The DC-3
Flight Simulation versus Flying the Real Thing

...a Comparison by Trev Morson

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Trev Morson was a DC-3 crew member durng Prairie Aviation Museum's 2001 tour of the airshow circuit throughout the US midwest. Trev has been a part owner of their DC-3, N763A, since 1997 and accumulated some left and right seat flight time during that tour. His flight experience provided a great opportunity to compare flying the 'real' DC-3, with his experience simming the "3" in FS. It's a fascinating insight into situations encountered when flying a real DC-3 that one does not encounter when flight-simming. We're very thankful to Trev for granting permission to reprint his article from TecPilot. I think you'll find yourself rereading this article several times.

I had many hours this year during my tour of the airshow circuit in the US midwest, to get some left and right seat flying time in our DC-3. It was quite an experience getting up into the cockpit on the invitation of the Captain and flying for thirty minutes or more each time. I figured it would be interesting to make a comparison flying the 'real' DC-3, to my experience simming the same aircraft in FS.

Here I'm in the left seat flying N763A, our DC-3. This was
a recent flight and we're over Meigs airport at 2,500 feet.

More often than not, since the days of FS4 onward through all MS versions to my current FS2K setup, I have simulated flying the DC-3 and experienced hundreds hours of enjoyment, not to mention the educational value over the years. It was the FS educational aspect that would prove invaluable during my flights in the real thing.

Two DDA DC-3s, one real and one
in FS2000. Can you tell the difference?

At home I use a PII 400, 128MB Ram with TNT2 32MB Ultra Video Card using Nvidia 1080 Video drivers. My DC-3 Simulation set up uses a real DC-3 Throttle quadrant (crudely set up I might add), FS2000 installed using the Dutch Dakota Association DC-3 PH-DDZ by Bill Rambow, Jan Visser and Roy Chaffin. I have the CH FlightSim yoke, utilize the Simped Rudder pedals, and use the CH Pro Throttle. My monitor is a ViewSonic 19 inch G790.

This is my Flight Simulation setup at home.

I guess the first comparison one can make is that I have a huge ash tray with my flightsim setup at home, unlike the real thing where I could have really used a cigarette at times during a stressful 'windy' flight.

N763A, our DC-3, is painted in Ozark Airlines livery and is operated by the Prairie Aviation Museum out of
Bloomington, Illinois. I became a part owner of this aircraft in 1997. Built in 1942, it's actually a C-53 and
does exceptionally well on the airshow circuit, creating a lot of interest with aviation enthusiasts.

I am part of the flight crew on our DC-3 during the airshow circuit in the hot summer months. It is my job to do many things, such as make new flight crew members feel comfortable and to explain procedures about our DC-3 during our flight. Upon landing there is much to do. I place the chocks on the wheels and climb our small ladder and place the fuel coverings on the fuel caps on top of the wings. Then to place the red wooden latches for the rudders and ailerons onto the plane to prevent them blowing around. And then I place the oil buckets under the engines to catch the dripping oil, there will be lots of oil to drip out of a DC-3 depending on the duration of our flights. I will wait a while for the engine exhaust to cool off before I place the covers on those. Sometimes I need to attach the tow bar onto the tail wheel, depending on where we will be parked.

We would pitch up the canvas covering, and then set up the tables underneath to sell souvenirs at the left side of the DC-3. Then we move the big ladders (usually supplied by the airshow folks) to the cabin doors for folks to walk through it. Last thing is to open the emergency passenger windows to let some air in during the hot weather and pitch up the 'stars and stripes' flag from inside the cockpit so it can be seen waving in the wind outside. When we leave, it's the reverse process, only difference being, that after removing the fuel covers, I sometimes hold the hose from the fuel truck into any of our four 200 gallon tanks. It is quite an interesting responsibility, maintained purely on a voluntary basis and, if you are an avid aviation enthusiast like me, lots of fun!

Nothing in a flight simulation program can prepare you for the important duties of a DC-3 flight crewman. Our DC-3 commands up to $4,000 for an airshow appearance. We need fuel to cover a return trip (usually 200 to 400 US gallons) and rooms are provided for the flight crew consisting of up to seven crew members total, including the pilots if the airshow is for more than a single day. Sometimes we have the luxury of free breakfast and dinner throughout our stay. One time, we even got free beers for each night we were at the airshow.

