Flight simulators of various sorts have been around since the Wright brothers started their flight school. They were, and are, based on the premise that an airplane cockpit is a lousy classroom, so learning what you can about flying an airplane in a device on the ground will help you learn faster when in the airplane itself—reducing training costs.
In the last several years the ability of simulators to replicate aircraft handling, instrument panels, avionics and view out of the window (OTW) has improved almost logarithmically as costs have dropped. Visuals that were once only available in multimillion-dollar simulators are now available as turnkey, ready to operate desktop units at prices under $10,000. We think that the price of simulators that emulate specific types of airplanes with reasonable accuracy has dropped to the point that buying a home-based sim that is sophisticated enough to use to meet the FARs for recency of flight experience to stay current on your instrument rating is financially feasible.
During our survey we observed that virtual reality technology is moving into sophisticated flight simulation. While it’s still early times, that technology has the potential for further driving down the cost of simulators while ramping up realism.
While we focused our survey on turnkey units, we felt it appropriate to at least mention the DIY flight simulator X-Plane (www.x-plane.com) because of its capabilities. It has become one of the software platforms of choice for flight simulator developers as well for new aircraft design. The most recent software—X-Plane 11—for individual flight simulation use may be purchased for $59.99 and downloaded in about two hours. Using a $20 gaming joystick, the user can have a basic flight simulator up and running soon after the download is complete. X-Plane 11 can also be purchased on DVD or on the Steam platform.
From the basic installation a user can purchase a vast array of peripherals including sticks, yokes, rudders and monitors as well as buy or build cockpits to create what we consider to be astonishingly sophisticated simulators that do a good job of replicating a specific airplane—it just takes time, money and technical know-how.
While even the most involved simulator built by an X-Plane user cannot be used for credit toward recency of experience by an instrument-rated pilot, even the most basic laptop and joystick application of the software is so good that many instrument pilots and students use it to help hone their skills.
In our opinion, X-Plane is the most realistic of the various downloadable laptop flight simulators that are or have been on the market over the last few years. When you deflect the flaps in a Cessna 182 the simulated airplane pitches up, just like the real one. The visuals are excellent and various weather conditions can be simulated easily.
Developed by the simulator company that brought motion to the general aviation masses, the Redbird (www.simulators.redbirdflight.com) JAY is a metal-chassis desktop unit that uses a 27-inch LCD monitor to present an instrument panel and out of the window view. For $2595, the system includes the monitor, speakers, computer, keyboard with shortcut commands, flight controls (no rudders) and a one-year warranty (with a 30-day money-back guarantee). The metal yoke is designed with travel distances similar to Cessna and Piper singles. The throttle quadrant includes a throttle and mixture control and is similar to that used on the Piper fixed-pitch prop single-engine line. The panel to which the throttle quadrant and yoke are affixed includes a flap switch. The remainder of the switches and controls appear on the monitor and are activated via keyboard commands.
No versions of the Jay are certified by the FAA for credit for flight time.
An upgraded version of the JAY, called the JAY Velocity, is offered for $3995. With more robust internal components, heavy-duty flight controls and what Redbird refers to as “upgraded computing power for high reliability,” it is targeted at users in more demanding environments such as schools and museums.
The Jay is powered by Lockheed Prepar3D (“prepared”) software—an evolution of Microsoft’s FSX, so most plug-ins, aircraft and communities designed for FSX will work on a JAY. The system allows for free flight mode where the user selects the aircraft and conditions and scenario mode where the user can load a scenario and fly it. Scenarios vary from a simple flight involving a challenge to be met to a complex flight with multiple outcomes.
ELITE Simulation Solutions (www.flyelite.com) has been making IFR simulation software since 1987. It offers a number of desktop and full cockpit simulators that are suitable for training and recurrent training at home.
We considered two of its models as viable options for a sophisticated home simulator.
The PI-135 desktop, a BATD, retails for $8995. It has one monitor, an avionics tower including a Garmin GNS 430W emulator, an ELITE computer configured with the system’s software and iPad connectivity for various aviation apps.
Twelve different aircraft models can be simulated. We noted that the OTW visuals were among the most limited of the sims we surveyed.
We were more impressed with the TS-1000 BATD series. Starting at $9,195, they are desktop sims that emulate the Garmin G1000 panel on nine different piston-engine airplanes. Each has a touchscreen monitor for the panel and separate 43-inch monitor for the OTW visuals. The worldwide navigation database is updatable and includes departure and arrival procedures.
