Cold & Dark

Bringing an aircraft to life from its slumber is one of the coolest aspects of being a flight simmer. In this article, we take a look at one of my favorite sim indulgences:  The Nescient Cold & Dark Endeavor.

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Time to spare..go by air…

One of the aspects of our flight sim hobby that seems to be at least somewhat universal is that most of us are fairly patient gamers. Whether you are playing DCS World, FSX, or X-Plane, there is usually a good investment of time and effort in doing whatever you plan to do each time you sit down in front of the computer. Of course, for a quick fix, we can load up missions or flights that have engines running, or that have instant combat, so there isn’t necessarily a requirement for our sim sessions to be time intensive. Personally, I’ve found that most of the satisfaction I get out of flight simming these days has less to do with the completion of specific mission requirements, but more enjoying the experience of getting the aircraft up and running and on the way (most probably to be shot down once I arrive at the area of operations). Since I often review aircraft modules for both PC Pilot magazine and this site, I’m usually trying to figure out some new and complicated aircraft that I try to learn in depth to disseminate accurate information to readers. Trying to come to grips with a new Russian aircraft or a highly complex PMDG aircraft, complete with complex systems and avionics, can be quite a challenge on such a recurring basis. As modules pass across my desk, I’ve come to enjoy a quirky habit of installing them, then diving into them cold (without any knowledge) and seeing if I can bring them to life. These attempts result in varying levels of success, but they are no less fun for the failures.

The basics

As any longtime simmer that has dabbled in the “cold & dark” cockpit knows, there are a few elements that regularly enter into the equation:

  1. Electrical power – either provided by an onboard battery(ies), a ground power unit (GPU), or an onboard Auxiliary Power Unit (APU)
  2. Starting power (electrical or pneumatic) – provided by onboard battery(ies), GPU, or APU, start cartridge, or in some cases by hand (!)
  3. Post start configuration and systems setup

I’d like to say the three can be ordered in level of difficulty, but that isn’t always the case. Occasionally, I’ve been stymied by Step 1 – getting electrical power to the aircraft. Generally speaking, you can usually hook a GPU up to the aircraft, find a battery switch, or find an APU start switch somewhere on the panel to provide power to the panels. This is where different sims can provide for varying challenges. Some sims such as DCS World allow you to call a ground crew over the radio, or shout out of an open cockpit, to hook up ground power. Other sims and add-ons may require you to find a menu option in the toolbar that accomplish the same thing, or even a pop-up panel that is product specific that you would have to already know about from reading the add-on documentation. Since I go in with no knowledge to start, I may spend thirty minutes hunting around for a function that there is no way I’d know about unless I had read the documentation, so those are the instances that very often end in failure unless I happen upon the required function by accident. A great example of that would be something like the freeware Mi-2 for X-Plane which has a pop-up menu that appears if you click a certain area of the cockpit which allows you to remove the engine plugs prior to start. If you don’t do this, all the button pushing and lever moving in the world will not bring the Mi-2 to life. As well, the Mi-2 has some tricky little fuel cutoff levers that must be moved that are buried down on the floor between and behind the seats – so finding those can be a bit of luck as well.

You aren’t going anywhere in the Sukhoi 100 or the JAR A320 if you don’t put fuel in them first.

There can also be some challenges with regards to cockpit layout and ergonomics based on the country of origin of the aircraft. Aircraft inventories of my multiple sims include aircraft that were built in the United States, Russia, Ukraine, France, Germany, Brazil, and a few other countries. As well, the age of the aircraft has a lot to do with how the cockpit is laid out. Aircraft built in the last few decades tend to have more attention paid to cockpit “flows” and an orderly arrangement of panels, while older aircraft might have switches and knobs placed all over the aircraft.

The Felis Antanov An-24RV is one of the most complicated aircraft available for any simulator. I found it was impossible to get it started without extensive use of the checklist.

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 Intuition won’t help with the An24, but 2D pop-up panels are a nice feature that make looking for switches a bit easier. Occasionally, the switch you need is buried under something else in the virtual cockpit, resulting in TrackIR gyrations that will make your wife think you are having a seizure.

Over the past few decades, aircraft manufacturers have embraced the science of ergonomics resulting in cockpits that are easier to navigate. Logical grouping of systems controls (hydraulic, pressurization, electrical, fuel, etc.,) and switches that are arranged in a semblance of their associated system’s paths have become the standard for overhead panels. Thus, you can usually trace the systems flow on the panel and correctly set the switches for the start and normal operation. You can see the evolution of this type of flow based panel design on Boeing aircraft over time, while Airbus aircraft have pretty much used this layout from their inception.

The FlyJSim 737-200 shows the early years of Boeing’s move toward flow-type cockpit layouts. Bringing the -200 to life from cold & dark can be done if you can figure out the fuel cutoff switches and get the APU running.

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The VMax Boeing 757 panel in cold & dark state and showing the overhead panel with fuel, electric, and bleed air flow diagrams between the buttons and valve controls.

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The JAR Airbus A320neo overhead panel shows a clean layout with very little clutter. Bringing modern aircraft like the Airbus out of the cold & dark state is usually fairly straightforward.

Another design philosophy that can help you in the quest to go from cold & dark to fully operational is the “dark panel” concept that many manufacturers have adopted. With this design philosophy, normal operations result in a nearly “dark panel” with very few lights or annunciators illuminated. This makes it easy to identify abnormal items because they stand out more. Some items will be “lights on” for normal operation when they are items that are only occasionally used during flight such as engine anti-ice or other switched state items that are only used for a limited period of time. Often these status lights that are normal use the cool end of the spectrum such as white, blue, or green, while abnormals tend to be the hot end of the spectrum with orange, yellows, and reds bringing attention to malfunctions.

