Personal Flight Simulators 101: Introduction

To start our new series on personal flight simulators, we go into the basics: what we consider to be a personal flight simulator, and what level of sim is required to be able to use the time operating it for credit toward a rating and keeping an instrument rating current.

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We’ll admit our bias up front: We like flight simulators. A lot. Being cheap, we came to like them originally because we could use them to keep our instrument skills up for a fraction of the cost of getting in an airplane and putting on the hood—whether we could log the time or not. As time went by and the quality improved, we liked that we could use them to reduce the cost of checking out in an airplane new to us, piston, turboprop or jet. And because we spend a lot of time looking at aircraft accident reports, we’re sadly aware of the number of fatal training accidents that occurred prior to the advent of decent simulators and the fact that training accidents still occur when simulating emergencies that turn into the real thing because the student does something terribly wrong or the airplane chooses that moment to break something important.

With that as background, we’re starting another one of our periodic series of reports on specific areas of interest to general aviation pilots—this one on flight simulators, with emphasis on those that are designed to be personally owned and used. We know this is a hugely complicated field, that there are a lot of people who are creating their own personal simulators or wildly customizing off-the-shelf equipment and software. We’re going to approach it from the standpoint of the general aviation pilot who wants to know what’s out there that is turnkey—it provides extensive value out of the box—and can be used for credit for both flight training toward a rating and proficiency afterward. We’re going to be taking the Chicago politics approach to personal flight simulators: “What’s in it for me?”

In this article we’re going to go into the background of the simulator world, terms used, the devices that we consider to be personal flight simulators and what they can do for us, particularly as instrument-rated pilots. After this article on the basics, we’ll move on to look at individual sellers of personal flight simulators and what they offer—and what they cost.

From the perspective of personal flight simulators—something that is reasonably affordable to have at home—we are going to concentrate on ones that can be used as credit for flying time toward ratings or recent experience required to file and fly IFR. That means the looking at what are technically known as Aviation Training Devices (ATDs). There are two categories of ATDs as defined by the FAA in Advisory Circular AC 61-136A: Basic (BATD) and Advanced (AATD). An ATD is approved by the FAA after a request from the original manufacturer and sold as a complete product. We’ll look at the features each category is required to have—which should make it clear that a BATD is perfectly satisfactory for a home simulator—and how you can use them to meet FAA requirements for a new rating and stay current with your instrument rating.

BATD

A BATD is what we think of as an entry-level, FAA-certified sim. It must have certain physical controls (not a computer keyboard, mouse and gaming joystick) and may have touchscreens. The physical controls must represent a class of aircraft with reasonable accuracy and effect in operation. The controls and the way the simulated aircraft flies do not have to accurately match any specific aircraft—although, with technology and software advances, many do a remarkably good job.

BATDs are not required to have an “Out the Window” (OTW) visual capability. However, all of the ones we are aware of and will be covering in this series have at least a limited OTW capability, something we think is important. In fact, as we researched this series, we found that 80 percent of how our bodies perceive motion is through vision. Accordingly, because the OTW capabilities of what we consider to be home flight simulators have skyrocketed in recent years, we are of the opinion that some of the BATDs on the market are excellent trainers for VFR operations, without the need for them to be on a motion base. Motion is expensive. High-quality visuals used to be, but the cost has dropped radically.

AC 61-136A, Appendix 2, sets out the ATD requirements in detail. In general, a BATD must have physical controls for the master switch, mags, alternator, fuel pumps, avionics master, pitot heat and exterior lights. It has to have physical controls that include a self-centering yoke/stick and rudders that allow continuous adjustment in pitch, bank and yaw with corresponding reaction in heading and roll; power controls (throttle, mixture, prop) with continuous movement and corresponding reaction in pitch and yaw; and controls for such things as flaps, trim, nav and com radios, clock, gear and altimeter. The display is required to have instruments and indicators that are located and replicate the aircraft represented. They must reflect dynamic behavior of an actual aircraft display—a VSI reading must be accompanied by an appropriate display of altitude change, for example.

There are instructional requirements for a BATD that allow the instructor to pause the system, and manipulate the system to set appropriate parameters for staring a session “in the air.” The system has to record horizontal and vertical track, allow the instructor to “disable” instruments and it must have a nav database that includes at least the local training area and uses data that is based on instrument procedures in Part 97.

AATD

Once the sim world steps into the level of the Advanced Aviation Training Device, we think it may have moved beyond that of what a pilot is going to buy for home use. Nevertheless, we’ll give a quick rundown of what makes an AATD an AATD. Not surprisingly, it starts by meeting all of the BATD requirements.

An AATD has to have what the FAA refers to as a realistic cockpit. This doesn’t mean a full enclosure for the pilot, but it does mean correctly sized and positioned controls and instruments and real switches, knobs and levers in correct arrangements and the correct distance from the pilot. The simulator has to be capable of performing all of the emergency procedures outlined by checklist in the aircraft’s POH.

There must be a digital avionics panel and a realistic GPS navigator with moving map to meet AATD requirements. At least a two-axis autopilot is required. Even the seat must be realistic for the kind of aircraft represented. An OTW display that is capable of representing the virtual environment through which the airplane is flying with realistic visual cues for day and night VFR as well as IFR conditions is required. Visibility and ceiling must be adjustable. We note that most AATDs (and many BATDs) have quite sophisticated weather and visibility controls for the instructor.

An AATD must have a separate instructor operating station (IOS) that is capable of at least overseeing tracks along airways, holds and instrument approaches; functioning as an air traffic controller; changing weather; and creating complete and partial failures of aircraft systems, nav and com equipment.

Logging Time

The downside of simulators is that it takes some care to determine whether and how you can log the time flying one toward a rating or for instrument currency.

Time flying an ATD, either BATD or AATD, is time flying an ATD—not an airplane. A pilot cannot log it as airplane-flying time or PIC time. However, it can be used as credit for a portion of the time required for the private and instrument ratings. Under Part 61, with an instructor present, a student working on a private rating may get credit for as many as 2.5 hours in either a BATD or AATD (FAR 61.109(k)). A pilot working on a commercial rating may credit a maximum of 50 hours toward the total aeronautical experience requirements in either a BATD or AATD (FAR 61.129(i)). For the instrument rating, it’s 10 hours in a BATD and 20 hours in an AATD (FAR 61.65(i)). If the pilot is going through an FAR Part 141- or 142-approved training program the numbers change—in general, more time in a BATD or AATD is allowed to be credited toward the requirements of the rating.

FAR 61.57(c) sets out the requirements for recent experience to file and fly IFR. Subsection (3) refers to the use of an ATD—what we consider to be a home simulator—and provides: “Within the 2 calendar months preceding the month of the flight, that person performed and logged at least the following tasks, iterations and time in an aviation training device and has performed the following—” and goes on to specify three hours of instrument experience; holding procedures and tasks; six instrument approaches; two unusual attitude recoveries (with conditions); and interception and tracking courses through the use of navigational electronic systems. FAR 61.51(g)(4) does require that for the BATD or AATD time to count for recent experience it has to be with an instructor and an appropriate logbook entry made.

Conclusion

We think the world of home simulators—at the BATD level—shines when it comes to allowing an instrument-rated pilot to stay current economically in realistic conditions. We like the amazing visuals of some of the current generation BATDs as well as their ability to replicate the real world at a level suitable for instrument training and recurrent training. We like the ability to practice the nasty stuff—emergencies—in a safe environment where there is no penalty for falling off the tightrope as you brush the rust off.

In the coming months we’ll be looking at what’s on the market with capabilities and costs. So far, we like what we’re seeing.

Rick Durden is a CFII, holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2.