With good local flight schools getting scarcer by the day, the state of advanced training-especially advanced instrument training-is in utter disarray. Despite anemic economics, the industry is designing and building sophisticated airplanes with ever more capable avionics. Yet training, the kind you get at the local airport, hasnt kept pace. If youre unable to do anything but direct nav with your Garmin 430, the kid behind the counter at the flying school-if there is a flying school-might not be able to help.
Thats not to say that high-level, recurrent training cant be had. But you have to go looking for it, which is what we recently did on a series of flying trips through the midwest and northeast. All of the facilities we visited provide competent if very different training regimes and all are more than capable of scrubbing the rust off a pilot who hasnt flown on the gauges in a while or honing a sharper edge on those who fly regularly but need a review.
Whats missing? What were not seeing yet is a concentrated effort to build training programs that integrate the new primary flight display (PFD) technology that is rapidly becoming standard equipment in new airplanes. (Cirrus, for instance, sells only PFD-equipped aircraft and Diamonds output will likely be heavily if not exclusively PFD equipped in a year or two.) Its true that there are only a handful of airplanes flying with PFDs and Garmin is still in the midst of certification of its impressive G1000. But having flown all of these systems, we believe the training requirement will be higher than the buyers and manufacturers imagine and we wonder if theyll provide accessible, effective training.
Meanwhile, just staying IFR current and keeping ahead of sophisticated boxes such as the Garmin 430/530 or the Garmin AT CNX80 is challenge enough. The three training facilities we visited-Recurrent Training Center, Flight Level Aviation, Inc. and SimCom-all offer programs that are affordable and accessible for owners of light aircraft. Each company comes at the training problem from a different perspective in terms of cost and program design. Unfortunately, they also share one common shortcoming: theyre not necessarily convenient. If you cant carve out two or three days to travel to Champaign, Illinois or Orlando, the simulators and instructors may just as well be on Mars. We think its worth the effort to set aside specific training time but not everyone can do that.
Recurrent Training Center
Since the advent of jet airliners, motion-based simulators have been the training method of choice but this technology was slow to find its way to light aircraft GA. Tabletop simulators were the better-than-nothing alternative but that began to change during the 1980s when enclosed fixed-base simulators became available. On the leading edge of that development was Recurrent Training Center, a modest company started by John Killeen, an air traffic controller and flight instructor. RTC is headquartered dead in the U.S. heartland, in a storefront building hard by Willard Airport in Champaign, Illinois. Thus located, its easy to get to by GA from anywhere in the U.S., save the far west. On the other hand, Champaign in January wont have the diversions of Orlando, so a training expedition to RTC isnt necessarily a family trip.
Anyone whos been to FlightSafety will recognize that RTC has a similar set-up, its just not as fancy and not nearly as expensive. In its storefront building, RTC has a number of small classrooms for conducting ground work and pre-simulator briefing sessions and an ever growing selection of simulators from light singles to cabin-class twins. (It has the only Cessna 340-specific simulator that were aware of, for instance.) All of the simulators are non-motion type but all have visuals impressive enough to provoke air sickness for those with active imaginations.
From day one, RTCs holy grail has been affordability, which is another way of saying this place isnt fancy. Both the training and the facility are no-nonsense and much-but not all-of the training is clearly tailored to those of us who slog around in the clouds without benefit of a professional co-pilot. Randy Gawenda, RTCs general manager, had us fly a couple of the simulators and he reviewed the program offerings in the midst of a busy early winter training day. What we most liked about RTCs program is its variety and price tiering, covering aircraft from an Archer or a Skyhawk up to type-specific initial training for a King Air BE90s through the BE200.
Gawenda reviewed two programs that we found especially practical. For $885, RTC has a two-day single-engine currency program that includes eight hours of classroom work and seven to eight hours in the simulator. Although the sim is a generic, it can be configured to mimic 11 aircraft, including the Cessna 100 series, Pipers PA-28, the Bonanza series and Mooneys. This program is designed for pilots who are currently flying instruments but who also want or need comprehensive review of procedures and sharpening of the scan.
