By Bruce Williams – 1 September 2006
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably given Flight Simulator a thorough workout. You’ve got a handle on the Cessna Skyhawk SP Model 172, and you’ve seen the sights, flown under the Eiffel Tower, and looped the 747.
Perhaps you’re a student, a private pilot working on an instrument rating, or an IFR pilot who wants to stay proficient. Maybe you’re an instructor trying to find new ways to teach students. In short, you’re ready to get serious about virtual flying. Can flying Flight Simulator help when you take the controls of a real airplane? The short answer to that question is yes.
Like any tool, however, Flight Simulator is only as useful as you make it. I’ll pass along tips on how you can take advantage of specific features in Flight Simulator and make it an effective training aid. But first, a little background…Flight Simulator includes several features — including Multiplayer shared aircraft, Multiplayer Tower, and enhanced flight analysis — that make it an excellent training aid. You can replay any flight and see both horizontal and vertical profiles. More importantly, an instructor can monitor another Flight Simulator pilot over the Internet or a local area network to offer help on many topics, including changing the weather, or simulating failures in the aircraft.
The Mental Game
Most of the difficulties that both new students and rusty pilots encounter stem from misunderstandings of the principles or procedures behind the tasks they’re trying to learn, not from a lack of basic motor skills. Unless you’re trying to win aerobatic competitions, the physical part of flying ain’t that tough.
But you can’t fly regulation traffic patterns, make smooth approaches, or impress the controllers with textbook holding-pattern entries unless you understand what you’re supposed to do before you start using the controls. And that’s where Flight Simulator comes in. Whether you’re a student, a licensed pilot working on an instrument rating, or an IFR veteran trying to stay current, Flight Simulator is a great training and proficiency tool.
If you’re an instructor, you’ll find that using Flight Simulator as a complement to ground instruction has an additional benefit. It’s a great tool for testing your students’ knowledge. With all the books, videos, and study guides available today, it’s easy for students to parrot the correct answers to your favourite tricky questions.
But put students at the controls in Flight Simulator, give them an exercise involving a complex task, such as VOR navigation, and you’ll soon determine who can apply theory to practical problems in real time. Most importantly, you’ll find out before you get into the airplane where, we always hope, students practice and demonstrate skills that they already understand.
Flight Simulator as Part of a Training Program
Using Flight Simulator as part of a training or proficiency program has another important benefit. It can help you isolate tasks and divide complicated procedures into manageable pieces.
Like flash cards, Flight Simulator can help instructors and students focus on specific tasks and concepts. You can start a practice flight in the air, work on a particular skill, and repeat it many times without the distractions that occur in the world of real flying.
In short, think of Flight Simulator as an inexpensive, computer-based procedure-and-task trainer. It brings to your desktop many of the same benefits that airline, corporate, and military pilots have had access to for years. Used properly and with a plan in mind, Flight Simulator can tone the brain — the most important piece of equipment in any aircraft. It’s not a substitute for formal ground and flight instruction, but it can help you sharpen the 90 percent of flying that’s mental.
Hardware and Other Accessories
Pilots often ask me, “What’s the best setup for flying in Flight Simulator?” They wonder if they need an expensive control yoke or joystick, rudder pedals, a throttle quadrant, and consoles to simulate the avionics stack and other aircraft controls.
All of those items make Flight Simulator more fun. However, I don’t think you need a Flight Simulator full-motion simulator in your basement to use Flight Simulator effectively as a training aid. Certainly a joystick or basic yoke is important, but additional hardware is not required. Regardless of how sophisticated your virtual cockpit is, when you climb into a real airplane, you will need a few hours to learn to identify and use all the controls and switches properly and get used to each airplane’s unique “feel,” especially in IFR conditions. Having trained your brain with Flight Simulator, however, you will be a few steps ahead on the procedures.
In addition to peripherals, you will want recent (but not necessarily current) aviation charts. You’ll also learn a lot more and develop good habits if you have a training manual, such as the books that come with the multimedia courses from King Schools and Cessna, Rod Machado’s Private Pilot Handbook, etc.
The Learning Centre has links to partners from the aviation world that create training scenarios, aviation charts, and other products for Flight Simulator pilots. I especially recommend visits to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), publisher of AOPA Flight Training magazine; Jeppesen, the leading publisher of charts and aviation data for pilots; and King Schools, which creates multimedia training programs for all FAA pilot certificates and ratings.
Flight Simulator Training Features
The following sections describe my favourite training features in Flight Simulator and how they can help you learn and hone your flying skills. The details of how to use these features are documented in the Learning Centre.
