Recently, a member interested in ultralights asked the question: “What sim should I use to learn to fly?” This question was interesting from a few different perspectives. Firstly, an ultralight is a single seater: you are on your own while you are learning. There will be no instructor sitting next to you, in most cases. Because of this reason, the simulator takes on a much important role, it is your sole way to “try before you fly.”
Secondly, the controls needed for primary training are simple, you are basically learning to manipulate a yoke or stick, pedals, throttle and, in some cases, flaps. It’s basic flight management at its core. Thirdly, you really want to have a good view of your surrounding areas to develop a good sense of where you are in relation to where you are going – especially in the landing phase. So how should I configure my simulator for the best learning experience?
The answer we came out with is: VR augmented with some basic flight controls, which is defined as mixed or augmented reality. This will give you the full visual clues, and the capability to manipulate basic controls for a very realistic experience. Hard to beat that as a preamble to a flight which will likely be the first and the first solo combined.
But, say, an instrument student comes with the same question: I have my private license, I can fly the plane, now I am going for my instrument rating. Great. Is VR still the best? It’s may not be. For IFR flying the requirements are completely different. The visuals are not that important, and it is likely that all you really have to see is what’s in front of you when breaking clear of clouds at the Minimum Descent Altitude (MDA) or Decision Height (DH). What you will need, however, is the capacity to twist and turn knobs to tune radios, set approach courses, run checklists and many other time-bound tasks that belong squarely into the physical realm and need to be executed quickly and precisely. A simulator with a panel representative of the aircraft you intend to fly, the required IFR instruments and a full set of controls is more likely to help you develop that “muscle memory” everyone talks about these days. In this case, a physical setup will allow you to develop good habits to carry into the real airplane.
If learning instruments is your current endeavor, multi-capability instruments like the G1000 or GPS like the ubiquitous Garmin GNS 430 are available for simulators running on the most common platforms. You will find it much easier to work them with your fingers rather than with VR’s virtual hands.
Multi-engine training? VR may be again your best bet, providing your hands can move a physical yoke, your feet are on pedals and you can reach the throttle quadrant, flaps, and gear handle and a few other controls that you can easily locate without actually looking. In short, using VR with a properly set simulator gets you a great experience for primary flight training.
Another case in point: helicopters and rotary wings in general. Here the perception of height from the ground, necessary in hoovering in ground effect (HIGE) and landing is of critical importance. Simulating this depth perception on a display-based simulator requires dome-style projection, which is uber-expensive. With VR you get fairly reasonable precision at a fraction of the cost and your visual sense is fully engaged.
To wrap it all in one table, here is our recommendation for what type of sim and accessories to use for which phase of training:
|Phase of Training||Category||Recommended Sim||Minimum Hardware|
|Private and Sport Pilot, Initial||Single, Multi, Fixed Wings, Gliders||VR + Hardware||Joystick/yoke, throttle, pedals. Few buttons for flaps, gear, etc.|
|Private Pilot, Initial||Rotary||VR + Hardware||Cyclic/Collective w/throttle, anti torque pedals. Few buttons for engine start, governor, clutch, etc.|
|Pilot||Ultralight||VR + Hardware||Joystick/yoke, throttle, pedals. Few buttons for flaps if any.|
|Instrument Rating||Any||Physical Cockpit||All the above as per appropriate category, instrument panel with standard instruments plus GPS, VOR, nav/com radios at minimum. Alternatively G1000-style avionics. ATC services capability required. Using the mouse not recommended for any function.|
|Commercial Pilot, Maneuvres||Any||VR + Hardware||Flight controls as applicable (see above).|
|ATP, procedures||Transport||Physical Cockpit||Although many manufacturers are proposing VR, physical cockpits remain the best option in learning flight management procedures for each type of aircraft.|
There are, of course, many variables to these recommendations including, and not limited to, personal preferences. Visualization hardware such as dome projection displays may realistically represent the external flying environment. In several simulators we tested, including entrol’s E135, we found it very close to reality. However, most sophisticated solutions beyond 1-3 monitors or projectors are usually outside the financial capacity of most individual users and beyond the scope of this article. VR allows you to achieve an amazing degree of spatial visualization, and related physical clues, to ensure a transfer of knowledge as close as possible to what the student will encounter during real training. Unusual attitudes, difficult to visualize on a flat 2D display, become a lot more realistic and lifelike. Try a stall or a spin in VR and you will see.
VR drawbacks? Until easy-to-wear gloves will be precise enough and marketed at an affordable price, you will have to use physical controls to fly with a reasonable level of accuracy and predictability. While most VR kits come with hand sensors your current virtual hands do not have any touch sensations or control precision and are not yet providing adequate feedback to your brain. This, of course, will change in the future. Check out our post on haptic gloves and touch devices.
For now, these guidelines may be helpful to those starting to learn and those progressing through their ratings. Technology is moving so fast that we can already predict updates to this post happening very soon.