In a perfect world, every model of airplane would have a simulator that is both practical and economical. It wouldn't be a personal computer with plastic rudder pedals and sputtering noises or a multimillion-dollar hydraulic-legged spider that fills an entire room. This simulator could nix the cost of hydraulics and put it toward an actual cockpit mockup with real radios and working instruments. It wouldn't be affordable to an individual owner, but at dozens of training centers scattered throughout the country, thousands of trainees could drop a few hundred dollars each for what would amount to be the most eye-opening experience they can have in a light "airplane."
Although that perfect world may look far off on the horizon, SimCom Training Centers has taken a bold step in that direction. It has built its business on the philosophy that sim training can be valuable without the expense of building and maintaining full-motion simulators. Instead, SimCom's devices display the flight conditions on a large wraparound screen in front of the nose section and cockpit of an actual airplane.
As with any company that balances its success on the health of the general aviation industry, SimCom was taking somewhat of a gamble. Would pilots pay a few thousand dollars to take simulator training for a light twin? The company recently opened its second training center in the posh setting of Scottsdale, Arizona, to keep up with demand. So the answer seems to be "Yes." Insurance companies have bought in, too, offering their blessings to SimCom training.
SimCom's simulators do not meet the requirements to be called "simulators" because they do not have motion capabilities. Instead, they are officially termed flight training devices (FTDs). Under the newly created Part 142 of the FARs, an FTD must have approval by the FAA for all uses that may lead to credit for aeronautical experience, required training, testing, and checking. The FAA is a major proponent in the use of FTDs and says it hopes to encourage the growth of flight simulation. For the purposes of this article, though, we'll refer to SimCom's FTDs as simulators.
SimCom-Scottsdale opened last December in response to customer suggestions that the company's Orlando, Florida, site was too far away for pilots based closer to the West Coast. The Scottsdale facility currently has ground and simulator training for twin Cessna models 303 to 421 and the Beech King Air series. A Beech Baron simulator will probably be put in place by the end of this year. SimCom has a more extensive selection of simulators in its Orlando stable.
The 300- and 400-series Cessna courses are all taught by using the 421 simulator. The sim's behavior can be modified to replicate the traits of the other twin Cessnas. In the cockpit, certain gauges can be swapped to make the pilot's view a little more familiar. The cockpits of the 340 and 400 series are sufficiently similar to allow conversions from model to model by simply swapping the engine gauges and guarding certain switches. Pilots of 303s and 310s may have to adjust a little more to the 400's panel layout. In the case of the 414A, for example, the manifold pressure, tachometer, and fuel-flow gauges were swapped to represent the 414's 310- horsepower Continental TSIO-520s instead of the 421's geared 520s. Weight and center-of-gravity changes were also modified via computer to emulate the 414.
SimCom prides itself on providing individualized training. Since there are no more than two people in any course, SimCom can discuss your airplane or the one that you fly. RAM Aircraft Corporation in Waco, Texas, is the largest provider of mods to the 300- and 400-series Cessnas and has established a close relationship with SimCom. If, for example, your airplane has RAM's winglet and vortex generator kit (and the accompanying maximum gross weight increase), SimCom has the weights and reference airspeeds for airplanes with those or any other combination of RAM mods. This allows you to work out weight, balance, and performance calculations for the specific airplane you fly.
I was enrolled in the five-day Cessna 414A-Initial course. A typical day begins with a classroom session in which the aircraft's systems are dissected, analyzed, and discussed. Video and other visual aids complement the classroom section and greatly enhance the understanding of systems. During the discussion of the systems, the lessons inevitably turn to what will happen if a particular engine component or system should fail. Your classroom instructor is also your sim instructor; so if there's something you don't understand in the classroom, you can be sure that your instructor will point out that fact in the sim.
Now for the fun part. Two simulator sessions per day take an hour or longer. One hour may not seem like much time to those who must shoot approaches in the real airplane. However, the simulator allows multiple approaches and emergencies to occur in a short amount of time. What's more is that emergencies, especially the engine failures, will not take any toll on your airplane or, potentially, your rear — a major concern of most pilots seeking type-specific training. Of course, none of the failures in the sim will result in any physical harm, but your ego can certainly take a pounding.
