Cockpits make terrible classrooms. They are expensive, loud, quick to produce sensory overload, and there is always the potential for the “classroom” to collide with something else—such as another “classroom.” If you are looking for a less expensive, more productive path to learning to fly, consider utilizing an aviation training device, commonly referred to as a simulator.
I am a 5,500-plus-hour master CFI in Seattle and have been teaching in ATDs since 2005. Correctly utilized, an ATD can accelerate the acquisition of many skills, from procedures to decision-making.
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Simulation devices at the flight school level run the gamut from desktop models that have rudder pedals, a yoke and a computer screen where the windscreen would be to the more expensive, FAA-approved ATDs that create immersion by using wraparound screens and cockpits that mimic popular training aircraft.
Some ATDs even have motion, allowing the learner to experience crosswinds and turbulence in a safer, less stressful environment than the aircraft. The operational costs of ATDs are usually significantly less than the aircraft; therefore, the ATD costs less to rent for a lesson, and most important, there is often a greater educational return for you as a result.
The FAA allows some time accrued in ATDs to be applied toward the experience requirements for certificates and ratings, and in addition, many pilots find the lessons learned in an ATD save their lives when applied in the real world.
Most Part 141 schools have ATDs as part of their curriculum. “They are excellent procedures trainers,” says Matt Opsahl, assistant chief flight instructor, flight operations at the University of North Dakota. “Aviation training devices are used in every course. Our private pilots start out in them learning the procedures, learning the hand motions, the muscle memory for setting up the cockpit, learning to use the GPS—and the G1000 is much less expensive [to learn] in an ATD than it is in an airplane with the prop turning.”
“For best results, make the training session as close [as possible] to what would happen in the airplane,” says Josh Harnagel, vice president of marketing for Redbird Flight Simulations. Redbird, founded in 2006, has units ranging from desktop styles to enclosed-cockpit, full-motion ATDs. “Make it as realistic as possible—that includes using the checklist and seat belts if they are installed,” he says.
According to Randy Gawenda, business-development manager from Frasca International Inc., the quality of the sim session is largely dependent on the communication skills of the instructor. “You can say the same thing the same way to 99 learners, but [if] on the 100th learner you say it four times and the learner is still not getting it, it tells you that you are not communicating on the right level,” Gawenda says. “The instructor has to refine their level of communication and hit pause—because the learner is not hearing what you are trying to say.”
The best part of the sim is that it can be paused midflight to allow the learner to catch up—most every instructor wishes they could do that in an actual aircraft. The sim can also be easily repositioned for repetition, so you can gain practice without spending the time you would in the airplane.
Plus, there are some procedures that are more effectively learned in an ATD. One example is the loss of engine power. In the aircraft, the instructor simulates loss of engine power by pulling the throttle back to idle—you know what has happened by the position of the throttle. In the ATD, loss of engine power is done with a keystroke. It’s quite the eye-opener for the learner when they realize loss of engine power can happen regardless of throttle position.
“In the airplane, the instructor can only simulate emergencies like loss of engine power. In the simulator, the instructor can give you a real emergency,” Gawenda says.
Application is key. Many 141 schools use ATDs for 20 hours of the instrument rating to teach approaches and holding procedures. For the VFR pilot, learning cross-country skills such as groundspeed checks and dead reckoning in the sim can reduce much of the stress of the first cross-country flight in the actual aircraft.
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Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has been using cockpit-simulation technology for decades. The devices range from static cockpit mock-ups of training aircraft all the way up to a Frasca used to train pilots to fly a regional jet.
“ATDs are an excellent tool for teaching decision-making,” says professor Parker Northrup, chairman of the flight department at ERAU’s Prescott, Arizona, campus—provided the instructor communicates the objective of the lesson to the learner and correctly configures the ATD.
“Using an ATD gives the instructors the ability to precisely shape the learning objective and set up an environment and ‘switchology’ to meet the learner’s needs,” Northrup says, adding that scenarios drawn from an accident report published by the National Transportation Safety Board are particularly effective if your instructor creates a string of events allowing you to go through the same steps as the accident pilot—but with a better outcome.
The most common complaint from learners in ATDs is that there is no kinesthetic sense in the device. They cannot feel the ATD like they feel the airplane; it just doesn’t give the same kind of feedback. This makes the ATD a little more difficult to fly, and if the pilot has bad habits—such as poor airspeed control—they will be magnified.
