AINonline discusses how Bill Forelli learned to fly using X-Plane. He soloed in 10 hours!
“The pilot training infrastructure is under enormous pressure to produce more new pilots to satisfy the needs of airlines, charter providers, business aircraft operators, and every other aviation segment. But for the most part, the training process hasn’t changed much over the past few decades, except to adapt to new regulations and modern equipment such as glass panel avionics and autopilots in technically advanced aircraft.
While simulators are an important part of pilot training, these devices haven’t done much to reduce the amount of in-aircraft flight time needed for ab initio pilot certification. Simulator manufacturer Redbird has tested methods of incorporating simulators into the training process and did make some progress reducing in-aircraft flight hours, but that hasn’t translated into a wholesale change in the way pilot training is conducted worldwide. There is another way that simulation can help, however, and that is the use of personal computer-based programs such as X-Plane or what used to be called Microsoft Flight Simulator (which lives on in the FSX or Flight Simulator X: Steam Edition personal version and the commercial Prepar3D version).
Bill Forelli, a self-avowed aviation geek and marketing manager for an online electronics retailer based in southern California, is a one-man test-case for using X-Plane to accelerate the learning process. He has not only used X-Plane and other platforms for practice that has accelerated his in-airplane training, but he has also documented his experience online, with videos on YouTube and livestreaming on Amazon’s Twitch platform.
Forelli, who had logged about 20 hours of training as of the end of January, soloed in less than 10 hours, which includes two discovery flights followed by 6.7 hours of focused training in a Piper Archer. He attributes that relatively short flight time to the hours of practice in X-Plane. What is fascinating about Forelli’s experience is watching video of him fly in X-Plane and comparing it to his flying in real life (IRL). It doesn’t take him long to transfer the simulator experience into getting comfortable IRL. (Forelli’s material can be found by searching for “Bill4LE” on YouTube and Twitch.)
About two years ago when he was living in the Seattle area, Forelli built up a customized Windows PC and installed X-Plane. After publishing videos of his simulated flights on YouTube, he joined the Twitch community and started streaming his “flights.” That opened up a new world of communicating with people from all over the globe, watching the livestreams and commenting on his flying. It was Twitch viewers who introduced Forelli to PilotEdge, a service that provides real-time live air traffic controllers for simulated flying.
Once set up (as a plugin for X-Plane), PilotEdge enables a simulator pilot to simply make a radio call for a VFR or tower enroute IFR flight or log into the app and file a flight plan, then contact the PilotEdge controller and request a clearance. The PilotEdge controller can observe the simulated aircraft as if it were visible on his radar screen. PilotEdge controllers include some with real-world ATC experience and also enthusiasts who have logged more than 1,000 hours directing traffic on other virtual networks, according to PilotEdge founder Keith Smith. “In either case, there is three to four months of airspace familiarization and system training before they get checked out in our system.”
The pilot makes all the normal calls to ATC during the simulated flight, usually starting from the ramp, calling clearance delivery (if applicable at that airport), ground, tower, departure, etc. The experience is highly realistic. And the controllers will point out errors and expect participants to use proper radio phraseology. According to Smith, “We provide full coverage of every towered airport within the Los Angeles ARTCC, which amounts to 43 towered airports. Separately, we also cover the other five ARTCCs that make up the western half of the U.S. (Seattle, Oakland, Salt Lake, Denver, and Albuquerque), including all of the Class Bravos, all of the Charlies, and strategically-selected Deltas. We also provide IFR service into and out of the non-towered fields, giving literally thousands of fields to choose from.”
Starting with the X-Plane Cessna 172, Forelli upgraded to a Beechcraft Bonanza, which comes with an Aspen EFD glass panel. He flew that for a while before taking his first IRL discovery flight at an airport near Seattle in a C-172 that just happened to be equipped with an Aspen EFD. When he climbed into the left seat, he was delighted to see the Aspen because he knew how to use it. “The CFI was impressed I knew where the buttons were,” he said. “I was validated the further I went [into flying IRL]; what I was doing with the simulator was translating to the real world.”