For those who have drifted out of currency, RTC offers a four-day IFR recurrency program for $1345, which can be tailored for single-engine or multi-engine aircraft. It includes 12 hours in the simulator and 12 in the classroom and judging by the syllabus, its thorough enough to bring a fossil back from the dead. Eight to 12 hours in the simulator may not sound like much but we think for training purposes, its an eternity and more than enough to bring a motivated pilot up to speed. (And dont underestimate the need for motivation; its the most critical ingredient for a successful outcome, in our view.)
When we first visited SimCom in 1993, it was housed in a non-descript office park in Orlando, had a handful of non-motion-based simulators and it was pitching itself as the Avis of simulator training to the Hertz approach offered by FlightSafety International.
In the intervening decade, SimComs growth has exploded and it recently moved to a glittering new two-story building a short drive from Orlando International Airport. In 1999, SimCom was acquired by Pan Am International Flight Academy, which traces its roots back to the famous airline. (Other business remnants operate under the Pan Am name but arent related to the flight academy or SimCom.)
SimComs charter was to offer a less expensive, friendly and more flexible alternative to FlightSafety but one that insurance companies would still approve for initial and recurrent training. Its current pricing and programs reflect that, residing between RTCs modest offerings and FlightSafetys biz aviation, jet oriented prices. With its growth, SimCom has taken on more of a jet tilt. For example, when SimComs Howard Cox showed us around the new Orlando facility recently, we were shown three full-motion sims for the Citation, Hawker and LearJet line, something that came along with the Pan Am acquisition.
Nonetheless, SimCom still offers piston programs for light and cabin-class piston twins. It now offers training at two facilities in addition to Orlando, Scottsdale, Arizona and Vero Beach, Florida, where it specializes in Piper products. However, you dont need to be a new Saratoga or Malibu buyer to train at Vero Beach; SimCom is happy to train all comers.
Following the industry standard, SimCom offers initial and recurrent training programs, plus maintenance and specialty training such as international operations and RVSM (reduced vertical separation minimum) orientation you need to understand to fly internationally. We were especially intrigued by a two-day upset recovery course given in an Air Tractor sim-yes, an Air Tractor-with a couple of hours of flight time in a Decathlon. (Cost: $1420.)
Like RTC, SimCom also offers quickie refreshers called 1-Day Express Recurrent programs. At under $1000 for the day, these are obviously aimed at pilots who are proficient but want some periodic tuning up.
SimCom courses typically include classroom sessions interspersed with sim flying or, more accurately, FTD flying. Technically, says Cox, the non-motion machines are flight training devices (FTDs), not simulators, a term reserved for motion-based equipment. Not that we see much difference. SimComs FTDs have breathtaking visuals and flight dynamics good enough to make them flyable with minimum lack-of-fidelity frustration. We dont hear complaints about lack of motion reducing the training value.
For its classroom sessions, SimCom has refined audio-visual programs, some computer learning systems and lots of hands on teaching aids. (A walk down the halls reveals parts and pieces of airplanes and components used for training, including an entire Mitsubishi MU-2 center section and landing gear assembly.)
We found SimComs prices to be variable with type. If youre a Malibu or Mirage buyer, for instance, youll pay $4020 for a five-day initial course at Vero Beach. On the other hand, a Saratoga owner can attend a three-day initial for $1480, pricing thats a bit higher but still competitive with RTCs rate for multi-engine transition or single-engine initial courses in aircraft such as the Cessna 182 through 210 series.
Delving deeper into the world of no-frills simulator training, we also visited Flight Level Aviation, Inc., which boasts the worlds first full-motion simulator for light GA aircraft at prices anyone can afford. Flight Level is the creation of Richard Kaplan, a CFII who splits his time between medical doctoring and flight training, assisted by a couple of full-time instructors. Flight Levels full-motion AST simulator is located at Greene County Airport, a modest country airport south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. By simply changing the throttle quadrant and software, the device can be configured to simulate a generic twin or single-engine aircraft. Visuals are depicted on a screen in front of the windshield.
Instructor Joe Zieglar gave us a couple of hours of briefing and demonstration time in the sim which, in our estimation, served as an illuminating illustration of why there arent more full-motion simulators available for little airplanes. Full-up Level D simulators are mounted high off the floor on re-enforced concrete pads festooned with fat hydraulic lines plumbed into long-stroke and rapid acting cylinders. These produce relatively smooth, instantaneous motion that easily tricks the mind into believing the box is inflight. That kind of fidelity comes at an enormous cost and requires a purpose-made building.
