PC Proficiency

Computer-based flight sims may help you stay sharp, but dont expect miracles. Bad habits may come back to haunt you


by Ron Levy

When I started flying, a computer was a device that took up several rooms, required many tons of air conditioning and hordes of technicians scurrying around like acolytes at the altar.

Only the highly trained were able to make use of them. You dropped off your input one day, and got your output (if you were lucky – a plastic bag full of confettied punch cards if you werent) the next.

At that time, general aviation flight simulators were scarce, expensive, finicky and of limited capability.

Today, you can carry a computer with millions of times the power of a 1969-vintage IBM System 360 in your briefcase. Six-year-old kids can use them, generally more proficiently and effectively than their parents. The market is rife with computer programs advertised as flight simulators that run on them with a hundred times the capability of the relatively ancient Frasca in which I won the 1971 NIFA Instrument Flying competition.

The increase in computing power and accessibility has transformed flight simulation programs from the arcade games of the 1980s to fairly powerful reproductions of the flight environment. They produce accurate visual images of the instruments and visual view outside the airplane. They react in a realistic manner in terms of aircraft flight characteristics to the inputs the pilots supply. They also provide databases with the airspace systems of just about the entire planet, including instrument approaches in many cases.

Pilots being what they are, its not surprising that a large number have flocked to these products for a number of reasons. In addition, people young and old from outside the pilot community are getting a first taste of hands-on flying from these programs – some of whom are motivated to begin flight training based on that experience. Im finding an increasing number of new aviation students at the university arriving with significant experience with these PC-based flight simulation programs.

Along with the software has come the introduction of peripheral hardware in varying levels of sophistication and fidelity to provide a more cockpit-like environment in the way of controls and displays. Where the original Microsoft Flight Simulator was flown using keyboard and cursor commands and maybe a mouse, the new ones demand more.

Peripherals include everything from control yokes and rudder pedals to full stacks of simulated radio equipment with throttle quadrants and flap and gear controls. The price tag on a complete package of this gear can run up to $10,000. Given that most home-use PCs today are priced at one-tenth that amount, its a bit hard to justify spending that kind of money on that extra gear without some very solid reason.

One reason gadget-hungry pilots find to plunk down the money is the feeling that a home flight sim setup will quickly pay for itself by reducing the amount of flying time required to stay proficient. The extra bonus, they reason, is that they will be able to pre-fly trips and become familiar with the instrument approaches and airport environment of new destinations.

That notion has been given credence to some extent by the FAA, which has recognized the capabilities of the PC-based systems including the extra peripherals, and even allows their use for loggable training towards an instrument rating.

The details may be found in Advisory Circular 61-126, but the short story is that you need the full pile of peripherals, and in most cases you can only log 10 hours of training toward your instrument rating, and nothing thereafter. No instrument proficiency checks, not 61.57(c) 6 in 6 proficiency training. Nothing.

Academic Inquiry
Further, a series of recent studies by Hank Taylor at the University of Illinois has shown that the reduction in flight hours achieved as part of instrument rating training by use of varying numbers of hours of PC-ATD training was surprisingly small – only about a 10 percent reduction in flight hours to complete the course, and little difference was seen in the results between students receiving 5, 10, or 15 hours of PC-ATD training.

At the same time, one of the studies found that for the students with prior PC-ATD training, there was some reduction in the number of times a student had to repeat a new maneuver in the plane before getting it right, particularly in the areas of steep turns, turns in holding, and instrument approaches. You can find the report on this NASA-funded study on the web at www.aviation.uiuc.edu/UnitsHFD/conference/tayloretalavpsy01.pdf.

Two other FAA studies performed by Taylor examined the use of PC-ATDs (in this case, an Elite) for IPCs in comparison with more traditional flight training devices, in this case a Frasca 141, and actual aircraft in a Beech Sundowner.

In one, 106 instrument current pilots were given an initial IPC in an airplane. After six months, they were given another IPC. In the intervening period, some received recurrent training in a PC-ATD, some in an FTD, and some in an airplane; some received no recurrent training. The pilots who received recurrent training in the FTD or PC-ATD did better on the second IPC than those who received none (no surprise), and just as well as those who received their recurrent training in flight.

There were, however, two disturbing findings in this study. First, only 45 percent of the 106 legally current instrument pilots were able to successfully complete the first IPC in the airplane on the first try.

In addition, 59 of the pilots were not instrument current at the start of the study and were given – and passed – IPCs in the Frasca to become current before taking the first IPC in the plane. Of those, 37 did not pass their first try at the IPC in the plane. This might suggest that IPCs in flight training devices may not be very effective in determining a pilots ability to safely fly instruments in a real airplane.

In the second study, Taylors team looked only at the issue of the effectiveness of PC-ATDs for giving IPCs. Pilots in the study took an IPC in a PC-ATD, FTD, or airplane, and then did not fly instruments for two weeks, after which they took another IPC. Again a scary result: Of the 37 legally instrument current pilots, 78 percent failed their first IPC, and 57 percent failed the second two weeks later (with no intervening training). Perhaps surprisingly, the results for the current pilots were pretty much the same as for the other pilots in the study, who were anywhere from six months to five years out of currency.

