Ahh the joys of an early morning flight. To paraphrase the Great (modern) Bard "It's 0400,what does the Oh stand for? OH MY GOD IT'S EARLY!".
Seriously: who's stupid idea was it to fly up the day of the Expo, which entails a 1 hour commute to the airport, a seven minute walk to the terminal after they announce boarding will commence shortly, and then a 2 hour train trip down to the Expo site.
Oh right… It was mine.
One great thing about booking online is the ability to choose your own seat and so I figured I'll pay that little extra for the leg room (being 6'2") and was able to get a window seat in the very first row by the main entry. WIN! Except once I sat down I immediately noticed that the exterior of the window was so obscured by dirt or abrasions (not sure which) that it was like looking through milky water. Oh well, good thing I brought a book with me.
That said, I did happen to see an amazing rainbow halo reflection of the sun on the top layer of the clouds as we climbed to our flight level through the window behind me. It was worth the strain on my neck.
After a bit of a wait I got on the Southern Coast Line train stopping all stations to Kembla and headed off for Albion Park, the final destination, and what a trip. Absolutely gorgeous Australian mountain forest through to coastal areas. Beautiful. Hour and a half later we arrive at Albion Park and 5.minutes later are walking up to the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society Hanger at Illawarra Regional Airport (YWOL). Wait... Is that a 747-400?
This place is an aviation nerds dream come true. There are sooo many aircraft to see here, but I'll get to that later (yes I'm bugging them about more helicopter representation!). What do you think was the first thing to great us as we entered the Hanger for OzFlightSim Expo? One of the Two functional Constellations left in the world! Wow what a back drop
“Connie” has now been confirmed as the ONLY flying Constellation in the world.
HELIMOD Mk III
But I was here for the helicopters. Historical appreciation comes later! So I made a beeline straight to the Navy engagement stand with two Ryan Aerospace HELIMOD Mk III.
Patiently I wait my turn as one of the HARs volunteers flies around the boats. Looking at both units I notice they're flying the freeware EC-135
"Hmm curious". Not my first choice as I would have expected maybe the Bell 429 since the RAN uses that ship, but they're OK.
I'm quickly briefed by the instructor which button they've set as pause and trim but he suggests I don't touch that for the moment (it was a short flight, wasn't going to use it anyway), and he sets up my flight in their custom scenery with an Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty for fun flying around.
Quickly getting comfortable with the Oculus on my head and cyclic and collective in hand I do a couple pedal turns and the motion platform comes to life as the airframe starts to move.
The D-Box motion platform fitted to the HELIMODs is the smaller of the three available and has 1.5 inches of travel. Doesn't seem like much but it's quite capable of imparting a greater sense of movement to VR than the head mounted display already does by itself.
I recently had the chance to use a NextLevel motion platform very recently so I had a really good example to compare with. The NextLevel platform had quite a bit more travel than the 1.5” D-Box but was a lot more jerky and there was a slight sway to the end of the movement travel that certainly was not there on the D-Box. And it shouldn’t be, considering the price difference of a D-Box to a NextLevel unit. Overall I found the motion of the D-Box units to be very effective and smooth in their transitions. Great work guys!
If VR is a game changer, then motion platforms combined with VR is another beast entirely; it adds a lot more subtle cues to the virtual pilot about their craft, taking the immersion to another level again above straight VR.
Motion Platforms however are not cheap and START around the $4000 mark, so unless you have quite a bit of money saved in your piggy bank, it might be a little longer before you have one in your home simpit. However when you do…. Oh boy!
Getting back to the flight, I'm told to fly out East towards the Carrier group and as I turn myself around I noticed that the Whiskey compass is reversed, spinning opposite to the direction of travel. Time to post a bug report! Drunken whiskey compass aside, I did manage to find the Carrier group and landed (pretty hard not to) easily enough on the Carrier itself. It is after all a VERY large platform. OK let's try one of the frigates.
Unfortunately X-Plane is very much let down in this department and whilst it was slightly challenging purely based on size, its not moving at all. Something that DCS has over X-Plane in a major way. I would LOVE to have more moving platforms available to land in XP, thanks Santa! Yes I know that we have the hard coded fleets moving around the sim, but I mean scenery driven, custom moving platforms!
Not wanting (though I really did want to) hog a lot of time I figured that was a good little flight and I'd talk to the guys about the Heli's, the platform and what they hope to achieve by giving the public a taste of flying with VR.
Speaking to my instructor, Adrian I asked about why they were flying the 135 as it has quite a simplified cockpit with lots of 2D elements, why not something like the outstanding Bell 429 since the Navy does fly that ship. Unfortunately the contract for the 429 is ending shortly and the Navy will be switching platforms to the H135.
I then asked about their hopes for the HELIMOD: ultimately it's a pretty amazing community engagement tool. By taking these platforms to different events (currently restricted to NSW, by they'll probably be at Avalon Airshow 2019 in Victoria) in the hopes of getting people excited about flying Heli's and in particular for the Royal Australian Navy.
Thanking Adrian for his time, he suggested I talk to Frank who knew a bit more about the actual hardware installed. I noticed that they were hitting 70-80 fps running in VR and asked what they were running and how they could hit that solid frame rate.
Seems like i7-8700k, 32gb of RAM and a 1080ti make up that secret sauce, though I also think that the scenery had a lot to do with it as well since there were no buildings on the mainland and we were mostly flying over water with just the Carrier Group.
We then had a little chat about the sim platforms. For the moment they are using X-Plane but ultimately will switch to Bohemia Interactive’s professional VBS3, which whilst not a true flight sim has better mission capabilities than what XP can deliver which is important for the RANs training needs.
