I recently created a poll for a group of flight simmers who use X-Plane 11 (my simulator of choice and currently the latest version of X-Plane). I asked them to choose a statement that best describes the reason they use X-Plane. I received 320 responses to the poll, along with some comments that gave me a lot of insight. Here are the six options I gave:
-Can’t fly so the sim world is an aviation outlet
-Hoping to become a pilot
-Real world pilot looking to stay sharp
-Curious about aviation
-Mostly for the gaming aspect
The Poll Results
The poll allowed users to add in poll options, which generated some pretty funny responses. My favorite was “missus complained that getting a license cost too much…so I built a sim.” Hashtag truth, sir. Thankfully, I have a wife who is not only supportive of my aviation habit, but on our wedding day actually gave me her blessing along with everything I needed to get back in the air after I had hung it up for seven years. Finances and family support are two of the big reasons that people either stop flying or never start in the first place.
Nearly a quarter of the respondents (24%) were pilots or student pilots and another 20% are hoping to become pilots. Then 45% said that they can’t fly so the sim world is an aviation outlet. Now, I could have been more specific to address why they can’t fly – medical reasons, financial reasons, lack of time, and the like, but what I take away from this is that nearly half of the respondents use it to benefit their real world flying and the other (roughly) half do it simply to explore and enjoy aviation. Less than 1% use it purely for the gaming aspect, and less than 1% were other “write-in” reasons.
On one hand, flight simulators like X-Plane are incredible tools for pilots. Nearly every training program incorporates simulator time in some way, and the FAA allows up to 20 hours of your instrument rating to be logged in an approved simulator (typically something like a Redbird with an instructor).
On the opposite side of the spectrum of using the flight simulators as a training tool, they are also incredible for their gaming experience, specifically the quality of the graphics and aesthetics. While there are elements that are great to practice that translate the skill directly to your real world flying, there are those that have absolutely no practical value to their time spent. Landing the space shuttle, for instance, or spending time flying an airplane that is not something I would remotely fly, like a 747 or a C-130. It’s very fun, and challenging, but I don’t see how that can help me in the airplane.
Then there are landings. To me, landings fall in this sort of middle ground of useful practice in the simulator. The stick and rudder aspect of landings in the sim just don’t translate any useful skills over to the real airplane. I can practice touch and goes for hours in the Cessna 172SP on X-Plane, perfecting my descent, roundout and flare, only to get in the real Cessna 172SP and find that my landings haven’t changed much.
1. Chair Flying
The usefulness of all those simulator landings comes in through the chair flying aspect of the time spent. Especially for newer pilots, chair flying a landing is a useful way to develop the mental process of the landing, from the timing and rhythm of the checklists to the repetition of the various approach speeds, to the muscle memory developed when locating the various checklist items in the cockpit. Chair flying can be done either mentally, using just a checklist and your imagination, or by using a flight simulator, which is chair flying, level pro. While those landings themselves might not be any smoother in the real airplane, it’s quite possible that the anticipation and execution of things like checklists and approach speeds have improved, depending on the skill level of the pilot and the room for improvement available in that category.
2. Practice Elements You Don’t Use Everyday
Further, practicing the flow of a touch and go or a go-around can help develop those procedures as well. Consider the scenario where you have been doing a bunch of touch and goes. After landing, the flow is something like “flaps retract, trim to takeoff, full power.” Now on an approach that becomes unstable, you decide to execute a go-around, which has its similarities to the touch and go. Full power is added and the flaps are retracted, but not all the way. Only one notch of flaps should come out at a time, but after so many touch and goes, your muscle memory could cause you to reach for the flaps and move the lever to fully retracted. It’s a more common problem that you might think. Building in checklist habits into muscle memory takes you from rote memorization into applying them, and the simulator is a great place to work those out.
3. It’s Satisfying To Finish Your Sessions With A Good Landing
While some of my sim sessions are just a fragment of a scenario – an ILS approach, for instance – I much prefer to enjoy the benefits of a full flight from one airport to another in the sim. This mixes the enjoyable gameplay style aspects with the challenging, skill improvement aspects of the sim. It’s a bit like sneaking vegetables into spaghetti to get kids to eat their veggies without realizing it. In my survey, one person asked, “I’m a student pilot, but why isn’t there a ‘because it’s fun’ option?” My response was that I assumed that all of the options presumed that it was fun. When done correctly, flying in the simulator is like an educational game, where you can learn things without even realizing it.
I believe that the more you put into the simulator, the more it will give you back, not only in sharpening your skills but also in your general satisfaction of the time spent. After I fly a nice cross country flight and nail an ILS approach down to minimums, it’s incredibly unsatisfying to just turn the sim off before landing. It’s equally unsatisfying to have a horrible landing. So I also practice my simulator landings simply so that I can have good simulator landings. Take a watch at this week’s “Bucket List Flights: Flying To Oshkosh” X-Plane video about landings. Watch below and join the conversation at the X-Plane.org Flight School!
If you are among the half that also flies in the real world, I’d encourage you to consider two things. First, know what aspects of the simulator translate to the airplane and which ones don’t. Generally speaking, those that don’t are many of the manuevers that require stick and rudder work like ground reference manuevers. Second, I encourage you to still spend a little time practicing things like landings that don’t have a direct correlation to the real airplane. There’s nothing wrong with being better at the simulator, and you’re more likely to get more out of the things that will translate to the airplane if you are having a positive experience in the simulator. But being aware of the difference can save you some time and frustration – and keep you spending the most time on the most important things to practice.
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