Flight Simulator’s Cessna 310 Offers Up Realistic Weather Lesson

Gaming simulation can demonstrate how inflight icing affects the flying ability and aerodynamics of the aircraft under variable conditions.

Microsoft Flight Simulator offers an unexpected learning lesson by demonstrating aerodynamic icing in flight as it affects the pitot-static system. [Credit: Shutterstock]

I recently set out on a small adventure using a “payware” Cessna 310 available from within the Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS) main menu. This is one of the more premium add-ons you can buy and is absolutely worth every penny of its $40 price tag. 

The Cessna 310 is one of the newfangled “living, breathing” aircraft that MSFS has released in recent years. It is an aircraft you must fly, maintain, and treat well, as if it were your own. That means oil changes, inspections, and wear and tear that result depending on how you manage the airplane. You’ll even have to clean the airplane over time. Passenger comfort changes depending on how you fly or the level at which you keep the cabin temperature.

I have an affinity for starting in the “golden hour” of MSFS when the lighting, real-world weather, and other factors make it so darn beautiful. Climbing around inside a dark and cold airplane, you can use your built-in flashlight (via keypress) to manipulate everything before powering up. [Image courtesy Peter James]
The aircraft health page is displayed on the built-in iPad device.  [Image courtesy Peter James] 
Poking around in the dark with the flashlight feature to find the lighting switches etc. [Image courtesy Peter James] 
Temperature controls and fans are all operable and will affect passenger comfort as well as potential defrosting issues. [Image courtesy Peter James] 
Move the yoke away to view everything hidden underneath, and raising and lowering your seat will make this all possible. If it’s an area I will often be manipulating, I may set an instant viewpoint in this location to recall back on anytime I want. [Image courtesy Peter James] 
There are many preflight options to choose from on the iPad-style tablet. [Image courtesy Peter James] 
Flying in these simulated conditions would be an absolutely horrible idea in real life. The ice is so thick I can’t even see outside my left view. [Image courtesy Peter James] 
After a realistic start up, with even a few crank attempts, you can see we’re not in the best shape to fly. [Image courtesy Peter James] 

The Cessna 310 demonstrates how inflight icing affects the flying ability and aerodynamics of an aircraft under variable conditions. I knew this would become an exciting flight, but I wasn’t quite expecting what happened next, and as in the last article, I put my pilot’s thinking cap to the test with an added surprise and lesson to be learned that I wasn’t prepared for.

As we all know from our basic private pilot training, taking off with any frost, ice, or contaminants will disrupt the airflow over the flying surfaces, creating a potentially deadly result. Weight, stall speeds, aerodynamic flutter, and controllability would all be affected and so far, the sim has proven it’s all modeled quite well. So naturally, the threat of this realistic danger did not deter me. As I lined up and added equal power to the left and right engines via my add-on throttle control quadrant, the noises and power came to life. Acceleration was slower than normal and rotation and climb seemed kinda strange. Yet, we are out west with airport elevations of more than 4,000 feet msl, so that is to be expected, even in winter. This is true, and could be “gotcha number one” at play: Something seems so normal that you can easily convince yourself that it is normal. 

