Simulators and the VFR Student by Michael Marotta

To see if working with a simulator can help me be a better pilot, I scheduled four hours in two blocks, with two different CFIs. The result is a qualified “Yes.” If you understand the reasons why simulators can NOT help VFR students, you can then find a few things to learn that go better in the sim than in the plane.

I visited Bauer Aviation at Delaware, Ohio, Municipal Airport (DLZ). I worked with Eldon Johnston and George Finn, both of them old guys with lots of hours. George Finn is actually the CFII working with my CFI, Tim Gregory, for his next rating. In addition to primary instruction, Eldon Johnston teaches a ground school at Delaware.

The machine was a custom-built PCATD (personal computer aviation training device). The builder was Terry O’Quinn, a retired electrical engineer. The computer is configured around a 1 GHz AMD Athlon CPU. The yoke and ignition is a Cirrus II within an Elite PI-135.

Flying a simulator is harder than flying a plane. A simulator is a servo system. It must be tuned for appropriate “resistances” in order to give a “feel.” After about 30 minutes, I found that 25% resistance was fine for me and 33% was perhaps better.

Also working with us was Scott Edelman. Scott has both a VFR license and is a sailplane pilot. He is working on his Instrument rating. Last year he took most of a Commerical license course but did not finish. Scott is a pretty good stick and rudder man. He sat down and flew the sim from Delaware to Marysville, flew the approach, and landed. He did that with no prior experience on the PCATD. It took me an hour and a half to get it trimmed for straight and level flight. I crashed several times and landed once.

What I learned was operating the VOR. With the PCATD, you can press FREEZE and shut off the flying portion of the flight. With that out of the way, I took out some charts, and programmed the dual nav radios for a set of three VORs. I got familiar with them, with the FROM and TO, with the OBS. Then I programmed in a 25-knot tail wind and went back to flying. With the plane trimmed for level flight, I could go back and forth among the VORs, checking my position, dialing bearings and seeing on the charts where I was and would be. Spreading the charts out on a desk worked a lot better than having my CFI fold them and hold them out of focus for my bifocals while I kept an eye out for traffic and tried to fly straight and level.

The Elite simulator can be programmed for many makes and models of airplane, single and multi-engine. Since I normally fly a Cessna 150, I chose the 172-P configuration. Once I had the VORs under control, I practiced chandelles. You do not get the seat of the pants blood draining from your head feel of a steep dive, power climb and 180 turn, but you do get to watch the instruments.

This is why simulators are typically used for IFR training. The FAA allows up to 10 hours of PCATD time as credit toward an Instrument rating. Sim time is not creditable for VFR training.That being so, the PCATD can be helpful also to the VFR pilot for instrument training.

Michael E. Marotta
Technical Writer