A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

 March 2013   

Simulators:  Removing the rust or learning to fly? 

      Flight simulators are part of the job for airline and most other commercial pilots.  But many private, general aviation flyers may never have set foot inside one.  For almost all pilots, the Cessna 150 was the beginning.  Back in the day, it was cheap and easy enough to fly that the first solo could easily be done by most students well before the minimum dual hours were complete.  Besides, there were fewer distractions for most of us when we learned to fly.  Although controlled airspace was part of the learning environment, things didn’t seem so complicated.   

      Flying the 150 was not a huge drain on our pocketbooks.  It’s a different story today.  But on-going training, IFR renewals, type ratings and even currency requirements can usually be done in simulators.  They’ve become so realistic that there are stories about pilots experiencing motion sickness in them.  With so many advantages to sim training as opposed to using the real, and expensive aircraft, we’ll not see simulators going away.  There will be more, and they will continue to get better. 

      As we move into the warmer weather, plenty of airplanes that have been tucked away in hangars all winter, will soon see the light of day.  Many of the pilots who own these aircraft, may be just a little rusty with their skills at this point in time.  Which brings up the question:   How can we make simulators more easily accessible to the private pilot who is not required to, nor is given the opportunity to remove that winter rust?   Of course he can always hire an instructor for a couple of hours and use his own plane for that purpose.   But what if the local flying club actually owned a simulator?  The members could sit down and brush up on skills anytime.  The expense after the initial cost of it would be minimal.  A table-top model might be just fine.  It would be available to fly even when the weather outside was bad.  And it could be a learning experience for all the people in the room at the time of the lesson.   

        The argument could be made that flying a simulator is not like flying the real airplane.  That of course is at least partially true.  An IFR renewal for instance, is one example of the value of a simulator.  But when it comes to the mechanics and skill required to fly a cross-wind landing, or some serious steep turns and slow flight exercises, I think those would best be achieved in the aircraft.  

         The question of whether a student could go from a simulator to flying solo with no actual dual instruction in an airplane has been asked.  Initially, like most other pilots, I was skeptical.  But don’t bet that it can’t be done.  I came across a blog one day that discussed a very interesting experiment.  The blogger is an airline pilot and an instructor.  He heard about a young fellow who had never been inside a small airplane, nor had he received any flight instruction.  Yet this “student” felt he could get into a Cessna 172, and fly it utilizing the skills he’d learned during many hours on his home computer and a flight simulator program. 

           This blogger offered to sit in the right seat as a safety pilot.  The agreement was that if he thought the “student” were getting into trouble, control would be assumed immediately by the safety pilot, and the experiment would be over.    

        The simulator pilot installed a few cameras inside the aircraft to record this flight, and after some editing, the video was posted on the internet.  At the time of this writing, it was available on YouTube at this web address:    www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJT_CACIZqs  (Be sure to use the UNDERSCORE between the JT and the CACIZqs.) 

         If for some reason you’re unable to bring up the video (honest, it worked when I tried) I will describe it.  The first six or seven minutes are taken up with a description of what this fellow was attempting to do.  You can easily skip to about the 6:30 mark, and pick up where he and his instructor/safety pilot are at the airplane getting ready to fly.  The flight was to be one full circuit, and that’s all.  But remember, this “pilot” had ZERO hours, just time on his home flight simulator.  The instructor was to tell him nothing, just observe and be there as a safety pilot.   

          Overall, the result was a bit surprising.  Amazingly, the sim pilot was quite capable of flying solo in the 172.  His takeoff was good enough to get in the air before running off the left side of the runway.  The circuit was a bit wide and long, but the best part was the approach and landing.  Although they flew on a calm morning, the video shows what appears to be a turbulent flight.  That’s just the unpolished handling by someone new to the inside of an airplane.  But the landing/touchdown was superb!  Beginners luck?  Perhaps, but his extensive time on the simulator had prepared him very well.    

           My conclusion would have to be:  If a non-pilot with no actual flight instruction can successfully solo in an airplane following time on his home simulator only, then we ought to be brushing up on it while our airplanes are down for an extended period.   

            If you’re interested in the training environment and the advantages of simulators overall, there are some very good reports on-line at a site called     www.tandfonline.com

Once on that site, search “flight simulators”.  It’s very interesting, educational and fun.

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