However, the results did not differ a lot between the various methods. About 80 percent of the pilots failed the first IPC, and about 50% failed the second regardless of whether they did the first in the PC-ATD, the FTD, or the airplane. This suggests that the three methods are pretty much equally effective in determining instrument competency.

Beyond the Proficiency Quest
OK, so what does all this mean? First, PC-ATDs are not magic – they are not substitutes for real flying. One can only surmise that a less realistic system, say, a notebook computer and a joystick, will not by itself provide you the proficiency you need to go out and shoot a real instrument approach in real weather. However, there are some useful things you can do with them.

What you want to do depends on what hardware and software you have, and your setup may limit what youre able to do with it. Few pilots are likely to go out and get the full kit of PC-ATD gear just for personal use at home; its just too expensive.

A typical home setup would be a personal computer with a yoke – preferably with a throttle quadrant -and rudder pedals, but without the big radio stack. For software, were talking about any of the modern high fidelity programs such as Microsoft Flight Simulator, Jeppesen, Elite, or On Top. The last three are the three FAA-approved PC-ATD software programs.

Cost varies widely. The bottom of the line would cost about $250 for the sim gear and software, assuming you already own a suitable computer. The higher end could easily exceed $1,000. A reasonable setup would be something like Elite Simulation Solutions Proficiency Package, which includes yoke, pedals, throttle quadrant and software for either a twin or single, plus software for $850.

The questions that arise are what you can do with the system once you have assembled it, and which hardware items will provide the most training/proficiency bang for the buck.

The most important consideration is what you can do with a PC flight sim program. Several uses suggest themselves.

The most important things instrument students can do, for example, are part-task training events. This means focusing on one particular task to the exception of others. For example, lets say you want to work on holding pattern entries. In the airplane, you still have to do other things, including taking off, going to the area to practice, moving the airplane to a new starting point for the next practice entry, returning to the airport and landing.

In such a situation, you could spend two hours in training to get perhaps four holding pattern entries. In addition, if the weather is down or the winds are strong, you could be fighting the system to get even that much done.

And if you run into trouble, theres no way for the instructor to stop, discuss, explain and continue – youre going to be moving downstream at 100 knots or so and you cant stop the show.

On the other hand, using the PC flight sim, you can skip everything but the briefing and debriefing. You can immediately position the virtual airplane to the desired location. You can set the wind to zero for new tasks and add increasingly strong winds to increase the challenge.

You can freeze the sim while you work out where you are, or even put yourself back where you started for another try – all with only a few clicks. Many PC flight sims even include the ability to record and replay the flight, allowing you to examine the instrument indications and evaluate your performance.

One strong point for a PC flight sim in the training environment is that it provides the instructor the ability to manage the scenario. He can keep the ride nice and smooth and the winds light when introducing new tasks, but add in problems of turbulence, winds and emergencies as appropriate to the training scenario. He can also allow the trainee to go beyond safe limits in order to demonstrate what can happen – for example, busting through airspace or descending below minimums on an instrument approach. An instructor cant do that in a real airplane because it can create truly dangerous situations.

Emergency Scenarios
PC flight sims also generally include emergency simulations. This is particularly important for emergencies that cannot effectively be simulated in flight, such as a vacuum pump failure.

Vacuum failures are a well-known shortcoming of instrument training because the FAA refuses to allow installation of a vacuum shut-off switch in training airplanes, arguing that if its there, someone will inadvertently turn it off in IMC and crash. The FAAs argument is supported by the gear-up landings experienced in Piper Arrows with the automatic extension system, which includes an override switch to allow slow flight and stall training with the gear up.

We do a great deal of partial panel training in light aircraft, but its clear that, despite that, the identification and isolation of the malfunction is as critical as coping with the situation once the pilot realizes theres something wrong. In many cases, the pilot is unable to sort out which instruments are reliable and which are not. When this results in an accident, the radio calls usually indicate that the pilot is trying to use the instruments that are not usable, probably because those are the instruments the pilot has been taught to rely on most.

The other side of the vacuum pump failure problem is even recognizing theres something wrong. When we pop this problem into an FTD in a training environment, the trainee usually spends a minute or two before realizing that there even is a problem, often exceeding the operating limits of the aircraft before regaining control. Inflight training by necessity involves the instructor leaning over and covering the affected instruments, which alerts the student to the failure and deprives him of practice in recognizing that a problem exists and identifying which instruments are still usable.

The PC flight sims generally allow both commanded and random failures. You can tell the system to throw them in randomly during the flight, creating a reasonable facsimile of a surprise failure, or you or your instructor can manually initiate the failure when desired.

But even when you program in a random failure, you know its coming – just not when. This is another case where having an instructor working with you is an advantage, as he can introduce emergencies you are not expecting.