When Forelli flew his first simulated flight with PilotEdge, he found the experience nerve-wracking, but fulfilling. “On PilotEdge, I was terrified,” he recalled. Watching the video of his first PilotEdge flight with X-Plane, it’s easy to pick out the errors, but it is also clear that Forelli had learned a lot from his practice. His first error was not calling clearance delivery, but the PilotEdge controller (usually it’s the same person handling all positions, for efficiency) was accommodating and gave the clearance to Forelli without making him switch frequencies. Forelli was also not prepared to write down and read back the clearance, but he quickly got the hang of it.
In the video of this first PilotEdge flight, which includes audio, Forelli can be heard getting the clearance and reading it back correctly, then saying: “I can’t believe I pulled that off! That was awesome!” Next he told himself, “Okay, focus.”
After requesting to taxi to the runup area then to the active runway, he used the wrong frequency and forgot to turn on his transponder, probably because he didn’t do a pre-takeoff checklist. Then, after takeoff, Forelli switched to departure before being told to do so by the tower controller. The PilotEdge controller admonished him: “You should remain with the tower until told otherwise.” In Forelli’s commentary about the flight, he said, “I knew you had to change frequency. I just freaked out and switched it too early.”
The rest of the flight is fairly routine, with Forelli asking for flight following, then returning to land. He did make some other mistakes, including reading back a direction to enter the left downwind for Runway 20L as “20G,” probably because his airplane’s callsign ended in G. “I screwed that one up,” he admitted. He also got confused about being cleared for the option instead of to land. When he reported turning base after the clearance, the controller told him he didn’t have to say anything after being cleared for the option. Forelli commented: “[The controller is] like ‘What is this jabroni doing?’”
After that flight, Forelli said, he realized “[PilotEdge] is an absolute simulation game-changer. I cannot believe how nerve-wracking that was. When you get on the radio with a live person, it’s a completely different deal.”
After moving to Orange, California, Forelli planned another discovery flight. “I wanted to try a new school and a new location and experience it before jumping in feet first.” Having flown from John Wayne Airport (KSNA) many times in X-Plane using PilotEdge, he said, “I was mindful of the complex airspace and how insane it was.” To prepare for the second discovery flight, he replicated the planned route in X-Plane and PilotEdge, with a departure from KSNA south along the coastline to Dana Point, then north along the 5 freeway to Irvine and back to the airport. Before taking this second IRL flight, Forelli also asked a friend who was a former Navy controller to help him understand radio communications. They chatted over the online Discord system and flew a simulated flight together using PilotEdge, and this helped Forelli further master his radio work.
At this point, Forelli had logged just 1.2 hours on the first discovery flight. He told the CFI at KSNA that he had been practicing radio communications and asked if he could work the radios. The CFI told him to go ahead, Forelli did all the radio communications for the flight, and the CFI was impressed with his skills.
Coincidentally, while attending the Flight Sim Expo simulation convention in Las Vegas a month later, Forelli met the PilotEdge controller he had communicated with during that first PilotEdge flight. “I met the guy who yelled at me,” he recalled, and then he explained to the controller that he was just learning how to use PilotEdge. The controller said he felt terrible about reprimanding him, but Forelli assured him that it was a great experience. “I loved it,” he said, “the realism. They don’t put on the kid gloves for you. They’ve been a great resource and very nurturing. It’s a community that has helped me learn these procedures and get so much of the radio procedures down. By the time I get in an airplane, it’s second nature, and I can focus on flying the airplane.”
After his second demo flight at KSNA, when Forelli began actual IRL flying lessons, the simulation experience became even more valuable. He doesn’t attribute the value necessarily to X-Plane and PilotEdge, however, although they are a significant factor. It is Forelli’s approach to using these tools that he said has made all the difference. He takes it seriously; not like it’s a video game.”
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