A First-Timer's Impressions of Sim Training at RTC
A Bonanza pilot's first exposure to simulator-based training at Recurrent Training Center.
It wasn't exactly what I had expected.
Let me explain. I am a 1,500 hour pilot with about half those hours in a V35A Bonanza I have owned for seven years. I fly about one hundred hours per year — a combination of VFR and (mostly) light IFR in our usually mild Central California climate. I have participated in the American Bonanza Society's Bonanza Pilot Proficiency Program on three occasions, that fine program consisting of a day of seminars followed by four hours of instruction in the airplane over the following two days. Other than that, it has been IPC's which I would occasionally skip because I had satisfied the currency requirements for hours in the soup and approaches. I had never done any sim training.
I expected sim training to allow me to refine my skills handling systems failures and emergencies in the clouds: gyro failures, electrical systems failures - things that could not safely or realistically be simulated in the airplane. I also expected the sim would behave like a Bonanza, even if the controls didn't feel like one and the switches weren't in the same place. Certainly, I thought, they must load a Bonanza floppy disk into the sim that models Bonanza flight characteristics in different power/speed/gear and flaps configurations. I would, I thought, come out of sim training being able to respond to emergencies like a robot — without even thinking.
My first reaction to RTC's AST 300 sim itself was disappointment. This thing doesn't behave like a Bonanza, the visuals are rudimentary, and it doesn't seem to reflect current computer technology. But after an hour or so of flying the sim, its unique flight characteristics had become more familiar to me, less distracting, and I was shooting approaches without much problem.
The sim is a lot harder to fly than the airplane. But that's not a bad thing. I quickly realized that the sim was going to improve my scan. Take your eyes off the AI for more than five seconds and you would find yourself in a turn. The Bonanza's stability had made me a bit lazy.
The real eye opener came during the LOFT part of the program on day two. While in a hold awaiting approach clearance, my pressure pump failed in a turn. The failure froze the gyro, and my attempts to level wings resulted with the airplane on its back before I figured out what had happened. Was the failure mode realistic? Who knows...but it was sure a lot more realistic than an instructor sticking a rubber disk over the gyros, and it increased my respect for the insidiousness of such a failure.
After getting the airplane squared away I called approach, declared an emergency, and asked for vectors to the nearest airport with an ILS. The sim went into freeze mode. "Chris, do you really want to fly vectors and an ILS with a whisky compass? How about asking for no gyro vectors and a no gyro approach to the nearest airport that has the capability." I had never though of that. In fact, I had never thought of a number of things the sim training exposed me to.
My expectation of becoming an emergency procedures robot were unrealistic. The sim training proved to be more of a thinking exercise than a doing exercise. The biggest lesson I learned: not to be a do-it-yourself pilot. I had been taught not to count on ATC for anything except separation. Don't count on vectors, information, or anything else from the controller: fly pilot-nav everywhere. In sim training at RTC, I learned that in an emergency a substantial amount of workload can be offloaded to the controller, and I learned how to ask for it. It's an emergency, after all.
Would I trade my American Bonanza Society training for sim training? No, who better than ABS to teach specific systems and pilot technique for that airplane? They do a good job. But I definitely plan to alternate ABS training with sim training. That should cover all the bases.