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Can a simulator help with my flight training?

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

Many students consider flight simulators to aid the training process, especially during periods of prolonged bad weather, or when they are struggling to master a certain aspect such as landing.

Let's face it, flying lessons are expensive! So student pilots will naturally explore all options and most will ask their instructor about simulators at some point.

Firstly, it's worth pointing out that flight simulators range from apps on your smartphone, to full motion Airbus simulations costing millions of pounds.

Those expensive simulators are extremely realistic and newly qualified commercial pilots will spend the majority of their time in the simulator training for a type rating. However, there are no such simulators for private pilots.

It is my opinion that an app on your phone is going to be of little use to any student pilot, though desktop simulators are of some use.

Desktop Simulators.

Software such as X-Plane or Prepar3d have sophisticated weather and aerodynamic engines. When third party aircraft models and scenery is added, it can make for a realistic environment.

For example, Sim720, a software development company, designed a realistic model of the Ikarus C42 for Prepar3d that was approved by Comco-Ikarus themselves.

Another developer, Just Flight, has created many highly-accurate models of popular light aircraft such as the PA28-161 Warrior, which is commonly used for training. Their models include fully simulated fuel systems and even nuances such as vapour lock and spark plug fouling.

Other developers have created realistic simulations of airliners with complex system modellings, payload management and failure simulations.

To add to the realism, numerous companies develop scenery to bring the world to life. Orbx have developed photo-realistic scenery for the whole of the UK, with all masts, obstructions and aerodromes included. You can even fly over your own house.

You can add to the realism by connecting to networks such as VATSIM which allow you to experience Air Traffic Control, from real people that volunteer to play the role of controller. They even have to sit tests and earn virtual qualifications to do so.

These advancements are made possible by a large and established community of hobbyists that support the developers.

In late 2019, Microsoft announced that after a hiatus of 15 years, they are returning to develop an all new simulator. The developers are private pilots and have brought the latest technology with incredible results. It is due for release at some point in 2020.

So the future is bright for flight simulators and it is possible to bring more and more realism into your front room.

All-weather flying lessons.

Ikarus C42 Simulator at Airbourne Aviation

Airbourne Aviation, based at Popham airfield, have developed a full motion Ikarus C42 simulator and offer training for £65 per hour. I had a student that visited the simulator a few years ago and completed five hours over the winter to help improve his landings. His feedback was that the simulator was very good. Matthew Myatt, Director of Airbourne Aviation told us that, "the majority of our students use the C42 simulator as part of their training, and all find it both realistic and helpful, with many able to reduce expensive cockpit time." I haven't been able to find another example like this one, though Pipistrel have developed their own simulator called the X-Alpha which uses a real cockpit and a virtual reality headset.

Are they useful for student pilots?

The short answer is yes. I think it is of primary importance that you use controllers such as a yoke or stick, rudder pedals and a throttle quadrant. It is simply not realistic to use your keyboard or mouse to fly the simulator. But even then, one thing that is lost in the simulators is "feel". When landing a real aircraft, the subtle feeling of wind gusts and airframe vibrations give the pilot information that is not given from simulators. Simulators also do not subject the body to g-force. I think that a desktop simulator will have little effect on a student's ability to handle the aircraft, though I cannot comment on a full motion simulator as I haven't tried one.

That being said, simulators can be great for practicing procedures and routines. Emergency procedures, navigation and familiarity with the local airspace can all be gained and this is sure to save you time and money on real flight training. They are useful to a certain degree for ab-initio pilots, and are probably very useful to those studying for the IMC or instrument rating.

High-fidelity UK scenery from Orbx
High-fidelity UK scenery from Orbx

Could they be detrimental to student pilots?

I have flown with student pilots that use desktop flight simulators without rudder pedals. This particular set up seems to cause problems as the students try to perform every manoeuvre with ailerons and the elevator. They find it difficult to appreciate that the rudder is a primary control. It also crossed my mind that an inaccurate simulator could possibly have a detrimental effect on a student's progress. For example, an aircraft that handles differently in the simulator and real life may lead the student to do something and get unexpected results. It could also lead to learning bad habits when the instructor is not present to monitor them.

On balance, the risk of the simulator having a long-term detrimental effect is small. With the correct set-up, it can be not only a useful training aid but a lot of fun, and something to keep your interest during periods of bad weather.

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