The money from selling souvenirs and from walk-throughs (a dollar per person), keeps our DC-3 in flying condition. A typical airshow can bring in up to 3,000 people or more just walking through the aircraft. A typical Pratt & Whitney engine can cost near $50,000. We lost an engine coming back from the Morris, Illinois airshow, three years ago. We did land safely, but we were out of action for the rest of that year. After one particular airshow visit a simple carburetor repair cost us $1,300 (we had it sent to Dallas). Insurance is $14,000 a year, and we are only allowed to carry 10 passengers at a time, even though 24 seats are available. The airshow circuit is a busy time of year for me, but great fun, especially if you get to fly our DC-3 parts of the way.

There are many differences between simulating an aircraft and flying the real thing. First of all, it is not half as comfortable sitting in a DC-3 cockpit as it is sitting in my PC chair at home. With the cockpit panel right in front of you and the windows (sometimes open) at your side, it is quite cramped. There is the deafening noise of the engines and the wind thrashing against the windows. Headphones are required in the real thing to communicate with the copilot as there is no way he will hear you otherwise. That is one thing I learned quickly, communication with your copilot is very important, yet at home I am alone in my computer room during a simulated flight.

I was invited into the cockpit to fly our DC-3 during cruise at 4,000 feet ASL ... Props at 2050 rpm's, Power at 30 inches MAP and Mixtures set at Auto Lean cruising at 145 kias. My first experience was in the right seat at this time with a horrible crosswind of 35 knots and overcast skies. We were flying out of Mt Carmel, Missouri, just back from a small airshow. The Captain said those famous words "You've got the plane" and leaned back with his hands off the yoke and feet off the rudders while I got to grips with the big beast. We were carrying five passengers at the time (our airshow flight crew).

The Captain proceeded to read the paper and instructed me to follow the GPS and fly VFR using the Horizon and a spot within it to focus upon. The idea was to keep her straight and level. Amazingly, I struggled with this aspect (VFR) of flying, because in my years simming, I am much more comfortable flying IFR and using the instruments on the panel. I pondered how much flight simulation lends itself to VFR flying and, in my opinion, it does not, since I know a lot of simmers are at ease using the gauges within the panel rather than focus on a spot in the scenery that perhaps is not yet drawn from the FS scenery BGL files and, fly focused on a spot in the distance without a panel on the monitor. Flying VFR is rather like paddling a boat backwards toward a pier. What you do, is stay looking forward and focus on a tree that is in direct line with the pier behind you. This way, with the tree in the middle of your sight, you would never have to turn around to know you are paddling correctly toward the pier, you focus on that tree for long periods of time. It is not easy, but frankly, flying the DC-3, turned out to be almost exactly like paddling a boat in the water, except of course you had to think also, about altitude and keep the aircraft steady without losing or gaining altitude.

Struggling to fly VFR, I glanced down at the gauges and I would do this often, to get a feel of how the aircraft was behaving under my control. The one thing you learn from flight simming is the ability to glance at all the gauges in seconds to know exactly what is happening at all times and I was grateful I had such an ability thanks to my years of FS simming.

A nice day for a VFR flight in our DC-3.

It is said that an airplane can fly you or you can fly the airplane. A distinct understanding from the very start needs to be established to show who is the boss. However , there is another factor and perhaps the real master of the skies, ...'the wind!' I found myself in control of the DC-3 but fighting constantly to keep control against this beastly crosswind.