- Multiplayer: Sharing Aircraft
- Multiplayer: Tower
- Engine, System, and Instrument Failures
- Flight Analysis
- Map View
- Views and Windows
- Flight Videos
- Slew Mode
- IFR Training Panels
- Multiplayer: Sharing aircraft
Imagine sharing a flight instruction session (as a student or an instructor) with someone who is thousands of miles away. In Flight Simulator Multiplayer, you can share an aircraft with your student or your instructor over the Internet or over a Local Area Network.
Mastering air traffic control can be very intimidating for new pilots. Flight Simulator’s Multiplayer Tower feature allows you to act as the air traffic controller for your students over the Internet or a Local Area Network.
Flights get you started quickly in a specific aircraft at a particular location, with weather, views, and other conditions already set up.
By creating and saving a flight, you can practice flying an approach to your hometown airport in a stiff crosswind without having to repeatedly reposition the aircraft at the airport, adjust the weather, take off, and fly to the point where you want to start the approach. Set up everything once, save that situation as a flight, and, with just a couple clicks of the mouse, you can start flying from that position under those specific conditions whenever you like.
Flights also come in handy when you want to practice a specific skill, such as flying instrument approaches, entering holding patterns, or VOR navigation. By loading a flight that begins in the air, you can jump right into the action and focus on the specific tasks at hand without spending time taking off, flying to the appropriate practice area, and configuring all the aircraft systems.
If you’re a devious instructor, you can also use flights to create situations in which individual instruments or entire aircraft systems fail.
With Flight Simulator, you can practice flying through the grey, moist skies of the Pacific Northwest even if you live in Arizona. The advanced weather features in Flight Simulator make it easy to create cloud layers, pea-soup fog, crosswinds, and other challenges.
The ability to create low clouds and reduced visibility really comes in handy when you’re trying to learn how weather affects flying. For example, you can set up VFR or IFR weather minimums and practice the transition from instrument to visual cues during the last stages of an approach.
Engine, System, Instrument, and Control Failures
You can experience realistic, random failures of the engine, individual instruments, and entire systems in Flight Simulator. Instead of watching an instructor reach over to cover to the attitude indicator and therefore knowing it has “failed” students must keep the suction gauge in their scans and be prepared to detect the more subtle signs of a realistic vacuum system failure.
The failures themselves are extremely realistic. For example, if the vacuum system dies, the gyro in the attitude indicator slowly winds down and the indicator gradually tips and dips, just as in a real-word airplane with a failed vacuum pump.
Flight Simulator includes an enhanced Flight Analysis feature that acts much like a flight data recorder in a real-world airplane. It automatically tracks your altitude, heading, speed, and other information as you fly. Whenever you want to see how well you’ve followed ATC’s instructions or tracked the localizer and glide slope on an ILS, you can play back the flight overlaid on a map. Using simple, VCR-like controls, you can rewind the flight, replay the flight, and pause the action.
The Map view in Flight Simulator is more than a tool for checking your position. It also shows the location of navigation aids, low- and high-altitude airways, intersections, and your track over the ground. The Map view also serves as an airport/facility directory in Flight Simulator. You can look up information about navigational aids, radio frequencies, airport elevations, and other relevant navigational details right from the map.
Views and Windows
There’s nothing quite like the view from the left seat of a real-world airplane. But if you’re trying to connect what you see from the pilot’s seat with the airplane’s attitude during take offs, landings, and other manoeuvres, the Flight Simulator’s multiple views come in handy.
Pilots like to admire their handiwork. For many years, Flight Simulator has included a Flight Video recorder. You can put this feature to work as a training aid, just as the U.S. Navy uses videos to review every carrier landing that a pilot makes.
The autopilot in Flight Simulator can handle some of the flying load while you learn a new skill. When you’re trying to l earn how ADF or VOR needles move as you fly complex procedures, don’t complicate things by struggling to hold altitude and heading. Use the heading bug or autopilot control panel to steer the airplane until you thoroughly understand what’s going on. When you’re up to speed on the procedures, can interpret the instruments, and keep track of your position, you’re ready to turn the autopilot off and juggle all the tasks simultaneously.
Slew mode is a handy tool for demonstrations and for learning to interpret navigation instruments. For example, while in Cockpit view, you can slew around and observe how the VOR, ILS, and NDB needles move as you move north, south, east, and west of a navigation aid. Slew mode is also a quick way to reposition the aircraft for another landing or to enter the traffic pattern from another direction.
IFR Training Panels
Flight Simulator includes an IFR training panel for the Cessna Skyhawk SP Model 172. This panel — designed specifically to help pilots who want to learn or practice IFR skills — combines the flight instruments and avionics stack in one window so that all the important controls and instruments remain in view. The scenery window is small — but since you’re “in the clouds” when you practice IFR procedures, you won’t care about seeing the sights.
