Simulator-Based Recurrent Training for Piston Singles and Twins
If you fly a multiengine aircraft or a high-performance single, you really owe it to yourself to take simulator-based recurrent training on a regular basis. It's expensive, but you'll probably recoup most of the cost through reduced aircraft insurance premiums and reduced wear and tear on the airplane. We went through sim training at three training vendors — FlightSafety, Simcom and RTC — and compare their sims, curricula, and prices.
My first exposure to "serious" simulator training took place in October of 1987, about six months after I'd purchased my T310R. My motivation was the usual one: insurance. Despite the fact that I had 180 hours in type, 4,000 hours total, and 23 years of accident-free flying behind me, I was having a heck of a time finding aircraft insurance at reasonable rates. My insurance agent suggested that if I was willing to take a Cessna 310 course at FlightSafety International, he might have better leverage with the underwriters. Although the tuition was quite expensive, I rationalized that most of the cost would be offset by reduced aircraft insurance premiums and reduced wear and tear on my airplane. I needed to renew my instrument currency anyway, and the opportunity to fly FlightSafety's full-motion full-vision twin-Cessna simulator sounded exciting. So I decided to do it.
I wrote a detailed chronicle of that experience (Training at FlightSafety) because it was a watershed event in my flying career. I'd considered myself a reasonably proficient pilot, but that initial experience in the simulator was truly humbling. I had no idea just how poorly my previous in-aircraft training had been in preparing me to handle real-life emergencies. By the time the three days were over, I became convinced that anyone who flies a multiengine aircraft without the benefit of regular simulator-based recurrent training is an accident waiting to happen. Since then, I've returned for regular sim training every six months.
What's wrong with in-aircraft training?
Until you've gone through serious simulator-based training, it's hard to appreciate just what a poor training platform your aircraft is. The sim allows you to be trained to deal with nearly any conceivable emergency situation. Perhaps a third of the malfunctions and emergencies we train for in the sim cannot be done in the aircraft, either because they're impossible to duplicate (e.g., overvoltage trip, induction system icing, propeller overspeed, left main gear won't extend) or are simply too dangerous to practice (e.g., engine failure immediately after takeoff, flying with a heavy load of airframe ice).
Other situations that we do try to practice in the aircraft can be accomplished only in very unrealistic ways. Shooting approaches under the hood is woefully inadequate preparation for doing the same thing in actual low-visibility conditions. The most difficult parts of doing this in a single-pilot cockpit — scanning between the gauges and the windshield and deciding whether or not adequate visual references are available to make the landing — are never practiced at all. The dismal G.A. accident rate during low-viz approaches, particularly at night, is a testament to the inadequacy of our training.
Another example: it's one thing for an instructor to slap a No-Peekie over the attitude indicator, and quite another for the horizon to gradually develop the "leans" and then subsequently start thrashing around to the point of distraction. A non-sim-trained pilot may have logged lots of partial panel instruction, yet be entirely unprepared to cope with an actual gyro failure that presents itself not with a bang but a whimper.
A good simulator allows you to train for these and many other real-world challenges in a highly realistic setting. It may seem odd, but in the ways that really count, simulator training is far less contrived and far more "real" than training in an aircraft.
A simulator also provides a far more efficient training environment than an aircraft. You and your instructor don't waste valuable time in taxiing out, waiting for an ATC release, or flying to the practice area or to an airport where the desired approach is available. In the same time it takes to fly an instrument approach in the aircraft and fly back to the FAF, you might do three, four or five approaches in the simulator. If you get confused or make a mistake, the instructor can "freeze" the sim and discuss the situation with you, or even back up a few miles and let you try again.
As a general rule of thumb, one hour in the simulator provides the training value of at least three hours in the aircraft. Sim training is such an intense experience that most curricula limit pilots to two hours of left-seat time per day. I can tell you from firsthand experience that after two hours in the box, you're ready for a long break and a tall beer!
Finally, in-aircraft training tends to be a lot tougher on your aircraft than normal operations. Stalls, slow flight, missed approaches and especially engine cuts can generate a lot of wear and tear on the equipment. If you want to stay proficient while at the same time treating your aircraft with TLC, you should seriously consider doing your recurrent training in a simulator...or in someone else's aircraft!