In FS it can be difficult to simulate such wind conditions as I experienced during this particular flight, because often times in a sim, the wind is computed to blow in a single direction with perhaps some gusts. You can simulate turbulence, but it just does not seem the same as it is when you are up there flying the real thing. It is not often you get that wind swirl in front of you or thermals pushing you upwards and then all of a sudden, you can drop 10 feet in a second or two. I found in the real thing, the VSI bobbing up and down in increments of 100 feet or more, above and below the zero mark; it is very much like sailing on rough seas. We saw this often in FS5 when an aircraft was alleged to have 'below par' flight dynamics, referred to as 'porpoising' or having a 'dolphin motion' during a flight in the sim. Needless to say folks would bombard the author/designer of the simulated aircraft with e-mails asking him to tweak the flight dynamics to stop the bobbing up and down motion experienced in the sim. And here I was flying the real thing experiencing that very same porpoising effect, except I was not about to write to Donald Douglas telling him his DC-3 design was below par. Damn the wind on this day of flying!

Another difference I found was the controls. The Yoke on the real thing is cumbersome and very heavy, unlike the plastic CH FlightSim yoke I use at home where you can operate it with just one or two fingers. You don't exactly get tired hands using a CH FlightSim yoke at home. On the real thing, especially in strong winds, you grip your hands firmly on the yoke and you do have to provide some muscle during a turn.

Same goes for the rudder pedals. I discovered the DC-3 was fish-tailing and asked the Captain via the headphones why this was. He replied that I need to keep my feet FIRMLY on the rudder pedals, else the wind will take control, blowing on the DC-3's large surface areas. I have never had to 'firmly press on the rudder pedals during a simulated flight, I cannot say that I have actually fish-tailed in FS either, but I did in the real thing. Imagine driving your car on an expressway at 70 mph in a crosswind blowing toward the left. You know how it feels when you are constantly correcting the car toward the right with hands firmly gripped on the wheel for long periods of time, it can become quite tiring after a while. Imagine (since you don't ever think about this in a car) having to calculate the same for up-and-down motion, too.

The wind would also literally bank the aircraft by at least 15 to 20 degrees at times and so it was necessary to keep your hands firmly on the yoke to make the required corrections against the wind.

In flight simulation, often you would need to use a lot of rudder to keep the ball on the turn and slip indicator in the middle during a turn. Not so in the real thing, slight pressure on the left or right rudder is all that is needed to keep the nose of the aircraft in the direction of the turn.

A low fly-by over the VOR at Bloomington, and I was on board at the time.

I soon found out why TecPilot has a chess game on its site and, this is nothing remotely experienced in a flight simulator. Flying the real DC-3 requires a good feel for the aircraft and the ability to think 'way' ahead. Just like a chess game where you need to think three or four moves ahead. The same can be said during any real DC-3 flight. I hope I can explain this well enough in writing here and so I will try my best.

When you move the yoke, the real DC-3 reacts a few seconds later (this can be simulated in FS using a high null zone for the yoke/joystick). A few more seconds later, when the DC-3 has reacted to the input of the yoke, the Attitude Indicator gauge (Artificial Horizon to us oldtimers ... CHW) and the Turn Coordinator gauge will then (and only then) show what maneuver you executed a moment ago.

So it works like this... move the yoke, 'wait', the aircraft moves, 'wait again' the gauge will show correct position. Now imagine performing a simple 30 degree turn to the right in the real thing? I did! ...Move the yoke toward the right and literally guess the 30 degree mark by feel alone. Then equalize out of the turn by moving the yoke back to the left and finally into a straight position. During this time (equalizing), the aircraft will bank right and a few seconds later, the Attitude Indicator and Turn and Slip (Turn and Bank, T&B, CHW) indicator will show the calculation of your turn and you sit hoping it was actually a 30 degrees bank. If your were good enough and it does show 30 degrees, you will realize that for the last 10-15 seconds, you have been flying straight and level. You can easily end up chasing the needle ...constantly turning, equalizing, watching the gauges react moments later, all with a huge delay effect involved in every step. It can become quite a mess if you do not have 'the feel' or the ability to think ahead at all times. In FS, the gauges always react instantly since there is no delay computed in a gauge when you execute a maneuver. If you use a high null zone, you will get a delay effect in movement of the aircraft but still, the FS gauge will react too quickly compared to the real thing. FS makes it easy in this respect, you do not have to think ahead as much when simming.