FlyThisSim (www.flythissim.com) was formed in 2006 with the intention of providing reasonably priced software simulations of Avidyne, Garmin and other avionics for inclusion into flight simulators targeted at general aviation pilots. Cofounder Carl Suttle came from the military flight simulator world and first focused on designing simulators for general aviation after buying a Cirrus and being concerned about the line’s early accident rate.
All FlyThisSim TouchTrainer models are BATDs. The VX model is used by the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) for its proficiency training programs. Each TouchTrainer model is designed so that it can be upgraded to any of the more capable products in the line. They are also designed to specifically duplicate individual aircraft so that users can replicate aircraft they own—something we consider of significant value.
All TouchTrainer models connect with Electronic Flight Bags (EFB) on iPads. They will feed real-time data, including weather, from ForeFlight.
At $5400, the TouchTrainer SD is an entry-level BATD that is reconfigurable and upgradeable. It has two touchscreens and aircraft-specific instrumentation for 45 different aircraft packages and a 45-degree-wide out of the window view that can be used for taxi, takeoff and landing. It has two 24-inch by 10-inch touchscreens. The autopilot allows the same button selection as on the replicated aircraft.
The next step up in the TouchTrainer line, the VX, is also a desktop BATD but includes a 100-degree-wide visual system. It consists of five screens—three 24-inch, high-definition monitors for visuals and two for instrumentation. According to personnel at FlyThisSim, a continuous horizon is created in the visual display by accounting for the thickness of the monitor bezels, so that they come across as window posts in the aircraft rather than blocking a substantial portion of the out of the window view. Priced at $8100, the VX can simulate more than 125 individual aircraft, avionics, autopilot and systems combinations.
FlyThisSim’s top of the line desktop BATD is the TouchTrainer VM. Priced at $12,500, the VM can host all of the more than 400 aircraft FlyThisSim simulates. It has two touchscreens devoted to aircraft-specific instrumentation and a 100-degree-wide by 70-degree-deep visual system on three 55-inch HD monitors, giving 32 square feet of visual display.
Started in 2010 by Xylon Saltzman, a flight instructor and charter pilot who was unhappy with the level of access to high-fidelity simulators in general aviation, one-G Simulation (www.flyone-g.com) makes a series of AATDs targeted at flight schools. They replicate four Cessna singles, the Beech Bonanza and Baron, Socata TBM 700, Pilatus PC-12 and soon, the Robinson R-44.
We were not going to include one-G simulators in a survey of ones likely to be purchased for personal use until we came across a feature that changed our perspective somewhat—the one-G Access program. One-G will place a Foundation simulator in a qualifying flight school on a pay per use basis. Aircraft owners who want an AATD-level simulator have worked with their local flight schools to get a Foundation simulator through the Access program. It allows the flight school to have a simulator on a pay per use basis rather than for the base price of $30,000, which benefits both the school and the person who wanted a simulator to start with—he or she becomes a paying customer of the flight school and has access to an AATD for an hourly rate rather than buying one outright.
The Foundation sim is designed to replicate the Cessna 172, 172RG, 182 and 182RG. It offers wireless connectivity to ForeFlight, WingX Pro and FlyQ apps and the 1G-650 GPS emulator (Garmin GTN 650) is standard equipment. Access to the one-G Portal is included with the Foundation simulator. With appropriate equipment installed, the Portal allows an instructor to work with the user remotely and meet the requirements of having an instructor present to credit the simulator time toward a rating or recent experience for an instrument-rated pilot.
Can I Log My Time In The Sim?
There is a fair amount of confusion regarding whether a pilot can log time in a simulator toward a rating and/or recent experience required of an instrument-rated pilot to file and fly IFR. Put simply, the most basic unit in which a pilot can receive credit toward a rating or instrument currency is an Aviation Training Device (ATD).
Practicing or training using a unit that is not capable of meeting the FAA standard of an ATD will help a pilot improve and/or maintain skills, but the time cannot be “logged,” that is, credited toward a rating or recent instrument experience.
There are two categories of ATDs 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.
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 have at least a limited OTW capability, something we think is important. As we researched this article, 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.
An AATD has to meet all of the BATD requirements and 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.
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. For the instrument rating, it’s 10 hours in a BATD and 20 hours in an AATD (FAR 61.65(i)).
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 providing: “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.
The downside? 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.
