Simulators: help or hindrance?
"No simulators, fly the real thing!" Many aspiring pilots are confused at the various claims made for training in simulators versus flying in an actual airplane. Too many flight schools tend to tout the benefits of what they have on hand, rather than what's best for you. Simulators of any size can be of great assistance, particularly when instrument-flying skills are your career-long bread and butter.
If you're just starting your training under visual or instrument flight rules, simulated flight time can help you become familiar with the instrument panel layout and the location of various controls. However, most desktop sims don't move, and there's a lot more to flying than just being able to manipulate an electronic box. But the familiarity you gain is a bonus and can help you to keep up your proficiency and interest when live flight training isn't available or affordable.
I've had a PC-based flight simulator program in my computer for a number of years and find that it's a great aid to staying current on instruments. It's also a fun and easy way to practice various maneuvers and approaches, particularly nonstandard ones that you may rarely encounter in real flying. How often do you do 50-degree steep turns? How about accelerated stalls?
Although a good PC-based sim program can set you back at least $400, you may find it pays for itself after you ace your next instrument competency check (which can substitute at any time for the actual in-flight hours and approaches required to stay current on instruments). Very likely, you'll be able to eliminate some of the flight time you would normally need to stay current. After six months you will have paid for the sim by purchasing fewer hours in an aircraft to meet your currency requirements and you can continue to stay sharp on your IFR flying with a minimum of expense.
No one says that flying a sim is a substitute for the real thing, only that you'll keep your skills sharp longer and need less practice aloft if you've been flying a desktop computer. I've found that the sim is a great tool for teaching IFR flying because the freeze-frame feature and the ability to switch quickly from the instrument panel to the map display make explanations and such comparisons as "Here's where we are on the chart and what it looks like on the panel" a breeze. I use the cursor to draw a student's attention to the proper instrument or area and can teach more in an hour because I don't have to resort to hand drawings but can refer to real instrument presentations with adjustable settings.
Simulators definitely have a place in any training program. Good simulator skills are as important as maintaining a first class medical certificate. All of us can benefit from regular use of a simulator because it builds confidence and helps to maintain flying skills.
Capt. Karen Kahn is the author of Flight Guide for Success: Tips and Tactics for the Aspiring Airline Pilot and a career counselor. A Master CFI and 30-year airline pilot, she flies the Boeing 757/767 for a major U.S. carrier.