Where to get recurrent sim training
Although a number of flight schools throughout the United States use simulators in training pilots for certificates and ratings, there seem to be only three companies that specialize in sim-based recurrent training for pilots of piston-powered aircraft: FlightSafety International, Simcom Training Centers, and Recurrent Training Center.
Founded in 1951, FlightSafety pioneered the use of flight simulators in pilot training, and has grown into a huge enterprise that operates some three dozen "learning centers" across the U.S. and Europe. The vast majority of FSI's resources are devoted to training airline and corporate pilots for jet and turboprop aircraft — piston training represents a very small portion of their business.
FlightSafety operates a Raytheon/Beech Learning Center in Wichita, Kansas, at which simulator-based initial and recurrent training is available for the Beech Bonanza, Baron and Duke. The Cessna Learning Center (also in Wichita) offers sim training for the Cessna 210, 310, 340, 402, 404, 414 and 421. Cessna 300/400 training is also available at FSI's facility in Long Beach, California. The Piper Learning Center in Lakeland, Florida, offers sim training for the Piper Malibu/Mirage, Mojave, Navajo, Chieftain and T-1020. (FSI also operates a Mooney Learning Center in San Antonio, Texas, but no simulator training is available for Mooneys.)
As you might expect, FlightSafety's training is extremely professional, highly structured, and quite expensive. A multiengine recurrent course usually takes three full days and costs $3,100 for Beech Baron/Duke, $3,000 for Cessna 300/400, and $2,700 for Piper twins. Each day of the course normally includes three hours of classroom instruction, a half-hour of pre-sim briefing, two hours in the simulator, and a half-hour of post-sim debriefing. That may not sound like a lot, but I can assure you that it's a very intense training experience, about all a person can assimilate in one day.
FlightSafety's piston twin simulators are exceptionally good. Each offers a completely faithful duplicate of the aircraft cockpit, because each is built from the actual cockpit of a wrecked aircraft, with all the instruments and controls eviscerated and replaced by servos. The sims offer full motion and dynamic control loading, both accomplished via hydraulic actuators. Visual systems offer an extremely realistic nighttime-only display, using infinity-focus collimated optics, (but most lack any capability for side views or daytime visuals...see discussion below). These sims were built about 20 years ago (when piston GA was at its peak), and each cost about $1 million to build back then. We're lucky that FSI built these sims back then, because simulators of this caliber and cost could never be justified in today's business climate.
Single-engine offerings include a two-day Cessna 210 refresher course ($1,200), a three-day Beech Bonanza refresher ($2,500), and a three-day Piper Malibu/Mirage recurrent ($1,900). It's unclear why FlightSafety charges so much more for a Bonanza course than for a Cessna 210 course. The single-engine sims are less than 10 years old, and have electric control loading and no motion.
In addition to the type-specific courses, FlightSafety offers three "generic" instrument refresher courses that concentrate on instrument flying subjects (weather, chart reading, ATC procedures, etc.) instead of aircraft-specific systems knowledge. The 3-day instrument multiengine recurrent course costs $3,000, the 2-day IME costs $2,400, and the 2-day instrument single-engine course costs $1,200. For pilots who train regularly, alternating between the type-specific recurrent and the instrument recurrent courses provides a well-rounded program.
The prices quoted above are FlightSafety's 1998 "One Time" tuitions. There are also a number of alternative pricing plans for pilots who train regularly with FSI:
- "One Time Plus" is a reduced tuition for pilots who have taken the same course
within the previous 12 months, and is between 15% and 25% less than the One Time price
(depending on aircraft make).
- "Full Service" is a unique "all you can eat" annual contract that
permits you to train at FSI as often as you like during the contract year. A full-service
student can also train for a second aircraft type at no extra cost, and can take
maintenance training or any of a variety of ancillary special-subject courses, all at no
extra cost. The annual cost is about 60% higher than the One Time tuition, and the minimum
contract period is two years. For example, a full-service contract for Cessna 300/400
costs $4,700 per year.
- "Partner Pricing Program" provides reduced tuition for two pilots who train
together, taking the same FSI course at the same place and time. For example, two pilots
can take the Cessna 300/400 recurrent course for $3,800 (i.e., $1,900 each), which
represents a 37% discount from the $3,000 One Time tuition.
