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When I was earning my pilot's license (Commercial, Instrument, and Flight Instructor - Advanced and Instrument), about 35 years ago, the only way to get 'ground time' for instrument training, (which was very expensive in the air), was to sit in a mechanical, analog, bolted-to-the-floor mock-up of a cockpit, that probably cost tens of thousands of dollars. Yet, even such a crude contraption offered unique advantages, such as a plotter-driven output that allowed you to review where you inevitably went wrong, as well as the ability to stop the flight and repeatedly attempt a difficult instrument approach, time and again, without the real-world variables of changing wind, turbulence and traffic. It was crude, but it worked.

Today of course, things are different. Off-the-shelf PC-powered flight simulator software is very inexpensive, and amazingly powerful, even able to provide a reasonable 'feel' of the plane through force-feedback controls. This can be so effective, that I've heard stories (which I believe) that people have 'learned to fly' a light aircraft so well using this software, that their first real flight was pretty easy. Which is quite an improvement from the typical total confusion and high stress levels often experienced by a new student; not surprising, considering that he or she is thrust into trying to master a new three-dimensional environment, in a completely unfamiliar vehicle, with totally new instruments and with no knowledge of the control forces needed to keep things, literally, up in the air.

(The flight instructor in the next seat knows it can be done, of course, and has a good incentive to keep things safe, since he or she would hit the ground at the same instant as the student. But even though any good instructor takes great pains to gently introduce the student to this new environment one element at a time, learning to fly is still often an incredibly exhausting, while wildly exhilarating experience for the student.)


An extreme case.

Of course, as helpful as 'flight simulations' can be, a typical desktop installation running software such as Microsoft Flight Simulator, is rather limited in producing the realism of a complete view outside the cockpit windows. Not because the software can't do it, but because one or two monitors in front of you, is the equivalent of 'blinders'. No peripheral vision to the left or right, or up and down. And don't even think of turning your head to glance off to the side (although you can turn your 'blinders' any way you wish). But this doesn't have to be the case!

Brought to our attention by the June 28 issue of Mike's List, one flight simulator aficionado took advantage of his flight simulator software's ability to control a large 'U'-shaped array of monitors connected to several networked 'slave' PCs. Most impressive. And at a tiny fraction of the cost of that crude mechanical marvel in which I once practiced my instrument techniques.

Above and beyond.

Of course most PC flight simulators, even the one above, are 'static', in that you're aware that you're sitting in a stable, earthbound room -- there's no physical motion to give your body the real sensations of flying. But the 'big guys' do have exactly that: immense enclosed 'cockpits' that, from the inside, are identical to the real thing. These 'rooms' are mounted on hydraulic jacks that, under the specialized computer's control, DO impart the rush of lifting off (and the jolting thumps, or worse, of a bad landing or crash), plus most other in-flight sensations. Here's one example of such a commercial simulator, to offer a perspective on their size -- several people can easily stand on the railed-off platform on the outside of this in-motion simulator.


Realism? - A personal experience.

How realistic are these from the pilots' perspective? The picture below was not taken in a real aircraft, but from inside such a simulator.

The performance of these simulators is so realistic, that the FAA allows many airlines to conduct much of their pilot training on the ground, leaving the 'big iron' to keep plying the once-friendly skies.

As it happens, I can also personally attest to just how utterly convincing flying one of these simulators can be. After I'd become a flight instructor, I once had the opportunity to fly a commercial Boeing 737 simulator, and because this was merely an introduction and not part of a training course, the instructor had some fun with me, showing off just how realistic the simulator was. And it really was. I was completely convinced that I was really flying a 737; I'd lost any concept that I was sitting in a 'room' on top of moving legs on the ground.


Finally, I had learned to keep this huge and heavy jet (from the perspective of my flying experience) flying reasonably well in calm conditions, so it was time for an instrument approach to the airport. Sweating just as much as any student on his or her first training flight, I finally had the plane lined up and following the invisible left-right and up-down radio signals that define the optimum approach to a runway. It looked like I was actually going to pull this off!

Until -- the computer driving the simulator crashed…

Perhaps it intended to 'get back' at me for all the computers that I'd crashed with buggy programs. I'll never know, but this computer did very successfully extract its revenge!

Most of the flight instruments went awry, although the view out of the windows, remained working. The control yoke powerfully pushed me back in my seat as it pulled 'nose-up' and twisted to the right, and the now-uncontrollable aircraft forcefully entered a steep nose-high attitude and a rapid right-hand roll. The G-forces and the very real nose-high, rolled-right attitude, were utterly convincing. 


And then the lights went out with a jarring bump.

Even after the simulator rebooted, I really did believe that I must be dead. The simulator experience was so powerful and so realistic, that it took several hours before I was able to stand without weak knees, and before I didn't look 'white-faced' to those around me. Virtual experiences, when done well, can be that powerful!

Our VR tomorrows'

That experience seemed completely real to me, even though I did 'know better'. Today though, even with our marvelous desktop simulators, the lack of a purpose-built moving cockpit (and a large plane-load of cash), significantly reduces the fidelity of the experience (although there is still significant value for both entertainment and serious practice.) But this is an interesting example of how improvements in virtual reality techniques, hold the potential to increase the realism of even the 'desktop' experience. Motion-sensing 3D goggles, better force-feedback mechanisms, and eventually, ways to 'jack in' to our nervous systems, will eventually provide common VR experiences (for many varied purposes) that will feel even more real than my 'dying' in that simulator.

I just hope that those future computers don't similarly crash…

On the other hand, it would be fascinating to follow the lawsuit resulting from the first heart attack or similar death to be induced by a too-real simulated experience. Trust me -- I can well imagine that happening!

Jeffrey R. Harrow