To get around that, AST uses a motion-base powered by MOOG electric actuators which seem to be nearly as rapid acting as hydraulics but arent as liquid smooth. The result is a more abrupt motion and a noticeable grinding vibration that you can feel and hear. We found this somewhat distracting but Kaplan says its less noticeable after a few hours in the device. He believes the true value of motion simulation at this end of the market is in upset or unusual attitude recovery, which we didnt explore.
However, the visuals in the AST simulator were every bit as good as SimComs and when we asked Zieglar to switch off the motion, we thought the training value was just as good. Having flown both full-motion Level D boxes and less-sophisticated non-motion sims with good visuals, we dont think theres a dimes worth of difference in training value. The million-dollar simulators fly a bit better but in our view, the notion that theyre better than fixed sims is purely an FAA and insurance company confection.
Kaplans Flight Level sim is unique in one aspect: its configured as an avionics trainer, having Garmin GNS530, King KN94 and Apollo GX50 GPS navigators, plus a Sandel SN3308 EHSI. Interestingly, these boxes can be operated simultaneously or singly, according to the pilots preference. Although theres really little reason to run them in parallel, Kaplan says, but doing so offers a rare opportunity to directly compare operating logic. On a more practical front, Kaplans simulator is ideally equipped to offer customized training on high-level use of the GNS530 and the Sandel together, something we havent seen elsewhere.
Flight Levels program is more limited but also more flexible than the offerings from SimCom or RTC. Its also more aircraft oriented, if thats what you have in mind. Kaplan owns a Cessna P210 and specializes in insurance-approved initial and recurrent training for that airplane. If the customer wishes, a portion of the training can be flown in actual IMC in Kaplans P210 or in the customers own airplane, P210 or otherwise.
Flight Level provides initial training only for the P210-cost is $500 per day, including sim and/or customer-provided aircraft. It offers recurrency for the Malibu and generic training for any piston single or twin.
In addition, Flight Level can conduct sim-oriented accelerated instrument programs priced at $350 per day. Since many accelerated efforts are undertaken to finish up a pilot whos already had instrument training, these programs dont necessarily require a full 10 or more days.
Which of these programs is best? It depends on what you want and need in recurrent training. We found that each has its strengths. RTC, for example, has a strong IFR procedures flavor, which comes as no surprise since it was founded by an air traffic controller.
If you find yourself asking about why ATC does certain things during the course of an IFR flight, RTC can provide the answers, and then some. We think the companys best-value course is the $885 two-day single-engine instrument recurrency program that provides eight hours each of classroom and sim time. Complete the course and you get an IPC and a BFR. In our view, eight hours of simulator time is more than enough to bring even the rustiest pilot back to speed, assuming he or she has some recent experience and is moderately competent to begin with. RTC can also work out customized, single-day or hourly programs. Call them for details.
We think SimComs strength is in providing thorough initial training in which basic system training is important. The company has the visual aids and programs to do this effectively. We also like the one-day Express Recurrent programs but for some owners, a one-day approach may be too intensive and RTCs two-day program may offer a more manageable pace. In any case, for almost the same price, RTC gives you two days to SimComs one. Why the difference? We would guess overhead. SimComs facility is complete with lunchroom, a phone and Internet bank for checking e-mail during breaks and lots of takeaway materials. RTC is strictly basic business with a modest albeit adequate facility.
Further, SimCom is located smack in the middle of Floridas playland, so while the pilot sweats through the sim, the spouse and kids can go see Mickey, an allure that may seal the deal for any family suffering through a harsh winter.
Last, Flight Levels strengths are in advanced avionics instruction in four systems and in the ability to completely customize a training program for not much money. Further, we like Rich Kaplans philosophy of conducting some of the training in actual IMC, which many owners simply dont get enough of.
Were not sure the full-motion simulator is anything other than a curiosity and a marketing come on but, in any case, it works fine with just the visuals. And Flight Levels programs seem effective and attractively priced. While Waynesburg, Pennsylvania isnt the tourist hotspot that Orlando is, it is located close enough to the northeast to be a convenient flight for a day or two of training at relatively low cost.
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