Flying Your Desk

June 1, 2001

PCATDs and flight simulators for training and proficiency

All of that PC power slumbering in your desktop computer isn't there to run Microsoft Word 2000, no matter how many bells and whistles the new version sets off. No, the primary benefit of a high-end, three-dimensional graphics accelerator card and the latest, greatest Pentium chip lies in their ability to run the best flight simulation package you can get your hands on.

With the amount of software and hardware available to turn the white box in your home office into an airplane, it helps to know what you want from the total package before you start shopping. Are you working on an instrument rating? Wanting to stay proficient, or trying to get back to the level you had before a hiatus from flying in actual? Or are you simply looking for entertainment?

The aviation federales think of an airplane simulator as a full-motion, highly detailed replication of a specific aircraft. No one would confuse the machines the airlines use to stay current with the "flight simulators" that sell for less than $100 at the local computer superstore. However, believe it or not, these flight simulators can provide some training benefit.

Need proof? In early 2000, the Navy began issuing a customized version of Microsoft's Flight Simulator software to all student pilots and undergraduates enrolled in the Navy Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) at 65 colleges. The decision to use the game was inspired by the results of a research project conducted by the Navy in the summer of 1999. The study found that students who used flight simulation products during early flight training tended to have higher scores and lower washout rates than those who didn't use the software. However, flight simulators don't require more than a joystick (and failing a joystick, you can even use a keyboard, albeit awkwardly), and their similarity to a true cockpit environment suffers from this. But their low cost means that they are accessible to many users.

ýersonal computer-based aviation training devices (PCATDs) represent the next level of realism. By using specific software and hardware combinations on a standard personal computer, these devices create a cockpit-like environment that is deemed real enough to permit logging of some simulated instrument flight time, under a flight instructor's supervision. The FAA allowed for blanket approval of PCATDs in Advisory Circular 61-126, which means the feds don't need to look at your particular installation in order for you to log time. However, the higher cost associated with PCATDs — primarily for the high-quality yoke, rudder pedals, and consoles — means that they're mostly used in flight schools for training. A similar experience can be achieved by using lower-cost peripherals with the PCATD software.

Logging the time

If you want to log the time, however, you must use the FAA-approved setup. You need both a yoke and rudder pedals: The joystick you may already own is not an appropriate substitute, for a couple of reasons. First, the controls need to be self-centering and allow for continuous adjustment by the pilot, similar to true aircraft controls. Second, control inputs must lead to a recognizable response on the screen in 300 milli-seconds or less. Think about it this way: When you enter a bank in flight, the airplane responds to you almost immediately. And you have to hold the yoke steady to increase the bank.

Aside from the proper yoke, you need a realistic throttle quadrant that contains controls for the features on the airplane imitated by the software. For example, if you're flying a Beech Bonanza, you need a prop control in addition to mixture and throttle. If you're flying a Piper Seneca, you need two of everything. An additional console, which includes physical controls (as opposed to keyboard or mouse inputs) for things like flaps, gear, trim, and radios, is necessary to duplicate procedures accurately.

In order to get a setup that satisfies the regs, the peripherals need to be matched with a specific brand of software. Some peripherals (such as those produced by Precision Flight Controls, also using the Cirrus marque) work with Elite, Jeppesen's FlitePro, and ASA's On Top software, while others (such as those by Flight Link) go with FlitePro, in some cases, and RTS Pro software, currently in testing and approval stages. More advanced consoles are available, for example from Elite, for use only with its software. Typically, these cost more than $10,000 and are likely to be used primarily in larger flight schools.

Once you have these bases covered, up to 10 hours can be logged on the PCATD toward an instrument rating (all these hours need to be dual, of course). And is this time spent in front of the small screen valuable? As it turns out, very much indeed — when used appropriately.

Perfecting procedures

When PCATDs were initially approved, some in the aviation industry expressed concern about how well "desk flying" could substitute for time in the airplane. Rudy Frasca, founder of Frasca International, which produces flight-training devices and airplane simulators, was one such outspoken opponent. He voiced criticism that PCATDs were part-task trainers — they allow for only partial application of critical flight operations — and did not believe that PCATDs should be used to reduce training time spent in an actual aircraft. At 10 hours of potential logged time, this reduction is as much as 25 percent, a significant decrease. Frasca continues to stand behind these concerns. "If you don't have the total picture, you could develop bad habits… that come out during times of stress," maintains Frasca. He cautions pilots using the PCATD in training, "Do not perfect [the procedures] in the PCATD," as the device may cause pilots to miss subtle cues present when flying a real airplane.

