Turbine Pilot: Simulating reality

Getting the most out of your simulator training course

March 1, 2010

We’ve sure come a long way since Ed Link invented the first flight simulator with parts from his father’s pipe organ and piano company. Regardless of the levels of virtual reality, one thing’s for sure: Simulators save time, money, and—most important—lives. And to maximize these returns, here are some concrete tips to make your next virtual vacation to a sim training facility a success.

Just as preflight planning is key to a successful flight, preliminary planning for your sim training also can foster success. First, shop around. Investigate the quality of instruction, simulator levels, and price. A Level 1 Flight Training Device (FTD), for example, is the most rudimentary, whereas a Level D Full Flight Simulator (FFS), although pricier, offers the highest level of realism and capability for gaining currencies and certifications.

“Man! Had I known I could’ve gotten my ATP in the sim, I would’ve come with the written in hand,” said more than one turbine student of mine over the years at a major sim training center. Level D simulators have this sort of capability. Other shoppers’ questions include: Is training in my aircraft part of the package? Is scenario-based training offered? Will my insurance accept this training? Are there any early bird (or late bird) discounts?

If, instead, your employer has shopped for you and simply says, “Show up at ‘Sims-R-Us’ at 8 a.m. on the fifth of next month,” there are still a few things you can do before you arrive.

Calling ahead to request preattendance study guides, cockpit panel posters, and checklists can really help; some courses even require you to come with limitations and emergency items already memorized. In addition to the manufacturer’s Web site, smartcockpit.com and aviation-safety.net are great sources of helpful information on your aircraft that can help give you a leg up.

Some of the best sim students I ever had later told me that their secret was practicing at home on Microsoft Flight Simulator or X-Plane before coming to the real simulator. This secret strategy, I discovered, not only helped to familiarize them with the airport(s) they knew they would be flying out of, it especially aided in having a feel for sim “flying” and developing a better instrument scan.

Finally, you’ll want to bring your updated logbook(s), especially if you’re going for a type rating or ATP. Ask what other items you should bring. Also, ask for a recommended nearby hotel (they may even have discount agreements) because with long days, you won’t want a long commute eating into your study and sleep time.

“The simulator flies exactly like the simulator,” Russ Gibson of FlightSafety International would often remind his students, implying that it will be more sensitive (and thus more challenging to “fly”) than the real McCoy. Learning the art of “sim trim” (think micro-size inputs) will pay off later.

You often hear that simulators magnify any weaknesses you may have. But that’s a good thing. “Perfect practice makes perfect,” coached Vince Lombardi. Consciously observe how little input it takes to maintain an attitude. Whatever you do, don’t overcontrol; it just makes the situation uglier. Fancy yourself a brain surgeon, doing a delicate operation—not a dump-truck operator. Make precise, minute changes.

I knew one student who would always remind himself not to be a “Mr. Ninja Hands” before each takeoff. That’s the term he coined after seeing himself on video during one of our debrief sessions. Although you might be a logical, methodical thinker in the airplane, most pilots become rapid reactors in the sim, a phenomenon some call simitis. This impulsiveness is what typically causes the following excuse we sim instructors hear all too often: “I’ve never done that in the r-e-a-l airplane before!”

The moral: Have fast eyes but slow hands. Relax. Enjoy those malfunctions! Think of the sim like a virtual learning laboratory that gyrates—not a “gotcha” box. It’s simply a machine for helping to get all the mistakes out of your system before you hop into the real thing.

Thinking out loud is probably the number-one best thing you can do in the sim. Hearing and critical thinking come from opposite hemispheres of the brain. Thinking out loud is like the bridge that unites both sides. So, whether you’re briefing the approach plate, reading the checklist, or troubleshooting, always verbalize. It slows you down, makes you more methodical, increases situational awareness, and helps your instructor know what you’re thinking.

Speaking of thinking, a great decision-making mnemonic for thinking through stressful anomalies is SOCKS. It stands for: Situation (ensure you see what’s really going on, not misdiagnosing), Options (think of your options, no matter how crazy), Consequences (think of the good and bad associated with each option), Keep cool (smile! It will tell your brain and body to relax), and finally Select (choose the option that has the best consequence in that situation). Another good mnemonic for pre-takeoff is FAST (for Flaps, Avionics, Speed Brakes/Switches, and Trim), which can really help after getting instantly “repositioned” to the runway takeoff point, which can discombobulate any pilot.

The most common procedural errors? Forgetting to bring up flaps, altitude busts, and failure to brief and set up the approach early top the list. A mess of mess-ups can be avoided by simple mental targets and using the checklist. For example, let 1,000 feet cue you to call for (or do) the after-takeoff flows and checks. Let 500 feet on final cue you to double-check before-landing GUMPS items. I always tell pilots to verbalize altitude callouts, even if flying single pilot, to avoid altitude busts.

Remember that the autopilot is your friend. You’re not there to become “Top Gun” of simulated flight; you’re there to learn about systems and how to react to a plethora of emergencies. Using your autopilot (and/or co-pilot) will help you reduce your workload, freeing you up to focus on the problem(s) at hand.

Slowing down the airplane helps. One student new to an airplane always wanted to fly approaches at red line—right up to the final approach fix. As a result, he was always behind the airplane. But when he learned to pull the power back, his approaches all came together. Configuring early for the approach will also give you time to re-check that missed approach procedure, which you’ll assuredly fly. Don’t let a simulator’s “above-minimums” weather fool you.

If professional athletes record themselves to perfect their skills, shouldn’t we? Insist that your instructor use any available video recording and approach printout tools. Also ask to fly the sim into places you might fly your aircraft. This will add realism and make it much more fun for you and your instructor.

I’m always asked, “Can I log this as flight time?” Sim training time is not flight time [see FAR 61.1(b)(6) and 61.51(h)(1)]. You can, however, log sim time under the “Sim/FTD” and “Dual Received” columns in your logbook. However, the FARs do let you credit some simulator time in lieu of required flight time towards a rating/certificate—and for currency.

When your simulator training is complete, check all your completion documents. Some facilities will let you hand-carry your records while others will mail or fax them to you. Some may utilize an online program to verify and print your training records.

Now it’s time to fly! Though simulator training is invaluable, it doesn’t hurt to get a feel for the real airplane while under the wing of an experienced instructor or mentor pilot, which your insurance may require regardless.

From simulated preflight to post-flight, you’ll be able to maximize your training dollars during your next visit to any simulation facility. Just remember: Enjoy those emergencies!

J.D. Lewis taught as a simulator instructor for many years at FlightSafety International and is the co-author of Caravan: Cessna’s Swiss Army Knife with Wings.