By Jim Pitman
Whether you’re thinking of investing in a new flight simulator or already have one, the management team at McAir Aviation has some tips that can help.
McAir Aviation is located at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (BJC) in Denver, Colorado. Co-owners Gary Hulme and John Wiltfang and Chief Flight Instructor Pat Blankemeier have more than 18 years of experience using various types of flight training devices, and it’s clear that they know a lot about what works and what doesn’t.
For the purposes of this article, flight simulator, simulator, and sim are used interchangeably as generic terms, usually referring to a flight training device (FTD) or advanced aviation training device (AATD).
In recent years, several companies have achieved significant technological advances with flight simulators. The purpose of this article is to highlight training techniques and marketing philosophies that can be incorporated with any simulator. McAir Aviation operates a Redbird MCX-AATD, which includes full-motion, dual controls, force feedback, preprogrammed scenarios, record/playback, and many other innovative features.
Effectively utilizing a quality flight simulator yields many benefits. From the flight school’s perspective, simulators can be a good profit center. Modern sims are effective trainers, cost less than aircraft, and don’t require liability insurance. Simulators help keep students progressing through their training, especially when the weather is bad or aircraft schedules have limited availability. An advanced sim can be easily configured to represent several different airplanes. “We often change our Redbird between the G1000 172, six-pack 172, and the Piper Seminole. It’s great to have so much flexibility with one sim,” Blankemeier said.
Overall cost savings is one of the most significant benefits for flight students. “We’ve found that using the sim cuts about five hours off the private pilot training and we utilize it extensively in the instrument training,” Blankemeier said. McAir Aviation’s sim is 42 percent the hourly rate of a 172. Factor in the time saved by not having to do a preflight, runup, or travel to/from the practice area, and it adds up to significant savings for students.
The sim is also an effective place to tackle difficult concepts and new procedures. “It’s great to have the ability to pause the sim and talk about what’s happening, but I prefer to prepare each student by telling them we are going to run everything just like a real flight and not pause unless absolutely necessary,” Blankemeier said. “We use headsets and do everything we can to keep the session as realistic as possible. Also, students are sometimes apprehensive about doing something in the airplane. Performing maneuvers in the sim first is a great way to help them overcome their fears,” he said.
Practicing systems failures in the sim can add an extra level of realism. Blankemeier said, “It’s pretty obvious what’s happening when the instructor covers up the attitude and heading indicators in the airplane, but it’s completely different (and more realistic) to perform a vacuum pump failure in the simulator. This is especially important in the later stages of training when pilots need to know how to recognize and accurately identify systems failures.”
Some students and instructors fly a VFR cross-country flight in the sim before they try it in the airplane. “It’s great for them to run through everything in the sim before going out in the real plane,” Blankemeier said. “For more advanced students, the sim is a great place to introduce slowly deteriorating weather on a VFR cross-country lesson. It’s interesting to see how far they will go before diverting.” Of course, there is a wide range of quality and realism of the displays with various flight training devices. Much of what we’re discussing here requires an advanced sim that can realistically perform the maneuvers. “We also effectively practice soft- and short-field takeoffs and landings in our sim. It’s one thing to pretend a runway is short when practicing in the airplane, but it’s really something to see that short runway with trees on the other end on short final. The amazing graphics and full motion of the Redbird MCX make it quite realistic. Our students sometimes even practice short-field landings on an aircraft carrier,” Blankemeier said.
The sim also provides a great opportunity to experience big airports such as SFO, LAX, and JFK while reviewing basic concepts like VOR navigation with experienced pilots. “With GPS being so prevalent these days, we’ve found that some pilots have gone years without actually tracking outbound (FROM) a VOR radial. Everything they do is TO/TO GPS navigation. We like to practice these types of ‘basics’ while operating to and from airports that GA pilots don’t usually get to see,” Blankemeier said.
McAir Aviation also effectively utilizes the simulator in marketing efforts. “We give our prospective students a few minutes at the controls during their initial tour of our facility. It’s a great no-cost way to give them some stick time and help encourage their dream of learning to fly,” Hulme said.
When asked about challenges related to the simulator, Hulme said, “Getting new instructors on board can be a challenge as they are eager to get into the air with their students. Once instructors see how much sim training benefits their students, they change their tune. Some of our instructors have been very creative with the scenarios they have developed for the sim. When the other instructors see that, they get excited too.” McAir Aviation also follows a set training syllabus that dictates which lessons are to be conducted in the sim. This gets new instructors on track right away and quickly helps them see the benefits.
Another challenge is the misconceptions related to the hours that can be logged in a flight training device. It’s true that the FAA limits the hours that can be counted in the sim, but most flight schools are not completing students at FAA minimums anyway. Why not do those “extra hours” in the sim? Hulme explained, “We actually do a significant amount of private pilot training in the sim. Only a few hours can officially be counted, but down the road those hours can be used toward other certificates. For example, under Part 61, 50 of the 250 hours of required flight time can be performed in a qualified flight simulator, and everything from the student’s first lesson counts.”
If your sim is more than a few years old, it might be time to invest in an upgrade. If you do not yet have a sim, I hope this article has helped you see the value a sim can bring to your operation.
Jim Pitman has been a flight instructor since 1997. He has been a Part 141 chief flight instructor, Cessna Pilot Center regional manager, and Arizona Flight Instructor of the Year. He flies the Canadair Regional Jet for a U.S. carrier while operating his own flight training business. Connect with Jim at his website.