Familiarity Breeds Success
Everyone knows how much easier it is to fly approaches at your home airport. Youve flown into them a number of times, you may recognize the controllers voices and you certainly dont have to worry about the airport layout after you land.

You may even have them memorized, making the biggest danger failing to check the charts to see if theres been a change in the last revision. The problems crop up when you go somewhere new. While you can study the approaches to an unfamiliar airport the night before the trip, you dont always get a good feel for the pacing of the approach until you actually fly it in real time.

This leads to another excellent use for the PC flight sim: to pre-fly approaches at unfamiliar airports. This allows you to actually fly the approach rather than just study the approach charts. In some cases, there are full scenarios available to install in your system, such as Elites SoCal package.

This is one case where the device is being used for familiarization rather than training purposes, and the absence of an instructor should not make much difference in the quality of the experience. Its also a case where the level of hardware will be less significant.

The PC flight sim can also be used to prepare for an IPC. It gives you the opportunity to get an evaluation of your procedures and instrument scan, which are not too awfully different on the PC than in the airplane. However, there are limits to how valuable this can be.

Remember the results of the studies – a significant percentage of pilots who successfully completed an IPC in a complete PC-ATD (not just a PC flight sim) failed an IPC in a real plane administered immediately thereafter.

But before this scares you off the idea, I suspect there were a couple of factors involved in that. First, no PC-ATD truly replicates the cockpit of any particular light aircraft. While they can display the instrument panel of a number of types, as well as their flight characteristics, its never going to be quite the same. In addition, the airplane used in those studies was a Beech Sundowner, which is not a familiar plane to many pilots. Had the in-flight IPC been given in the type normally flown by the pilot, I suspect the pass rate would have been much higher.

Can a PC flight sim be used to maintain instrument proficiency? Well, the FAA will tell you that whether it can or not, you cant use it to fill your FAR 61.57 recent instrument experience requirements. But from a practical standpoint, we all know that the 61.57 requirements are no more than an absolute bare minimum.

If you are not flying in the weather or under the hood regularly, having flown six approaches five and a half months ago will not make you ready to go out on a 300-1 day and survive. The question then becomes whether regular practice sessions with a PC flight sim will keep you sharp enough to go out and fly in actual instrument conditions after a layoff of weeks or months since your last in-flight instrument experience.

The jury is still out on this. The studies referenced above suggest that it helps – folks who did PC-ATD training (thats training, with an instructor) but did not fly instruments in the interval between flight sessions did better on the second flight session. However, there have not yet been any studies on the effect of PC-ATD or PC flight sim practice during extended periods (weeks or months) between instrument flights.

My gut feel is that PC flight sim practice must provide some benefit, but it is not going to be a substitute for actual instrument flight practice or training.

What are the real drawbacks of a PC flight sim for practicing or training? The first is that generally, there is the totally different feel and location of the controls.

The controls in an airplane have a dynamic feel to them, and that control feedback gives you cues about what the plane is doing. For example, at low speeds, the control forces are lighter, and that cues us to consider the possibility of a stall. At the same time, at high speed, when the controls are more sensitive, it takes more force to move them, thus canceling out some of the sensitivity. This effect is not simulated in any PC-ATD, much less on a PC flight sim.

Another problem is the use of a PC flight sim without an instructors supervision. There are plenty of uses for PC flight sims in which an instructors presence is not necessary. For an instrument student, a PC flight sim can be useful for practicing tasks already learned from an instructor.

However, as in the aircraft, attempting to try tasks before theyve been covered by the instructor can result in negative training. The law of exercise says that when we repeat a task many times, it becomes ingrained in us. However, when we arent doing it right, this results in a barrier to training, because it becomes that much harder to unlearn the improper technique and then learn the proper one. Even if that is accomplished, the law of primacy says that we may still revert to the first-learned improper technique under stress.

On the other hand, experienced instrument pilots should be able to use the sim as a reminder of proper procedures and to practice their scan. Just remember to get independent verification of those skills, perhaps through a semi-annual IPC.

All in all, I think the PC flight sim can be a useful tool for providing an inexpensive supplement to instrument flying. Under the supervision of a properly qualified instructor, the PC flight sim can be a useful tool for part-task training and preparation for an IPC or instrument check ride. It can also be used for practice of tasks already learned and for preflying unfamiliar instrument approaches.

It also has significant value as a tool for emergency procedures training, especially when it is used to learn how to deal with situations that, for safety or technical reasons, cannot be demonstrated in flight. There is no doubt that it can help maintain instrument proficiency, but the available data suggest that it is not a substitute for regular in-flight instrument experience.

Just be careful in how you apply it, because the quality of the experience is going to be limited, and the possibility of negative reinforcement is very real.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Flight Sims and their Cousins.”
Click here to view “Hardware Evolution.”

-Ron Levy is an ATP, CFII and director of Aviation Sciences at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.


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