Unless I win the lottery or figure out how to make my mortgage payment go away, my economic ability to power up an aircraft and accelerate the accumulation of aeronautical experience will continue to be limited for the foreseeable future. But, though most of us may never be able to fly airplanes as much as we would like, the advent of smart phones, apps for everything, and hi-fi simulation technology has provided an incredible range of affordable ways to maintain and enhance proficiency.
Hold On! When I was working on my instrument rating in the early 1990s, smart phones were still the stuff of Star Trek, and the Internet was still mostly a gleam in someone’s eye. My trusty home computer, though, could run whatever version of Microsoft Flight Simulator was hot back then. So, I started using it to practice certain instrument procedures between lessons.
With the purchase of add-on software for the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, I suddenly had a dirt-cheap way to dramatically increase my proficiency in the dark art of holding-pattern entries and other instrument-procedural skills. It became my habit to use Flight Simulator to re-run my weekend flying lessons every day when I got home from work. In addition to rehearsing the lesson as I had flown it in the airplane with my instructor, I practiced holding and instrument procedures at other local airports. The cost was minimal, and the benefit to developing my understanding and proficiency between lessons was, as the commercial says, “priceless.” Also priceless was making my instructor wonder how on earth I could make so much progress with so little time in the airplane, but that can be our little secret, right?
Move It! The quality and capability of today’s flight simulation “games” for home computers, smart phones, and ultra-portable netbook and tablet devices are light-years beyond the green-screen versions that helped me become a proficient instrument pilot. There is much you can learn from them-tips follow below-but today’s general aviation pilots are also blessed by the birth of remarkably realistic training devices (colloquially called “simulators,” even though the term accurately applies only to certain high-end devices).
The combination of high-quality graphics, large wrap-around screens, and cockpit-like enclosures can generate a very realistic training experience even without movement. However, affordable training devices that provide some limited motion have burst onto the GA training and proficiency landscape in the last year or two. Available at a fraction of the cost you pay these days for an hour in even the most modest GA aircraft trainer, these devices can all help you learn and master procedures as well as develop or maintain instrument proficiency in a very cost-effective way.
Caution Lights. As with everything else in aviation (and life), proper use of these tools is important. Training devices with super-sized screens, gee-whiz graphics, and motion are usually confined to school facilities and flown with instructors who can keep pilots on the proper path to proficiency. I used to shudder, though, when brand-new students bragged about having logged 2,000 hours in Flight Simulator because that sometimes meant that I had 2,000 hours of faulty learning to fix. The key to success with home simulation devices-whether housed on your PC, your smart phone, or your iPad – is to use them first to practice and reinforce the lessons learned with your instructor. You can branch out to self-created scenarios as your understanding and skills develop. Whether in a training device or an airplane, keep working for safe flights and happy landings! (FAA Safety Briefing – SeptOct 2010)