July 2014- Flight simulators have been around in one form or another for the better part of aviation's history. The earliest units were typically built from plywood. They sported vacuum tubes, were mostly pneumatic driven, and had rudimentary gauges and functionality. The cockpits were cramped and the capabilities were limited, but these first-generation simulators still served an important purpose in both civilian and military training.
Today's entry-level Advanced Aviation Training Device (AATD) systems have capabilities far beyond these early units. Systems now include ergonomic cockpit environments and sport technically-advanced avionics. Their multi-channel panoramic visual systems utilize satellite-generated orthographic scenery.
The systems are typically reconfigurable for dozens of aircraft options. It is not uncommon to find a single AATD that can be quickly reconfigured to convincingly simulate 50 different aircraft models including single- and multi-engine piston aircraft, turboprops and light jets with either analog or digital instrumentation.
The availability of faster computer technologies has driven the market to new heights (pun intended). Moore's Law suggests that a computer processor's number of transistors—and thus processing power—doubles every two years. Exponential increases in computing power are fueling the simulator industry to increasingly impressive applications in flight simulation.
A Cessna 421 scenario
Let's consider a typical training scenario in one of today's AATD cockpit simulators. You enter the simulator room with a copilot and an instructor who controls an out-of-sight instructor's console. You don your headsets and plug them into jacks below the panel. A quick radio check confirms you are all communicating.
Your Piper Seneca V is located on the ramp at, let's say, Long Beach (it could be any airport in the world). As you ready the cockpit for launch at KLGB, you hear the radio call of a Warrior reporting downwind for the active runway as a Seminole taxis past on the way to the field's FBO.
You power up ForeFlight on your iPad to review your flight plan and check the latest weather maps and notams for your route. You then dial in the appropriate real-world clearance delivery frequency and call for a departure clearance to Orange County (KSNA).
The radio comes to life as a live controller (not your instructor) rattles off your departure clearance, "November One-Zero-Five-Five Mike, Long Beach Clearance. Cleared to the John Wayne Airport.
"After departure fly runway heading until 800 feet, then turn left heading 210. Radar vectors Seal Beach direct.
"Maintain 2,000; expect 3,000 in five minutes. Departure frequency one-two-seven-point-two. Squawk six-five-two-two."
You respond with the appropriate readback and then dial up ground control for taxi clearance while your copilot sets up the transponder, radios and avionics for the flight.
You test your brakes as you begin to taxi—all the while keeping your eyes outside the cockpit, scanning the immediate environment for activity.
Since you are unfamiliar with this airport, you request progressive taxi instructions from the ground controller and are systematically directed to the departure end of the active runway. After receiving clearance from the tower, you roll down the runway and you're off.
It's training time
While transiting the Seal Beach VOR, your instructor suggests that you terminate your instrument flight plan and head to the local practice area to practice some stalls.
After clearing the airspace for traffic, you slow down the aircraft. The dynamically-loaded controls respond accordingly.
Each subsequent stall produces a crisp buffet and break as the motion system provides the appropriate cues.
As you turn to head for home, you notice that your right engine is running a bit hot. Shortly thereafter, the engine fails while you quickly re-trim the rudder. Now your skills will be thoroughly tested.
As you make a standard-rate turn toward the nearest airport (as identified by your WAAS GPS), you call the tower to declare an emergency. The controller responds appropriately clearing you to land on any runway.
It's approaching dusk now and the weather has deteriorated to overcast with light rain, low visibility, and a strong crosswind. You nail the single-engine airspeed and land uneventfully despite the reduced traction of a wet runway.
The entire flight has lasted about an hour and has included many important facets of training such as proper communications protocol, an instrument clearance, airport operations, aircraft handling, stalls, engine-out procedures, asymmetrical thrust, emergency procedures, adverse weather conditions, crosswind landings and more.
At the conclusion of the flight, you and your crew review the training video taken by the cockpit's onboard high-definition audio/video system.
The full-immersion experience
The mark of a great simulator is that it suspends reality, immersing the pilot in his or her own adventure. This is not unlike a television drama. If the actors are poor, the viewer finds themselves distracted. Conversely, if the actors are outstanding, the viewer temporarily suspends reality and becomes fully immersed in the story.
To this end, fidelity plays a key role. A poorly engineered simulator can be reduced to a mere novelty, or even an annoyance, in a rigorous training environment. On the other hand, one of today's better AATD systems with well-cued visual scenery (and motion, if so equipped) will invoke many of the same visceral responses as flying the airplane.
Some third-party developers push the technological envelope to bring advanced features to today's AATD systems. Keith Smith, an entrepreneur and the founder of PilotEdge, serves this accelerating market. As an avid instrument pilot and programmer, he was dissatisfied with the realism of simulator communication technologies in professional flight training environments.
While others pursued obsolete artificial intelligence (AI) or voice recognition strategies, he developed a network of live professional controllers to serve the flight training industry. The combination of live ATC with high-fidelity AATDs has created a level of realism unmatched by other processes.
According to Smith, "Believable ATC and traffic have been missing from most simulators since the dawn of simulation. While stand-alone simulators allow for the mastery of individual tasks, the absence of ATC introduces a very real limit as to which skills can be taught and evaluated. We are working to remove these limitations."
Domestic operators who are training non-English pilots to fill pilot shortages in developing countries find the PilotEdge capabilities especially useful.
Many attributes relate to simulator fidelity. A comfortable, ergonomic and representative cockpit environment is imperative, while flight modeling and flight dynamics are also crucial to a productive training experience. Accurate instrumentation and avionics make the system a multidimensional training tool.
The ability to integrate real-world tools such as flight planning software; tablet PCs; geo-referenced aeronautical charts and approach plates; and video playback systems fulfills the promise of a capable and productive training environment.
Mike Altman, President and CEO of Precision Flight Controls, a global leader in the manufacture of high-fidelity AATD systems, sees a bright future for realistic training systems. "We are constantly seeking new approaches and emerging technologies to enhance the simulation experience," said Altman.
Precision Flight Controls has developed high-fidelity aviation training devices for nearly a quarter of a century. "Today's best systems address customers' essential needs," Altman continued. "They encompass the seamless integration of a plethora of applications with the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts."
FAA, insurance companies and others are on board
The FAA has long supported the utilization of aviation training devices in flight schools. An Advanced Aviation Training Device (AATD) allows for many hours of loggable instruction time to include two-and-a-half hours toward a private pilot certificate, 20 hours toward an instrument rating, 50 hours toward the commercial ticket and another 25 hours in pursuit of an ATP rating.
Logging time in an AATD versus an airplane reduces the time and expense of training while facilitating the inclusion of emergency procedures that would not even be attempted in the air.
For those that are already instrument rated, currency can now be maintained in an AATD without ever setting foot in an aircraft or engaging an instructor. The majority of an instrument proficiency check (IPC) can also be accomplished in an AATD saving countless dollars and hours in the air.
Recently, insurance companies have embraced the potential benefits of AATD training as they are approving more and more operators for model-specific initial and recurrent training programs.
Operators see great value in these systems, especially in Part 61 and Part 141 training environments.
The future of flight training
Chances are that your future flight training experiences will include the use of an AATD, especially if you aspire to ratings beyond a private pilot certificate.
Today's AATDs require very little operating overhead, virtually zero maintenance, no 100-hour or annual inspections, minimal floor space, little insurance, no operational risk, and no fuel. They are environmentally-friendly and completely safe.
What's more, a typical AATD rents for about half of an equivalent aircraft rental, making it a bargain for both the student pilot and the operator.