- "Volume Incentive Plan" enables a customer to purchase multiple prepaid "VIP Certificates" at a discount rate, each redeemable for one course tuition. The certificates may be used to train multiple pilots, or one pilot multiple times. For the Cessna 300/400 recurrent course, for example, you can purchase 3 VIP certificates for $2,000 each, 4 or 5 certificates for $1,900 each, or 6+ certificates for $1,800 each.
Until about ten years ago, FlightSafety was pretty much the only game in town for professional-caliber simulator-based recurrent training for piston-powered aircraft. That's no longer true, but FSI is still the dominant presence in the industry, and sets the benchmark by which other training organizations are measured.
Simcom was founded about a decade ago to provide a lower-cost alternative to FlightSafety for piston twin pilots. Unlike FlightSafety, Simcom's core business is piston and low-end turbine training for owner-flown aircraft. Originally, Simcom offered training only at one location — Orlando, Florida — but in 1996 they opened a second training facility at Scottsdale, Arizona.
After nearly ten years of training at FlightSafety, I decided to try SimCom for a change of pace, and have gone through two semiannual recurrent training cycles at SimCom's Scottsdale facility. SimCom offers simulator-based training for the Beech Baron and Duke, Cessna 300/400 twins, and Piper Aerostar, Mojave and Navajo. (They also offer turboprop training for the Beech King Air, Piper Cheyenne, and Pilatus PC-12.) I found that SimCom offers the same sort of professional-caliber sim training as FlightSafety, but with a few significant differences.
SimCom's prices are at least 25% lower than FlightSafety's. For example, Simcom charges about $2,200 for a three-day Cessna 300/400 recurrent course (compared with $3,000 at FSI), and $1,450 for a two-day generic multiengine instrument refresher course (compared with $2,400 at FSI). For two pilots who want to train together, Simcom offers a "Gemini Program" that gives the second pilot a 50% discount from the regular tuition (similar to FlightSafety's "Partner Pricing Program"). During the summer between June 1 and August 30 (which are SimCom's slow months), the second pilot gets a whopping 75% discount.
SimCom is a much smaller company than its behemoth competitor, and this seems to be reflected in a more informal corporate culture. Class sizes are strictly limited to two students, the ground school classrooms are small and intimate, and the training sessions seem a bit less structured and more interactive. At SimCom, you are typically assigned one instructor for the entire duration of your course, and that instructor handles both the classroom and simulator portions of the syllabus; at FlightSafety, it's common to get different instructors for ground school and simulator. The instructors at SimCom also tend to teach multiple airplanes — your twin Cessna instructor might well have taught a King Air class the day before — while FlightSafety instructors tend to be more specialized. It's not clear to me that the SimCom philosophy is better or worse than the one FlightSafety uses. It's just different.
Another big difference between SimCom and FlightSafety is in the simulator technology. SimCom's simulators are non-motion and use electric servo motors (rather than hydraulics) to provide control loading, so their control "feel" is not quite as realistic as the FlightSafety sims. I also found them to be a bit less faithful in simulating various aircraft systems failures. On the other hand, SimCom simulators offer a panoramic projection-type visual system that permits daytime visuals and allows circling maneuvers and other visual-reference maneuvers that are impossible to train for in the FlightSafety sims.
If FlightSafety is the Rolls Royce of piston sim training and Simcom is the Lexus, then Recurrent Training Center would have to be the Ford pickup or the Dodge minivan. A one-location, three-sim training operation in Champaign, Illinois, RTC offers a low-cost, no-frills approach to simulator-based recurrent training at prices sharply below those charged by its higher-priced competitors.
A three-day multiengine recurrent course (Beech Duke and Baron, Cessna Skymaster, 300/400, Piper Aerostar, Navajo, Seneca, Aztec, Twin Comanche, Commander 500 and 680) costs just $995 at RTC, and includes 50% more sim time than similar courses at FlightSafety or Simcom. An annual contract consisting of two semi-annual visits to RTC — a three-day recurrent course followed by a two-day refresher six months later — costs $1,585. For single-engine pilots (Beech Bonanza, Cessna 210, Mooney, Piper PA28 and PA32), RTC offers a two-day recurrent course for $785, or a two-visit annual contract for $1,335.
