Flight Training In The Real World Is Becoming Unreal.
If you’ve been watching the HBO series Westworld, you can see that the lines between reality and virtual reality may someday become indistinguishable. While programs like Westworld and movies like The Matrix are fiction, they do point to what is currently happening in the world of flight simulators.
Full motion, Level D flight simulation, used for both airline and military training, is not only hyper-real, but it’s legally accepted reality-based training. In other words, the fake world is real enough to be acceptable for creating authentic flight scenarios.
Training in highly advanced level D flight simulators is a key step to sitting in the right seat of a commercial airliner. This is FAA approved experience and is not to be confused with training that uses simpler flight training devices (FSTDs) that do not offer a full 6 degrees of motion.
What Makes a “True” Simulator?
Flight simulators can be broadly categorized into two types: Full Flight Simulators (FFS) and Flight Simulation Training Devices (FSTD).
What’s the difference between the two types? The simple answer is range of motion. Presently, the FAA only considers flight simulators with full motion (FFS) to be “true” simulators.
Full motion Sims must meet FAA standards for response time to motion; they must also have qualified avionics, instruments and visual displays (usually the exact ones you would find in a specific aircraft). Anything that does not meet these specific FAA qualifications is designated a Flight Training Device (FTD) or an Advanced Aviation Training Device (AATD).
If the flight simulator you’re using has a number associated with it (Levels 1 to 7), it’s an FTD. If it has a letter designation and moves, it is considerably more complex (and expensive) and is considered an approved simulator by the FAA.
The ABCs of Full Motion Flight Simulators.
Flight simulators with letter designations range from levels A to D. Here is how the letter-designated simulators differ in ability and mission:
Level A flight simulators are motion systems with at least three degrees of freedom. They are for airplanes only. Their visual systems are not terribly robust and they have do not have the features and capabilities to accurately simulate flight conditions like ground effect. There are very few Level A Sims in use today.
Level B flight simulators requires at least 3-axis motion and replicates a higher degree of aerodynamic forces than Level A, but they do not have capabilities, such as circle to land approaches. Few Level B Sims are in use and they are considered as entry-level helicopter simulators.
Level C flight simulators require a motion platform with six degrees of freedom. They must react faster than Level A or B simulators and require outside visualization with a horizon line and 75-degree field of vision for both pilot and first officer. Some C level simulators have options that can raise them to a Level D category.
Level D flight simulators meet the highest FAA and ICAO criteria and qualifications. Level D requires a motion platform with six degrees of freedom, outside visual display with horizon and a field of view of 150 degrees for each pilot, which includes Collimated (distant focus) display. Level D Sims also requires realistic cockpit sounds with appropriate warning devices, as well as special motion and visual effects achieved by hydraulic mechanics as well as digital mastery. The FAA considers Level C and Level D simulators capable enough for type ratings in specific aircraft.
Level D simulators provide the sensory signals our inner ear and cerebellum need to keep us in balance. For example, a Level D simulator tilts forward to give the exact feeling of engaging a Boeing or Airbus airliner’s reverse thrusters and braking systems. Together with auditory and visual signals, Level D simulators provide pilots with the near-actual experience and the ability to fly the world’s most challenging approaches. They can also simulate the most advanced maneuvers and recreate the most demanding emergency scenarios.
Level D simulators recreate reality so closely, the FAA allows their use for Zero Flight Time Training (ZFTT), meaning a pilot can achieve a type rating in an aircraft and fly it without ever being in the actual aircraft beforehand.
The Glass Cockpit in Our Head.
In the not-too-distant future, the real and the virtual will co-exist in aviation. For example, the industry is already experimenting with wearable electronics, which provides enhanced situation awareness data within an augmented reality visor.
Everything from electronic checklists to target diamonds for precision approaches seen through augmentation goggles could start appearing in our real cockpits and blend the simulator experience with the actual experience of the flight deck. As augmented reality (AR) enters the cockpit, it will inevitably become part of the simulator experience as well.
Additionally, the demand for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) is growing dramatically. It’ll take virtual and augmented reality sims to train these pilots as well, especially when you consider the aircraft they’ll be flying may be hundred and perhaps thousands of miles away from the people piloting them.
It Couldn’t Come at a More Opportune Time.
If you’re enrolled in a Part 142 training curriculum, or you’re an advancing military airman, you will probably accrue significant “true” simulator time. That time is valuable because it provides hands-on training in systems management and cockpit procedures.
Given the current worldwide pilot shortage, as well as the increasing demand for remote drone pilots, these advancements in simulator technology couldn’t come at a more opportune time.
The global flight simulator market is expected to grow to $7.54 billion by 2021 with a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 4.1%. Adoption of virtual training to ensure aviation safety, the rising demand for new military and commercial pilots and the need to lower pilot training costs, are important factors that will drive growth for the global flight simulator market.
For an industry that measures experience in hours, simulator time is becoming crucial for anyone wishing to advance their aviation career. It not only hones pilot skills but also helps transition trainees from theoretical to an actual been there, done that experience.