A great VFI – Virtual Flight Instructor – knows exactly what you are doing right and what you are not doing right.
We have been writing about how simulation helps in flight training for a while (here). We saw some VFI demonstrations at shows and expos around the world. This time, however, prompted by an interview with TakeFlight Interactive‘s CEO Brandon Seltz, we put EAA’s Virtual Flight Academy VFI to the test. That’s right, the EAA has partnered with TakeFlight Interactive to create the Virtual Flight Academy. These are sets of flight lessons, six at a time, combined to give the student a very good idea of critical flight phases and how to control the aircraft within them. They are designed by Seltz, a simulator professional, and a Gold Seal flight instructor. The first installment is available for $30 here, or free for EAA members (we strongly suggest you join the EAA here). It’s called Stage 1 “Fundamentals” and consists of six lessons: Intro Flight, Straight & Level, Climbs & Descents, Level Turns, Takeoff and Landing. The way the lessons work follows typical flight lessons methodology: the instructor explains what to do, the student does it. The VFI moves you smoothly from one lesson to another, explains, as in real life’s ground instructions, what the issues related to each phase are, explains aerodynamic factors you should be aware of, and peppers the interactive flight lessons with really great, accurate and real-time suggestions on your performance.
As we said before, the VFI knows exactly what you are doing. At the end of each lesson, you will perform the maneuver by yourself and the system will score your performance giving you the option to repeat any maneuver as many times as you need for perfect completion. A human CFI would, of course, do that too, but the VFI knows by the millimeter how far you diverted from perfection, and it shows that to you in unambiguous terms. Red marks a subpar performance, yellow is good and green is close to perfection. Try again and you will see an improvement with each repeat.
For our test, we used a stock FSX with accelerator pack. We, and TakeFlight, recommend using actual controls and avoid mouse and keyboard inputs altogether. We had one sim with Virtual Fly‘s YOKO yoke, RUDDO pedals, and TQ6 throttles mounted on a magnificent SLAVX panel. We used Siminnovations Air Manager to display a basic six-pack instrument configuration. It all felt like flying a real airplane.
So far, the Academy works only with FSX Steam Edition or boxed version, and Lockheed Martin Prepar3D v4. However, if you use P3D you will have to get A2A‘s C172 as well, which, depending on the license will add $50 or more to your cost. All lessons are conducted on a C172.
The lessons we enjoyed the most were turns, takeoff, and landing. The system is precise and it wants you to be as well. Even a minor diversion from what’s expected is recorded and detracts points from the 100% score. Lining up with the centerline on takeoff must be accurate, try not to stray from it when entering the runway from a taxiway. Rotate at 55 Kts, climb at 75. On landing, the system will track from a long final to medium, to short how far you divert from the extended centerline. The speed must be correct and you have to use power, trim and your yoke inputs decisively to maintain a smooth profile.
The VFI talks to you throughout the stage, and it’s quick to notice any discrepancies from what you are expected to do. Not unlike a good CFI, you will hear “your speed is low” or “your nose is too high, pitch down” advising you how to correct your flight.
The first lesson, intro flight, presented an unlikely scenario which you will never encounter when flying a real airplane: it asks you to fly through sets of round, concentric circles offset in the sky (see the end of the video above). This is meant to give you a sense of how to quickly to change direction and altitude and to get a handle on what the controls do. Initially, we ended up flying in rather uncoordinated turns in an effort to make the targets, while applying brisk power changes. Although the purpose seems to be to make you sharp on the controls, we thought that it was more what you would encounter in a video game. Or perhaps it’s a concept to be saved for a later lesson, say highway-in-the-sky ILS intercepts? Regardless, we tried a few times until we scored the 100% hits and it felt good. Repetition is the name of the game throughout the lesson plan: practice over and over again until you get it just right and, in most lessons, you will be far ahead on the real airplane when you try in the air.
We completed the Stage 1 set in a team exercise and enjoyed every minute of it. We had a pilot, a CFI and a non-pilot trying and all did well, if not immediately, after a few attempts. the non-pilot read every word of the explanations, tried several times and at the end of an afternoon could perform a good landing (partially thanks to FSX forgiving flight model) right on the expected touch-down point, which is overlaid on the screen as a guide to mark the correct touch-down area.
On software problems, the only minor thing we could find was the need to reenter our account name and password each time we launched the application. There was no option to save the credentials. TakeFlight is working at ironing out bugs and small issues while producing more stages. Stage 2, called “Solo”, is already available. It includes Crosswind Takeoff, Crosswind Landing, Traffic Pattern, Steep Turns, Minimum Airspeed and Engine Failure. More lessons are coming, as Brandon explained during his interview, in an effort to provide a complete set of instructions.
The only other system we saw that was similar to this, was Canadian CAE’s, attached to simulators costing millions of dollars. For those who are starting to take flight lessons, for the serious simmer who wants to go beyond just “firing up and fly” and for flight schools who want to introduce their students to flight fundamentals, the Virtual Academy is the way to go. It’s affordable, efficient and well thought out. For this, it deserves the AFSBI seal of approval.