Step-Up Sim Training: Tailor It For You

The best aircraft upgrade training is simulator based. A good training facility should be willing to customize the training to fit your particular needs.

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A combination of more than a decade of economic growth, a soft aviation insurance market (although that appears to be changing) and relatively low selling prices for used piston twins, turboprops and light jets has resulted in a healthy number of piston single owners giving serious thought to stepping up to more capable—and demanding—airplanes.

Any owner with the financial wherewithal to step into the world of aircraft with engines that go “whoosh” is smart enough to immediately talk the idea over with his or her insurance broker. In addition to getting a ballpark estimate for the cost to insure a used King Air, Citation Mustang or new HondaJet, one of the first things the prospective owner will hear from the broker is that any insurer is going to require upgrade training at a facility approved by the insurer.

Insurance Requirements

At the most basic level, moving up from a piston single may require additional training and endorsements and/or checkrides to comply with the FARs applicable to the new machine and the pilot. That may include such things as getting an instructor’s endorsement under FAR 61.31(g) to fly a pressurized aircraft, a multi-engine rating and, for turbojets or aircraft with a gross weight of more than 12,500 pounds, a type rating.

All of the FAA-required training may be obtained from a properly rated CFI followed by—in the case of a new rating—a checkride with a DPE.

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The reality is that just complying with the FARs will not be enough for your insurance company—it will require that you go through training at a program it approves, and most of those are simulator-based, something we applaud. Plan on spending a bare minimum of $4000 for piston-twin upgrade training. The price goes up from there based on the type of aircraft involved and the amount of training you require to reach proficiency—which may include a mentor pilot flying with you for some hours following the formal training course. Once you get into the world of jet type ratings training cost can be north of $30,000.

There are in-the-airplane-only training operations still in existence, but they have become rare. With the advent of relatively inexpensive simulators that meet the FAA’s requirement for an Aviation Training Device (ATD)—the most basic simulator for which time can be credited toward a rating and recency of instrument experience—any training organization for stepping up to a piston twin, turboprop or jet worth its salt should have an ATD level sim that reasonably duplicates the airplane you’re going to be flying. We think anything less than that is a deal breaker.

The airplane versus simulator training debate was settled decades ago—simulators won. You don’t have to waste time positioning for multiple approaches and you can more realistically practice emergencies in a sim without putting yourself at the level of risk you would in an airplane. After all, sim development was pushed by the airlines because their professional pilots were killing themselves during in-airplane training.

In-Airplane Training

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Nevertheless, we recognize that in-airplane training is valuable. There are a few things that a simulator doesn’t do as well as an airplane. For one, duplicating the effects on the pilots of a pressurization failure. As multi-type-rated pilot Michel Litalien told us, “You can do pressurization failures in a simulator all day long, but until you pressurize the airplane, take it to 14,000 feet, dump the pressurization and feel the effects, you don’t have a gut-level understanding of what depressurization in the flight levels would really involve.”

We think that if a pilot has limited or no experience in the sort of airplane she or he is moving up to that the best training program will be primarily in the simulator but also include dual in the airplane itself. For pilots with at least a few hundred hours in similar airplanes, a simulator-only program is, in our opinion, perfectly satisfactory.

User feedback

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We received input from a number of pilots regarding their experience with upgrade training. We were particularly interested in comments from two piston twin owners because we are of the opinion that one of the toughest upgrades is to a piston twin due to the complexity of older and often user-unfriendly systems combined with purely awful performance on one engine.

Dr. Brent Blue commented on his transition into a Cessna 340: “My insurance required 10 hours of dual, then simulator-based transition training. I thought I was pretty competent after the dual until I got into the sim. What an eye-opener! You just cannot practice engine outs in the aircraft as you can in the sim. Same for single-engine IMC approaches.

“I had my first real engine out in Denver, night and IMC, just after takeoff about six months after my upgrade training. I went around and landed. The only thing that seemed different than the sim was all the firetrucks lined up and down the runway!”

T310R owner Mike Busch said, “Sim training is absolutely essential for anyone who flies a piston twin and doesn’t have a death wish. I managed to kill myself quite a few times during sim training and then when I had an actual engine failure four years ago in the airplane, it was pretty much a non-event (except for my wallet, of course).”

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Busch went on to point out something that we hadn’t considered: “The ground school portion helps with maintenance costs. Knowing how the systems work and how to troubleshoot them helps isolate problems for the A&P.”

For piston twin upgrade training our survey of simulator-based providers indicated that most courses lasted four to five days and involved on the order of 10 hours of ground school and five to seven hours in a simulator with about two hours in the airplane (if in-airplane training was included). The facilities we spoke with said that they “train to proficiency” so the cost, simulator time and course time is subject to revision upward based on the ability of the pilot to meet the course standards.