There is also a tendency for instructors to pile on the emergencies, says Xylon Saltzman, a CFI and founder and CEO of One-G Simulation.
“Because the ATD is a safe environment for practicing potentially dangerous scenarios that you cannot control in an aircraft—such as a cargo shift, fuel imbalance or density altitude—you can overload the learner by giving them too many system failures or too many emergencies in one session,” Saltzman says. “Obviously, it is highly unlikely that you would have an electrical failure, pitot-static failure and engine fire on one flight, so don’t do it in the sim. Limit the emergencies to about 20 percent of the time.”
As your skills grow and change, so does the application of the ATD, says Kenneth Byrnes, Ph.D., flight chairman and assistant dean from ERAU’s Daytona Beach, Florida, campus. “We have sims with 220-degree visuals surrounding the cockpit, so you are immersed in the environment. Lots of initial learning for the private and [instrument] candidates happens in the sims. When the learners get to the commercial level, we focus on decision-making.”
“If the learner makes a mistake, let them try to fix it before you hit the pause button,” Opsahl says. “We don’t want to take the stress out of the situation, but we can remove the risk. If they make a mistake, we want them to recover from that mistake.”
You’ll need to treat the time spent in the ATD just as you would time in the aircraft. This means insisting on a preflight briefing to identify the objectives of the mission, identify the risks and potential challenges, then fly the mission. The post-flight debrief should include a critique of your performance as a learner as well as how the lesson can and will be applied for overall training.
“Some instructors will use the ATD to reduce the cost of getting a student over a hump on selected maneuvers…or if weather or aircraft availability preclude flying,” says Bob Hepp, a Gold Seal CFI at Aviation Adventures in Manassas, Virginia. “We do the first half of instrument training in it. For commercial, we use it for low-cost time building. We also use it for instructor interviews and annual instructor standardization.”
The Instructor’s Attitude Is Key
“We all know when an instructor doesn’t want to be in the sim and only wants to build hours,” Gawenda says. “This goes for the corporate/business/commercial training centers too, not just general aviation. I’ve had so many clients say, ‘Well, I went to “XX” last year, and the instructor was terrible, so I am not ever going back there again,’ even though the equipment is top-notch and it’s a professional training business. A bad instructor can destroy a sim session regardless of how well-planned and structured it is just by nonverbally communicating the lack of interest. It would be nice if we could figure out some way to incentivize great teaching, not just building hours.”
“It comes down to the flight school management styles and how they want their instructors to use the sim,” Harnagel says. “It might be [that] the learner cannot do a stage check until they have done X number of hours in the sim first. [It’s] also useful when a learner is having difficulty with a particular maneuver; the learner can do a sim session with a check [pilot] who can use the pause button of the sim…and deconstruct the learner’s poor habits and rebuild them with good ones.”
Six Tips for Best Practices in Leveraging Simulation Technology
1. Before your first flight, use the ATD for a “lap in the pattern.” This gives you an idea of what you will see in the aircraft during the flight, thus reducing the chance you’ll be overwhelmed. Learners who try the virtual flight first get more out of their first real flight.
2. As a flight school, have the instructors go through an ATD checkout just as they do an aircraft checkout. Make sure the instructors understand where and how the ATD can be applied in the syllabus.
3. For instructors: Create scenarios that can be applied to lessons in the syllabus with multiple outcomes. For example, put the learner on a cross-country flight with deteriorating weather. If the learner choses to divert, allow the learner to land in VFR conditions. If the learner continues, increase the difficulty of the flight by introducing a systems challenge or failure.
4. Recognize the limitations of the ATD. Though it doesn’t provide the same sensations as the aircraft during stalls and landings, the ATD can be used to teach procedures, such as power settings to be used in the pattern and setting up for maneuvers.
5. If the sim has the option for movement, conduct part of the training with movement activated and part with movement deactivated. The addition and/or lack of movement provides a new learning experience.
6. Make sure the time spent in the ATD goes into your logbook, noting the type of ATD, place (name of flight school or business), type of session (IFR or VFR) and length of the session.
This story appeared in the 2021 Learn to Fly Special Issue of Flying Magazine