An unusual angle photo of our DC-3, taken at the Scott AFB airshow

On another occasion coming back from a three day airshow held at Scott AFB in Southern Illinois, I had a chance to fly left seat during cruise in our DC-3. We were cruising this time at 170 kias. The weather was sunny and at least the wind (which had become my enemy in my past experiences), was much calmer and the DC-3 flew rather nicely. This time I would use the trim wheel a lot to avoid my frustration experienced previously in stronger winds.

The trim wheel in the DC-3 is used a lot and I cannot always say I have experienced the same in flight simulation. A very small correction of the flight simulator's trim wheel produces a much more exaggerated movement of the FS aircraft than a similar movement in the real thing. Meaning that a small touch of the trim wheel in FS is quite a large trim adjustment in the real thing to get the same movement. And, inversely, a very small turn of the trim wheel in the real thing cannot be simulated at all in FS. FS or any computer cannot compute such a slight touch of the trim.

The point I am making here and it really applies to everything, yoke, rudder and trim wheel, is that in the real thing, there is much more play and control than can ever be experienced in a simulation. I have heard many complaints from real pilots saying that the trim wheel in FS is way too sensitive, and it is true. A small movement of the trim wheel in the sim actually makes a much larger movement of the aircraft if the same minimal movement is used in the real thing. Confusing however, at least in the DC-3 program I use within FS, it requires a lot of input of the rudders to acquire a very small movement in yaw, not so in the real thing, again, slight pressure on either pedal is all that is needed. So there are many differences here in achieving a 'feel' of the aircraft.

Another thing to touch upon is engine management. I have attended many flight simulation events and flightsim meetings and I have to say that many simmers do not pay a lot of attention to engine management. They do not seem to be worried about EGT or CHT, oil temps, hydraulic pressure, manifold pressure etc.. As long as they get to where they are going within a sim is all that is to be concerned about. To be honest, FS does not lend itself kindly to engine management, since it is possible to fly the default Cessna to 10,000 feet ASL or more with all throttles full on and not any kind of warning or alarm is given from the FS program that something could be dreadfully wrong or 'IS' wrong with the aircraft or its engines. Without doubt, flying a real aircraft like a DC-3 requires you to constantly watch your manifold pressure readings in unison with prop rpms, mixtures, oil temps etc.. If you do not keep tabs on power settings and temps in the real thing, you are liable to loose an engine very quickly indeed or, ruin the aircraft altogether.

On one flight where I was in control, flew from the right seat, we had a carburetor problem with the left radial and the Captain was constantly looking out of the window at the engine and keeping an eye on the fuel management gauges. Another occasion during which I was a passenger, the oil gauge was faulty which required a look out of the window to if see any seepage of oil was leaking from the big right radial. It was not, simply a faulty gauge. This can be simulated though.

Vibration within the cockpit requires friction locks against the power throttles. This is something you do not need in a simulator or PC set up, there is no rattling or vibration at all.

Here I'm getting acquainted with the controls of a DC-3.

On another of my DC-3 flights cruising at 3,500 feet ASL, at 160 kias over Wisconsin, I found myself quite surprised in the left seat. We have several sound and light alarms in the cockpit of our DC-3, and one was going off (buzzing) and lit yellow because the passenger/cargo door at the rear was not locked properly. Well, ... it was locked securely, but our DC-3 requires the handle on the inside to be in the exact position to the left. The Captain left me at the controls to fly alone. He walked to the far rear of the passenger cabin and placed the door handle into its correct position. He could only have moved it less than a half inch to the left, but it did the trick, the alarm was silent and the yellow light went out. Not only that, but I found myself using the trim wheel to counteract the weight of his body moving from the front of the aircraft to the rear, and then back again. Frankly, had I not trimmed when the Captain walked to the rear, the VSI would have gone above the zero mark. This aspect is something that cannot be experienced within simming for sure. The aircraft's CG (Center of Gravity) is ever changing when passengers are walking about.

On yet another flight I was in the right seat, with the window at my right side wide-open. It was fun to stick out my head, look back toward the Pratt & Whitney radial and feel the wind pressing hard against me. The DC-3's prop is 108 inches in diameter. Perhaps I should have a big fan at full blast next to my PC at home to experience the same effect?

