The Many Benefits of PC-Based Flight Simulation
Today’s desktop simulators are much more than just surrogate aircraft
If you’re a pilot or a flight instructor, then you’ve by no doubt had some exposure to flight simulators. You’ve probably seen the big full-motion sims the airlines use, and you may have some personal experience using Microsoft® Flight Simulator on your home computer. There are many different types of simulation technology between those two ends of the spectrum though, and all the lines are starting to blur.
Incredibly realistic aircraft add-ons for flight simulation games now allow gamers to learn, master, and “fly” sophisticated aircraft just as if they were sitting in the real thing. Games-based technology is rapidly finding its way into professional simulation devices too. For years, young kids “playing” at home with Microsoft® Flight Simulator X and some high-end aircraft and scenery add-ons have arguably had a better training environment than many airlines! That’s starting to change.
At Flight1 Aviation Technologies, our focus is developing, publishing, and promoting PC-based simulation software for flight training and pilot proficiency. Our products can be used in all sorts of teaching and learning environments—from aviation university classrooms and labs, to flight school and airline simulation centers, to private homes. Our products can be used in all sorts of ways too— integrated into FAA-certified Aviation Training Devices, and as simple software solutions running on a single or multiple PCs used with gaming joysticks.
The Different Types of Approved Simulation Devices
While pilots tend to use the term “flight simulator” as a generic term, the FAA classifies these devices into a few distinct categories, each with distinct requirements. (In Europe, the Joint Aviation Authorities Training Organisation has even more sub-categorizations than the FAA.)
Flight Simulator Training Devices (FSTD)
FSTDs are the large full-motion simulators that airlines and the military use. The simulated cockpits are virtually indistinguishable visually from the real thing, and pilots can complete entire training and certification programs in approved devices.
Flight Training Devices (FTD)
FTDs are used to train pilots on specific families or model of aircraft. Most feature aerodynamic models as well as systems modeling, and they are the primary type of simulation device you’ll find in many general aviation and airline training facilities. Frasca International has long been one of the best-known manufacturers of Flight Training Devices.
Personal Computer Aviation Training Devices (PCATD)
PCATDs were approved by the FAA in May of 1997 for 10 hours of credit toward the 40 required for an instrument rating. This introduced a new class of devices that were not Flight Training Devices or Flight Simulator Training Devices. Over the next decade, numerous companies sold approved PCATDs that combined realistic yokes and other controls with PC-based simulation software displaying on a computer monitor. The most popular PCATDs integrated software developed by Elite Simulation Solutions and Aviation Supplies & Academics, and focused on instrument training and proficiency.
To further sub-categorize PCATDs, in July of 2008 the FAA published an Advisory Circular outlining the requirements for approval of “Basic Aviation Training Devices” (BATD) and “Advanced Aviation Training Devices” (AATD). These two new classes of devices replaced the PCATD and some Flight Training Devices, and defined a more streamlined approval process. The FAA also provided new guidance on how pilots could use the devices in training.
Basic Aviation Training Devices (BATD)
BATDs are similar to PCATDs, yet generally have more hardware and software requirements. A BATD is intended to provide a training platform for “at least the procedural aspects of flight relating to an integrated ground and flight instrument training curriculum.”
BATDs must provide physical flight and aircraft systems controls (eliminating the use of interfaces like keyboards, mice, and gaming joysticks for any tasks other than setup). They must also model the ergonomics of at least one aircraft in the family represented. The display must meet certain requirements regarding instruments and indicators, readability, and update rates. Flight dynamics should be comparable to the simulated aircraft, but control loading does not have to model a specific aircraft.
BATDs are approved for:
- Logging 2.5 hours toward the Private certificate
- Logging 10 hours toward the Instrument rating
- Logging the required approaches, holds, and intercepting/tracking for instrument currency
Advanced Aviation Training Devices (AATD)
AATDs are comparable to what the FAA previously called Level 3 Flight Training Devices. AATDs need to meet or exceed all the requirements for BATDs, and must also include additional features and systems fidelity to provide an even more realistic cockpit environment for a particular category and class of aircraft cockpit. An AATD is intended to provide “a training platform for both procedural and operational performance tasks related to ground and flight training towards private pilot, commercial pilot, and airline transport pilot certificates, a flight instructor certificate, and instrument rating.”