Airborne under a false sense of security. [Image courtesy Peter James] 
Climbing at or above the blue line is a good thing, in this case, 130 kias at more than 1,000 fpm seemed like a good thing. The airplane was performing better than expected in spite of my foolhardy decision making. In fact, airspeed was increasing a bit as we climbed so my performance wasn’t entirely degraded because of my idiocy. Gotcha number two. [Image courtesy Peter James] 
Leveling off at a VFR cruising altitude of 9,500 feet msl, building speed, things seemed ok despite visible icing on wings and cowls. [Image courtesy Peter James] 
It wouldn’t take long to discover more ice building up as we flew in and out of some light clouds from time to time. [Image courtesy Peter James] 
Cloud skimming is beautiful in MSFS. [Image courtesy Peter James] 
The other passenger side window was icing up badly once again. [Image courtesy Peter James] 
Cruising at 9,500 feet at 150 knots seemed pretty good to me as we droned along, with the destination not too far away now. [Image courtesy Peter James] 
Over time, I noticed the high cruise power setting wasn’t working too well. But we were getting ready for a descent anyway. Some additional icing was starting to form on my forward window despite my selection of the defroster and heating system on high. This airplane simulates de-icing boots marvelously, but I won’t be using them. [Image courtesy Peter James] 
On a visual approach, I reduced power for landing, brought the prop rpms up, and wanted to keep the speed high just in case we’re carrying ice. The 310 started to slow rather dramatically, so I had to correct a lot by adding power to the point where I had max power selected. Yet it kept slowing more and more...oh no, some feelings of dread started popping up. Why? I am under the clouds, out of icing, and all was relatively great at cruise. But ground speed was fine, I was descending fine, and the altimeter was about right for the airport's elevation I was expecting. Gotcha number three. [Image courtesy Peter James] 
It’s noisy on final. With full props and power, we’re slowing below the blue line. Maybe my wings are iced over? Maybe not. Usually, the sim will show visible ice on all surfaces. The wings are clear. Ground speed, check. It’s good, yet something is not quite right. I can’t level off, max power, great ground speed, horrible indicated airspeed, and the 310 wants to keep sinking. This is now a simulated life-threatening situation suddenly I hadn’t anticipated. [Image courtesy Peter James] 

Feeling heavy, screaming in because it feels fast, I can sense the ground speed, but my indicated airspeed keeps dropping. I’ve got to trust the instruments, right? Gotcha number four.

I’m now at max power, with props full, a heavy sink rate, and the airspeed dropping. I wasn’t sure what was coming first, the landing or an impact somewhere undesired. [Image courtesy Peter James] 
Powering myself to the threshold at full power with airspeed uncomfortably slow, I knew landing would be hard and fast. Once I cut power to idle at the right spot—bang. Slam on! Shuttering, and shaking, we were on the deck. I breathed a sigh of relief for sure. Good sound effects and vibrations add to the joy. The landing was fast, although slow on the airspeed gauge—something didn’t add up. [Image courtesy Peter James] 
I was glad to have found a martialler upon the taxi in, and anxious to shut down and figure out what had happened. [Image courtesy Peter James] 
[Image courtesy Peter James] 

By the time I shut down and went to find some virtual coffee, my four gotchas were based on something I hadn’t really planned on. In fact, I hadn’t thought of this in real life for many years since basic IFR training, and that is an iced-over pitot-static system. 

This sim has it simulated, and clearly I was a victim. My airspeed was increasing as I was climbing, and decreasing as I was descending—acting like an altimeter itself. 

Gotcha one was I falsely believed high altitude explained the engine’s sluggishness. I was so consumed with a perceived aerodynamic issue I hadn’t thought of the fact that maybe, I wasn’t that heavy or perilously close to a stall on final, but rather indicated airspeed was erroneously low, making me think I was.

Gotcha two was a blocked pitot-static system resulting in climbing airspeed as we gained altitude, and decreasing airspeed as we descended was gotcha three, all masking a normal profile. Adding full power was accelerating me, but I didn’t know it. My faster-than-normal ground speed was a probable result of the ice-laden wings. Without a blocked static system, my indicated airspeed would have been much higher, somewhat closer to my ground speed, yet it had not occurred to me.

Gotcha four was trusting the instruments. You’re certainly supposed to, unless you can determine which ones are not reliable. In this case, you can’t trust certain ones affected by icing. What an incredible learning lesson and one that once again was unexpected as I set out to demonstrate aerodynamic icing and came back with a new appreciation of this simulator’s features and a good lesson I’ve not had in 20-plus years of professional flying. 

Peter James
Peter JamesContributor
Peter is an experienced Part 135 business jet pilot with a passion for simulators and how they blend with the real world. Learning to fly at age 12, he supplemented his passion and career goals with the early versions of Microsoft Flight Simulator. With the growing realism of all PC simulators today, he frequently uses them for extra proficiency, and loves to show other pilots how great they are.

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