At-home flight simulators can be a fun way to pass time while getting some sense of flight and training benefits, especially when using a full setup with a yoke, throttle quadrant, and rudders. Can’t be too much different from the real thing, right? Well, yes – but also no. One of the things that always gives someone in the flight school business a laugh is when a prospective student comes in and says “well I’ve been playing flight sim at home, so I bet I can get through this training no problem” or has an attitude of “I play flight sim, so I know more about flying than you.” Neither one of these are always true. One of my favorite sayings for new students when discussing flight simulators is “the best way to learn how to fly an airplane is to fly an airplane.” Here’s a run-through of some of the benefits – but also the drawbacks to considering at-home flight simulators as a way to train towards a certificate.
Flight simulators can familiarize a student with some basics of flying, which can give a leg-up over others who have never seen the inside of an airplane before. This is especially beneficial if the student will be using an airplane in the flight sim that is equipped the same as the airplanes they may be flying. Some flight simulators, such as X Plane, are very well detailed to use the same systems and buttonology as their real-life counterparts, like the Garmin navigators. They can also help to understand instrument indications and how they work and what exactly they’re showing a pilot.
Procedurally, simulators can be helpful for a student who struggles with checklists, instrument scans, or even something as simple as pattern work. By utilizing a checklist while flying in a simulator, a student can become familiar with a flow, rather it is a start-up checklist, landing checklist, or even an emergency checklist. A nice feature on many simulators is you can choose to fail many different pieces of an airplane and can practice recovery or how to react in an emergency situation. If a new student is struggling with traffic patterns and pattern radio calls, this is a good way to practice them without being concerned about what other pilots are thinking. There are even add-ons in many simulators to speak with live ATC controllers to familiarize them with ATC flows, which many new private students struggle with. (Don’t get cocky though, some sim controllers may put you in the penalty box at LGA if you mess up too badly). They can also be helpful if you’re concerned about a flight to an unfamiliar airport. It may be useful to fly the route and pattern at an airport in a simulator in order to see the environment and create a better expectation for the flight.
The pure enjoyment and challenge of using a sim can be great. Want to see if you have what it takes to virtually fly an F18 through a valley? There’s a challenge built into FS2020 that allows you to do this. Think you can land a 747 on Saba? Give it a shot – it’s difficult. This is where the gaming side of flight sims comes into play. It gives you an opportunity to do some unrealistic and dangerous things that are impossible in real life. Sometimes the change of pace can be a nice break from the constant monotony of flight training and procedures. Taking a quick mental break from training while still doing something aviation-related can open the eyes of a student and remind them of why they’re getting into aviation and how fun it can be At the end of the day, many sims are designed more for fun than for training purposes, but they may still offer good opportunities to refresh yourself on some aviation topics.
Flight sims do not perfectly represent flying. Even the large simulators that you may find for type ratings don’t do the best job, let alone an at-home simulator. The feeling of flight is one of the biggest differences between most simulators and actually flying an airplane. The G forces from acceleration, stalls, turning, ETC can cause some students additional stresses or even cause sickness, leading to a swift return to the airport. Even full motion simulators can only slightly represent these feelings.
Being in an airplane is a totally different environment than sitting at home in front of your computer. A small 172 or anything similar used for training can be a cramped space with no air conditioning (unless you’re lucky and train in an SR22) and heat that has two settings, off or as hot as an oven. Attempting to fly an airplane in potentially uncomfortable situations while maintaining contact with air traffic control or listening into a traffic pattern all while messing with avionics while also getting tossed around by turbulence can be a bit of a task, and one that’s not effectively represented by a flight simulator at that.
Something that can throw off many sim pilots is just how different the controls of an airplane feel versus the simulator they’ve gotten used to. Controls in many simulators are light and typically not adjustable, nor do they change as an airplane’s speed increases, In airplanes, the controls will become heavier the faster an airplane is moving. Fancy simulators may have force feedback options that somewhat resemble the increasing pressure as speed increases, but even then it may not match perfectly.
LANDINGS. For a private pilot trying to learn how to fly, it’s very important that they also learn the process to stop flying safely. Simulators are not good for teaching landings. There are many reasons for this, including control feedback, sight picture, sound, ETC. It’s important to understand how an airplane feels during slow flight, especially when performing a round out. The controls begin to take more input to get the same response as what they may get at higher speeds and feel more sluggish. Your sight picture will be much different in a sim versus in an actual airplane due to different head (or view in the sim) positions and is a much smaller view on a screen, leading to some runway illusion. The different sounds that an airplane makes while coming in for a landing, rather it be the stall horn or simply the air flowing over the airplane will not be the same between the two platforms. Whenever crosswind comes into play, there is a lot of feeling and sight picture that plays into a proper crosswind landing technique that’s difficult to recreate in a sim.
So, to answer the question “is a simulator useful for training?” The answer is it depends on what you’re looking to do with it. Procedures, instrument flight, cockpit or route familiarization, and pure fun are certainly things that a flight simulator can help a student with. However, actually learning how to fly an airplane comes down to the tried and true method – fly an airplane. A simulator cannot teach you a lot of different pieces of flying and it’s also not a real instructor. If you want to truly succeed in aviation, get in contact with a local flight school or instructor and begin taking lessons. You’ll be surprised by how different it can be versus a simulator. Oh, and don’t tell them “I already know what I’m doing, I’m a sim pilot.”