RTC keeps its prices so low by cutting costs every way it can. The Champaign training facility is housed in an off-airport storefront building that RTC shares with a travel agency, and is functional but hardly plush. RTC's sims are generic AST 300 twin-engine simulators that are not set up to duplicate any particular aircraft. The ground school component of RTC's courses is largely on videotape, allowing RTC to get by with a smaller instructor staff. And when you arrive at RTC for training, they don't give you a personalized laminated nametag or a 200-page looseleaf binder or a customized canvas tote bag. You just sit down unceremoniously and get to work.
Appearances aside, how does RTC's recurrent training compare with FlightSafety or Simcom? Well, it's different. Because RTC's sims are generic ones that don't attempt to faithfully reproduce the systems of your aircraft, the RTC curriculum doesn't spend much time on aircraft-specific systems failures the way that FlightSafety's and Simcom's do. Instead, RTC's training places its major emphasis on pilot decision-making and dealing with the ATC environment.
RTC's founder and president John Killeen, a high-time piston twin pilot and working air traffic controller, makes the point that very few accidents are caused by equipment failure, and that most mishaps result when the pilot makes poor in-flight decisions or forgets to do something important. Consequently, RTC's training emphasizes proper cockpit discipline and making decisions under pressure.
Every sim session at RTC is structured as an actual IFR cross-country flight. You start out by studying a printed weather briefing, reviewing the applicable approach and enroute charts, and then climbing into the sim and flying the trip. Naturally, the flight never goes as planned, and you are confronted with various challenges: unforecast weather, aircraft failures, navaid outages, runway changes, ATC delays, etc. Your sim instructor evaluates how you deal with these problems, and points out areas in which your decision-making and contingency planning and use of available resources might have been better. Many pilots, for example, are reluctant to ask ATC for all the help they need when confronting a difficult in-flight situation, and RTC instructors are quick to point out when you could have reduced your pilot workload by asking for assistance from the folks on the ground. This is the sort of training that the airlines call LOFT (Line-Oriented Flight Training), and is a significant departure from the sort of recurrent training offered by FlightSafety or Simcom. I found it extremely useful.
So did my friend Chris Wrather, a 1,500-hour pilot and Bonanza owner, who accompanied me to RTC for his first taste of sim-based training. Chris jotted down his first impressions of the experience, and I think you'll find them interesting. AVweb publisher Carl Marbach also wrote up his impressions after he went through recurrent training at RTC for his Aerostar 601l.
NOTE: In 1998, FlightSafety introduced a new "Operational Recurrent" course in its Cessna 300/400 program that offers a similar LOFT emphasis. I've not yet had the opportunity to take this course.
The sims: what's important...and what's not
FlightSafety offers full-motion sims, while Simcom and RTC do not. Many pilots seem to believe this is a big deal. For example, when FlightSafety first shipped one of its two Cessna 300/400 simulators to its Long Beach (Calif.) learning center, the sim didn't have a motion base. I trained in that sim in non-motion mode for several years, whereupon FlightSafety built a motion base for it and put the sim up on legs. I didn't find that the addition of motion added any significant training value to that simulator. Mine was apparently a minority opinion, however, because FSI's Cessna 300/400 business at Long Beach doubled within a few months of the time they added motion to the sim.
Although full-motion sims have a lot of sex appeal, I'm convinced that having motion is
not at all essential in terms of training value. It's a bit more difficult to fly a
non-motion sim (because you receive fewer cues), but one could argue that this results in
greater pilot proficiency rather than less.
The vision system is a different matter. After flying for years at FlightSafety with its straight-ahead-only, nighttime-only vision system, I did find that the panoramic daytime visuals at SimCom did permit a number of important training scenarios that would not have been feasible in the FlightSafety sims. In one instance, I had to deal with a total electrical failure just after a nighttime takeoff, and had to visually circle back to the airport in a totally blacked-out cockpit. In another particularly valuable scenario, the instructor simulated an in-flight fire necessitating an off-airport landing on a freeway. SimCom's training also included circling approaches under low-visibility conditions.
FlightSafety has apparently taken note of this. Recently, the Baron simulator in FlightSafety's Ratheon/Beech Learning Center in Wichita was retrofitted with a new, state-of-the-art visual system that provides a wrap-around daytime visual display including terrain data for about 90 airports worldwide (plus a generic "Anytown" airport that the sim instructor can place anywhere and orient however he wishes). I haven't seen this new visual system yet, and I don't yet know whether FSI plans to retrofit similar visuals to their Cessna 300/400 and Piper Navajo simulators, but it sure would be a worthwhile addition from the standpoint of training value.