In the process of certification, a study conducted by the University of Illinois explored the positive and negative transfer of procedures from the PCATD to the cockpit. It found that pilots who had learned procedures in the PCATD were able to apply them to situations in the airplane, and that no negative transfer — or procedures learned improperly because of the PCATD's design — occurred. In addition, use of PCATDs in an instrument training course knocked four hours off the total training time on average. Because they allow so much to be accomplished in a short period of time (by putting the airplane exactly into the desired situation without spending time getting there), PCATDs have become an integral part of many instrument training programs across the country. Schools that cannot afford the expense of a flight-training device may be able to afford a PCATD, bringing some of the higher-fidelity devices' benefits to their students. Meanwhile, the University of Illinois continues to look into the long-term effects of PCATD use in training curricula and its potential for use in maintaining instrument currency. Henry Taylor, director of the university's Institute of Aviation, comments that studies continue to find that "the PC is an effective device for teaching instrument skills to private pilots."

Bruce Landsberg, executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, affirms the value of PCATDs in instrument skill development. "They teach pilots about procedures and offer realistic navigation training on the ground so that when pilots go flying, they are miles ahead of the airplane."

Another safety issue is more practical. As the instrument pilots among us can recall, most of our training in the good old days consisted of numerous circuits around holds and procedure turns, often in the vicinity of VORs and NDBs. The radio frequencies would jam with the back and forth of instructors calling their positions, sometimes frantically, as they rubbernecked around for each other in a strange aerial circus. Today's use of the PCATD translates into fewer real-world circuits of these navaids — and less opportunity for midairs, as Landsberg sees it.

While nothing can be logged in a PCATD toward a private certificate, instructors and students have both noted value in using the system during initial training. It certainly makes sense for imparting basic attitude instrument skills, but student pilots can also gain from spending time running through all kinds of procedures. Emergency approaches are one example. The engine restart checklist can be memorized on the ground until it becomes second nature in the air, which means time in the airplane can be focused on tasks that hone a pilot's kinesthetic sense — maintaining best glide and selecting a suitable field. Various private syllabi use applications such as this to justify up to three hours spent with PCATDs during training.

No substitute for the IPC

What if you already have your instrument rating? Time in a PCATD cannot replace time in an airplane in pursuit of instrument proficiency checks (IPCs), logging of approaches for recurrency, or practical tests. There is sound reasoning behind this. Once you learn the procedures, the use of any part-task trainer doesn't add much to your game. You need experience in the real thing.

In fact, flying the same old approaches to your home airport under the hood only gives you a modicum of value as well. The best IPCs are flown in the weather, in real IFR cross-country flight. But that's another story. For overall competency, as Landsberg points out, "you absolutely ought to be in the airplane."

Now, a PCATD or flight simulation software certainly has its place in the stay-current shuffle. When faced with a looming IPC, any time spent refreshing IFR procedures is time you won't be spending in the airplane with a CFI charging you for dual. The same theory applies to practicing approaches at faraway airports you plan to visit. Fly the approach from your desk ahead of time, and the procedure won't be new when you fly it for real.

Who's out there?

Whether you're in the market for a true PCATD or just want to do a little refresher flying at home, a flight simulation product is available to suit your needs. Because of the considerable process it takes to get a full-blown PCATD approved, these packages are the most expensive and relatively few in number. The good part is that you can take advantage of the software used in a PCATD for a lot less, and there are other flight simulation options to choose from as well.

Each software package has specific requirements, so be sure to check that your computer system meets at least the minimum standards before you make a purchase. Many manufacturers also provide optimum platform standards that make the software run at its best.


Elite Simulation Solutions developed one of the original PCATD hardware/ software combinations. Now on version 6.1, Elite's core software features a Cessna 172R for Windows or Macintosh operating systems (OS), at an online price of $199. Other aircraft, including the Piper Arrow IV, Beech A36 Bonanza, Mooney M20J, Piper Seneca III, Beech Baron 58, and King Air B200 can be added for an additional charge. This allows you to purchase only the aircraft you choose, or a flight school to customize a PCATD to fit its flight line. Alternately, you may purchase Elite Prop Version 6.1, which includes the 172R, A36, M20J, and Arrow IV, as well as the Cessna 172P, 182S, and Piper Archer III modules, for $699.

Among other enhancements, Elite Version 6.1 features GenView, its new visual database. GenView produces over-the-glareshield landscapes via an integrated visual system featuring actual satellite digital elevation models and three-dimensional weather renditions. Currently, databases covering the entire United States and Canada are shipping with the purchase of version 6.1; upgrades are also available for users of Elite versions 5.3 through 6.0 for $59. The Macintosh version that includes GenView had not been released at press time.

Additional upgrades to the core software deliver ATC scenarios (currently limited to Southern California) and a searchable database with FAA/NACO-published navigation and procedure information.

After determining the software configuration, you need to choose the peripherals to support your system. You can stop at this point if you simply want to fly with the joystick you own; Elite software, like most flight simulation software, is compatible with most any joystick, yoke, or rudder pedals that are recognized by the Windows or Mac OS. If you want a reasonable training situation but don't need PCATD capability, Elite's Pro Trainer package comes with a CH FlightSim yoke, CH Pro rudder pedals, and software (with the Archer and two 172 models) for $499. The lowest-cost PCATD package runs $2,995 and includes the Elite Yoke, Elite AP-2000 Avionics Panel, Elite MEL Throttle Quadrant, PFC Cirrus rudder pedals, and the requisite software.


