To Providence or Bust, in Simulated Flight

I took off in my virtual Cape Air-liveried Beechcraft Baron from Nantucket, Massachusetts, at sunset, climbing to 4,500 feet after requesting VFR flight following from the live air traffic controller handling Boston Center flight sim traffic.

During the climb out from KACK the pilot can choose an in-cockpit view. [Courtesy of X-Plane]

It was about as gorgeous an evening as can be digitally created on X-Plane 11. I took off in my virtual Cape Air-liveried Beechcraft Baron from Nantucket, Massachusetts, at sunset, climbing to 4,500 feet after requesting VFR flight following from the live air traffic controller handling Boston Center flight sim traffic. I pointed the Baron toward Martha’s Vineyard, which would serve as the first visual checkpoint on the way to Providence (KPVD) in Rhode Island, some 45 miles ahead. After setting the props, throttles, and mixtures to a comfortable cruise setting, I trimmed out the airplane so I could hand fly it. I wanted to practice holding my course and altitude, since it had been three weeks since I had last flown the Baron.

Months before this flight, I added the Reality Expansion Pack (REP) plug-in by SimCoders to the default X-Plane 11 Baron. For $19.99, the plug-in brings additional aircraft systems to life in X-Plane 11 and improves upon the default version. This “study-level” simulation requires precise management of the engines and other aircraft systems, and models additional parts within systems that can be set to fail randomly or at specific intervals. As a result, flying with the reality expansion pack makes the sim pilot responsible for more of the digital aircraft and can increase the workload.Unbeknownst to me, a random failure was lying in wait, destined to alter my flight this particular evening.

The air at cruise was calm, and the digital sun—almost fully set—turned the horizon orange except for a thin layer of clouds building up over the mainland above my cruising altitude. The VFR conditions forecasted in the preflight weather briefing were holding. I had been looking forward to this night’s flight all month as I would be joining up with other flight sim pilots in the live airspace over KPVD. This was my first chance to participate in a “showcase” event hosted by my flight sim club, and was the last fly-in event scheduled for the month. One feature of a showcase event is that volunteer air traffic controllers fully staff the airspace around the Boston area (ZBW), giving all sim pilots a chance to do multiple realistic frequency changes during the course of the arrival to the destination air- port. Similar to the real world, Boston Center would hand off flights to Providence Approach, and then to Providence Tower for landing—with ground, clearance delivery, and departure controllers available for aircraft departing KPVD.

The Baron climbs out from KACK. [Courtesy of X-Plane]

Crossing over the mainland just south of New Bedford (KEWB) in Massachusetts, I was now 10 miles southeast of the Class C airspace and expecting my handover to Providence Approach at any moment. Listening to the traffic on the frequency, I could hear many pilots on IFR approaches and was glad to have opted for VFR flight following. The radio chatter reminded me of flying in the ZBW when I was an active private pilot in the real world. It was exciting to feel like I was back in the big show again. Many of the sim pilots sharing the digital skies with me really know their stuff, flying the airspace competently on IFR flight plans and using professional radio work. It was motivating to be part of the group, and I wanted to bring my best when it was my turn to squeeze the push-to-talk button.

Using my call sign, Boston Center got my attention and provided my handoff instructions. Upon checking in with Providence Approach, a friendly controller greeted me with a right turn to 040, setting me up on a 5-mile left downwind for Runway 23. Moments later, the same controller was in touch with some in-sim traffic for me to see and avoid. I could hear the other sim pilot receiving his see-and-avoid instructions, and by looking out my windscreen to the left, I could make out his aircraft, a Citation, in the distance, lining up for final approach a few miles ahead. I couldn’t see the shape of the aircraft yet, but I could see the nav and strobe lights marking his position, which I cross-checked on the MFD of the G1000. The workload of aviating, navigating, and communicating was keeping me fully in the zone. I love the challenge of the arrival phase of flight, complete with its many variables to manage, and the crowd of sim pilots and controllers on frequency really added to the immersion. Although orderly, it was a virtual rush hour within the KPVD Class Charlie as the fly-in was set to close within the next 30 minutes.

With the landing Citation traffic in sight, Providence Approach turned me onto an extended left base for 23 and handed me off to the tower. I repeated the correct tower frequency but didn’t write it down on my kneeboard. When I dialed in what I thought to be the correct frequency, my call was met with silence. I tried one more time, but realizing that I must have mistyped it, I quickly punched the COM flip-flop button to ask Approach for the correct tower frequency. I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach, knowing I had started to fall behind the airplane in a critical phase of flight. With the correct frequency, I radioed Providence Tower, but my delay caused me to fly past the left turn for final. I sheepishly reported my position to the tower, and the controller took it all in stride, patiently giving me instructions to turn 180 degrees and set up for a right base for 23. Once turned around, I double-checked my airspeed and lowered my landing gear. I took a deep breath so I could focus on the next steps of the arrival.

I needed to settle in and concentrate on the next steps of the approach, but something with the airplane didn’t feel right. I checked my gear lights and had three green. Next, I checked my flaps, and they were retracted. However, I was putting unusual pressure on my yoke to keep my wings level. Immediately, I added rudder to keep the nose on the horizon, and I was now cross-controlling the yoke and rudder to keep the nose level. Not good.

