Desktop Proficiency

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

Although you can't use it to log training or currency, a PC procedures trainer might be the way to visit an unfamiliar airport or iron out an arrival procedure before you even open the hangar door. In a recent IFR Refresher, Brian Johnson explained how to use software that used to be "just a game" to save time and money, and increase safety during real flights.

I just finished a partial-panel approach, with one engine feathered and a load of ice, to 200 and 1/2, and I can't wait to try it again! No, I'm not crazy. I flew the approach on the PC-based flight simulator that I have set up in my home office.

(click images for larger version)

I think that the personal flight simulator is the single-most underutilized tool available to instrument-rated pilots. Once pilots have access to real airplanes, they often dismiss flight simulators as toys, used only by non-pilots for a glimpse of the world of flight.

That might have been true 25 years ago, but today's flight simulators offer very realistic flight models and unique advantages in instrument proficiency and training, for prices as low as $75. Does it make sense for the pilot who already is instrument-rated to buy a flight simulator?

Vacation Plans

Consider the following scenario:

You have a vacation scheduled next month. You are planning on flying your airplane to the coast for a week of sand and sun. The reservations have been made at a fantastic resort, and you have been working late every night to clear your schedule for the trip. The day of your departure arrives, and a stubborn low-pressure system has stalled over the coast. It's going to be hard IFR all the way. Come to think of it, you never have flown into this airport before, either. You haven't had much time for flying in weeks, and you are bound to be a little rusty.

Sound familiar? We all have experienced situations where periods of low-IFR weather, embedded thunderstorms, icing conditions, or busy schedules have prevented us from flying enough to stay sharp. By the time we get a weather briefing, file a flight plan, pick up our safety pilot, drive to the airport, and preflight the airplane, we only have time to shoot a couple of approaches before we have to get back. It's often difficult to stay current, let alone safe and proficient.

Virtual Approach

Approach Lights Seen at ILS Minimums
Approach Lights at Minimums

On the other hand, it takes just seven minutes to shoot a vectored ILS approach to touchdown on a flight simulator. Want to shoot the full approach? Make it an even 10 minutes. It's not necessary to take off and fly to the IAF. Instead, just position your airplane on a vector to intercept the final approach at the appropriate airspeed and altitude. Save all of the weather and configuration data to a file on your hard drive, and fly the approach whenever you choose.

It's just as easy for non-precision approaches. Set up and save a different scenario for each type of approach that you would like to practice: on- and off-airport VOR approaches, on- and off-airport NDB approaches, GPS approaches, ILS, localizer, and back-course approaches.

What about flying a DME arc to an ILS? When was the last time that you did that? Feeling especially sharp today? Increase the winds aloft, increase the turbulence, lower the ceiling and then reduce the visibility. Still not challenged enough? Fail the vacuum system or a few of the flight instruments. Randomly! All of these features are available on today's PC-based flight simulators.

Virtual Reality

I have saved the best for last. The approaches that we are talking about are the actual approaches that you fly in the IFR system. They are the same navaids, the same frequencies, and the same airports. You even use your own IFR charts to fly the procedures.

Let's take a look at some numbers. Even the busiest pilot can spare 20 minutes a few times a week to stay proficient. At 10 minutes per full approach, that works out to two full approaches per session. Just three simulator sessions per week would be six approaches per week, or more than 300 approaches per year. Try to match those numbers in a "real" airplane. Obviously, flying 300 instrument approaches per year is unnecessary, but the efficiency of the flight simulator is obvious from these numbers.

Efficiency is important, but flight simulators also are versatile. Instrument approaches are just the first step in IFR proficiency. Outside of checkrides and IPCs, instrument pilots are rarely required to fly holding patterns. As a result, it is easy to lose some of our proficiency. To address this problem, I have set up two holding scenarios on my flight simulator, one for an NDB and one for a VOR. I also have created a page of holding clearances with radials, cardinal directions and the direction of turns.

Each time that I start a holding scenario, I randomly select a different holding clearance. I have three minutes to tune and identify the NDB or VOR, determine the entry, enter and fly the hold.

PC Airwork

Vacuum System Failure in IMC
Vacuum System Failure

Let's push the envelope a little bit. Start with some steep turns in IMC. Most instrument-rated pilots don't bother practicing steep turns after their checkride. Try a few power-off and power-on stalls. Have you ever tried a spin in IMC? I hope not. But with a flight simulator, there is nothing holding you back. Next, set up a strong wind shear and descend through it on your simulator. Fly through icing conditions and experience the changes in your airspeed and descent rate.

How about a gradual failure of the vacuum system? You know the one that I'm talking about — when the attitude indicator very slowly begins to wind down and falls off to one side. It's very different from having your instructor cover up the failed instruments with his business card. This exercise will reinforce the importance of the instrument crosscheck.

All of this can be done in IMC conditions, safely and efficiently, on a flight simulator.

Explore The Unfamiliar

On a more practical level, let's return to the vacation scenario presented earlier. Even without having the time to get out to the airport, it still would be possible to spend a few evenings shooting the primary approaches at your destination and alternate airports prior to your trip.