AATDs are approved for:
- Logging 2.5 hours for toward the Private certificate
- Logging 20 hours toward the Instrument rating
- Completing certain elements of the Instrument rating practical test
- Logging instrument experience for currency
- Completing instrument proficiency checks (except circle-to-land)
- Logging 50 hours toward the Commercial certificate
- Completing certain elements of the Commercial Pilot Practical test
- Logging 25 hours toward the ATP certificate
- Completing certain elements of the ATP certificate Practical test
- Logging simulated flight experience
In August of 2009, the FAA published revisions to 14 CFR Part 61 (the rules that govern pilot and flight instructor certification). The revisions (and the FAA’s comments) included changes giving pilots and instructors more flexibility when using BATDs and AATDs for training toward certificates and ratings, and to maintain instrument proficiency. One big change was that pilots could meet instrument currency requirements by using a BATD or AATD without instructor supervision, as long as they perform and log at least three hours of simulated flight within the last two calendar months.
Cockpit Procedures Trainers (CPT)
CPTs are not regulated by the FAA, and are used to practice basic procedures, such as flow patterns, checklists, and cockpit familiarization. Not all aircraft systems are modeled, and flight models are simplistic (if present at all).
The Evolution of Microsoft Flight Simulator
So where in this sea of acronyms does Microsoft Flight Simulator (and its derivatives for commercial training) fit? While these software products can all be integrated into devices that gain FAA approval, the software itself is not approved—because the FAA doesn’t approve software (it approves simulators and training devices that incorporate software). This means you can’t log any of the time you or your students spend training with this software unless it’s part of an approved device.
Though Flight Simulator’s End-User License Agreement has long prohibited commercial use of the product, many flight instructors and flight schools began utilizing Flight Simulator in their training programs (including the U.S. Navy and the FlightSafety International Academy) in the 1990s. A few companies integrated Flight Simulator into devices and got approval from the FAA or international agencies too. But most just used Flight Simulator for the training benefits, without regard for approval or logging of time.
Eventually Microsoft recognized the potential Flight Simulator had for training, and in 2008 released Microsoft® ESP™: a “visual simulation software development platform” for enterprise based on the same technology as Flight Simulator, but with an enterprise licensing agreement. ESP was poised to revolutionize the simulation industry, by providing training organizations and simulator manufacturers with a robust, common software platform on which to develop custom solutions. The vision was that in time, most training devices—from FSTDs to CPTs and everything in between—would use ESP.
But in January of 2009, only a few months after a highly successful showing at the 2008 Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation & Education (I/ITSEC) Conference, Microsoft unexpectedly announced that it was closing the Aces Studio that made both Flight Simulator and ESP.
In December of 2009, Flight1 Aviation Technologies entered into an intellectual property license agreement with Microsoft under which we could distribute ESP to our customers along with our solutions. We were only one of a few companies who held such a license. We've since stopped developing for ESP, focusing our efforts on FSX and Prepar3D.
In November of 2009, Lockheed Martin and Microsoft entered into an intellectual property licensing agreement that allows Lockheed Martin to further develop the Microsoft ESP code. Lockheed Martin’s resultant product, Prepar3D™, is positioned as “a proven simulation framework for aviation training that can be fully customized for ground, civil, and logistics applications.” It will be interesting to see what Lockheed Martin does with Prepar3D, and we’ll be supporting that platform for customers who choose to use it.
Much More than a Surrogate Aircraft
If you’re new to PC-based simulation, you may be wondering, “What are Flight Simulator and Prepar3D, and what will they let me do?”
Put simply, Flight Simulator X and Prepar3D are software simulations of the entire aviation experience. They run on Microsoft Windows®-based PCs, and they simulate:
- The geography of the entire planet—including accurate elevation data, land class data, aerial-photo based terrain textures, oceans, lakes, ponds, and rivers.
- Accurately-placed landmarks, roads, railroads, and powerlines.
- Auto-generated buildings and vegetation appropriate for a given landclass.
- Artificially intelligent aircraft, ground vehicles, and boats.
- Realistic weather including cloud layers, wind layers, temperature layers, precipitation, and icing.
- Continuous time of day with realistic lighting effects and sun/moon position changes.
- The complete aviation operational environment, including more than 24,000 civil and military airports, realistic navaids, instrument approaches, and an interactive air traffic control communications system.
- Realistic user-controlled aircraft including a 3D “virtual cockpit,” an optional 2D instrument panel, external views, realistic controls, switches, instrumentation, and avionics.
