Can home-built simulators really help real flight training?

April 5, 2019 / Comments (0)

AFSBI Pro Flight Simulation

/ By Editorial Staff

Increasingly, people are using a simulator at home, to become proficient with controls and procedures and then venture in the real world and fly an aircraft. In this post, we look at some personal stories of those who have done that and found how the time it took them to fly a real aircraft was greatly shortened, how their skills improved and how, using services like live ATC, even radio communication and pilot lingo know-how developed positively.

There is a long history of attempts to fly an airplane after using only a simulator for training. The earliest video we could find that recounts a first fly as the sole manipulator of an aircraft is from a pilot with zero hours flight instruction, who had never even been in a private plane. His only training was on a desktop flight simulator. The instructor in the video has 18,000 hours of flight time but doesn’t take any direct action flying, just manages the radio calls and ensures the flight is conducted within safety margins.

Home flight simulators can obviously be seen as merely “games”. In fact, several simulators are marketed strictly as games on distribution systems such as Steam but they can also be valuable learning tools.  A forum user (here) wrote:

“I have heard of student pilots with hundreds of hours of PC flight simulation experience who were deemed proficient enough to fly solo after just 3 hours of flight with the instructor (the first two being essentially the ride with the incredulous instructor, verifying that all procedures and maneuvers were done right, with a few dozen touch-and-gos, to get a feel for the yoke/pedals, and the third hour the official check ride), after which the training mostly focused on cross-country flying. These guys actually met the requirements for the certificate with barely over 40 hours of flight time, but they had hundreds of hours of rigorous practice on the PC simulator. It is all about how you use your flight simulator: as a toy, or as a tool.

This quote brings forward an important point: due to their limitations, especially in the realm of critical stimuli like centrifugal force, control response, flight and weather-related motion, vibration and more, desktop simulators may not be good enough for full, ab-initio training. They are however good enough to get a student pilot ready close to the minimum legal hours it takes to qualify for the check-ride for a private pilot license: 40 hours in the US, while the average is about 60-70 hours.

Things get even better when the pilot decides to study toward his or her instrument license. As learning shifts more towards procedures, desktop simulators are much more of a reliable tool. Reliable enough to make the FAA change its rules, as far as instrument proficiency is concerned. Since 2018, an instrument pilot can log currency requirements on a BATD, that’s a basic simulator that has undergone certification (but it’s essentially a desktop simulator), like the Redbird TD which sells for under $7,000. Again, complementing real-life instruction with simulator sessions will hone skills.

For the desktop flyer, add basic controls and avionics, add a real life ATC service like PilotEdge and you have a perfect combination of procedures, communication, and control manipulation to make your experience as close to real life and at a fraction of the cost. We look forward to a future when standard configurations of home-built sims will also be approved for training, since this is what many are already doing and with satisfactory results.

Moving to additional sophistication, more advanced simulators components may be a godsend in learning complex avionics. For example by using the G1000. This is an all-inclusive cockpit setup that provides navigation, communication, flight planning, engine monitoring, emergency assistance and a lot more, but it’s relatively hard to master, especially if you are also paying top dollars and burning gas in a real rental aircraft. The many offerings on the market today, see our post comparing them here, provide a great way to learn the intricacies of this most useful equipment in the proverbial “comfort of your own home.” This, of course, applies to many other digital “glass” avionics as well.

We wrote recently about James Woodside, an aspiring pilot in the Bahamas who learned to fly a full-size B737NG simulator so proficiently that he became a procedure instructor at his current company, Jetline Simulation. James had only one hour of instructions on a real airplane. See him in action on our video page.

While home-built sims have been traditionally replicating fixed-wing GA and transport aircraft, increasingly and mainly because of Virtual Reality,  rotary simulators have become more common. In helicopter simulators, VR allows the pilot to look around and directly underneath, greatly improving the capacity to hover over a point and to judge distances while close to the ground. Many users comment on social media on the question of supplementing flight training with simulation at home:

“It’s exactly what I did. I take my checkride next week. I was hovering at 1.8 [hours], solo’d at 20, and scheduled my checkride at 30.”

“I started in MS flight sim 98 , bell 206 Jet Ranger. Sparked the interest to try it out for real. Now I have a PPL, fly R22 and R44. Sim time certainly reduced the time it took me to hover, and I highly recommend Aerofly FS2. with VR, their R22 is very realistic. Is IMO the most realistic R22 model available. I’ve got XP10, XP11, DCS, and FSX , but Aerofly FS2 is my sim of choice at the moment. Purely because the R22 model is that good. The performance in VR on a modest setup is very good.”

“You need to invest in proper helicopter controls, don’t bother if you’re messing around with a joystick. If you want to transition to real life flying and supplement your training with sim time, then invest in a cyclic, collective with throttle and pedals. Together with a VR headset. Your simulation time will hugely supplement your real life flying.”

Brunner’s motion platform in VR

The deadly event of an Horizon Air employee who took the controls of a Dash8 after learning to start it and fly it on a desktop simulator comes to mind as a rare, but possible, downside of the power of learning in a simulated environment. Today however the benefits of simulation far outweigh the risks and many, from regulators to approved training organizations (ATOs), are taking notice.


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