Our experience and comments from aircraft owners and training facilities were consistent: If a pilot does not show up multi-engine and instrument current and comfortable and willing to single-mindedly work on the course, he or she will have difficulty completing the course in the basic time allotted. (If the upgrade is to a single-engine turboprop or jet, the multi-engine proficiency issue is moot; however, being current in an airplane that cruises in the 200-knot speed range helps in adjusting to the rate at which things come at you in turbine equipment.)

Motion

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We did not find any piston twin training centers that used motion-based simulators. While we agree with a 2012 study published in the International Journal of Aviation Psychology that concluded that there was “no evidence that simulator motion improves flight performance in real aircraft,” some users did not.

We heard from piston twin owners who had trained in FlightSafety International’s motion-based simulators before FSI stopped doing piston twin training and who told us that they have been unable to find any training provider that now gives piston twin training at the level FSI did. The FSI rep we spoke with said that the company has gone to all Level D simulators (the highest currently available) and it was no longer financially feasible for them to provide piston twin training.

Interestingly, we found that upgrade courses for single- and multi-engine turboprops (not requiring a type rating) were not much longer than those for piston twins. SimComis the big dog in the simulator-based flight training world. Eric Hinson, CEO of SimCom, told us that initial training courses for turboprops usually run five to six days, and make use of Level A to D sims as well as nonmotion Flight Training Devices (FTD)—depending on the type of aircraft—and may include training in the customer’s airplane.

Hinson emphasized the importance of using simulators that were as close to replicating a customer’s aircraft as possible. We think that is important during upgrade training so that the pilot can take advantage of primacy in learning and more readily transfer what is learned in the simulator to the airplane to be flown.

Instructor Quality

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Hinson openly discussed what is too often a dirty little secret in upgrade training—while the syllabus may be standardized, much of the quality of the training is dependent on the quality and experience of the instructor. He said that finding and retaining quality instructors is important to ensuring that pilots who come for initial training will return to SimCom when it’s time for recurrent training.

The quality of individual instructors was a constant refrain in our conversations with users as they related good and bad training experiences. Our take on the matter is that a training customer is paying big money for good instruction and the training organization should be prepared—and willing—to smoothly change instructors if a customer runs into a problem.

Type Ratings

The upgrade world changes a bit when a type rating is required, largely because most training courses increase in sophistication and take at least two weeks.

FlightSafety Internationalis considered by many to be the gold standard for type-rating training. While thought of as primarily catering to the professional pilot world, it aggressively markets to owner pilots, especially for smaller jets such as the Cessna CJ series and the HondaJet.

The usual curriculum involves 14 days of classroom and simulator time and is designed to take a commercial, instrument, multi-engine pilot with no jet time through a type rating. Nevertheless, it is not a one size fits all affair. FSI has long tailored its training to fit the student—and provides mentor pilots to support owners after they complete training.

We toured FSI’s HondaJet training facility, one we think reflects its overall approach to training. Training begins in a classroom where the student is introduced to “operation day flow,” which means they start using desktop simulators that mimic the jet’s avionics suite. The idea is to move into flight scenarios early.

The students next move into a graphical flight simulator with full-scale displays, touchscreens and, importantly, dynamic graphic system schematic displays at the top. The system displays show what is going on as the pilot works through normal, abnormal and emergency operations of the various systems. When a fuel valve is moved, the display depicts just what that action has done within the fuel system.

Finally, the student steps into the full-motion, Level D simulator. As a side note, we’ve found Level D sims are able to remarkably, realistically duplicate flight operations and are possessed of superb displays. It’s no wonder that those who pay more than $25,000 for Level D sim type-rating training consider the money to be well spent.

Recommendations

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We strongly recommend upgrade training at a facility that has a sim that can replicate your airplane, and its avionics, as closely as possible. We think it will save you money in the process of getting comfortable in your airplane.

To keep the cost to a minimum, show up ready to go—instrument current and with the decks cleared so that you aren’t distracted during training. For the three- to six-day upgrade courses for piston twins and turboprops, have read the POH and training materials at least once. Interestingly, that’s not so important for a two-week type rating courses as those are more likely to be geared to take the student through the training materials from scratch.

Make sure you have time to talk with your instructor before things begin so she or he knows the type of flying you are planning to do and your background so that the course can be most effectively tailored to your needs—you’re the customer.

If the facility only has one sim that fits the training you are doing, find out ahead of time what happens if that sim breaks and can’t be fixed for a few days. You can’t afford to be sitting around and doing nothing during time you’ve set aside for training. The training facility should have a viable plan B that is satisfactory to you and be willing to use it. We got some unpleasant stories from users on the broken sim issue.

As you get near the end of sim training, ask the instructor for her or his “scenario.” Every instructor who knows his or her airplane well has one. The pet scenario almost invariably involves flying the airplane at the edge of its abilities and will help you get to know the capabilities of the airplane.

Flying around the Statue of Liberty and then landing on the 700-foot-long Manhattan Heliport in a jet may sound silly to talk about, but when you do it and discover that you are getting to know the airplane well enough that you can pull it off, you’ll have made great strides to becoming one with your new flying machine.