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Readers On FTDs

A Good Training Tool, But Watch That Panel Fixation

Any poor, struggling student pilot would jump at the chance to reduce the amount of time and cost of basic flight instruction. As well, any instrument-rated pilot seeking to maintain currency would be pleased to find a way to reduce the cost of training. During the past five years or so, numerous personal computer-based aviation training devices have come on the scene that may reduce the cost of training for pilots and make it easier to train and maintain currency.

In his article "Silicon Fliers" (April AOPA Flight Training), Bruce Landsberg discusses the different types of training devices and the pros and cons of various systems. There are consumer-oriented simulator programs such as those developed by Microsoft, FAA-certified personal computer-based aviation training devices (PCATDs) that have add-on cockpit controls, flight training devices like the Frascas, and the very sophisticated flight simulators that the airlines use. He points out that computer-based ground trainers offer a solution to some common flight training problems. For example, planning flights around weather and scheduling CFIs and airplanes are no longer issues. These devices also offer the opportunity to discuss concepts on the ground rather than trying to introduce them in a congested training area. Landsberg asked for feedback from readers about their experiences with the use of these devices, and here's what some said:

One reader reported he used Microsoft Flight Simulator for 10 years before his first flight lesson. When he began his training he "knew every instrument and radio in the actual airplane and understood intercepting and tracking VORs and NDBs." While working on his instrument rating, he said, he experienced an actual directional gyro failure. He said "the same event in the simulator was very much like what happened in the airplane." Even after earning his instrument rating, the reader continues to use the simulator "to keep my skills sharp, especially in the area of coping with instrument failures."

While flying overseas, one reader remained familiar with U.S. airspace by using Jeppesen's FS100/FS200 flight simulators. He said, "I would practice actual approaches to numerous U.S. airports, keeping my procedural skills sharp." Upon returning to the United States, he prepared for an airline interview by purchasing Microsoft's Flight Simulator 2002 Professional Edition and practicing in Atlanta, where the interview took place. "I was able to fly the King Air 350 on the simulator, to practice for the interview in a King Air 200 simulator." He said that being able to prepare for the interview on the simulator earned him a job with the airline.

Some readers expressed opposition to ground trainers when it came to basic stick-and-rudder flying. One CFI described a student who had logged 300 hours of Microsoft Flight Simulator time and yet couldn't come close to landing an actual airplane. "The technique he used to land a virtual airplane was different than that required for a successful landing in an actual airplane," he said. "This resulted in additional training to unlearn the bad habits acquired from the simulator."

Another complaint expressed by readers was that simulators promoted instrument fixation. Instructors said that placing primary students in ground trainers before having a few hours in the air leads to a tendency to fixate on the instruments. One CFII noted that "student pilots who had simulators at home required more training to teach them to fly by outside references and to look outside for conflicting traffic." One suggested "students fly approximately 15 hours in an aircraft before they are allowed to transition to a ground trainer."

The consensus from the readers was that simulators are particularly good at teaching instrument procedures, but they lack the ability to train students to perform basic maneuvers that require a "feel" for the aircraft. Everyone agreed that computer-based ground trainers offer instructors one more tool in their quest to train better pilots.

For more information on PCATDs, check out the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's PCATD Safety Advisor, available online ( www.aopa.org/asf/publications/sa10.html ). Other information on ground trainers can be found on the FAA's Web site ( www.faa.gov/nsp ).

Marc Birckbichler is a commercial pilot with instrument and multiengine ratings. He is currently an intern with the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.

By Marc Birckbichler

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