is confined to services such as VATSIM or IVAO. The built-in ATC is “USA everywhere”, and not even particularly good at that.

    One area the course was weak on was navigation. We have one local navex (where we’re led from point to point with little explanation) and some bush trips. There’s no explanation of how to read maps, how to plot a course, or work out where you are if you get lost, or anything like that.

    Overall, it’s a great course for learning to fly an aeroplane: take off, fly somewhere, join a circuit, and land. All without the “aid” of an autopilot. But if you want to learn VFR navigation – dead reckoning or pilotage, this course won’t teach you.

    PROs:
    • Clear instruction
    • Very immersive
    • Good manual
    CONs:
    • Most lessons not logged in MSFS
    • Little coverage of navigation
    • Overall Rating


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