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Don’t fly, simulate

Your best tool for more efficient training

Of all the ways to make flight training more efficient, good simulation training is perhaps the best. Time spent working with a simulator will almost always result in less time spent training in the airplane.
Photography by Chris Rose
Photography by Chris Rose

Ever since World War II-era pilots suffered through the Link trainer, trainees have shunned simulation. Flying is fun. The simulator isn’t. Yet for the all the questions instructors get about how to save money in training, and for how anxious students are to fly on their own, spending quality time with a simulator usually isn’t at the top of the list.

Part of that is the instructor’s fault. Numerous studies have shown the benefits of simulation. The Navy has estimated simulator training can chop nearly 40 percent off the airplane time for a trainee, and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University found that nearly every skill was mastered more quickly in the airplane if it was first learned in a simulator. That was true even in private pilot training. But studies on instructor perceptions of simulation often illuminate a low level of confidence. Not surprising, given that instructors also like to fly. Don’t let the instructor hold you back.

Especially during instrument training, everything from a desktop “game” simulator up to the most expensive motion device at a simulator center can help to improve learning. So get a copy of X-Plane or Microsoft Flight Simulator, order a throttle quadrant and yoke, and get started on these skills.


Simulators are especially useful for honing procedures. Many airline pilots use procedure-specific training devices between the classroom and the more expensive and resource-limited full-motion simulators. Some of these are old cockpits where the student can flip switches, while others are nothing more than fancy posters. The object is to develop and solidify procedures. In the airline world that’s checklists, flows, and crew resource management. In the GA world it’s the same. Cockpit management is a form of crew resource management, and checklists and flows are just as applicable in a Cessna 172 as they are in an Airbus. Put the simulator 10 miles from the final approach course intercept and work on your approach briefing, aircraft configuration, checklists, and cockpit management. Or start on the ground and work on the pre-takeoff briefing, departure procedures, and checklists. Safe instrument flying relies on specific, replicable procedures, and it’s more effective to learn them on the ground without the pressure of controlling the airplane.

Basic attitude flying

Assuming you can configure the simulator just like your training airplane, basic attitude instrument flying is a great way to use a home simulator or inexpensive model at the flight school. Although you can start this training even before you begin working with an instructor, it can be helpful to get a basic introduction to instrument cross-checking and aircraft control prior to perfecting it in the simulator.

No, the simulator won’t behave exactly like the airplane. That’s not the point. Instrument flying requires you to ignore what your body is feeling and focus entirely on what the instruments are telling you. Taking the time to learn how the instruments interact with each other, where to focus during each phase of flight, and how to effect change is the core of the instrument course. You can save many hours droning along in the airplane by learning these skills first in the simulator.

Every experienced instructor has an example of someone who has shown up for training and effectively knows how to control the airplane from the first day. It’s almost always because the student had spent dozens of hours with a home simulator before coming to the airport.


My low point in instrument training was about a third of the way through when trying to learn intercepting a radial to the station. I was a tired, frustrated, and headstrong 20-year-old, and my instructor and I were arguing about the technique in the airplane. The lesson was a complete failure, and I left wondering if I was cut out for instrument flying. The next day I fired up Microsoft Flight Simulator 98 and in less than an hour figured out intercepting and tracking to and from the VOR with nothing but the game and a keyboard and mouse.

Navigation is a knowledge-based procedure, not an advanced flying skill, which makes it a great simulator session. There is one important caveat. Most simulated GPS knobology is poor. Either there aren’t any buttons, or they don’t react the same way as the real unit. And constant software updates from manufacturers keep simulators nearly always behind.

The basic concepts of navigation, including intercepting and tracking a course, are worthy of your ground time, however. Even if you have to move the OBS with a mouse, it’s usually still beneficial to spend time learning navigation first in the simulator before trying it in the airplane.

Air traffic control

At first blush, learning to work with air traffic control would seem like a poor use of simulation. And if it were limited to the fake back-and-forth with the instructor, that would be true. But today there are a few excellent resources that can make radio communication a stress-free, simulation-based learning activity. If you’re savvy, and the simulator can handle it, PilotEdge is the best solution. This connected community of simulated flights includes real people simulating air traffic control. Best used after you know the basic phraseology, PilotEdge will give you a realistic environment with realistic instructions and other traffic.

To learn the proper phraseology, you can start by listening to live traffic on, and then progress to an app-based ATC simulator. Check the Apple or Google app stores for “atc communications” to find a few options. These apps demonstrate the proper phraseology, and then analyze your recorded simulated interactions. It’s a low-stress way to fully grasp the language of ATC without the pressure.

Simulation may not be as fun as the airplane, but doing well in training, progressing quickly, and getting your certificate or rating faster is.

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Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly is senior content producer for AOPA Media.

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