Saturday, October 17, 2009

Instrument Flying in the Flight Simulator

Part of my training towards a Night VFR Rating happens in a flight simulator rather than in an actual aircraft. I have had four sim sessions of about one hour each where we practised instrument flying and navigation using navaids. We flew NDB and VOR intercepts, first without and then with wind, before putting everything together.

Training in the sim helps lower costs, but also makes training safer and more comprehensive. It is safer because it does not involve flying an actual single-engine airplane in the dark over mountains around a navaid that attracts training flights like a honey pot attracts bees, but also because some situations that can be easily simulated would be either impractical or too dangerous to practice in flight.

The sim installed at the club is an Elite Airtrainer AT-21 which can simulate a range of single and twin-engine airplanes, including the Piper Archer. It is a Category B Approved Synthetic Trainer (all the details in CASA-speak here), meaning it can be used for teaching the parts of the curriculum that have to do with instrument flying but I can only log time as instrument time in simulator, not as regular flying hours.

If I had to sum up my experience with the simulator so far, I would say that the sim is very effective and efficient as a training device, but absolutely underwhelming as an experience. I think this has more to do with the sim I trained in itself than simulated flying in general. Max Trescott blogged a while ago about all the fun he had training in the Cessna Caravan simulator, so there's hope!

The sim comes in two parts: a small enclosed cockpit for the student to pretend he is flying a real airplane, and a workstation for the instructor to monitor the student and control the world he is flying in. The instructor can change winds, turn navaids off or fail airplane equipment. It must feel like playing God.

The cockpit itself is not very different from the set-up many flight simulator enthusiasts have at home. It's all PC-based, and the hardware such as yokes, radio stacks and rudder pedals can be purchased from Elite. The controls have some element of force feedback in them but fail at getting anywhere near realistic. Trimming the aircraft is really hard because one cannot really feel the simulated airplane through the controls.

The avionics are more realistic than the flight controls, with dedicated buttons and LED displays for the radio stack and an ersatz Garmin 430. The switches, knobs and buttons all feel a bit flimsy compared to the real thing. The PCB can be felt flexing behind when a button is pushed.

That's the instructor's view of the panel in the photo above, which is exactly the same as what the student has in front of him. The screen resolution is 1024x768, which may sound like enough, but picture yourself trying to read the tiny compass for aligning the DG: there's less pixels than degrees displayed!

The graphics are inferior to what one would find in, for example, the latest versions of MS Flight Simulator or X-Plane, but that's no big deal at all since I was flying in the dark and concentrating on the instruments. As far as I could tell the flight model is realistic enough. There's a feature built in that puts the airplane into a very extreme attitude if no control input is detected for about 5 seconds. A very effective reminder to fly the airplane whatever happens!

There's a placard on the flight sim that always draws a smile from me: instructions for "real emergency procedures". There are the emergency procedures that you practice in the sim and that won't kill you and may even make you a better pilot, and there's the real ones, such as the computer catching fire, which forces the student to get out of the room while the instructor hoses the fire down using a real-world fire extinguisher.

The sim does not care about the weather outside, hence training in the sim is never canceled. Or so does the sales pitch goes. My limited experience though is that the sim itself is in the end no more reliable than the real world. I may have been unlucky, but out of four sessions one was postponed because the sim had broken down. From the warning sign above, I suspect this was not a one-off, there are more systemic issues with that sim.

All in all, the simulator is an efficient, safe and cost-effective training device which falls short of being exciting or fun. This is very far from the full-motion flight simulators with sound and smoke effects used by the airlines. But then again the price tag is very different. Still, $50 an hour just for the sim ($118 with the instructor) seems a bit high for me. Knowing the software industry, I suspect a large part of the costs goes into the maintenance contract.


Vincent, from said...

I'm a fan of simulator training as well. For my DA42 training, I had a simulator session focusing on engine failure shortly before or after take-off. This is not something you can do 20 times in a row in a real airport, at least not without driving the tower controller crazy.

Simulators are also big time savers, because you can relocate everywhere you feel like, and have the weather conditions you want.

The airport where I made the practical part of my IFR had VOR and ILS approaches, but no NDB. Thanks to the simulator, no need to spend 45 minutes in cruise to go where I could practice such an approach.

Because of this, simulator sessions are much more demanding than real flying... there is no relaxing en-route segments in simulator. If your sim instructor once let you fly one, expect emergencies.

sylvia said...

I would say that the sim is very effective and efficient as a training device, but absolutely underwhelming as an experience.

Oh no, I'm so disappointed. I always thought it would be quite exciting.

Mind you, does that explain why you beat my high score so thoroughly on the game I posted? ;)

Matthew Stibbe said...

I've never trained in a simulator. There are some very good Cirrus sims and TAA at Denham has a good procedures simulator for the Cirrus. But I never got the chance to use them. I did fly BA's 777 and 767 simulators at Heathrow and also NASA's Space Shuttle sim at NASA - but that's a different story.

Julien said...

@Vincent: Indeed, the ability to fast forward is an advantage of sims I didn't mention. The great thing with Diamond Aircraft is that they also sell simulators, built from the same parts as their aircraft! Very clever way to approach flying schools.

@Sylvia: I couldn't help play that game again yesterday... very very addictive!

@Matthew: Have you already posted those stories on your blog? I found the photo in the Space Shuttle simulator. There's somewhere on the web the approach plate for the space shuttle landing at Edwards AFB I think. Interesting approach profile is all I have to say!