That’s a significant inconvenience for a pilot who has an airplane and an ATD unless he or she is lucky enough to be married to a CFII or have a CFII as a neighbor—although it appears that with appropriate equipment, the instructor can supervise the session from a remote site. Frankly, we think that the requirement for an instructor is stupid, arbitrary and contrary to any goal of enhancing safety of flight. After all, an instrument pilot with an IFR-clueless safety pilot who is a private pilot can log time under the hood in flight that counts toward recent instrument flight time.
The FAA lets that pilot choreograph his own recurrent training program when in an airplane—it makes no sense to us that the same pilot cannot do so in an ATD that allows her to reposition to shoot multiple approaches in a short time and simulate emergencies that it would be foolish to do in the airplane. We’re hoping the reg is changed.
Nevertheless, even if the regs remain as they are, we think a personal flight simulator of ATD capabilities makes sense economically and practically for a pilot who wants to maintain a high level of instrument competency.
Redbird Gift: Virtual Flight Instructor
About a year ago we were introduced to flight training using a simulator and artificial intelligence as a method of exposing a student pilot to a flight maneuver and then having her practice it with real-time coaching and immediate feedback from the simulator—just as if an instructor were there. It was developed by Redbird for flight school use and is referred to as Guided Independent Flight Training (GIFT). We think that has incredible potential for enhancing the quality of flight training toward ratings and recurrent training for instrument pilots—while cutting the cost.
Thus far GIFT is only set up for training toward the private pilot certificate and is usable only on a Redbird AATD; however, Redbird told us that it expects to release the instrument rating version this year. Because, in our opinion, the technology and training approach reflected in GIFT have so much potential for simulator-based training and recurrent training, especially when paired with the use of virtual reality, we think that it will trickle down to at-home simulator systems. We recommend that pilots who have any interest in the use of home simulators for training or recurrent training keep an eye on what happens with GIFT, and competing systems as they develop. Because of the quality of the feedback to the pilot for each maneuver, we think that should GIFT be developed for recurrent instrument training—notably that required to maintain currency for the purpose of filing and flying IFR—that it will help support a change to the regs that currently require that an instructor supervise simulator recurrent training and make a logbook entry.
Accordingly, we’ll go through a brief description of GIFT in its present form.
It is not a standalone training program. It was designed to be a supplement to any private pilot flight training program. It does so by being focused strictly on learning to fly the 33 maneuvers that must be mastered to become a private pilot.
After going through a number of the individual maneuver modules and their written and video introduction to the specific maneuver, flying the maneuver in the simulator while receiving real-time coaching from the software and then having a detailed score generated within a few seconds, we came away impressed.
For $249, a student purchases a license to use the Redbird GIFT software in any Redbird simulator in which GIFT is installed. The license has no expiration or termination date—once it’s purchased and operative, the student can use and review the text and video of the private pilot GIFT modules on an internet-connected device and practice flying the maneuvers in a Redbird sim.
GIFT modules exist to introduce students to the maneuvers in a distraction-free atmosphere. There is no holding short for takeoff with the Hobbs running—the student tells the simulator to start a particular module and whambo, the airplane is in flight, in position and configured to start the maneuver.
Flying most of the maneuvers takes less than five minutes and, once complete, the simulator pauses—and stops running up cost. The system generates an objective evaluation of the student’s performance on the maneuver. It appears graphically—charting, for example, indicated airspeed, altitude and heading—and textually, comparing the student’s performance to the ideal, and providing a percentage grade. 80 is passing, 90 is very good. Between 95 and 100 the scale becomes roughly exponential, making it extremely difficult to score 100—something Redbird learned from computer gaming as it has proven to be a powerful motivator. In one of our exercises, we kept the airspeed within 0.2 knots of what was called for and scored 99 percent, not 100.
The evaluation for each maneuver is kept on the student’s account on Redbird Landing, a non-sales site that stores the student’s GIFT module information. The student can share his scores with his instructor, to help tailor subsequent instruction in the maneuver in the airplane.
As we said above, we think the potential for this approach for training and recurrent training on home-based flight simulators is impressive. We’ll be watching.
We think that—whether simulator hours can be logged or not—an hour in an ATD-level simulator giving oneself an IFR workout is more valuable from a safety of flight standpoint than an hour in the airplane under the hood with a safety pilot. Also, at a minimum of $150 per hour to operate an IFR airplane, using a simulator as often as possible makes good financial sense as well.
While we were impressed by the sims we surveyed, we think the TouchTrainer SD—a BATD with the ability to replicate specific airplanes—provides the most bang for the buck.
For a non-ATD, turnkey sim, we like the Redbird JAY.