I immediately checked the MFD and backup engine instruments and determined I was not experiencing a powerplant issue. Oil pressure, rpm, and manifold pressure were where they should be for the selected power setting. A few weeks before, I added an additional monitor to my sim cockpit to serve as a backup instrument panel. I attached a suction cup mount to my Stay Level avionics panel that houses my G1000 PFD and MFD. The monitor hosts additional indicator lights, gauges, and controls. With just a glance, I could see critical information about the Baron’s systems that would be available to me if I was flying the airplane in the real world.

The Baron sits back on the ground at KOQU. [Courtesy of X-Plane]

One specific gauge caught my attention: The aileron trim position indicator was showing it was rolling uncommanded from full left deflection to full right deflection and back. I quickly clicked the aileron trim controls on the yoke to arrest the trim’s movement but to no avail. Immediately my face felt hot and my heart rate picked up as this problem quickly became an in-flight, in-sim emergency. My chance to land at KPVD with my fellow sim pilots was dissolving rapidly, like my altitude, airspeed, and ability to control the aircraft.

Since I am not a Baron pilot in real life and have not had real-world multiengine training, I predicted the landing would be a challenge. However, this situation provided a great opportunity to work out the problem using what I knew about aircraft systems and emergency procedures. Having never experienced a runaway trim issue in real life or in the sim before, I decided to use the rest of the flight as a test to see if I could survive the emergency. With no physical or monetary consequences, if I failed, it was a very low-stakes learning opportunity. Challenge accepted.

To minimize drag, I raised my landing gear, hoping it would improve controllability. Letting the tower know I was experiencing a flight-control problem, I was cleared to fly south toward the edge of the Class C. So as to not interrupt any fly-in arrivals or departures, I communicated my intentions to the tower and disconnected from the live air traffic control service. I was alone in X-Plane 11 now, and I was running out of troubleshooting ideas. The control of the Baron had not greatly improved with my gear up, and my mind was racing to identify a solution. With both feet and hands working the flight controls, I kept working on the problem mentally. Was I fighting the autopilot? It was definitely possible that I had engaged the AP by mistake. A quick glance at the G1000 and back down to the AP controls confirmed that autopilot was off.

Next, I gripped the yoke tightly—not knowing how the Baron would respond—and activated the autopilot into heading mode to see if that would stop the aileron trim’s maniacal cycling. I recalled that X-Plane 11 has extensive and programmable failure modes. Back in 2021, I had enabled the failure mode to randomly select one failure per 60 hours of flight time and, although I had only flown the Baron about 20 hours in the past 12 months, I realized the runaway trim condition was most likely caused by this programmable setting lurk- ing in the background of my previous months of sim flying, and was now showing itself.

I used the manual in-cockpit camera controls to zoom into the circuit breakers to see if I could pull the appropriate one with a click of my mouse. I knew some X-Plane aircraft modeled circuit breaker behavior but wasn’t sure if my REP Baron was included. When no circuit breakers responded to my rapid-fire mouse clicking, I zoomed in on the base of the throttle pedestal to see if I could manually stop the aileron trim wheel from turning. My mouse was unable to click the control wheel and stop it from continuing to turn. At this point, I was out of options to diagnose and but- tons to click, and still struggling to keep the aircraft under control.

Fortunately, my path south of KPVD led me to the western edge of the Class D for KOQU. Having attended a real-life air show there in 2012, I recalled the main runway of 16/34 would be my best shot at an emergency landing location. I was due west of KOQU by about 2 miles, flying at 170 kts at 600 feet agl, but I had Runway 16 in sight. I dropped the gear and swung the nose toward the runway. It was an ugly short approach over the western side of the airfield, and I did my best to line up with 16, all while fighting the aileron trim and losing altitude in the process. I was coming in fast, at roughly 130 kts, but the directional control seemed to worsen at lower speeds. My best option was to get the wheels on the ground and salvage the best landing possible. Since I would be the only witness in-sim to the outcome, there wasn’t anything to lose. I had flashes of aviation legend Bob Hoover’s sage advice go through my mind as I committed to the touchdown: “If you’re faced with a forced landing, fly the thing as far into the crash as possible.”

Thanks to the aileron trim, keeping on the centerline of 16 was nearly impossible, so I floated messily down the runway, slowly reducing the throttles and trying to maintain control. I tried touching down on the mains at roughly 120 knots, about halfway down the 7,500-foot runway, but I swiftly bounced into the air. I pulled back on the yoke to try to arrest the inevitable follow-up contact with the runway and bounced again. I would not attempt a go-around in this condition, so I reduced the throttles to idle and did what I could to minimize the impact of the final bounce. The digital propellers departed both engines with the impact, but the gear stayed connected to the undercarriage, and I skidded to a stop off on the left side of 16, just past the intersection with Runway 5/23.

I unclenched my hands from the yoke and enjoyed the silence in my gaming headset as I switched off the avionics, lights, batteries, and mags. Sitting in my flight sim cockpit in the quiet of my basement, I let my heart rate settle and reflected on how real moments of the flight had felt—especially the last 10 minutes as I was troubleshooting the aileron trim malfunction while trying to keep the Baron under control. Although there were areas for improvement, I flew the surprise emergency to the best of my abilities and enjoyed the mental workout. I never made it to KPVD, but the fidelity of the entire experience will keep me coming back for more.

Sean Siff
Sean SiffContributor
Sean Siff is a private pilot who has worked in marketing in the aviation industry.

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