Don’t forget the simulator – it really helps!

Back when I was getting my Private Pilot certificate I bought a yoke / throttle / rudder-pedal arrangement made by Saitek.  I thought flying the computer flight simulator would come in handy to cement my skills, but in actuality the in-plane training was thorough enough that flight in the home sim just wasn’t necessary.  The lack of authentic plane-like “feel” from the equipment further discouraged their use; the equipment languished and gathered dust.

Simulator controls

My fairly typical simulator setup. (Click to zoom.)

Now that I’m progressing through my Instrument ticket, however, I’m a committed and vocal advocate of simulator training value.  Where the Private ticket is all about basic aircraft control and more or less keeping the rubber side down and the whirly end forward, Instrument flight is an entirely different ball of wax. Instrument procedures have an inherent complexity that demands extensive study and extra practice on the student’s part.  This, in fact, is why the FAA-certified simulator at your flight school is used so extensively in typical instrument training.  Such a sim — like the Elite GV PCATD that my school operates — permits the instructor to slow things down, set up situations, configure weather and other variables, and pause the sim for instruction.  An instrument pilot’s workload is heavy, and the pilot can’t be encumbered by any sort of equipment or procedural unfamiliarity…especially at the times of highest workload, such as on an approach.  Simulator work permits raw procedural repetition without leaving the home.

Using the Saitek equipment and the X-Plane simulator, I’ve put hours of time into home practice.  The equipment has undoubtedly paid for itself several times over by now, as I’ve been able to sharpen procedural skills “for free” on my own time, instead of paying for an instructor and aircraft to repeat lessons for cash.

As a student in a Part 141 school I’m required to take periodic stage check rides with senior pilot.  I’ve used the equipment to great benefit here, too, by honing my skills just prior to these flights.  Granted, I can’t log this “home sim” time, but that’s quite beside the point; this sim time is well spent for practice.

IFR panel

Actual screen-shot of the sim set up for IFR training: note that the panel occupies 100% of the view with no sky showing, just like under a VLD. (Click to zoom.)

What can you do in a sim?  Well, what can’t you do?  I configure my eye-point in the sim as you see in the screen-shot to the left; that’s a lot like being under the hood, and pretty darned closely approximates the pilot’s actual point of view.  With a panel configured like this — which, by the way, I have taken pains to customize to closely emulate the panels in my school’s 172R fleet — I can work the same radio stack, the same VOR instruments, the same ADF… and train myself in their behaviors during navigation and flight.  The sight picture and the controls are nearly identical, and this facilitates transition back into the physical aircraft on flight days.

Undoubtedly the greatest benefit initially was working on my ‘scan.’  The initial Instrument training emphasized this quick absorption of information from the gauges and instruments, and it only comes with practice; merely reading about it does no good.  The eyes must learn to move quickly, collect information, and avoid extended delays on any particular instrument.  Later I found it helpful to practice intercepting and holding bearings from NDBs and VORs, and now that I’m learning various kinds of approaches I’m finding it helpful to review the high-workload procedures that happen in IMC just prior to landing.  When I want to make things more difficult I add a bit of turbulence and wind.  The sim is valuable at every stage of my training.

So how does it actually fly in comparison to the real plane?  Not too shabbily.  After tinkering with the aircraft flight model I finally got the thing to perform reasonably similarly to the 172R Skyhawks my school flies.  I won’t lie to you: there are noticeable differences between them.  One difference I’ve been unable to remedy is the fact that the simulated plane is much, well, “twitchier” than the real one.  It’s much harder to maintain altitude, and no amount of tinkering with the control sensitivities seems to remedy this.  On the bright side, though, this deficiency promotes better real-world piloting.  Why?  Because to effectively fly the sim, my scan, my attention and my reactions must be that much sharper to keep the twitchy thing on course and altitude.  The same tasks in the real Skyhawk seem far easier by comparison.

I did what I could to make the physical Saitek controls more realistic.  The stock yoke had far too much elevator spring pressure, and the “stiction” of the control shaft made fine grained control nearly impossible.  Cracking the case (and voiding my warranty) exposed relatively straightforward mechanicals inside.  After removing one of the two elevator springs and removing the offending shaft bushing, the yoke behavior improved dramatically. No mechanical yoke, especially one in the consumer price range, will ever accurately depict the feel of a live airplane yoke with airflow and control pressures, but this modified Saitek does the job reasonably well.

My wishlist?  A simulated Bendix/King KLN94 (or even 89b) GPS would be welcome, because that’s what my school operates; it’d be incredibly handy as a learning tool. I was craving a more detailed rendition of Paine Field, my home airport, but yesterday I purchased a newly-released third-party scenery pack for it and I’m delighted with the improvement.

If you don’t own a home sim, take the time to utilize your own school’s FAA certified sim.  It may cost money, but at least you can log that time and it will certainly be a fraction of the cost of plane rental.

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One thought on “Don’t forget the simulator – it really helps!

  1. Pingback: Modified Cessna 172 model for X-Plane « I Have A Black Belt In Geek.

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