For those taking the Initial courses, a brief failure-free daytime VFR flight will acclimate the student to the airplane and the simulator. On the runway, the simulator's ground steering is overly sensitive, making the ground roll a workout in and of itself. Once you are airborne on your first flight, the overwhelming visual cues from the 180-degree wraparound screen trick the mind into thinking that you are flying. For example, during steep turns and circling approaches, you'll "feel" the Gs that would normally be apparent in the real aircraft. That feeling, however, will soon fizzle because the majority of sim time is spent in the clouds at night, where your eyes can't trick your mind.
After the introductory flight, the weather is brought down to typical simulator weather — minimums. The instructor induced an ever-so-gradual failure of the attitude indicator. In the real airplane, an instrument cover or sticky note must be placed over the instrument to simulate its uselessness (unless you have rigged a way to clamp a vacuum hose). Vacuum instrument failures, however, rarely occur in such an easily recognized fashion as a Post-It note. More likely, there will be a subtle disagreement with other instruments that gets progressively worse. And only a simulator (for all practical purposes) can give you the effect of a real failure. If you have no means to cover up the faulty instrument, you'll find just how hard it is to ignore the misinformation.
Subsequent sim sessions will inevitably drill engine failures in all phases of flight and in the worst-case scenarios such as high density altitude, max gross weight, and center of gravity at the aft limit. This is where the cost of simulator training is justified, considering the inherent danger in practicing these maneuvers in the real airplane — not to mention the damage to your wallet that can occur from repeated abrupt engine cuts.
There is no doubt that when you sign up for SimCom training in a light twin, much of the time will be spent exploring the airplane's engine-out characteristics. Unlike full-motion simulators, there is no sudden yaw feeling in your rear when the failure occurs. You'll see needles sweeping and you'll hear sounds changing, but you won't "feel" anything out of the ordinary. But multiengine training told you not to rely solely on the seat of your pants in an engine failure, right? Instead, you look at all of the clues before stabbing what might be the wrong pedal. Despite lacking the full- motion "feel," SimCom's simulator presents a disturbing enough picture to achieve the "something's definitely wrong here" feeling — a feeling that inspires immediate attention.
Like the real airplane, the 414 simulator is no stellar performer on one engine, especially when the density altitude is dialed up. The instructor fed in a healthy dose of engine failures just after liftoff; even after I hurriedly identified and feathered the failed engine's propeller, the airplane settled back to the ground gear-up (albeit in a controlled attitude while holding the best single-engine rate of climb). Given the same drill at 150 feet agl with the gear stowed, the airplane initially lost about 50 feet of altitude and slowly transitioned to a 100-foot-per-minute climb, which was actually better than the book figures for the given scenario. The point of this drill was to teach a lesson to those who like to retract the gear immediately after a positive rate of climb is established — regardless of the amount of pavement left in front of the airplane.
Further into the Initial course your instructor will test your mental mettle against multiple failures in the worst of conditions. Don't be surprised if the instructor snowballs you with an engine failure in heavy icing conditions. You'll quickly realize that with all of the 414's deice equipment running, the lone operating alternator will soon be overloaded and fail. Now you're faced with an engine failure and an electrical failure. It is beginning to look like one of those horror stories you've read about in the "Never Again" column. The truth is, these scenarios can and do happen in real life. After sim training, however, the procedures for handling the emergencies won't be a mystery.
After finishing the five-day course, you can wring out your frustrations with a loop, a roll, a carrier landing, and a dead-stick landing from 5,000 feet — all the things you dreamed about but never want to try in the real airplane. After the course, I received a C-414A Pilot Proficiency Card and a fresh ICC.
In addition to the many educational and safety benefits of simulator training, insurance savings is another big advantage. Some insurance companies will not insure a pilot in a piston twin unless he or she has received some form of type-specific simulator training. One underwriter said that you can expect a 5- to 10-percent decrease in insurance premiums after receiving type-specific sim training.
But what about the price? SimCom's 414 Initial checks in at $3,600 for a five- day stint. Meanwhile FlightSafety International's five-day initial tour in the same airplane is $4,575. It's the $1,000 question. Is full-motion simulation worth $1,000? Some people think that full-motion simulators are an absolute necessity to truly simulate emergency situations. Others feel that whether the sim is bolted to the floor or not, the lessons will be learned. If you can't make the decision, try both — it will certainly make you a better pilot.
For more information, contact SimCom Training Centers, Scottsdale Municipal Airpark, 7860 East McCain Drive, Suite One, Scottsdale, Arizona 85260; telephone 800/293-3035.