Fidelity to your aircraft
How about the fidelity with which a sim reproduces the cockpit layout, control feel and systems of the aircraft you fly? On this scale, FlightSafety has a clear lead, with Simcom offering somewhat less fidelity, and RTC (with its generic sims) trailing at a very distant third. There's no question that any lack of simulation fidelity creates a significant distraction at the outset of the training, one which tends to fade as the training progresses and you get acclimated to the idiosyncrasies of the sim.
In the case of RTC's generic AST 300 sims, it's probably best to approach with a mind-set of learning to fly a new aircraft, rather than thinking of the sim as a Cessna or Piper or Beech and then getting distracted by its lack of fidelity to the actual aircraft. In any case, by the second or third hour of sim training, you'll find that you've pretty much tuned out the differences between the sim and the aircraft and are fully immersed in dealing with the "meat" of the training scenarios that confront you.
Incidentally, when I trained at RTC in April 1998, they were in the process of installing a new-generation "Phoenix" simulator from AST that promised to offer significantly better fidelity and visuals than the AST 300's. I flew the new sim briefly, but it wasn't quite "ready for prime time" so I did all of my serious training in the AST 300.
Is sim training worth the cost?
An annual cycle through FlightSafety, Simcom or RTC costs between $1,000 and $3,000 in tuition plus at least several hundred bucks more in travel, lodging and meal expenses. Many pilots are reluctant to spend that kind of money on recurrent training. But I'm absolutely convinced that it's well worth the cost.
Training flights are relatively abusive on your aircraft, especially if it's turbocharged. By eliminating 15 or 20 hours of training flights a year, it's easy to save several thousand dollars in operating and maintenance expenses, not to mention wear and tear.
Your insurance company will be ecstatic that you are doing this sort of training, and will almost always express its ecstasy through reduced aircraft insurance premiums. You can expect to save at least 10% or 15% on your annual premium...more if you're a low-time pilot. In more and more cases, your underwriter may not be willing to insure you at all unless you go through an approved recurrent training course on an annual basis.
What value do you place on your life and the lives of your passengers? Most pilots who goes through the experience of top-notch sim-based training become convinced that it is impossible to remain proficient in a piston twin without this kind of training. Accident statistics back this up: pilots who get regular sim training are far safer than those who don't. Unfortunately, it's the pilots who have never experienced such training (and unfortunately this includes the great majority of owner/pilots) who don't know what they've been missing.
Finally, training in a good simulator is a helluva lot of fun. I always look forward to my recurrent training cycles with great anticipation. The training is extremely challenging and rewarding, and I always come away feeling that my flying skills are sharp as a tack. When that feeling starts to fade, it's time to schedule another cycle.
Each of the three training facilities provide excellent training, and each offers various specific advantages over the others:
- FlightSafety's simulators offer unparalleled fidelity in reproducing
your aircraft's cockpit layout, control feel, and equipment failures of all sorts. They're
full-motion sims (if that turns you on). FlightSafety also offers the best
aircraft-specific systems training, in my judgement. Of course, the price for all this is
- Simcom's simulators are a bit less faithful than FlightSafety's, but
have panoramic daytime visual systems that offer unique advantages in training for
circling maneuvers and other emergencies in which visual references are decisive. Simcom's
systems training is very good, and the tuition is about 25% less than FSI's high-priced
- RTC's generic AST 300 sims have the lowest fidelity of the group, their aircraft-specific systems training is weak, and their ground school segments are largely on videotape. But RTC's recurrent courses offer more hours in the sim for a lot less money, and a LOFT curriculum that provides far greater emphasis on cockpit discipline and in-flight decision-making than the other two training vendors.
I trained at
FlightSafety for nearly ten years and — while their training is absolutely top-notch by
any measure — after a while I started to feel as if I'd reached the point of diminishing
returns. It was that "been there, done that" feeling. So for the sake of
variety, I trained at Simcom a couple of times, and most recently I went through the
training at RTC. In each case, I came away with something different and valuable. My
conclusion is that if cost and distance were no object, the best possible training
strategy might well be to rotate among the three firms in order to obtain the best that
each one has to offer.