Sim-Based Training?

Why bother with a simulator? Real-world training in emergencies, for one. But the key is doing things you wouldnt dare while in an actual airplane.


I fly regularly, adding about 400 to 500 hours per year these days in a combination of ferry and instruction work. So why do I even think about simulator-based recurrent training? What good does it do to fly a sim when I get 60 or 70 real IMC approaches each year, along with lots of flight planning in real life?

While Im certainly not the most experienced pilot out there, I still go in for simulator-based recurrent training. By contrast, the average general aviation pilot flies nowhere near that much. Instead, he or she might reasonably ask, “If I get a BFR, isnt that enough? After all, I only fly locally and the occasional cross-country for a $150 hamburger.” There are two basic answers, which are both simple and complicated.

Just Because

One answer is similar to what Mom used to say when I asked why I had to do something: “Because I said so!” If youre like me, youll recall how unreasonable that response seemed and then how right she was in the end. The logic of recurrent training is both similar and quite a bit more.

For many of us, the answer is because the insurance company “said so.” For others, its because they see the value of a “second opinion.” I fall into that latter group and I always enjoy taking a recurrent program of one sort or another because I always learn something about the plane, about flying and about myself that I didnt know when I showed up for the classes.

There are several-perhaps dozens-of excellent recurrent training programs available in all price ranges at locations around the country (see the sidebar on page 10). Regardless of which organization or program you use, most any of them will benefit not only the pro, but anyone who attends them.

But the biggest and best reason I can suggest is getting sim-based recurrent training provides a serious grilling on emergency procedures and systems difficult or impossible to get anywhere else. That preparation and skill is something we all hope never to need. Its also priceless when a real emergency occurs. Read through the reports and discussions in these pages, and one finds time and again pilot error is a leading cause of accidents. The conclusion inevitably will include a phrase like “the pilot failed to…” Over and over we read about the little thing that became the big one or the small distraction that caused the big disaster.


Using a simulator for your recurrent training will not make you invulnerable to mistakes, but it will without question make you more prepared for the inevitable emergency youll experience sooner or later. Done correctly and professionally, it also will instill in you and your flying greater discipline. Youll be more accurate in flying certain procedures like departures and approaches.

That is why airlines, corporations and the military regularly send their crews to the sim and why many private flyers go, also. The value of preparation and having already made the mistake and being able to avoid it in the future is what makes all of us safer pilots. Discipline, experience and general learning are just some of the benefits we get from sim-based recurrent training.

Because I fly a wide variety of aircraft-from Cirrii and piston Cessnas to turbine-powered machines like Piper Meridians and Beech King Airs-I try to vary the training each year. Last year I did a King Air/B1900 version. Before that was a Cessna twin and so on. Cirrus offers a one-to-two-day safety course through their owner/dealer network that is very similar. These programs provide two distinct benefits in addition to the general emergency training: They result in greater comfort with the aircraft and you often can realize a significant savings on insurance costs.

Meanwhile, discipline comes from repeating the procedure and having confidence in the outcome. Although anyone going into such a training environment should expect a series of systems failures and raunchy weather, sim-based training lets you experience emergencies in a controlled environment: If you mess up the procedure, you get to try it again and again until you get it right. In the real world, you only get one chance.

These are all questions we see asked and answered in this and other magazines, but they are hard to simulate cost effectively. And what if more than one situation occurs at the same time? The difference of having an instructor in the seat next to you in a plane and being alone when these events occur is dramatic, and even traumatic at times. I frequently come out of the sim mentally and physically exhausted and at the same time exhilarated by knowing that I learned so much. Other times I am frustrated and disturbed that I made such a dumb mistake, but I learn from it. When I head home, I know I am a better pilot that day than I was two or three days ago, which is both reassuring and rewarding.


Done correctly, this type of training offers another important feature usually not included in an everyday, get-with-your-instructor session: reviewing systems, regulations and procedures. One way to think of it is as the “general learning” portion. We all fly and know the rules, or at least think we do. But rules change over time and, even with the latest version of the FAR/AIM volume in hand, we miss a lot. As the airspace rules change and evolve, so does the need to be current on procedures and new FAA limitations or requirements. It is also a great opportunity to see the newest equipment and pick up some techniques used by pros that one may not have learned-or may have forgotten-over the years.

For example, weather information is getting better and changing. Have you seen the newest plans and programs? What about some of those pesky rules about flying for compensation? When was the last time you did a “for-real” weight and balance calculation? In between emergencies and approaches is a great time for “back to the basics” in some of these areas and is usually a part of the curriculum.

Another example: “Line up and wait.” A small change, but its the new terminology. It saves airtime and it is pretty clear. It does clearly state what you are to do and if someone with a similar tail number is out there in the soup, he isnt as likely to enter a holding pattern or make an unnecessary radio call because you are “in position and holding.” And, by the way, “Is that a plane on the runway ahead?” Time for a go-around. More opportunity to train in challenging situations without endangering the plane or the crew. What happens if youre cleared to “land and hold short?” You can see it in practice to decide if you want to accept it in the real world.

The new glass cockpit systems provide tremendous amounts of information but also require some of their features be explained and practiced. Many simulators accommodate this training and expanding ones knowledge of these systems full capabilities is a great benefit. It may even be valuable to simply go to the training for a chance to experience the system and see if it is something you want to add to your plane. If you are buying an upgrade or a new plane with an Aspen, Avidyne or Garmin system, getting some sim-based training should be mandatory in our view.


What does it cost to do this training? Costs run from about $500-$800 for a group-learning and review day at a dealer to $1500-$2500 at many dedicated simulator facilities. Of course, the sky can be the limit, with a lengthier sim-based session running $10,000 or more at some of the airline-level companies. One can obviously pick the level and expense that makes sense for the type of flying being done.

Do we recommend simulator-based recurrent training for everyone? No, but its strongly recommended for any IFR pilot or one wanting to freshen their skills, learn more about what they are capable of, and become a safer and more accomplished pilot. This kind of training condenses experience and provides a great learning atmosphere that will give any pilot significantly more comfort and a wider safety margin than most other experience.

Of course, not everyone has the opportunity or resources to plunk down a couple of grand or more-plus travel and hotel expenses-to ride a sim once a year or so. Thats unfortunate, but realistic. Thankfully, there are other options and one of them may well be the back room at your local FBO.

As the price of fuel and other expenses associated with, you know, using a real airplane for training have climbed over the years, the cost of acquiring and operating a simulator have come down to the point even smaller flight training organizations have some kind of device available. It may not be a full-motion simulator-there simply arent any for many personal aircraft-but you still can use them to practice emergencies and experience other procedures too risky to perform in the actual airplane. No, it might not be the same. But even if youre only using the sim and instructor to get some additional experience, its worth it, in our opinion.

The benefits are many. The challenge of having a range of emergency situations stacked one on another lets you feel the pressure and react to it. Updating our knowledge of the regs and the systems is another. And finally, having a third party with years of experience and knowledge tell us we are better than we were when we showed up is a great confidence booster.

Many of us fly thousands of hours with no problems, which is as it should be. Having the confidence and the ability to safely fly the latest approaches and to react quickly and effectively in an emergency of any level is to me the real benefit of simulator-based recurrent training.

Bill Straw is a 5500-hour CFI/I/MEL who flies a 1971 Turbo Skymaster and other aircraft when hes not in a sim.


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