Faking Flight

During my time as a full time flight instructor, most of my students (including myself when I was training) took upwards of 70-80 hours to complete their private pilot certificates. This is about twice the number of hours the FAA requires to get the rating. There were many reasons for this, the most significant being the very busy training environment.

Santa Monica airport has several flight schools and many corporate and charter operators, and it lies below the Class B veil of Los Angeles International airport. There was often a wait for takeoff and we had to fly for about 10 to 15 minutes each way to get to the local practice area. This was great for student-instructor bonding, but highly inefficient for training.

Despite the complex setting, there was one student who finished his training in about 45 hours. When I gave him homework, he studied. He was always prepared for his lessons. But more importantly, I credit his flight training efficiency to a computer game.

This was right at the beginning of the new millennium and my student had an early version of the Microsoft Flight Simulator that he had installed on his home computer. After each lesson, I would brief him on our flight and make recommendations on necessary improvements. Subsequently, he would go home and practice. Soon he had mastered all the required takeoffs, maneuvers and landings for the private pilot exam.

Flight simulation, whether you practice in a certified full motion simulator or on a simple, home-based computer, is an incredible learning tool. There are no distractions such as ATC communication, other air traffic or beautiful views. And, unlike an airplane, you can stop the motion at any time to discuss what is happening. The student pilot can concentrate strictly on the training and repeat scenarios to solidify the knowledge from the lesson. While flying simulators is not identical to flying airplanes, many pilots find an airplane easier to fly than a simulator, making the benefits even greater.

While computer game training certainly does not apply toward the required number of hours for a certificate, it is a wonderful way to get familiar with flight instruments and the difference between fingertip flying and the dreaded white knuckles. However, depending on the sophistication of an actual flight simulator or flight training device (FTD), up to five hours of flight time can be applied toward the private certificate and up to 30 for an instrument rating (the number varies based on the type of FTD). Since FTDs are less expensive to rent than airplanes and the training is more efficient, a fair amount of money can be saved. Yeah, I know it’s not as much fun, but you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the view once you get your rating.

Some private pilot maneuvers, such as S-turns and turns around a point are difficult to practice in anything but a real airplane since they require an outside picture at a 90-degree angle from the instrument panel. Generally simulators only provide a forward view. Some software allows the image to be switched to different angles, but I would guess ground reference maneuvers would prove hard to practice even with alternate views.

But simulator practice can definitely be applied to steep turns, unusual attitudes and landings. And the usefulness of simulators for instrument flight training is limitless.

Most airspace in the United States that is anywhere near a flight school is now under radar surveillance, and air traffic controllers will more often than not provide radar vectors to pilots flying in the system. This makes instrument training difficult. For example, it is rare to get an opportunity to see a full instrument approach. I never flew a full approach and I remember being very confused by the instrument approach plates because I never used most of the published data.

Also, practicing holds and DME arcs is difficult in the air. You have to fly the airplane to a suitable, safe location, which can add a significant amount of Hobbs time to the lesson. It’s hard to visualize what’s going on and you’re constantly flying the airplane, communicating with ATC and looking for traffic. In the simulator, you place yourself in any location in seconds. Additionally, the instructor can stop the motion and draw out patterns to explain what’s going on or, even better, look at a flight track page, if one is available. It’s a stress-free environment suitable for learning.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of simulator training is that if you don’t complete the maneuver or approach perfectly the first time, you can do an instant repeat. Whether you’re training for a rating or practicing to remain current, I highly recommend climbing into a simulator or getting flight training software for your home computer.

Pia Bergqvist joined FLYING in December 2010. A passionate aviator, Pia started flying in 1999 and quickly obtained her single- and multi-engine commercial, instrument and instructor ratings. After a decade of working in general aviation, Pia has accumulated almost 3,000 hours of flight time in nearly 40 different types of aircraft.

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