We’re closing in on winter in the Pacific Northwest soon, and my goal with real flight training at Galvin Boeing Field has been to be ready to solo before the weather turns too rotten. I’m pleased to say with 20+ hours of dual instruction completed and over 50 landings completed at fields around the Seattle area, I’m lined up for my Stage 1 Check in just a couple weeks. After passing that checkpoint I’ll be ready to solo.

Also I’ll point out that this means my all-up flight experience is divided into about 1% real world and 99% sim by hour count. :) Little by little we’ll even those numbers out.

During this time, I’ve supplemented my learning with some time in the home simulator, downloading the JustFlight Cessna 152, a Seattle Airports Scenery Pack and City Scenery Pack for X-Plane 11 to have similar experiences to my time in the real thing. I’ve flown the Boeing Field pattern, and traveled out to Bremerton and Tacoma Narrows in the sim, with my Foreflight iPad and Galvin 152 checklist along with me.

You can check out the Bremerton flight here:

My findings so far: there are some areas that the sim does well, and some shortcomings - I’ll detail both here. If you’re a sim pilot wondering how well your experience prepares you - take note!

Sim Successes - What They Do Well

Forces of Flight - They Get it Right

X-Plane 11 has plenty going for it in terms of fluid dynamics simulation. Properly weight and balanced out, I’ve found the C152 in the sim responding in much the same way as the real deal does: the same V-speeds, same climb performance, same lift tradeoffs as you bank and the same need to stay coordinated. Wind effects on performance are also modeled well. I haven’t played with temperature much but assume it also does much of what you’d expect in terms of air temperature effects on engine performance.

This means you can fly your departures, approaches, patterns and more just as you would be instructed to and expect to hit Point X at Time Y at Altitude Z just as you would in real-world conditions. To me this means training drill-like procedures where you need to hit your numbers again and again are greatly served by the sims - and cost far less per flight!

The Haze - Hate It, But It’s Real

When I started with X-Plane 11 I was a little disappointed with the constant haze that seemed to ruin picture-perfect days even when I set it to CAVU weather. While there are plugins to help such as XVision or the fog-be-gone scripts available through Lua, once I got up flying in the real world, that haze followed me up there. It’s a real thing. Seldom have I seen crystal-clear days even with zero cloud cover. The few days I could see all the way from Seattle to both Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker, it was so turbulent I barely had the opportunity to enjoy it.

Ultimately your weather experience in the real world is a tradeoff. You either get a smooth ride and haze (or stratus clouds), or you get clear views with cumulus clouds around but have to pay for it with a bumpy ride. I’ve learned to live with the haze in both the real world and the sim world, and recognize it’s part of the experience.

Inside the Cockpit - Fully Comprehensive

As pretty as the graphics outside the cockpit are, to me the instruments are where modern sims really shine. Gauges, knobs, dials, switches and glass panels are all accurately modeled to a surprising degree; on physical needles in the sim you won’t get some of the jitter that exists in the real world, but the behaviors otherwise are spot-on.

I specifically found X-Plane’s implementation of Garmin GPS units to be a great introduction to using them, and with the aid of my Dad’s excellent instruction as you can see in my Flying With Dad series, I’ve really come to feel confident in working these systems … with one catch. See below.

Sim Hurdles - What They Don’t Prepare You For

Eye-Time Management - Way Off

This is the first thing that really surprised me about sims versus real life: in the real deal, when you’re up and underway, you barely have time to do anything except fly the plane. Your eyes, your concentration, your full attention is to be focused on flying the aircraft, maintaining proper attitude, and scanning for traffic.

You want to set that radio dial? Better know the frequency and dial it in within 3 seconds. Want to look down at your Foreflight tablet? Sure, if you’re straight, level, have ensured nobody is around before you have a look – and you better get whatever it is done in a couple taps. Instruments? Quick scan, in a pre-described direction to take in all the useful information in one pass. Back to flying the plane, looking outside.

It’s not that you can’t do that in a sim; you can! It’s just that you’re not taught to, it’s not reinforced to you, and it’s not actually easy or pleasant to do. Focusing to find tiny dots on the screen is somehow harder than trying to find tiny dots in real life… and besides, that’s not where the sim really shines, right? Much easier to focus on the pretty terrain, the gauges, and how pretty the clouds are.

Seat of the Pants - Add-Ons Help a Little

Second, without the instruments helping you out all the time in the real world, you’ve got to fly a little differently. Or a lot differently. Eyeing the horizon versus your plane is part of the equation, but the other part is “seat of the pants” flying. Feeling when your attitude is changing. Or when you’re climbing due to your trim being off. Or knowing the engine is running a little rough based on the vibrations.

That is critical know-how - an additional sense that the pilot gets from their connection to the machine; pretty hard to recreate in a simulator - but not impossible. Some of it I’ve gotten back via the Buttkicker 2 installed in my rig and using the SimShaker for Aviators software add-on. That provides good haptic feedback for some of the big issues. High AoA, turbulence, flaps moving, wheel contact on the ground. For the rest, there’s unfortunately no good way I’ve found so far to create the mostly internal signaling that happens between plane and pilot giving that feeling of intuitively flying.

Airspace and Radios - Not Without Help

Last, I was unprepared for how busy the radios are in the real world. Modern sims have radio chatter of one form or another, but in a sparsely populated world that’s typical of single-player simulations it’s nowhere near as busy on the radios as it’s turned out to be flying in the Seattle area. Sure, tower frequencies are jammed full at busy times, but even CTAFs at untowered airports are a party line of pilots trying to figure out who is landing in what order. You’re constantly listening, constantly having to analyze who’s talking to whom (even if it’s not for you it might be important), and making a mental map of what this means for what aircraft is where in the sky and what kind of mess you’re flying into.

It was overwhelming at first - and I won’t say I’ve fully gotten the hang of it yet - but there starts to be a rhythm your brain gets into where it can slot away what it hears into some useful form right along with your instrument scan, your outside scan, and your seat-of-the-pants intuitive flying signals to give you a comprehensive understanding of where you’re at, what you’re doing, and where you’re headed. On its own a sim doesn’t really give you a rich radio-traffic community, but certain add-ons and communities like VATSIM or PilotEdge can bridge the gap.

What’s the Verdict?

I figured when I started my real flight training that my time in the simulators would not fully prepare me for real-world flight. I was right about that.

However - simulators absolutely do confer advantages. You learn the physical forces and tradeoffs involved in flying. You learn the function and usage of aircraft instruments. You begin to get a feel for certain locations if you fly them often enough. And, with the right add-ons you can enhance some of the shortcomings of the simulators, enhancing radio traffic to be richer and haptic sensations to bring a sense of feel.

What’s left when all has been tallied is perhaps the most dangerous gap of all: discipline. Simulators still exist as an extension of ourselves - we are staring at a representation of a world behind glass (even if that glass is virtual reality) and as such there’s never quite the respect afforded to the very real danger of Getting It Wrong that is behind so much of the primary instruction new pilots need to receive.

What I had to unlearn was the “head in the instruments” mentality that I had built up from so much sim time, and instead realize I was flying in a world full of planes and other activity that I needed to see, understand, and take action with. That world is dynamic, much richer and much busier than almost any simulator experience I’ve ever had, and it’s humbling each and every time.

That all said - I’m glad for my simulator experience, and I continue to make it a part of my training regimen. I expect that’ll continue, and tech will improve on both fronts. I’m excited to see the next evolution.