Flight training devices

February 1, 1996

There has always been some debate on the merits of simulation. The focus is now on the use of personal computer flight training devices, or PC-FTDs in acronym speak, and why the FAA has not yet decided to grant training credit for their use. Over the past two years the AOPA Air Safety Foundation has studied and used several PC-FTDs to evaluate their merits and faults. Our objective was to see whether certain instrument flying skills could be successfully taught with these machines.

ASF has been a part of a dialogue with the FAA on how PC-FTDs should be incorporated into the training regimen for new instrument pilots. Last summer we petitioned the FAA for an exemption to FAR Part 61.65, to allow credit for up to 14.5 hours of training conducted on PC-FTDs. Briefly, the petition asks that ASF be allowed to test this concept with certain flight schools around the country, under the guidance of a CFII using a structured ASF curriculum. We are in the process of hammering out the details. This would be a prelude to changing the regulation.

You will notice that I have carefully avoided using the word simulator. That is reserved for devices, usually costing millions of dollars, that nearly replicate the look, feel, and performance of a specific aircraft. Outside of those duplicating the performance of business jets, turboprops, and a few of the large piston twins, you won't find any simulators in general aviation — just training devices of varying degrees of fidelity, despite the enthusiasm of advertising copywriters.

One of the concerns surrounding PC-FTDs is that they are not simulators; they don't look like aircraft, they don't sound like aircraft, and they don't fly like aircraft. The question is whether they will actually lead to negative learning. The FAA also has to deal with the potential of all sorts of software purveyors claiming that their program will be effective. It is clear that some guidelines need to be developed, but up to now the marketplace has done that rather well. The good programs have survived and the poor ones have disappeared. This is an area that needs more exploration, and ASF is working on some definitions.

PC-FTDs are part-task trainers that teach pilots to do a significant portion of the instrument flying whole. The three areas in which they excel are teaching the all-important instrument scan, situational awareness, and multi-tasking skills.

Any CFII will tell you that if a pilot has a weak scan and is unable to put the airplane where it needs to be, it's hopeless to teach anything beyond. Situational awareness — as in knowing where you are in three-dimensional space, relative to navaids, airports, and routes — is the next essential. Finally, setting priorities by knowing when to do what rounds out the foundation of instrument flying skills. What is common to all three of the areas described above is that they are not particularly dependent upon aircraft layout or flight characteristics. Once a pilot has mastered these three items, he or she is ready to apply them in any aircraft.

After spending two years with several of the PC-FTD software programs, we are convinced that they perform a very useful function in primary instrument training. They should be granted credit in lieu of some of the required primary instrument flight training time. Two other studies commissioned by the FAA seem to bear out these concepts. An experiment conducted two years ago by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University found that instrument students using PC-FTDs did as well as or better than students using far more sophisticated and expensive training devices. A study in progress at the University of Illinois is comparing PC-FTD students to aircraft-only students; preliminary indications are that the PC-FTD enhances learning by as much as 40 percent.

So, what's the problem? Why not grant the level of training credit to PC-FTDs equivalent to that given to "desktop training devices" such as the venerable ATC-610? Within the FAA itself there are wide differences of opinion. Some say that as long as the instrument applicant can get past the gatekeeper — the black-hooded, snarling designated examiner on the checkride — that should be proof positive that the pilot is ready. No CFII is going to risk his certificate by putting up applicants who aren't ready. The checkride is done in the airplane, in the system, and the pilot either will meet the standard or he won't. It's that simple.

But others fear that somehow the pilot won't be able to function in the system and the examining process is not sufficiently rigorous to weed out the unworthy. The simulation purists even lament the approval of the desktop trainers some 25 years ago, despite the fact that hundreds of flight schools and one national training organization, Professional Instrument Courses, have used them to train literally thousands of IFR pilots. We encourage the FAA to show documentation of any significant negative effects of this type of training.

There are some who say that you need to know more about computers than aircraft to be able to "fly" this equipment. The marketplace is adapting to that by providing more aircraft-like controls and better software. Some of the earlier programs on slower computers weren't very good, but times have changed. Computing power has improved exponentially, and the pilot population is becoming far more computer literate, particularly the younger ones. For some pilots, computer controls are a major distraction. If so, use a more sophisticated device or train in the airplane. Push a button or turn a knob — it's pretty much the same. Do you remember rotary telephones?

There are other agendas, as well. The folks who build the more expensive devices are naturally lobbying that no decent training can be done in anything less than what they have to offer. Some FBOs and flight schools, having large investments in IFR training aircraft, would much prefer to keep them flying, since the profit margin is much higher on flight time than it is on PC-FTDs. Finally, many CFIIs would rather be building up the flight time than watching someone sit at a computer. The one voice unrepresented, unfortunately, is that of the consumer who's paying the bill. All the consumers hope for is that the training received will actually do what it purports — to prepare them to fly safely in the clouds. That seems like the most important objective.

Let me be clear on one point that is central to this discussion. The Air Safety Foundation does not condone any reduction in standards. In fact, we believe that instrument students could be better trained by spending more time in the real world of instrument flight. That means more flying in high-density traffic and in real weather. It means far less time spent in the aircraft on beautiful clear days, practicing basic aircraft control — learning how to do procedure turns, holding patterns, and approaches. This is precisely where PC-FTDs excel and should be used.

What about instrument currency and competency checks? Those come later — one bite of the elephant at a time.

Will PC-FTDs lower the cost of the instrument rating? Perhaps slightly, since much less flight time would be spent on procedural basics. But if the devices are used as envisioned, more of the learning that takes place in real weather will happen under the guidance of an instructor and less when the pilot is out on his own for the first time with passengers.


See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.