Chuck Weirauch examines the use of low cost flight simulation devices amongst ab initio flight schools.

At Zulu Flight Training in Spanish Fort, AL, general aviation students start private pilot's license flight lessons off right from the start in either a Redbird FMX full-motion AATD or the flight simulation company's BATD. The students are introduced to and practice all flight skills in the simulation-based devices before ever entering the cockpit of a training aircraft, all in a shopping mall setting.

It's a novel way to attract new pilot candidates to the industry and an exercise in demonstrating how far lower-cost FTDs have come to be both affordable to flight schools and provide the capabilities to accurately mirror aircraft performance and systems. With the technological advancement that is allowing the production of new lower-cost flight training devices that provide significantly improved capabilities over earlier FTDs and part-task trainers, the case for their employment by flight schools for primary and ab initio flight training has become more compelling than in the past.

 The Credit Issue

But while some flights school are embracing this new technology into their curricula for GA and ab initio training, the majority are only using part-task trainers for avionics, aircraft systems and instrument training as a part of ground school training. Most flight procedures and maneuvers are still initially taught in the aircraft. And although there is growing evidence that putting students into an FTD from zero time to learn systems, procedures and maneuvers can reduce flight training hours and subsequent training costs by allowing students to progress faster to competency, another major issue besides cost and device capability appears to be standing in the way for the adoption of the simulation-first approach.

"Many CFIs at flight schools are telling me that they would love to use simulation because it is more cost-effective and helps students learn to fly faster, but there is no flight-time credit for it and therefore no advantage in doing it," said Bob Barnes, President of the International Association of Flight Training Professionals (IAFTP). "The thing that has kept simulation out of general aviation is the cost, but the cost has become less of a significant issue. So the attitude is if you don't get credit for using the simulator, no one is going to use the simulator."

In the US under FAA regulations, the no-credit mind frame is a bit of a misnomer, since the FAA allows some training device time credit towards certification hour requirements, with more allowable credit as students move up towards instrument and higher ratings (see sidebar). And in light of the upcoming US Public Law 111-216 First Officer 1,500-hour flight time to ATP requirement, the aviation industry is lobbying for more hours credit for simulation-based flight training as a means to help reduce rising training costs, and to help allay the predicted pilot shortage. But some in the industry say that flight schools are placing too much emphasis on the limited ability to log simulator time towards flight hours as a reason not to incorporate simulation-based flight training into their curricula. 

FTDs First

At Redbird's Skyport Laboratory, a Part 141 flight school where general aviation students are taught all basic flight maneuvers in the simulator before they ever get to the aircraft, students must demonstrate proficiency in the simulator before they can move to the airplane. According to Redbird CEO Todd Willinger, both Skyport and Zulu Flight Training operate somewhat on the same model, and both charge a flat fee, from $8,500 to just shy of $10,000 for students to earn their private pilot's license. The flat fee allows students to have unlimited use of their simulators for practice of flight maneuvers and to review procedures.

Both base their curricula on the scenario-and-proficiency-based FAA-Industry Training Standards (FITS) private pilot training course program originally developed for Technically Advanced Aircraft (TAA). The FITS program calls for the extensive use of simulation and simulators for flight training and emphasizes the improvement of decision-making skills.

"We have developed our own FIT-accepted proficiency-based curricula for our Part 141 operation," Willinger explained. "It technically has no minimum hours. Our students do almost as much time in the simulator as they do in the aircraft. This averages out to be about 30 hours of simulator time and 34 to 35 hours in the airplane. We don't care about logable hours and believe that it's a mistake to focus on that."

"It's more important, in our opinion, to use the assets at your discretion for their intended purpose," Willinger continued. "For example, we think that the simulator is a much better environment for teaching maneuvers. That's because it is much more conducive for a learning environment versus being at 6,000 feet and trying to learn with all of the things going on in the cockpit. So we feel that all learning should take place in the simulator for consistency of training."

Gloria Liu, Zulu Flight Training's general manager, told CAT that the employment of simulators first is allowing students to earn their private pilot license in less time and at less cost than the traditional flight school model. She noted that while students can log their 2.5 hours of FAA permitted simulator time towards aircraft flight time, the students are "pretty much ready" for their check ride at 32 to 33 hours of aircraft time. They don't really need the required minimum 40 hours of aircraft flight time, she pointed out.

"Too many people focus on the 2.5 hours of credit," Liu said. "When you look at the national statistics that say that it takes private pilot students an average of 60 to 65 hours to earn their certificate, we don't feel that our students need those 20 additional hours. With a student retention rate already at 90 percent, FITS will allow us to offer greater flexibility to the student with greater safety focus by making proficiency the determining factor rather than flight hours in readiness for a pilot license.”"

Zulu Flight Training is a subsidiary of aircraft engine manufacturer Continental Motors, and the Zulu flight school model is being developed for possible export to China by the flight school's owner and for expansion in the US. Liu expects that a franchise and exportable prototype will be available for demonstration sometime in October.

Sim First Pays Off

While there is not a lot of empirical evidence yet that putting students in a simulator first actually produces a more proficient pilot in a shorter amount of time, there have been a fair amount of anecdotal results from studies that have supported the validity of such an assumption. Some of those studies have been conducted at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada as a part of research in support of the college's flight training curricula that is an essential element of its Aviation Technology degree program.