One thing I haven't discussed yet are the controls.
With a full set of purpose built pedals, cyclic and collective the HELIMOD Mk III feels right. Initially starting with a tight grip on the controls I quickly relaxed and switched to a 3 finger hold on the cyclic to ensure small gentle movements (ok probably not correct technique but that'll come in time) and a gentle grip on the collective which is a simple affair but more than adequately does the job as it is meant to be a generic rather than ship specific sim.
With little resistance from the pedals it was again, nice easy movements on those anti-torque pedals. Really you would expect excellent controls on a purpose built pod like this and Ryan Aerospace have done a great job here.
This is a commercial grade training tool and you can very easily see why the Royal Australian Navy has jumped on them. Won't be long and other training schools will understand that introducing a student to heli flying is a LOT cheaper with something like this and by the time they do get into the cockpit they’ll be even more comfortable with the controls.
JP the “Candourist”
One of the speakers at the event was JP and he talked about his recent trek around the world in a Cessna 210. During the flight he and his buddy recorded blogs that were uploaded to YouTube and seen around the world. Quite an incredible journey and a wonderful message that we (the world) are not as different as the media makes us out to be.
They have a documentary coming out soon called “Beyond Borders” which we saw the trailer for at the event and I really recommend everyone watch it as it contains a lot of footage that was not shown on their YouTube channel.
After playing with helicopters and talking to JP I was pretty much done for the day. I was tired and I still haven’t checked into my B&B yet, I also had the dinner to look forward to that night.
Unfortunately I left it a little late in deciding that I was going to attend OzFS Expo and so the closest accommodation I could find was a 20 min drive away, which turned out to be $25 for the Uber, good thing my host was happy to take me back that evening and again in the morning.
Pro tip: book your accommodation early and get somewhere close! There are a few motels fairly close by that had fairly decent ratings. So, check-in, shower, sleep for an hour and a half and back we go for the dinner.
Not really knowing what to expect I arrive and there are a few people milling around, but, what’s that sound?? I did mention that HARs is located at the Illawarra Regional Airport right? Well the also have a Heli company there, Touchdown Helicopters and it sounded like there was a Heli that was sitting idle on the pad. A quick jog around to the car park and sure enough, I saw this girlie hanging around.
Was quite ironic that I only posted about the 505 recently in the FB group and I got to see one (relatively) up close. She didn’t hang around long and shortly took off into the blue. She was then followed by an white R44 which I can only assume where the owners of Touchdown.
Heading back in and up stairs for dinner it seemed like everyone has already taken their place, whilst it wasn’t allocated seating, most of the tables were already taken.
There was one bunch that were looking for a table so I just added myself to their group and started chatting. Turns out it was the MC, a couple of the Expo volunteers (Oxy and Kat) I’d met earlier and the organiser himself Mr Ross Farquharson.
Mind you I did know that Ross was the organiser as I’d seen him downstairs that day in his F-16 sim cockpit. The dinner was banquet style and there were so many lovely dishes, they really fed us well, desert also was a treat.
As the evening progressed I discovered that Kat loves the Apache, Oxy has a amazing looking home sim setup that looks like a Mig-15 and Ross was, well he was the Event Organiser!
The good news is that Ross is a HUGE fan of Sérgio and the work he does as well as the Three Grumpy Simmers and was very open to how they could include more helicopter specific things at the Expo. Ross asked me what I thought of the expo and I told him that we have a fantastic base to grow on and it’s certainly off to a great start. HARS is an INCREDIBLE venue and the staff (100% volunteers) were wonderful. OzFlightSim Expo is an outstanding opportunity for Aussie FlightSim enthusiasts, to come together, share our passion, try new things and maybe learn something in the process also.
At this point I want to make a quick aside and thank Sherryl Sherson the Event Manager from HARS as she gave Oxy and myself a sneaky peak inside Hanger 3, the main storage/workspace in between dinner and desert. I honestly had no idea what to expect and was blown away by the enormous number and variety of airplanes in the hanger, but not only that but 90% of them STILL FLY!
There were several times that Oxy and I embarrassed ourselves with our unconstrained outburst of pure delight as we walked around the hanger taking in the tremendous sight. They do run tours of the Hanger along with other tours so when you do come next year, be sure to go on one of the tours.
The next day was a lot more relaxed for me as a good night's sleep will do wonders for you. Back to the Expo to hang out and chat with folks, see the spectacle of them starting up and taxiing an old Neptune Coastal Surveillance Craft (was originally designed as a bomber for WWII but came out at the very tail end and so was refitted), which was very, very loud when they gunned the engines, and do another tour of Hanger 3. Whilst it is only a small expo at this point they did have some interesting exhibitors:
- World Exclusive preview of the F-14 Tomcat from Heatblur Simulations for DCS World
- 62nd Fighting Falcons Air Combat Simulation Club who had 4 home cockpits and a large central TV acting as a “camera” for their networked operations
- VATSIM with live local ATC coverage for the event
- Illawarra Flight Sim Group - a group of local Sim enthusiasts and their rigs. The meet regularly for catch up and ops
- Royal Australian Navy with the HELIMOD Mk III units
- FSElite were showing of their DCTRY service which lists all of the scenery available for the different sims, where to get it and also offers some curated trips and ideas (yes I did talk to them about getting some heli specific stuff in there)
- Air Cadets had a display with some rumble seats that was fairly popular with the kids
I can honestly say that I am very much looking forward to OzFlightSim Expo 2019 and have already booked my leave for the announced date of: November 23-24th 2019. And we will be working closely with the organisers to get more Heli related exhibits.
Oh, did I mention HARS had a Huey Cobra you can get in when you do a tour?