These two warning panels (MBB/Kawasaki BK-117 left / X-Trident Bell 412 right) will appear dark once all of the switches are set for normal flight. A quick glance at the panel prior to flight should alert you to any abnormal items.

Of course, technology marches on, and ever more information has become available to pilots to help them manage complex aircraft systems and avionics. While lights and switch positions that line up with graphics are a nice tool to help you get the aircraft ready for flight from the cold & dark state, newer displays such as EICAS (Engine Indicating & Crew Alerting System) are very valuable since they show abnormal items in an easy to read format. Some EICAS messages are advisory, and some are warnings.

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In addition to EICAS displays, many aircraft feature multiple, selectable MFD displays that actually show the circuitry and plumbing for all the systems to make identification of faulty switch positions easy.

One of the cool things about attempting a cold & dark start with no knowledge of the aircraft is that it allows me to branch out from the rather rigid requirements of my real job. In real world aviation, taking a shortcut or a guess when dealing with a complex aircraft can result in hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars worth of costly repairs. There are all kinds of limitations and warnings that can be ignored in the simulated world that you’d never get away with in the real world. Starters, generators, batteries, engine temperatures, and dozens of other limitations are in place to prevent you from damaging expensive equipment. I’d hazard to guess that most people who consider themselves proficient in the DCS A-10C or Ka-50 cannot recite from memory the start limitations with regards to time and ITT. Real world aviation does not grant the luxury of a reboot. Some sim modules do model limitations in a meaningful way, rewarding faulty procedures with hot starts, engine fires, damage, and other failures. I’ve run across many of these failures in my attempts to bring aircraft out of their cold & dark states. It is always particularly demoralizing when the failure occurs late in the process when success is tantalizingly near. If you haven’t gone through a long start process in DCS World only to roll into the grass on accident because you forgot to verify your throttle was at idle – then you are a more attentive pilot than me!

The X-Trident Bell 412 is no easy beast to master. There are a ton of switches and settings all over the panel, cyclic stick, and collective that must be set correctly for safe flight.

For those of us that also fancy flying aircraft built in other countries, there can also sometimes be the very real challenge of cockpit language labeling. I have to admit that though I enjoy the challenge of bringing an aircraft out of its cold & dark state, I won’t flagellate myself by sticking to native cockpit labeling and will usually select English cockpit labeling or download an English labeling mod.

There are limits to the insanity. Not even I am willing to struggle through bringing a Chinese labeled Mi-8 to life! Thankfully, most aircraft modules have English cockpit label mods.

I’ve also found that helicopters can be particularly challenging to get started due to the quirks of their design that separate them from their fixed wing counterparts. There can often be one switch or control separating you from success or failure. Items such as rotor brakes, governors, and obscure switches on the collective can also prevent a successful start. That isn’t to say that fixed wing aircraft can’t have a single Achilles heel as well – some aircraft require fuel pumps to be on for start, or gust locks to be removed, and some aircraft don’t have a battery and you must figure out that you need to call for a ground power unit to get the motors spinning.

For those that want to start trying the The Nescient Cold & Dark Endeavor, I’d suggest starting small. General aviation piston aircraft are probably the easiest aircraft to muddle through with their limited switches and straightforward systems. Usually all that is required is:

  • Fuel valve on
  • Battery on
  • Mixture rich
  • Prop forward
  • Fuel pump on (maybe)
  • Magnetos on
  • Prime (maybe)
  • Starter

Once the engine is running, it’s just a matter of bringing the alternator or generator on, individual avionics, and/or an avionic master switch.

General aviation planes such as the AeroSphere Piper PA44 Seminole are fairly straightforward to bring out of their cold & dark state.

Of course, many of my attempts to bring newly acquired aircraft to life without any knowledge of how they work are met with defeat. Many times I’ve sat for an hour scratching my head and wondering “what am I missing???” only to finally relent, crack open the manual, and realize I had overlooked some vital link in the chain of success. It is for this very reason that pilots use checklists and memory procedures. At one point in my career I was employed by a company that operated (and I regularly flew) five distinctively different airplanes: a CJ1, King Air 200, King Air 300, Citation II, and a Citation V. All of the aircraft had different cockpit layouts (some were similar, but had major differences) and all had different performance numbers, memory items, and procedures. It was a struggle to move from week to week between each and feel proficient (I never did). At this point in my career, I’m confident that I can maintain proficiency in two aircraft at a time (the Citation Ultra and King Air 200), but would not be a fan of expanding beyond that.

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Occasionally, the aircraft documentation must be referenced to find the missing step or procedure to complete a start-up. In normal operations, it should always be used.

I realize that it is different strokes for different folks. A few months ago, when I posted this cold & dark fetish of mine to the forums, it was fun to read how others approach their new aircraft purchases. Some sit down with the manual prior to ever even starting the sim and religiously read every page of the instruction manual or Aircraft Flight Manual. Some like to go online and find a YouTube video to learn the process. Using my technique (trying to surmise the proper procedure from past experience) will often work, but can also lead to the aforementioned failures (hot start!) and can also leave the aircraft in a dangerous state where it appears it is ready to fly, but really isn’t. Things that come to mind are items such as anti-skid, auto-feather, rejected takeoff settings, stability augmentation systems, or pumps and switches that either should be on or off for takeoff. There’s nothing quite as exciting as lifting off over a precipice in the helicopter you brought to life only to realize you hadn’t rolled or bumped the engine RPM all the way up into the normal operating range! Part of the fun, of course, are the failures mixed with the successes. If you haven’t tried it, I highly recommend it, but remember to have the manual at the ready before you reach your boiling point and put your fist through the screen. Good luck!

Chris “BeachAV8R” Frishmuth