- Accurate aircraft systems modeling, including instrument, component, and system-wide failures.
- Realistic sounds, both inside and outside the aircraft.
They also include:
- A mission system that facilitates the creation of self-directed training scenarios.
- A multiplayer system with Voice Over IP communications that enables multiple users to fly (or act as air traffic controllers) in the same dynamic environment.
- A Tower Controller station featuring realistic views from the tower cab and a radar display.
- A highly-configurable camera/views system.
- Instant replay.
- A flight planner.
- Basic tools for post-flight analysis.
- Built-in integration with industry-standard hardware devices, including joysticks, game controllers, and more.
- A highly extensible architecture that supports rapid simulation development by enabling software developers to create their own aircraft, scenery, missions, utilities, and custom solutions using the Software Development Kit.
- The SimConnect API, that allows developers to access simulation data and interact with it from external applications.
In short, these products enable you to simulate virtually any aspect of aviation on a personal computer. If you can imagine doing a task in a real airplane, chances are you can do it in Flight Simulator or Prepar3D as well.
Think Outside the Box
While we encourage you to use our solutions for Flight Simulator and Prepar3D as part of approved devices, we also encourage you to be creative. Because the real power of PC-based simulation lies not in the fidelity of the simulation hardware, but in all the different things you can do with the simulation software.
In his book Microsoft Flight Simulator as a Training Aid, CFII Bruce Williams explains that, “The key to putting Microsoft Flight Simulator to its most effective use throughout the flight training process is to think of it as a multi-purpose tool like a Swiss Army Knife, not just as a “flight simulator.”
He goes on to explain that even (especially) when Flight Simulator is not integrated into approved Aviation Training Devices, it has many advantages:
- It’s inexpensive to purchase and use
- It has unmatched flexibility as a training tool
- It can serve as a pilot’s safe “laboratory” in which to make mistakes
“Many tools used during flight training (e.g. model, cockpit posters, and PowerPoint presentations) are not ‘FAA-approved,’ notes Williams. “Yet they are still indispensable. Flight Simulator certainly falls into that category.”
Even on a laptop, the in-cockpit experience is so realistic that most pilots and instructors fail to see these simulations as anything other than a surrogate for a real aircraft and a real experience. As a result, they spend most of their time simulating realistic flights from Point A to Point B. Granted, a lot can be learned from doing this, especially given the incredible realism of the simulation. But if this is all you do, then you’re missing out on many of the benefits PC-based simulation software can provide you with.
You can also use Flight Simulator and Prepar3D for:
- Scenario-based training (SBT), either supervised or self-directed
- Part-task training to learn to use specific aircraft instruments, systems, and avionics
- Airport, route, and procedure familiarization
- Video and image generation for use in existing courseware or other applications
- Integration of simulation experiences with existing courseware
- Data visualization and accident re-creation
In addition to pilots, with some creativity, these products can be used to train:
- Air traffic controllers
- Airport ground crew
- Emergency personnel
As a software development platform on which to develop custom solutions, Flight Simulator and Prepar3D (along with the Software Development Kit and SimConnect API) can be used to:
- Create high-fidelity simulations of specific aircraft and avionics
- Create custom scenery areas and objects
- Create libraries of saved flight situations and missions for use by instructors and individual students
- Integrate with third-party hardware devices like yokes, joysticks, pedals, and head- and eye-movement tracking devices
A Promising Future
With so many training devices and software solutions to choose from, it’s an exciting time. While we’ve been working with Flight Simulator and its derivatives for years, there are other great products out there too. X-Plane, Elite, and On Top are three of the best alternative products available for stand-alone use or for integration into approved devices. As the industry continues to change and new solutions emerge, we’ll change too, creating products and offering services that help you take advantage of the latest and greatest simulation technology.
At present, if you’re a pilot using simulation for your own training and proficiency at home, we encourage you to use our products with Flight Simulator X. If you’re a flight instructor or a flight school owner, and want to use simulation as part of a business, we’ll steer you toward Prepar3D.
Whether you choose to use one of these products as a stand-alone simulation on a laptop, as part of approved device, or as a platform for developing your own solutions, we’re confident they’ll save you time, money, and effort. When you take the next step and use them with Flight1 Tech products like VISPRO and Scenario Builder, you’ll have an even more powerful training solution—one that can do things even the airline’s big full motion sims can’t.