by J. Ross Russo
Like most professional pilots, Ive been in and around simulator training, both in the military and in the airlines. But not in general aviation, until I became a student again when I upgraded to a Piper Navajo and was once again required to undergo training.
Actually, I didnt have to undertake the training, but the math was compelling. The difference in the cost of insurance without the training was more than the cost of the training and the airfare and the hotel costs and the meals. Even I can grasp that math.
As the new owner of a cabin-class, turbocharged twin, I was still reeling from the hourly fuel costs, which are more than double what I was used to in the Twin Comanche I used to fly. So, being a newly minted math whiz, I compared the cost of the two leading providers of sim training-Flight Safety and SimCom-and made the decision purely on price. I went with SimCom.
Three years later, when I was due for recurrency and the checkbook had rebounded from buying the Navajo, I opted for Flight Safety training. What follows is a detailed consumer report on my experiences at each facility.
At the outset, there were two things I liked about SimCom: First of all, they seemed flexible and were willing to tailor the program to my needs and background. Second, they were cheaper. Theres a third reason, too: While I was playing at SimCom in Orlando, my wife and our girls could be playing at Disney World. It seemed like a good fit all around. As they say in the movies, time passes.
Its now a few years later, and, after going through the SimCom program for three years, I decided to try the higher-priced spread. So, this past January I trained with Flight Safety in Lakeland, Florida. The girls were off at college, so Disney wasnt a consideration. Also, my Navajo was having its annual done at Florida Aero Services in Lakeland, a top-flight Navajo shop thats more than worth the cost of the flight from my home in Connecticut. Thats the history. Heres the story.
My initial impressions held true. SimCom is less expensive and more flexible. My instructor was an airline captain and he had a good understanding of my background and previous experience, which includes military fighter time, GA aircraft ownership and airline flying. I opted to pay a bit more to shorten the initial course from its usual five days to three. It was a full schedule, but, as I said, SimCom was flexible.
About a month before my training began, I received a three-ring binder from SimCom. It was their manual for the Navajo. My airplane is a bit of a strange duck in that it started life as a 325 C/R, which means it has the short fuselage of the regular Navajo, not of the longer Chieftain.Its engines, at 325 HP, are larger than the 310 HP of the standard Navajo.Also, the C/R has counter-rotating props, the Chieftain doesnt. My airplane also has a Panther conversion, which added the larger 350-HP engines of the Chieftain, as well as a two-foot increase in wingspan and four-blade, Q-tip props.
So, the dilemma was whether to send the manual for the C/R or for the Chieftain. The systems were C/R, but the performance was Chieftain. They sent the Chieftain manual. I asked them to send both, but they said theyd give me the other one the following year, which they did. (You get a new manual every year.)
The manual was a disappointment, in my estimation. All the pictures were black and white and the entire thing had the feel of being made on the office copier.
To top it off, some of the drawings were inaccurate. This can be big-time confusing to someone whos new to the aircraft. When I arrived at the SimCom facility I pointed out the errors Id found. Three years later, they were still there.
The classroom presentations were good. Theres nothing fancy-a computer screen in front of the student to illustrate the systems. These were nicely done, but, once away from the classroom, I was still left with the black and white diagrams of the manual. This isnt optimum when illustrating a complex system that includes hydraulics or electrics.
The simulator view was good, especially the daytime display. Id been through simulator training before, both in the Air Force and for the airlines, and I knew that it was particularly challenging to get a good display of daylight conditions. The SimCom sim did a very good job of this.There are even a couple of trees on final, detail youd never be able to see in a night display.
The simulator dynamics were a bit jerky, in my view, something thats distracting because it requires some mental bandwidth to deal with. Instead of making smooth control inputs, I quickly learned that the best way to tame the beast was to make small, staccato inputs. Not the way youd really fly, but you have to adapt. The avionics were up-to-date and included a Garmin 430 as well as a KFC-200 autopilot. This was especially nice for me, since I have a 430 and 530 in my airplane, as well as the KFC-200 autopilot. The better the sim matches the airplane youre really flying, the better the training.
While this shouldnt enter into your choice of training facilities, SimCom gives you a cool t-shirt with your particular airplane on it.
Again, I was right. Flight Safety was less flexible and more expensive.However, their training was outstanding. Granted, they have the advantage of having a world-class Navajo and Cheyenne maintenance facility right next door-if they have a systems question, they ask Fred Whare, the chief mechanic at Florida Aero Services-and they are literally next door at Lakeland.
There was a small snafu at the beginning of the program as I was filling out my paperwork. Id signed up for the accelerated two-day program instead of the usual three-day agenda. However, this fact had somehow dropped through the cracks. No problem. The office staff made the necessary corrections and even though I was told it would be a challenge, off we went.
I had two instructors at Flight Safety, one for classroom stuff and one for the simulator. I like this format for no matter how much one instructor knows, another will know something he or she doesnt. The system is well-structured and the sim guy always knew exactly what Id covered in class, so the events in the box were always relevant and served to reinforce my classroom studies.
Flight Safety has a manual, too. But they told me that since I was going through their initial training program, I wouldnt get one. Oops. That was one of the biggies for me. Id seen other Flight Safety manuals, complete with color-coded diagrams and shiny paper and I wanted one of my own. After a minute or two discussing the situation with Flight Safetys marketing guy, he agreed to make an exception.
The manual was exceptional: great illustrations, good information and spot-on accurate. However, there was a problem in some of the fuel tank capacity information in the reference material theyd sent prior to my arrival. I pointed this out to my instructor. The next morning he told me that theyd made a mistake, and that the information had been corrected. Refreshing.
The classroom work was truly interesting. My instructor had a wide knowledge of the aircraft and it seemed to come from the training Flight Safety gave him prior to signing him off to teach for them. My sim instructor was equally impressive. Yes, the program at Flight Safety was more structured and inflexible-not something I usually like-but you cant argue with the results.
Id been flying the airplane for three years and they pointed out some profoundly valuable techniques. Also, Id ponied up the big bucks to attend the Advanced Pilot Seminars in Ada, Oklahoma, so I knew a few things about how to operate big Lycomings. Everything they told me was spot-on consistent with what Id learned at APS. In addition, their Power Point presentations and video clips were easy to understand and made the learning process as painless as could be expected.
The Flight Safety Simulator isnt quite as fancy as SimComs. It has only a night display. However, the fidelity of the controls seems more realistic.Avionics-wise, Flight Safety was just installing a Garmin 530. Although it wasnt quite 100 percent, it was good enough to shoot an approach. The autopilot was the KFC-200, so, again, the sim gave realistic training for my airplanes equipment.
Another appealing aspect of Fight Safety is the variety of programs they offer. They have a program tailored especially for the pilot who enjoys the mechanical aspects of ownership, which is the course Ill be taking next time. They also a program thats more like an in-depth review of all things aviation-sort of like a flight review on steroids. If youd like to train multiple times during the year, or if you train on more than one type of aircraft, theyve got special deals to cover that, too.
If youre experienced in your airplane and filling in the insurance squares is your primary driver and you want to do that as quickly and as painlessly as possible, SimCom is the better choice, in my view. Besides being cheaper than Flight Safety, theyre more flexible in terms of program length and dates.
If youre looking for more from your simulator experience and if you can handle more expense and regimentation, Flight Safety is the right fit. Is it worth the additional cost? In my view, yes, it is. The structured approach gives value beyond the basic cost Delta over SimCom. Ill be going back to FSI next year.
Maybe theyll even be giving out complimentary t-shirts by then.
-J. Ross Russo is an airline pilot and Navajo owner. He lives in Connecticut.