One problem instrument rating students often face, once they’ve learned the basics of a particular instrument rating maneuver, is how to practice regularly enough to solidly reinforce what they’ve learned. There’s always the next airplane lesson, of course, or a flight training device. FTDs have, in fact, become an extremely popular way for instrument students to practice between formal lessons. Students practicing maneuvers on an FTD unsupervised though, makes many instructors worry their students will pick up bad habits along the way.
Take a plain old vanilla ILS approach. On a steam-gauge airplane, all the student needs to do is keep the glideslope and localizer needles centered. How much could go wrong? Plenty actually. The student might tune in the localizer frequency late in the approach, or cross the final approach fix too fast or too high, or use too steep an angle of bank to rejoin the localizer or forget the course becomes narrower as they approach closer to the airport. In other words, they could become pretty sloppy.
Redbird Flight Simulations thinks it has a solution to the problems inherent in a student practicing alone in a simulator. Called a GIFT course for the instrument rating – the company has a GIFT for the private pilot too – the program gives purchasers a thumb-drive USB key they can plug into most any Redbird device. The USB drive carries the user’s registration information to give the simulator the OK after the buyer pays a one-time $249 fee. That entitles them to lifetime privileges to use the course on any Redbird.
What is GIFT?
GIFT stands for guided independent flight training. What makes the instrument GIFT stand out is the coaching and measurement of each and every maneuver the system offers. GIFT measures performance to the standards of the instrument ACS. The student is expected to strive for a score of at least 95 percent. That helps overcome the obvious problem of students possibly enhancing their sim performance based on how well they thought they flew versus how well the computer thinks they did. The GIFT allows the student to see how a maneuver should be performed under the guidance of the CFI and then practice it until they become proficient.
I had an opportunity to briefly experience the instrument GIFT at Redbird’s AirVenture booth using one of the company’s MCX simulators on a single flight. Despite being an instrument instructor, I decided to interact with the GIFT system as if I was still a cloud-pilot wannabe. My GIFT monitor was Redbird’s vice president of marketing, Josh Harnagel.
The MCX Josh and I used for the demo was a steam-gauge Cessna 172 with a Garmin 530 installed. Before joining the flight, Josh showed me the operator’s panel he’d be using on his iPad that offers the pilot considerable variety on the operating conditions for each approach, like the procedure entry. The student can choose to fly the entire approach or choose radar vectors. If they choose vectors, the computer generates a normal human voice acting as the controller to guide the aircraft to the final approach intercept. There’s a third fun option called “surprise me” that chooses one of the first two options and lets the student discover which on their own as they would in the real world. The pilot can also choose the wind speed and direction, a partial panel failure possibility, a circle to land option or the possibility of a missed approach at minimums. Just like the approach entry, the student can also choose the “surprise me” option here.
Josh appropriately chose the ILS 36 into Oshkosh and the computer started me off about 12 miles southwest of the airport at 2,700 feet heading 130. He also turned the coaching on so I could hear the machine’s guidance. The only thing we should have tried was plugging in a pair of headsets before the flight because the environment at AirVenture is one of constant noise and distraction. Josh told me all pilots are told to use headphones during any simulator sessions.
As soon as Josh unpaused the sim, the machine suggested I tune in the localizer frequency. It soon called for a left turn to 080 and finally 040 to join the localizer and cleared me for the approach. The computer assumed I was smart enough to save the tower frequency in the standby box. While I answered all the radio calls, the GIFT is not quite sophisticated enough yet to hear and interpret the pilot’s oral responses.
It was when I got a tad sloppy on keeping the needle centered that the system began offering me suggestions about correcting back to the localizer or getting the airplane down to recapture the glideslope once we’d past the final approach fix inbound. I realized that once you’ve earned an instrument rating, it’s tough to try to intentionally fly one badly. I would also soon learn that GIFT takes no prisoners.
I was indeed a little sloppy on the localizer, maybe a dot and a half off at the worst point. Not knowing the simulator very well, I quickly realized that I’d completely forgotten to reduce the power enough to start down, and the computer told me it didn’t like that one bit. I yanked the power back to about 1200 rpm and pushed the nose of the Skyhawk down a bit to capture the glideslope, when the system strongly suggested I fly a missed approach. I looked over at Josh and told him I was going to ignore the Redbird’s suggestion.
About 10 seconds later, the computer assumed control and shut down the entire session. That surprised me … not a bad surprise, but it certainly proved the GIFT was keeping a close eye on how I was flying. Tough to know if I would have made it down, but GIFT wasn’t even going to let me, or any other pilot, think that kind of flying was ever going to be OK.
Josh pulled up my GIFT report card and that too surprised me. I knew I’d let my heading wander a tiny bit, and had a few bumps in altitude although I did always try to correct, but GIFT was a tough grader. It didn’t like the fact that I’d let the heading wander off at least five degrees a couple of times and once let my altitude drop from 2700 to 2620 although I corrected back. While it didn’t specifically point out my decision to continue after being told to fly the miss, a GIFT-trained instructor would have easily been able to analyze the system data the GIFT produced to know I needed work. That’s a good thing.
Again, the GIFT is not designed to allow the student to practice alone forever. Normally, an instructor would have been expected to offer the instrument student feedback about what worked well in their current technique and what did not before sending them back to practice. Although we ran short of time, I found myself wanting to restart the flight from the same point in space and see if I could improve on my score. And that should be the point.
When used properly with a CFI reviewing a student’s performance data regularly and, of course, flying a session or two with the coaching turned off, the proof will be in the pudding. The student either flew to standards or they didn’t. But more practice in a Redbird to reach that 95 percent on each learning task is much less expensive than another hour in a Cessna Skyhawk with an instructor for sure.