A flight simulator primer

I had originally planned to write more about engines this week, but reality— or simulated reality— has intruded, and this week I’m going to talk about flight simulators.

For your convenience, I’ll skip the part of this post where I would wax lyrical about how cool it was the first time I played Sublogic’s old Flight Simulator on an Apple II. It was cool but it wasn’t much of a simulator experience. Fast forward from the mid-80s to today and the state of the art in PC-based simulators is X-Plane, an almost infinitely customizable simulator that can handle aircraft from gliders up to the Space Shuttle. (The demo video on their web site is well worth a look to see some of what can be done with suitable hardware). There are hundreds of different airplane types available, including military, general aviation, biz jets, and big iron such as the Boeing 7×7 line. Each aircraft has its own customized flight model and appearance, so what you see can be as realistic as the designer of that model feels like building in (and as realistic as your graphics hardware can support). Here’s a fair example of what the sim looks like on my setup:

Cherokee Six approach into KAEX

Daylight approach to runway 32 at Alexandria International Airport

This is a daylight approach (created by checking the box that says “use the current date, time, and weather”) to runway 32 at Alexandria International. You can see the runways, taxiways, other airport stuff, ground features, and the Red River. The more powerful your computer, the more graphical features you can turn on. Since I am running on a 3-year-old MacBook Pro, I have the detail level set to “medium” but perhaps one day I’ll have enough hardware to turn up some of the visual fidelity knobs.

However, visual fidelity isn’t why I wanted a simulator. There are people, including many non-pilots, who like to hop in the sim and pretend that they are airline pilots, fighter pilots, or whatever. I wanted one as a means to practice instrument flying, which often involves being in conditions where you can’t see a darn thing outside. For example, right now the weather at KMGY (Dayton-Wright Brothers) is 1.5 miles visibility, an overcast layer at 300 feet, and light snow. Here’s what the approach to runway 2 there looks like right now; It doesn’t take much GPU horsepower to draw solid gray, as you can see:

On final for rwy 2 at KMGY

Same daylight, different weather, this time at KMGY

So why bother? If you take a look at the approach plate for the GPS approach to runway 18R at Huntsville, you’ll see that there are specific lateral and vertical points to hit: inbound on the approach, you fly to the JASEX intersection, and you cannot arrive there below 3000’. From there, you fly a course of 182° to GETEC, where you arrive at 2500’, and so on. Understanding where you need to be during the approach, and then putting the airplane in that position, is the key to a safe arrival. Practicing the skill of mentally visualizing your aircraft position and orientation relative to the approach layout, then controlling the aircraft as needed, is really valuable, and in a simulator you can repeat it as often as necessary without delay, even pausing it when needed. For that reason, the FAA has allowed you to log up to 20 hours of simulator time as part of the requirements for an instrument rating, provided you spend that time with an instructor and are using an approved simulator. (They recently announced that they will only allow 10 hours of time to count, effective February 3, but the AOPA and other groups are fighting that proposed rule change.)

Without going into all the boring details, suffice it to say that there are many different gadgets to practice your flying with, from the massive, super-high-fidelity simulators used by airlines to the home-brew rig I’m using, with a $50 piece of software and another $200 in controllers, all running on a commodity laptop. This article from IFR Refresher explains the difference nicely: a simulator is a full-size replica of a specific type of aircraft cockpit, with motion and high visual fidelity. Training devices (TDs) don’t have to have motion, and there are several subtypes, including PC-based devices (PCATDs) and basic and advanced training devices (BATDs and AATDs, respectively).

For your simulator practice time to be loggable, you need a PCATD, BATD (such as this Redbird TD or FlyThisSim TouchTrainer), or AATD. My slapped-together rig is not FAA-certified as any of these, so I can’t log the practice time, and therefore it doesn’t count towards the requirements for my rating. However, being able to practice approaches before I fly them is invaluable, and I plan to make heavy use of the ability to do so. To help with that, I’ll probably spring for the FlyThisSim analog Cessna pack, which includes higher-fidelity models for several of the aircraft I normally fly. In particular, the pack includes the Garmin G430 and G530 GPS systems, which are very useful when flying approaches since they give you a moving-map rendition of your location and position and they can be coupled to the autopilot so that the GPS provides lateral guidance (though the airplanes I fly don’t have vertical coupling so the pilot still has to control altitude). Coupled with judicious use of the expensive and fancy Redbird FMX AATD at Wings of Eagles, this should help me (eventually) master the complex process of safely flying an IFR approach.

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