Flight Simulation: Enhanced Training with Technology

words & photos // Doug Smith

For more than 100 years, pilot flight training has consisted of one-on-one training with a student and a flight instructor in airplanes. This certainly worked, but it has been expensive, inefficient, and is not always based on the best pedagogies available. Airplanes are costly machines to purchase, operate, fuel, and maintain. Training for instrument ratings has been particularly limited by challenges posed by detrimental weather. As a result, student completions of pilot training programs have declined substantially for the past 15 years, in no small part due to these costs and inefficiencies of flight training.

Fortunately, however, today’s world of aviation training is being transformed by computer-generated imagery and air flight training simulators. These flight simulators are more efficient, accurate, and precise; models are no longer needed and exact replicas can easily be generated of airports, runways, city streets, and buildings anywhere in the world. Flight instructors can introduce all maneuvers in a simulator and students can safely gain skill in realistic machines that cost much less than airplanes, burn no fuel, and are 100 percent risk-free. Students now can be introduced to scenario-based flight training to include worsening weather equipment failures, automation failures, air traffic control reroutes, system abnormalities, etc..


Air flight training devices, aka, simulators, date back to late WW II, when Link trainers (manufactured originally by Singer-Link sewing machine company) were used to train military pilots to fly on instruments. Prior to strapping into an actual airplane, students learned procedures in enclosed cockpit on a swiveling pedestal with an instructor issuing clearances from outside at a table, tracking the performance of a flight or procedure with an inked pen for post session debriefing.

Later, airlines began using larger simulators. Models were built of a single runway on a side wall, complete with buildings, streets, and lights. The pilots flew the simulator on instrument approaches, and the camera projected everything on the model, following the track and altitude until the runway was seen for a landing. Although primitive in comparison to modern simulators, the early trainers were invaluable for giving students hands-on experiences with realistic environments and visual significance.

Today’s high-tech computerized flight simulators can replicate nearly any real life situation. Simulators can pose as different types of airplanes: single and multi-engine, turbo-prop, and pure-jets, helicopters, etc..  Airports all over the world can be selected in the database and simulated enabling students to practice visual or instrument approaches with simulated navigation radios included!  Instructors can quickly program the simulator to provide good visibility, very poor visibility, turbulence, bird strikes, loss of engines or systems (hydraulic, vacuum, radios, landing gear, etc.). Maneuvers can be practiced: holding patterns, visual turns about a point, instrument training, including GPS approaches, and even traffic patterns and takeoffs and landings. A plethora of abnormal and emergency scenarios can be set up for students to explore and respond to using risk management knowledge and safety. Entire flight paths and altitudes can be tracked, traced, and recorded. Simulators can be “paused” instantly for the pilot trainee to talk with the instructor about issues, problems, or need for repeat, before resuming the simulated flight.  The simulator’s position can be dragged with a mouse to a previous location on the aeronautical charts for a repeat performance, or the winds and weather and situation can be continuously altered to expose a student to multiple scenarios that would not be easily accomplished safely in a real airplane.

Vermont Tech College’s Aviation Simulators

The Vermont Flight Academy at the Burlington Airport uses four simulators in its classrooms. Two simulators are full-motion: a Redbird FMX and a Redbird crosswind. The new Redbird simulator can present either traditional “round dial” instrumentation or can be changed to “glass cockpit” configuration of the newest Garmin -1000 television screens. “Glass cockpits” are becoming standard in all airlines and corporate jets, and most new training aircraft as well.

The crosswind simulator is brand new to the industry. Crosswind takeoffs and landings are critical to all pilots, but cannot be practiced in airplanes simply by pretending that wind is blowing from either direction. VFA’s new crosswind simulator allows students to feel what up to 30 knots (plus gusts) of direct crosswind is like while practicing both takeoffs and landings. This device is both clever and outstanding because it safely offers “experimentation” prior to climbing into an airplane when the wind is blowing!

The Vermont Flight Academy also has a Precision Technologies CR-12 (Advanced Aviation Training Device) simulator. This machine simulates every airport in the world, and presently has 18 different aircraft available to call up in the database with a flick of a switch, including multi-engine planes.

Finally, students use a desktop Redbird TD simulator, to transition from “round dial” instruments to a “glass” presentation of instruments on small television screens. Glassification entails learning the button-ology or switch-ology of a new system. Students receive hands-on training in how to operate the newest technology, eg. to become “glassified” in their abilities and proficiencies with glass cockpits.

Vermont Flight Academy’s simulators are FAA-approved, and some provide between 40-50 percent of the total log-able flight training time for advanced ratings. It helps make well-trained true airmen and airwomen for the future generations of pilots. Professional Pilot Technology at Vermont Tech’s 4-year BS degree program starts each year in August with flight training and simulators both!

Simulators indeed make primary flight training easier, faster, more comprehensive, pedagogically more sound, and less expensive.
Above all, the aviation industry strives to lower the accident and incident rates with growth in simulator usage, thereby further enhancing yet further positive changes in one of the world’s safest forms of transportation ever created.

Flight schools using simulation in addition to airtime training will likely create more satisfied and confident student experiences and lower drop-out rates due to lower capital investments and reduced operating costs.