"The studies that we have done indicate that generally there is a reduced amount of time requirement to go solo if the students have gone through the simulation program prior to going to the aircraft," said Lynne McMullen, chair of Seneca's School of Aviation and Flight Technology. "We have always used simulation in our program, and the format has been that the students train in the simulator first before they go to the aircraft for familiarization and to learn the basics. This saves flight time, because once they begin to spin a prop, they have already become familiar with the exercises through simulation. This approach is also fabulous for remedial training. If something doesn't go well in the airplane during training, it's more cost-effective and efficient to conduct that extra training to correct those mistakes in the simulator."

According to Joan Williams, chair of Ottawa Flight Services, the concept of starting flight students off in a simulator before entering the actual airplane cockpit "has reached critical mass" in Canada. "Training in sims from Day Zero has just become accepted," she said. She cited her own flight school, as well as the country's largest school, Toronto Airways, as examples of taking this approach.

John Davis, vice president of Flight Training for Toronto Airways, said that currently zero time Chinese students sponsored by China Southern Airlines and enrolled in the flight school's Integrated ATPL program first go through 15 hours of simulator time in a Fidelity Flight Simulation MOTUS Cessna 172 FTD. The students learn and perform all of the procedures and flight maneuvers leading up to qualifying to solo within that time before moving to the actual aircraft, he said.

"In Canada, traditionally it takes 75 to 80 hours for students to earn their private pilot's license," Davis pointed out. "Our Chinese students are doing all of their flight tests in 40 to 42 hours and passing the exam for the license with no problems. We think that this is primarily due to their time in the simulator."

While Toronto Airways has regulatory approval to take the simulator-first approach in its international Integrated ATPL program, it currently does not have such permission for its primary domestic general aviation curricula. Due to its success in the ATPL curricula, Davis has applied to Transport Canada and provincial authorities to be able to transfer this concept to its other domestic student flight training programs as well.

"People have found out that we have these simulation devices and want to use them for domestic private and other flight license training," Davis pointed out. "We just need to open it up to the domestic market."

Marc Issott, Senior VP at Pan Am International Flight Academy, described how first putting zero time ab initio students into an FTD at the start of the Academy's seven-day theoretical flight training course has helped those students reduce their time to solo flight. Pan Am is currently integrating pre-private pilot certification on the road to ATP certification, with the initial 12 hours of flight training delivered in a C208 Caravan FTD, followed by a further 20 hours in a Saab 340 FTD. In both cases, two students are flying together up front in the simulator with an instructor in back. The students are taught basic flight maneuvers leading to pre-solo in the FTDs, with the training exercises, repeated in this environment. In this fashion, students experience 32 hours of simulator time before they ever enter the cockpit of an actual aircraft, Issott said. The program has resulted in, on the average, students consistently achieving their first solos in 5 to 10 hours of aircraft time, as opposed to the 15 to 25 hours it takes students instructed with the traditional flight school approach, Issott pointed out. The result is students reaching the proficiency levels for qualifying for their private pilot's license in a total flight training time of 40 to 42 hours. Students also get the added benefit of an 'early' Multi Crew Airline environment, utilizing challenge and response check lists from day zero, he added.

"So the sims help the student save money in keeping to the minimum required time to earn a private pilot's license," Issott summed up. "This approach is working very well, and that helps us at Pan Am as well. I do believe that the use of simulation can still be achieved in the lower-level devices and achieve the same level of proficiency. This is not unique to a Level D simulator."

FAA Credit for BATD and AATD-based Flight Training

The FAA’s General Aviation and Commercial Division (AFS-800) manages the evaluation and approval of ATDs, which are categorized into basic and advanced training devices. To do so, AFS-800 uses the requirements for performance and capability specified in Advisory Circular (AC) 61-136, which was published in July 2008. This document describes how the FAA approves ATDs, along with providing a summary of how pilots may use these devices.

Basic Aircraft Training Device (BATD)

A BATD generally has hardware and software features that allow the FAA to authorize it for certain training and proficiency credits. These credits include:

  • Instrument rating - maximum of 10 hours under 14 CFR section 61.65(i) or 14 CFR part 141, appendix C
  • Instrument Proficiency Check - per FAA-S-8081-4E (circle-to-land not authorized)
  • Use in accomplishing instrument recency of experience requirements of 14 CFR section
  • Not more than 2.5 hours of training under 14 CFR section 61.109(k)(1) on introduction
to operation of flight instruments (except as limited by 14 CFR part 141 appendices)

Advanced Aircraft Training Device (AATD)

An AATD must meet BATD-approval criteria, but it must also incorporate additional features and systems fidelity that provide ergonomics representative of a category and class of aircraft flight deck. The AATD does not need to replicate a specific aircraft make and model, although many devices do. These features allow the FAA to authorize an AATD for the following training and proficiency credits.

  • Private pilot certificate - maximum of 2.5 hours
  • Instrument rating - maximum of 20 hours
  • Instrument Proficiency Check - per FAA-S-8081-4E (circle-to-land not authorized)
  • Commercial pilot certificate - maximum of 50 hours
  • Airline Transport Pilot certificate - maximum of 25 hours
  • 14 CFR part 141 as limited by the applicable appendices, or under a special curriculum approved under 14 CFR section 141.57.
A quick way to remember the difference betweenbasic andadvanced is that the advanced version must be more representative of the aircraft cockpit design. It must also include a GPS and autopilot configuration.

Source: Marcel Bernard is an FAA Aviation Safety Inspector and the Aviation Training Device Manager with the agency's General Aviation and Commercial Division - FAA Safety Briefing September/October 2012.