Using Flight Simulators for Pilot Training

As with most all modern technologies, there is controversy as they are initially introduced to new applications. This is especially true between flight instructors as to whether or not flight simulation should be used as a training tool or training aid for an initial VFR sport or private pilot certificate.

It is not a matter of “if it should be used”, but “how can it be best utilized” as an aid to flight training and ground school. Over the last couple of years I have been utilizing flight simulation and doing research on this subject with pilots, students and flight instructors which has provided my basis to use flight simulators to enhance VFR flight and ground school training. The naysayers have provided valuable insight into the problems of using flight simulator thus providing my basis of “problems that need to be solved” and figuring ways to eliminate bad habits from developing in the beginning.

Here we will discuss the problems and solutions with some background for a more complete understanding of the possible fixes for such problems.

First, and most importantly, after evaluating all the LSA airplane models for flight training, plus looking at the X-Plane and Microsoft Simulator X Cessna 172 models, it has been most interesting to note my biggest challenge of using these for VFR flight training is that all you can see is the instrument panel. Big problem for VFR training.

It is no wonder that all the CFI’s have a concern about students looking at the instruments while flying. That is about all you can see in the existing fleet of flight simulator airplanes. BIG PROBLEM.

On nearly every model, I had to go in and adjust the pilot’s eye point-of-view to be a useful VFR training bed. Both X-Plane and Microsoft Simulator X have this capability, but it is the most important adjustment for personal settings to use the LSA and 172 models for VFR training. I think the model makers spent so much time on the instrument panel, which is their main focus, so they highlight it. They built their model for instrument flying and not VFR. This is what must be fixed for VFR training. If we only look at what has been, and draw global conclusions from this old way, we are making a big mistake (which those naysayers are). We can fix this big problem.

FSX_Skycatcher_Instrument_PanelHere (right) we have the Cessna 162 Skycatcher normal cockpit view.  Even with simulator controls re-set so less screen is used for the instrument panel and more to look outside, this is still not acceptable for training VFR flight. In choosing an airplane simulator, it is best to choose one that has good views outside so it is usable for visual flight. Both X-Plane and FSX allow you to adjust the 3D/virtual cockpit view.

FSX - Cessna_Skycatcher, virtual 3D cockpitHere (left) is the same model Cessna Skycatcher  162 3D virtual cockpit adjusted for VFR flight with the eye point moved so it is just like flying the airplane VFR. You can see outside. Here you mainly look outside and the instrument panel is something you glance at as needed. It is possible to use simulated flight training for initial VFR flight but it must be done properly. Different than it has been done before.

Yes there are bad habits that must be dealt with, mainly a student developing the habit of staring at the instruments. This is a problem for all students even without the flight simulator. The solution to this problem is simple. First while using the flight simulator, use an airplane without instruments, block out the instruments on the bottom of the screen or hit the button that provides a view without the instruments. Second, cover the instruments in the actual real airplane when you are flying it. I have used these techniques successfully and they solve this basic problem. Covering the instruments in the actual airplane is a good technique also for pilots learning to fly without the flight simulator. The classic and highly recommended book “Stick and Rudder”, which almost all seasoned pilots have read, supports this basic concept of flying by sights, sounds, feel, and position of the stick.

Yes it does not give you the feel of the aircraft, wind in your face, G’s in the seat, etc. So far neither do books, CD’s, DVD’s, on line training, FAA test prep or any other ground school. Flight simulation is not supposed to tug on the butt, or mess up your hair, or make you hot from sitting in the sun. I have not seen many flight instructors oppose these, although some still do. It appears about 30% oppose and 70% are in favor. Those who oppose appear to be more vocal.

No question, full agreement, these words I hope are understood and I believe in them strongly, make no mistake about what I think —- “NOTHING IS AS GOOD AS FLYING THE AIRPLANE”.  But plenty of learning can be done without being in the cockpit. This is where “ground school” is more than just studying to pass the FAA exams (this is a complete subject on its own).

Back to this controversial issue and the divided industry on using flight simulation for primary training for a sport, private or commercial pilot certificate: I have been researching this for years with blogs/forums at EAA360, AOPA, X-Plane, Microsoft flight simulator and generic flight simulator sites.

The results show the split overall at 70% for and 30% against.  The 30% against are very vocal .

I feel Rod Machado is one of the best overall instructors in the world. As an example I will quote part of Rod’s foreword in Bruce Williams (also a legendary flight instructor) book “Microsoft Flight Simulator as a Training Aid” published by ASA. Rod Machado specifically wrote April 2006 about using flight simulation as a training aid:

“And why would anyone want to do that? It is hard to argue against learning more efficiently, with less stress, and having more money left in the bank at checkride time”. The foreword goes on and on and perhaps this would be good reading for anyone who wants to learn what Rod thinks about using flight simulation as a training tool, all of which I agree with.

I feel a student should try and use as many resources as possible to learn to fly, including different instructors and flight stimulators, sorry — I mean flight simulators (some humor that Rod Machado is so famous for).