Flight training devices can save pilots time and money, if they are just willing to give them a try.
I’ve been teaching people how to fly airplanes for 30 years now, and at this point people tell me I’m pretty good at it. One thing I learned early was that the cockpit environment is a horrible classroom. It’s noisy, full of distractions, occasionally unpredictable and, if the airplane is not tied down with the engine shut off, it is constantly moving through space-time.
This is a challenge to the senses of your typical flight student in the first few lessons of any flight training program. Frankly, any sane human being is scared of it, at first, though few would admit to it.
And while we’re confessing, here’s another little talked-of industry secret: flight instruction is a life-and-death struggle for your typical certificated flight instructor (CFI), who has to keep the airplane from killing anyone, all the while avoiding violating any number of hundreds of FAA regulations. We do this as we simultaneously teach a planned lesson and transfer knowledge to the aforementioned overwhelmed student. Try it sometime. It is harder than it looks.
Ground flight simulation evolved from these realizations. On the ground, in a flight training device, CFIs can better control how any flight lesson is going to play out. Why? Because they hold most of the cards; no sudden ATC amendments to lesson plans, no unexpected flashing alternator-out lights, no tilted, giving up the ghost gyros mid-lesson (unless he chooses that) and no unanticipated airspace restrictions or weather anomalies. Total control. Ah….every teacher I know, no matter of what discipline or age group, will tell you that really does feel good.
The original Link Trainer was created in 1929 out of the need for a safe way to teach new pilots how to fly by sole reference to instruments on the aircraft panel. Ed Link used his knowledge of pumps, valves and bellows (honed building organs in his day-job) to create a flight simulator that responded to the pilot’s controls and gave an accurate reading on the instrument panel. These simulators were little blue plywood boxes with real gyro instruments inside and the reason they moved is because they had to so that those gyros in the instruments would work as they did during true flight. Our national hero, Jimmy Doolittle, was a pioneer of the basic instrument scanning techniques we still use today, and he was one of the first of thousands of pilots to use a Link Trainer, too.
“Please don’t put me in that box,” many a trainee begged. It was a tight fit for the big guys. Dark. Hot. Smelly if the pilot before you perspired heavily or tended toward motion sickness. Claustrophobia isn’t necessarily innate—for a lot of us it was an “earned” malady. No wonder few civilian pilots wanted to use them.
Today we don’t need motion or small, dark boxes to simulate flight. Even companies such as Frasca and Redbird Simulations, which make motion simulators, would agree (they make fixed flight training devices, too). The modern computer programs teaching flight by reference to aircraft panel instruments range from hokey and video game-like, but pictorially effective, to extremely sophisticated flight training devices that are accurate in control feel. And they are affordable, as long as you are not looking for a device on which you can officially log time (those start at $3,000 USD and range up).
Even with the cost of a flight instructor factored in, practice with a basic flight training device can save flight students and wizened old-timers alike time and money. And best of all, flight simulation lessons aren’t dependent on outside weather conditions!
I swear by the efficiency of teaching basic flight by instrument skills and airport instrument approach procedures in flight training devices. That said, I would not tell a pilot to use a flight training device for learning or proficiency without flight instructor supervision. Why? Because bad habits are easy to form and hard to shake. A flight instructor can quietly analyze your instrument scan, flow use and checklist use, and provide you with tips and short-cuts that will make managing the cockpit environment during flight both more efficient and safer.