The GPS in this DC-3 is a hand-held type. One of my flights was on a sunny day and often I had to re-position the GPS by hand so that I could see it, since the sun glare blocked the display and prevented me from reading it. The same can be said when flying toward the sun ... not an easy task if you are flying VFR or even IFR since here, my eyes had to re-adjust a lot looking out of the window, only to be blinded by the light of the sun, and back down again at the instruments. We do not have that problem in FS thankfully, for instance ... you would NEVER see me wear sunglasses in my computer room when FS is fired up and I am flying on a simulated sunny day.

No need for deodorant either, which brings to mind an occasion during flying our DC-3 in the rain. The damn roof leaked and we were flying just beneath the dark clouds at 4,000 feet ASL. The rain would hit me on my face and shoulders from time to time. That's one thing I do not miss when simming, I never get wet. It is true I know, that most simmers use a mouse for flaps and landing gear. An option would be provided to use a keyboard or a button on the yoke. Imagine the difference when on the real thing, huge levers at the side of the right seat need to be heaved upward or downward to achieve the same result. Obviously no mouse clicking is available on a real flight unfortunately.

The DC-3 cockpit is cramped and there's much to control and to think
about during a flight. Photo courtesy Trev Morson and AirNikon.

Click on picture for larger image.

In conclusion, FS does not teach you everything about flying in winds and how unpredictable they can be. I guess the missing feature in FS is just how 'mighty' the wind is up there in the skies. The power of the wind certainly took me by surprise when I was at the controls of a real DC-3. Simming does not always teach you or give the ability you need to think ahead when maneuvering an aircraft like a DC-3. I guess I need to play some more chess games on TecPilot to keep my skills brushed up for that delay criteria. I think in FS, you can sit and sim in your Sunday best and walk away looking the same. You just cannot do that in the cockpit of a DC-3, your clothes are creased, possibly wet, you are sweaty, hair is a mess and certainly the adrenaline is racing, not to mention high blood pressure at times.

However ... If it had not been for years of valuable education gained using FS, I would have been completely useless and lost in the cockpit of the real thing. Flight simulation taught me how to use the most important of gauges, including the GPS (which was handy knowledge during my real DC-3 flights). It taught me how to scan lots of gauges quickly in seconds. Simming has also taught me how a joystick/yoke is to be used and the importance of equalizing out of a turn correctly, etc... Flight Simulation has taught me everything about IFR (but not a lot about VFR unfortunately).

Question: Is it very different flying the real thing compared to simming?.. Yes, of course it is, but, if you are having fun, either way.... who really cares? In my opinion the best feature of flight simulation is its educational value. It prepares you, it teaches you, and you should never be without a flightsim. Even in FS, no two flights are the same, no matter how many times you fly.

Don't you think this world is amazing? ... Reading/writing an article like this ... and, we will only be celebrating '100 years of flight' two years from now, in 2003! How far we have all come since the Wright Brothers first flight in 1903, where today, in less than one hundred years of flight, one can compare flight simulation to real flying. .........Amazing indeed!! Amazing still, is that I am using a comparison here, of an aircraft that is already 66 years old. The DC-3 was the first aircraft ever to make money carrying passengers. We have come a very long way in such a relatively short time. So imagine how much more realistic flight simulation can be in the near future. I have used a Beta of FS2002, and that latest MS release will be a big leap toward that goal.

CHW NOTE: As Trev mentioned, N763A began life as a C-53. The C-47 Skytrain, the more popularly-known military version of the DC-3, was configured as a cargo plane and was equipped with a large cargo door in the left side of the fuselage. The C-47's original mission was to haul cargo, equipment and light vehicles such as jeeps. Once the Army discovered its versatility and reliability, though, it carried whatever was necessary, personnel or equipment.

The C-53 Skytrooper, on the other hand, was designed to transport paratroopers and to tow gliders. This type could carry 28 fully-armed paratroopers. In 1942, during WWII, the contract price for a C-53 was about $160,470, or $1.75M in today's dollars.

Click Here for the history of N763A, and Click Here to see more photos of that aircraft.

Web Site: The DC-3 Hangar