Negative Transference in Flight Simulators
The subject of how much good simulators do for a pilot learning pilot-related things is as old as simulator technology, which is to say, almost as old as aviation itself. And when the subject arises, the issue of negative transference is usually close behind.
As most of you probably know, negative transference is what happens when a person takes one skill from a particular skill set — let’s say being shrewdly analytical while speaking with colleagues about a project — and uses that skill while doing something similar — like listening to your spouse vent about a particularly rough day and reflexively applying that same kind of incisive analysis to that situation. If you can be taught at all, experience will soon teach you that incisive analysis is the last thing your significant other wants or needs at that point in time. This is an example of a skill that works well in one situation but that gives exceedingly bad results in a similar situation. Negative transference.
There are myriad examples of this phenomeon. Since I’m a boy let me talk about sports: racquetball and tennis in this case. While these two sports are extremely similar in many regards, the way you stroke the ball correctly in these court sports is very different. Conseqeuntly, racquetball players have a heck of a time learning how to hit a tennis ball properly, and vice versa, because they’re trying to apply (often without realizing it) the old sport's skill to the new sport. That’s negative transference, and it is, as the name so strongly suggests, a bad thing.
I was talking with Redbird Flight Simulation’s Charlie Gregoire the other day about how different people perform differently the first time they hop into a sim. My adult son, Quin, who is not a pilot, was trying his hand at Redbird’s full-motion FMX high-wing G1000 simulator (okay, it’s a Skyhawk) and was doing a remarkably good job of holding heading and altitude, a much better job, in fact, than many experienced pilots do when they climb into the box for the first time.
I was quick to point out that the simulator flies very differently from the actual airplane, a point that is not in dispute. The same is true for every sim. The difference is in degree.
But Charlie was just as quick to point out that this was NOT a case of “negative transference,” a term that he says gets used a lot by people in the flight training business to discuss the effects of using simulators in conjunction with flight training. (For the record, I didn't use the term myself, but he has, he said, heard it so often it has stuck in his craw . . . so I guess he felt like venting a little.) In any case, Charlie’s point was that every airplane flies differently from every other airplane, and he’s right. Try to use the same skills to fly a Gulfstream as you do to fly a Blanek sailplane and you’re going to be in trouble very quickly, and vice versa. You need to modify your piloting technique to fit the platform. Pilots who've flown a lot of different kinds of airplanes know this intuitively.
Negative transference, Charlie argued, would take place if, for instance, the controls were reversed in the sim, so left aileron input resulted in a right turn. As it is, left input gives you a left turn. No negative transference there.
You could make the case, in fact, that there’s more negative transference taking place when a pilot moves from a Bonanza to an LSA, for example, than when that same pilot moves from a Bonanza sim to a Bonanza.
The sim model is proven. I got my CitationJet type rating in a Level C sim at SimCom last year without ever getting into the actual airplane and I found that once I did start flying an actual CJ in the actual national airspace system, I was never once tempted to turn around and ask the instructor to make the weather a little less cloudy.
Are there potentially negative transference issues going from a sim to an airplane? Sure. Potentially. The student pilot could crash while looking for the pause button, for example. The fact is, though, that this does not happen. Student pilots, and pilots in general, are a lot smarter than some instructors give them credit for being.