Jeppesen's FlitePro software forms the basis for its PCATD entry, formerly known as FS 200 and now simply as FlitePro. Version 6.2 includes three aircraft models: a Beech A36 Bonanza with dual VORs, an A36 with a horizontal situation indicator, and a Cessna 172R with GPS and VOR on the panel. It retails for $99.95. Panels were derived from photos and are some of the most realistic around — in fact, FlitePro won a 2000 "Simmy" from the International Association for Aerospace Simulations as the best of the high-end simulation products on the market.

The FAA-approved configuration features Jeppesen's proprietary console, PFC Cirrus yoke and rudder pedals, the Guided Flight Discovery instrument syllabus and instructor support materials, and the FlitePro software for $2,999. Other, less costly packages are available. While no updates are planned soon for the FlitePro software, Jeppesen introduced SimCharts to its line in 2000. While not updated on the same schedule, worldwide coverage reflects traditional Jeppesen chart subscriptions, including airport diagrams, approaches, and arrival and departure procedures. The United States is delivered on three CDs, with the entire database on 12 CDs.

Both Elite and FlitePro allow you to customize instrument and equipment failures beyond a random failure mode. With Elite's software, for example, the vacuum system can be programmed to fail at some time between 5 and 7 minutes into the flight. FlitePro allows for more elusive failure modes, such as an intermittent NDB signal.

If you're accustomed to the Jeppesen training program, you may find that FlitePro feels comfortable. For those in training, the fit with the Jepp syllabus saves work for you and your instructor.


Aviation Supplies and Academics' (ASA) On Top version 7.0 software also features several aircraft from which to choose: Cessna 172P, 182R, and 182RG; Piper Warrior II and Arrow IV; Mooney MSE; Lancair Columbia; and Beech V35B Bonanza, 58 Baron, and 1900D. You may configure the instrument panel with GPS, HSI, radio magnetic indicator (RMI), and autopilot as appropriate. As with other flight simulation programs, you can preselect the weather and environment, as well as systems malfunctions to occur at random intervals. On Top's selection of weather and equipment scenarios is more simplistic than those offered by Elite and FlitePro but still offers some customization. Version 7.0 is available for pre-ordering as of presstime; the previous version of On Top retailed for $99.95.

ASA also sells peripherals that are compatible with the On Top program, including two CH yokes and rudders, and the PFC yoke, rudder pedals, and power quadrant. Also, the complete PCATD package retails for approximately $2,695 through various ASA dealers.

Flight simulators

What if all of the above sounds like too much work and not enough play? You have other options.

The venerable Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000 and its variants (see "Pilot Products," June 2000 and February 2001 Pilot) immediately come to mind. The behemoth Washington-based company continues to generate a family of standard-setting flight simulators. The basic Flight Simulator 2000 (MSFS 2000) allows the user to fly airplanes that pretty much blow the 172 out of the water in terms of ego gratification. It's harder for the average pilot to judge the fidelity of, say, MSFS 2000's version of the Concorde, but taking a cue from the level of detail that goes into its Combat Flight Simulator products, this is probably as close as most of us will ever get. Add a Boeing 777-300, a Mooney Bravo, and a Raytheon (Beech) King Air 350 (in the Professional Edition) to the stable; its new three-dimensional scenery system; and the ability to use GPS navigation, and this program will probably satisfy a lot of users for the suggested list price of $79.95. And if you have a question along the way, ask virtual instructor Rod Machado or access articles from AOPA Pilot right through the software. Expect Flight Simulator 2000 this fall, with new aircraft, including the Cessna Caravan.

Another top contender in the flight simulation game is a 2000 Simmy innovation award-winner, Fly, by Terminal Reality. Fly features a Raytheon Hawker 800XP, a Piper Malibu Mirage, a Beech King Air B200, a Piper Navajo Chieftain, a Bell 407, and a Cessna 172R in its roster of aircraft. Terminal Reality prides itself in having the most realistic look out the window of any flight simulator. From the pilot's seat, you can select from 16 views, and there are highly detailed renditions of five U.S. cities. Judging from its take on downtown Chicago, the details shown are accurate but not mind-numbing. Fly also incorporates the Bendix/King KLN 89 GPS into its instrument panels, and allows you to download METAR data into the program for weather generation. Fly II, the latest version of Fly is available for $39.95.

Your best bet

You can find demo versions of most of the software on each company's Web site. When incorporated wisely into a program of training or maintaining currency, PCATDs and flight simulators bring the cockpit a little closer to home.

E-mail the author at

Manufacturers' Web sites