Simulator training is the backbone of airline and biz jet training. Early Link trainers worked by allowing a student to learn how to navigate solely by reference to the instruments. Half the battle was not getting sick. The basic procedures of instrument flight could be trained, learned, and understood, but little about the Link was airplane-model specific.
These days, some simulators cost more than the airplanes they represent, and the degree of realism is uncanny. The Brasilia sim that I flew in 1996-97 was extremely realistic, but the visuals only showed night-time scenarios. Needless to say, my first several day landings were…interesting. But the sounds of the engines, the bounce of the tires on the lights, the incredible amount of leg effort to handle a V1 cut were all spot-on accurate. I’d come out of a day of V1 cuts with my legs just shaking.
The CRJ sim that I use now has both daylight and night capability (twilight is most realistic), and every part in the sim (save a few) could be put in the airplane–and vice versa. The visuals are much more realistic, including the depictions of other aircraft, the ramps and terminals, even fire trucks.
Like the Link trainers, the modern sim is primarily a procedures trainer. Unlike the Link, it is specific to the airplane, and it can be—and is—used to teach basic, everyday operations as well as a slew of emergencies. In airline or corporate flying, it is assumed that you can already fly IFR proficiently, so the normal procedure training concentrates on the specific way in which your company operates the aircraft, using company flows, checklists, protocols, et cetera. Further, each company will outfit the sim so that it looks like their own cockpits. While a CRJ is a CRJ and a 737 is a 737, there are some differences in avionics (or in avionic locations), displays (especially on screens, which can be programmed in a multitude of ways), and even in the style of seats. Realism counts, especially if the operator is seeking FAA approval to do initial type rides in the sim without ever making the student get in the airplane.
Sims are popular for three reasons. First, it is safer to learn in the sim than in the airplane. If you crash a sim, it’s no harm, no foul (and at some point, you will crash). Second, it’s cheaper than doing it in the airplane. You aren’t burning fuel or wasting time on the ground waiting for takeoff or vectors to final. You also aren’t putting wear and tear on the bird, and cycles are minimized. Finally, the sim is efficient. The instructor can immediately flight-freeze the sim and start a discussion. He can also back the sim up to any given point and start a maneuver again. No go-arounds are required. Weather possibilities are endless. You can practiced all manner of crosswind takeoffs and landings, and choose from among dozens of windshear models to fly, some of which are designed to make you crash. In an airplane, you simply cannot replicate malfunctions and emergencies safely. In the sim, you can throw whatever you want at the students, and if they work it correctly, great. If they make it worse, the instructor can smile sadistically as the crew tries to go from worse to bad before working on getting on up to good.
Sims and sim technology steadily improve as computing power improves, and the flying qualities are improved as more data is collected and added. As realistic as sims are, they do not fly “exactly” like an airplane, especially on landings. But they are awfully close, and they are tremendous tools for teaching and learning. If you have never been in a full motion sim, and the opportunity presents itself, jump on it!–Chip Wright