Safety Publications/Articles

Silicon Fliers

Ground Trainers That Could Make 40 Hours A Possibility

Moore's Law says that computing power doubles every 18 months. I wish we had that kind of progression in airframes and engines. However, the latest generation of flight training devices, ground trainers, and personal computers gives a major boost to CFIs' ability to really prep students.

Simulators - those multimillion-dollar devices that emulate a particular aircraft - are only available at the very top end of the general aviation spectrum. They do a fabulous job of preparing pilots for normal and not-so-normal flight operations. Flight training devices (FTDs), like the ubiquitous Frascas, have been a staple of collegiate aviation and some other programs for decades. About five years ago, the personal computer-based aviation training device (PCATD) burst onto the training scene. Unlike its much bigger, more powerful predecessors, the PCATD was powered by moderately capable PCs, and with a relatively inexpensive add-on control package, it was approved for up to 10 hours of training credit toward the instrument rating.

Time and Moore's Law march forward, and I recently had the chance to "fly" Microsoft's latest version of Flight Simulator. This program is perennially one of the top-selling games, but it's become far more than a game in the last several iterations. The professional version of Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002 is nudging the PCATD in terms of capability with one notable exception (more on that in a moment). Like PCs have over the past 15 years, Flight Sim has evolved rapidly to become a very credible training tool for both VFR and IFR pilots. However, to take advantage of most of the high-end features, you're going to need a heavyweight PC. My four-year-old beater, once state of the art, was not up to the task of running Flight Sim 2000, let alone this latest version. I've since mended my ways and patriotically helped the economy in the process, but don't attempt to run this high-end program without a fast processor, several hundred megabytes of RAM, and plenty of space on the hard drive.

But wait, you say, I signed up to fly, not mess with a computer. For both students and instructors alike, at least consider what the PC-based machines can offer. Airplanes are known as the worst classroom - CFIs and students agree - but many of us teach in that environment because that's the way we were taught or because we really like airplanes. You might reflect on why every leading flight academy and most colleges use simulation first and aircraft later. It's because they need to efficiently train large numbers of students with a high degree of consistency at reasonable cost. Some might argue that with unlimited time and money, the all-aircraft method is better. That's debatable, but one thing is for sure. Most instructors, students, and flight schools are not blessed with those commodities.

Back in the early 1970s when Cessna and Jeppesen were building the Cessna Pilot Center (CPC) program, one of the most ambitious and well-executed attempts to standardize GA training, they found that the completion rate was only about 30 percent. Only three private pilots emerged out of 10 student starts. I don't believe that figure has improved significantly. To be sure, there are some aptitude and financial issues that surface when someone acts on the dream of becoming a pilot, but the dropout rate is a disgrace and due, at least in part, to the clumsiness of our pilot training system. The industry focuses on student starts, but the winning play is completions. Many people drop out because of frustrations over scheduling and the lack of progress.

For a successful flight lesson to occur, just from a scheduling perspective, four items have to be coordinated: the aircraft, the student, the CFI, and the weather. If any one does not cooperate, the schedule is blown, and we all know the importance of continuity in any learning situation. Don't you always tell your new students to schedule at least twice a week? Many large flight academies and the U.S. military train in the Sunbelt because the weather is better.

Training devices are highly efficient from a time perspective, which is the most valuable commodity. No preflight, no fueling, seldom a mechanical issue, and they provide the ability to get right to that part of the lesson that's of interest. Weather is irrelevant, and once the student understands how to perform a particular task but just needs to practice, we have eliminated 75 percent of the scheduling problem.

Computers can also have a positive effect on the anxiety level of a beginning student. We'll make the assumption that most pilot candidates today are not computer-phobic. At the AOPA Air Safety Foundation we usually don't embark on a first flight without spending about a half-hour on a training device to gently ease into the initiation process. When new pilots know how it is all going to look and sound, the apprehension factor is significantly reduced.

During the briefing, the instructor points out the general cockpit layout - primary flight instruments, engine instruments, radio, controls, etc. This is also the time to explain how to interpret those instruments. Next, we introduce the basic four flight concepts and the corresponding attitudes, both inside the cockpit and by reference to the horizon. In most computer programs there is the ability to freeze the action and discuss the flight instruments and the horizon picture, and then "step outside" the aircraft to view it from there. People learn in different ways, and the better a concept can be embedded using a diverse presentation, the more complete the learning process. Students won't remember all of it the first time, but the psychology of presenting it in a nonthreatening environment and the increased familiarity when we actually do go out to the aircraft is well worth the time.

The national average for flight hours required to complete the private pilot certificate has been steadily climbing and now hovers around 70 - not quite double the 40 hours required for a certificate obtained under Part 61. The basics of flight haven't changed, but radio procedures and the airspace are more complex. Now suppose that by using a training device you could help students grasp many of these concepts, in much less time and at less cost than hammering them out aloft in the aircraft. Would you try it?

PCATDs, as well as Microsoft Flight Simulator and other programs, allow CFIs to introduce some basic maneuvers by visual and instrument reference. The U.S. Navy and FlightSafety International, among others, are strong believers in the power of training devices to save time and improve comprehension in the aircraft. For several years now both organizations have used this equipment to streamline and enhance their curricula. Even NASA has used FTDs to maintain shuttle astronaut landing skills. Let's be clear: This is not a substitute for required in-the-aircraft training. It is a supplement to better prepare students to take full advantage of the flight time.

What skills could be taught in PCs to reduce extra aircraft time? How about basic-four maneuvers, power-pitch relationships, and introduction to stalls for starters? Radio communication procedures and the use of VOR equipment can be taught on most programs. In my early days, we wasted hours in the aircraft learning and perfecting the use of VOR. With PC-based programs, one can learn most of this before burning the first gallon of avgas.

The approved PCATDs have aircraft-like controls and radio stacks. This more closely emulates the real thing and in some cases allows faster manipulation than using the computer mouse to tune radios or rotate an OBS. However, one minor question does remain about some transfer of learning, since Flight Sim is usually flown with right hand on the joystick and left hand on the throttle slider. This is not how most yoke-equipped aircraft are configured for the left-seat occupant. Also, Flight Sim is not normally configured with rudder controls, and few new students are good with their feet. Later this year ASF will observe some new students who use Flight Simulator in preparation for flight lessons. Will they have any real problems transferring to the aircraft and will this approach save flight time to complete the private pilot curriculum? We'll report as details become available.

If any students or CFIs have had positive or negative primary training experiences with any personal computer-based simulation programs, we'd like to hear your story. Write the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, Simulation Experiences, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701, or e-mail [email protected] .

Bruce Landsberg is the executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.

By Bruce Landsberg

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