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Using Desktop Flight Simulators to Help Students Train for Real-Life Flights

written by: Andrew Jones•edited by: Jason C. Chavis•updated: 7/7/2010

For many years now, flight instructors have argued about the merits and dangers of using PC-based flight simulators to supplement their students' flight training. Learning how to become a private pilot by benefiting from using a home simulator to hone your skills is a good way train.

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    Flight Simulator Technology

    When most people think about flight simulators for flight training, they picture the giant full-motion simulators used by the airlines. However, there are many other types of flight simulators as well, including commercial software packages that run on a home PC. This type of simulator has been around for nearly as long as personal computers. Many people still think of them as video games, however, the technology for these products has advanced dramatically, allowing for a surprisingly realistic experience. As a result, PC flight simulator products are rapidly gaining respect and acceptance within the aviation community. Be that as it may, the FAA still has not approved them for formal use in training.

    However, this does not mean that a student pilot cannot still benefit from them. It simply means that the student cannot use a PC simulator to fulfill official FAA training requirements (i.e. as a substitute for real flight time). Instead, these products can aid the student pilot in reinforcing what was learned in previous lessons. Some instructors openly encourage their students to make use of simulators at home in this way. However, it is important to be aware that not all instructors agree about this. Indeed, some actively discourage it, fearing that it might lead to the development of bad habits.

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    The Instructor's Role

    For this reason, it is strongly recommended that the student discuss his use of the simulator with the instructor, and to coordinate self-training activities appropriately. By planning simulator practice sessions with the instructor at the end of each real flight lesson, the student will have a clear understanding of what and how to practice. As many instructors feel uncomfortable about students jumping too far ahead without supervision, bringing up the topic from the beginning is a very good idea. Some instructors are more familiar and interested in using this technology than others, and so, if this is important to the student, it would be logical to ask a potential instructor about his views on this before making a final decision on which instructor to hire.

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    Using the Simulator for Visual Familiarization

    During the early stages of training, instrument familiarization is one of the best uses for PC flight simulators. With the advent of multi-core processors and powerful 3D graphics cards, the interior of an airplane cockpit can now be reproduced down to the tiniest detail. In fact, some of them actually have better graphics than full motion airliner simulators. The first few flight lessons tend to be extremely intense, and students rarely have much time to study the instruments closely. The simulator gives the student an opportunity to spend some time alone in the cockpit, and learn to recognize which instruments are which and how they work.

    Altitude familiarization is another very helpful skill that students can reinforce with the simulator. This involves using the view out the window to determine the aircraft's position relative to the ground. While this may sound like common sense, in reality it takes time for new pilots to do this on an instinctual basis.

    Finally, the simulator is extremely useful for students learning to fly properly in the traffic pattern of an airport. Once more, it takes practice to recognize the proper sight picture for flying a downwind leg, or knowing at what point to turn base and final.

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    Learning Basic Flight Techniques

    The simulator can also be useful for practicing basic flight techniques, including takeoffs, landings, as well as skills such as maintaining altitude, heading, and airspeed. However, this is an area where the instructor should be more closely involved. While simulator physics models have become very advanced in recent years, they still do not perfectly match the real world. Moreover, the view on a two dimensional screen is a bit different from what one sees in a real three-dimensional cockpit. An instructor who is familiar with the simulator being used will be able to assist the student in understanding the simulator's weak areas, so as to avoid picking up misconceptions.