The list of features described earlier in this Handbook isn’t comprehensive by any means. You can use other capabilities in Flight Simulator to make it an effective training aid. Be creative. It’s also important to step back occasionally and look at Flight Simulator as more than a tool to use only when you want to “fly.” With that in mind, here are a few more tips aimed primarily at instructors.
A Whiteboard for Graphically Challenged Instructors
I’ve found that Flight Simulator makes an excellent whiteboard. By creating saved flights and Flight Videos, I can use Flight Simulator during a ground school class or pre- or post-flight briefings to illustrate important concepts. For example, after I make my best attempt to draw an FAA-recommended parallel entry to a holding pattern at the intersection of two VOR radials, I usually turn around to face a class that looks like a museum tour group straining to find the nose in a portrait by Picasso. But with Flight Simulator displayed on a large monitor, I can play a Flight Video that shows the entire class how the VOR needles move during that manoeuvre. Using the same technique, I can also demonstrate a specific IFR procedure and have students compare the instrument readings with details shown on a chart or approach plate in real time. I can press P to stop and start the simulation at key points along the way.
Fly Before You Fly
Airline pilots take airport qualification courses before they fly to new airports; why shouldn’t the rest of us? If you’re heading off on a long trip to an unfamiliar airport, you can use Flight Simulator to practice the flight ahead of time. Flight Simulator includes the Jeppesen Nav-Data database, so you can fly to more than 24,000 airports around the world; practice flying along low- and high-altitude airways; and become familiar with instrument departures, arrivals, and approaches before you set off on a long cross-country flight. You can also use Flight Simulator to practice circle-to-land approaches or flights into airports guarded by mountains or other obstructions. I like to have student pilots show me portions of their solo cross-country flights in Flight Simulator before I send them out alone. They gain confidence by identifying checkpoints visually and with VORs, understanding how they’ll approach each airport, and considering alternatives if the weather or other circumstances require a change in plans. And I can confirm that they really understand the tasks involved in the flights they’re about to make.
Don’t Do This in a Real Airplane
The airlines use sophisticated simulators primarily to train pilots to deal with abnormal situations and emergencies. You can use Flight Simulator in a similar way to demonstrate manoeuvres and situations that aren’t practical or safe to practice in a real airplane.
For example, many pilots never really understand accelerated stalls and the concept that a stall can occur at any airspeed and with an aircraft in any attitude. In flight training, they experience stalls only with the nose at or above the horizon and at relatively low speed. In Flight Simulator, however, you can show a student what happens if, during a steep dive with the airspeed well into the yellow arc, you suddenly yank back on the yoke. I also use Flight Simulator to demonstrate how a steep spiral can develop if a pilot neglects to maintain a good instrument scan. Flight Simulator can also dramatically show a pilot why it’s a bad idea to turn back to the airport if the engine quits shortly after take-off.
Flying for Fun
Learning is supposed to be fun. Flight Simulator is a great tool for setting up challenges that stimulate students and keep them motivated, especially when weather or maintenance problems cancel a real-world flight.
You can also set up challenges for your fellow pilots. Dare them to record a Flight Video of their best ILS approaches or holding pattern entries starting from the same saved flight. Dig through your Jeppesen binders and find complex instrument departure or arrival procedures, and then surprise students or fellow pilots by asking them to fly them on the spot — as if ATC had spoken that dreaded phrase: “We have an amendment to your clearance.” The real work in such situations isn’t controlling the airplane; it’s figuring out where you are, how to set up the avionics, and what to do two or three steps down the road. Such exercises can keep your mental flying skills sharp when hours of routine flying leave your brain flabby. If you’ve ever wondered if you have “the Right Stuff,” try a mock Space Shuttle landing in the 737–400. Use the Map view to set yourself up on final approach to a long runway. Shut down the engines, hang out the gear, flaps, and spoilers, and see if you can land without breaking anything — and don’t forget to record a Flight Video to send to NASA’s recruiting department with your résumé.
I’m often asked if pilots can log the time they spend “flying” Flight Simulator. At present in the United States, the answer is no. The FAA issued Advisory Circular AC61–126, “Qualification and Approval of Personal Computer-Based Aviation Training Devices,” on May 12, 1997. With AC61–126, the FAA took a small, first step toward recognizing the value of computer-based simulations. The advisory circular lays out the requirements for an approved training device. Only a few systems have been approved thus far, in part because the requirements include expensive consoles for switches and controls. More to the point, even if you’re using an approved PCATD, you can log only 10 hours of the training required for an initial instrument rating, provided that the practice time is conducted under the direct supervision of an authorized flight instructor. You cannot use a PCATD to log the approaches and other manoeuvres required to maintain IFR currency, nor can you use an approved PCATD for instrument proficiency checks, to log solo time, or to meet any of the flight time requirements for a private pilot certificate.