Think how much more comfortable you are with the approaches at your home field. With a simulator, every field can feel like your home field. Before my first trip to a mountain airport, I even used my flight simulator to fly the ILS approach in visual conditions to get a better understanding of the surrounding terrain. The potential training exercises are limited only by your imagination.

Instrument Training

While a flight simulator is an important resource for an instrument-rated pilot, it is an invaluable tool for an instrument student. Based on my own experiences as a CFII and earlier as an instrument student, I have identified two primary applications for a flight simulator in instrument training.

The first is as a teaching tool, allowing the instructor to introduce new procedures efficiently and without the distractions of weather, traffic, and ATC communications. This teaching environment allows the student to stop the simulation to ask questions. With the possible exception of flying a Cessna 150 into a strong headwind, it's not possible to stop the airplane during training and discuss the finer points of a procedure. Flight simulators also have additional features that facilitate instruction. There often is a map page that allows the student to see the 'big picture." The airplane position can be displayed relative to navaids, intersections, and airports.

It also is possible to replay an entire procedure while having the track and instrument indications displayed simultaneously on the screen. It provides an instant source of feedback for the instructor and the student. Procedures even can be flown visually, to provide the student with a link between the instrument indications and the aircraft position and attitude. This is a good way for the student to relate the sensitivity of the CDI and GS needles to actual aircraft position on the approach. The instructor also can control the wind speed and direction, cloud ceiling, visibility, and turbulence, and even simulate system malfunctions. This allows the instructor to customize the training environment to the capabilities and experience level of the student.

After the student has mastered the procedure on the ground and has a complete understanding of the material, it's time to fly. Using the simulator to introduce new procedures will reduce training time and training costs for the student.

Flight schools typically charge for simulator time, but only at a fraction of the hourly rate of flying an actual airplane. The simulator is a better, more efficient, and less expensive method of introducing instrument procedures.

Student Practice

Exterior View of Airplane in Clouds

The second application for flight simulators in instrument training is individual student practice. Once a student has learned a new procedure, the simulator provides an opportunity to practice this procedure independently. Without the CFII looking over the shoulder of the student, the student often will relax and develop a higher level of proficiency and confidence on the simulator.

I would recommend no more than one practice session between flight lessons, however, to avoid developing and practicing bad habits. These practice sessions are very similar to the proficiency exercises discussed earlier for the instrument-rated pilot, and should closely follow the instrument syllabus. The CFII should be able to recommend specific procedures to practice between flight lessons.

With a tightly integrated syllabus, including ground instruction, simulator work, and flight instruction, the student will rapidly progress and soon be ready for the checkride. For most students, the checkride can be a nerve-wracking experience. The best remedy for nerves is preparation. Most flight schools tend to use one or two pilot examiners for their checkrides. They tend to live in the area and are known to be fair to the student applicants. As a result, the flight instructors have a pretty good idea of what the checkride will entail and where the approaches and holds will be flown. With a little research, the student applicant can prepare for the checkride on the simulator.

I went a step further than most in preparation for my instrument checkride. The morning of my checkride, I entered the forecast winds aloft into my simulator. I then flew the first leg of the cross country, the precision and non-precision approaches, and the hold on the simulator. I flew the entire session partial-panel, and made note of the wind-correction angles required for each approach. When it came time to fly, it was much easier than my morning simulator session. The DPE soon was typing up my certificate.

Other Uses

Map View of S-Turns
Map View of S-Turns

While discussing all possible uses of a flight simulator is beyond the scope of this article, I want to mention a few prospective VFR applications. For those of you working on your commercial certificate, the simulator is an interesting way to practice chandelles and lazy eights. The visual references obviously will be different, but it still will cut down on your training time for these challenging maneuvers.

The flight simulator (with rudder pedals) also is an effective tool to practice crosswind landings. Thinking about trading up to a bigger, faster, complex airplane? Try it out first on your flight simulator. Many simulators include a number of different airplane models and configurations.

Before I started my multi-engine commercial training, I flew a number of multi-engine hours on my flight simulator. I even was able to simulate engine failures, recovery from Vmc, and engine-out approaches.

Procedures Trainer

PC-based flight simulators are different than the flight simulators and flight training devices defined in FAR Part 61.1. With the exception of PCATDs (personal computer aviation training devices), you may not log instrument time toward an instrument rating on PC-based flight simulators. PCATDs are limited to 10 hours, and that time must be logged with an appropriately rated flight instructor.

Currently, PC-based flight simulators, including PCATDs, may not be used to meet recency of experience requirements. The requirements for PCATDs are outlined in AC 61-126. There are several well-known PC-based flight simulators: ELITE, On Top, Jeppesen, and Microsoft Flight Simulator (Professional). Various configurations are available from most vendors, ranging from the basic software and a joystick, to large-scale PCATD consoles.

To recreate a realistic IFR environment, I would recommend a minimum of rudder pedals, flight yoke with trim, throttle quadrant, and the required software. Many vendors offer demo versions of their software. Explore the capabilities of each package to determine the best solution for you, and then begin your journey toward a new level of instrument proficiency.