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Microsoft Flight Simulator has found a place in real-world aviation training, and it’s being used in many roles.
My new book about using PC-based flight simulations to complement flight instruction will be published by Wiley in January 2012. For more information about Scenario-Based Training with X-Plane and Microsoft Flight Simulator: Using PC-Based Flight Simulations Based on FAA-Industry Training Standards, visit the title's page at the publisher's website.
The webinar I presented March 21, 2012, “Using PC-Based Simulations to Complement Flight Training,” is now available as a video that you can stream from the EAA webinars page. The video isn’t high-def, and the webinar hosting software that EAA uses doesn’t support videos and animations, but the presentation does give you an overview of my thinking about where PC-based simulations like X-Plane and Microsoft Flight Simulator fit in among the training and proficiency tools available to instructors and pilots. The presentation, which is based on the new book, also describes how you can use PC-based simulations effectively as part of scenario-based training (SBT).
If you have a copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator as a Training Aid, you can now earn WINGS credit from the FAA by completing a short quiz. You can register for the free online course (really just the quiz) at FAASafety.gov. To learn more about the WINGS program, visit the same site.
To learn more about my book, Microsoft® Flight Simulator as a Training Aid: A Guide for Pilots, Instructors, and Virtual Aviators, visit its page here at BruceAir.
The following links take you to information about how Flight Simulator is being used in a variety of training environments:
If you have questions about Microsoft Flight Simulator (e.g., system requirements, sources of technical support, improving performance on your system, updates, add-ons, etc.) please see Related Links on this page, the Flight Simulator page here at BruceAir, and the official Flight Simulator Insider site at Microsoft. You can also watch a product demo at the Flight Simulator X marketing website.
Questions about FAA approval of Microsoft Flight Simulator pop up as often as, say, inquiries about logging flight time (see below).
As noted above, the experiences of many individuals and organizations over the years demonstrate that PC-based simulations, including Microsoft Flight Simulator, can make your training or proficiency flying more efficient and less costly, even if time spent using the tools doesn’t count toward the minimum logged flight or simulator time required for a certificate, rating, or currency. As I often say, "It’s about learning, not logging."
No one doubts the utility and value of many training aids, such as GPS simulators, online courses, and training DVDs, none of which are "FAA approved" (with the exception of some courses that may be used to meet requirements for the FAA pilot proficiency program or the flight instructor renewal process).
Using PC-based simulations effectively is all about learning, not logging.
But to the main point: As I explain in detail in my book, the FAA doesn’t approve flight simulation software. It approves flight training devices (FTDs) and simulators, devices that include software plus displays, controls, and other features.
For more information about Basic Aviation Training Devices (BATD) and Advanced Aviation Training Devices (AATD), see Advisory Circular AC 61-136, "FAA Approval of Basic Aviation Training Devices (BATD) and Advanced Aviation Training Devices (AATD)." That AC was issued July 14, 2008, and it supplants AC 61-126, "Qualification and Approval of Personal Computer-Based Aviation Training Devices" and AC 120-45, "Airplane Flight Training Device Qualification."
To learn more about joysticks, yokes, rudder pedals, and other accessories for Flight Simulator, visit the Flight Simulator page here at BruceAir.
One of the most common misconceptions about flight training devices (FTD) and aviation training devices (ATDs) is that FAA (or other agency) approval is based primarily on flight models.
In fact, the FAA approves several levels of training devices and in many cases, a generic flight model--even one based on fictitious aerodynamic data--is sufficient. The FAA is much more concerned about whether a training device has controls such as flap and landing gear levers—no point-and-click mice allowed—than it is about the fidelity of a flight model.
To learn more about FAA approval of ATDs and FTDs, see:
The website of the FAA National Simulator Programs also provides additional information.
If you’re interested in a technical details about the flight model used in Microsoft Flight Simulator, see the article “Aircraft Simulation Techniques” on the FSInsider website. The document, written by one of the aeronautical engineers on the Flight Simulator team, is available as a .pdf file.
On August 21, 2009, the FAA published revisions to 14 CFR Part 61 (the rules that govern the certification of pilots and flight instructors), including the use of FTDs and flight simulators for training and to maintain instrument proficiency. The new rules became effective in October 2009, and the FAA published a revision to the original notice at that time.
The new rules (specifically §61.51) offer greater flexibility in the use of FTDs (including ATDs) and flight simulators in training for certificates and ratings and to maintain instrument currency. The FAA's comments in the Federal Register in the October update also clarified the agency's interpretation of the regulations.
For example, §61.51(b)(2) and §61.51(a) require that an authorized instructor must be present in the flight simulator, FTD, or ATD when instrument training time is logged for training and aeronautical experience for meeting the requirements for a certificate, rating, or flight review. The instructor must sign the trainee's logbook and verify training time and session content.
The FAA's comments on the rules, however, clarify several points. First, the FAA explains what "present" means in this context.
Examples of situations in which an authorized instructor will be considered present would be where an authorized instructor is seated at a center control panel in a flight simulation lab and is monitoring each student’s performance from control panel display. Another example would be a situation where an instructor assigns a student several instrument tasks and then leaves the room. In such cases, if the flight training device has a monitoring and tracking system that allows the authorized instructor to review the entire training session, the instructor need not be physically present. Another example would be a situation where one authorized instructor monitors several students simultaneously in the same room at a flight simulation lab.
The new rules also change §61.57(c) "to allow use of aviation training devices (ATD), flight simulators (FS), and flight training devices (FTD) for maintaining instrument recent flight experience."
The FAA is allowing different means to maintain instrument currency. The pilot may use whatever method best suits his or her needs to maintain instrument currency by using the actual aircraft, flight simulator, flight training device, or aviation training device, or a combination of all.
The FAA's comments elaborate thus:
Subject to certain limitations, a pilot may choose completing his/her instrument experience requirements in an aircraft and/or through use of an FS, FTD, or ATD. The simulation devices must be representative of the category of aircraft suitable for the instrument rating privileges that the pilot desires to maintain. Under new §61.57(c)(2), a person may use a flight simulator or flight training device exclusively by performing and logging at least three hours of instrument recent flight experience within the six calendar months before the month of the flight.
Under new §61.57(c)(3), a person may use an ATD exclusively by performing and logging at least three hours of instrument recent flight experience within the two calendar months before the month of the flight. We have deliberately established differences between the use of an ATD, FS, and flight training devices because use of an aviation training device to maintain instrument recent flight experience is a relatively new concept. The FAA wants to further evaluate its use before we allow use of ATDs equal to that of flight simulators and flight training devices. Under new §61.57(c)(4), a person could combine use of the aircraft and FS, FTD, and ATD to obtain instrument experience. When a pilot elects to combine use of an aircraft and simulation device, we will require, under new §61.57(c)(4), completion of one hour of instrument flight time in the aircraft and three hours in the FS, FTD, or ATD within the preceding 6 calendar months. Under new §61.57(c)(5), a person may combine use of an FS or FTD flight training, and an ATD to obtain instrument recent flight experience. When a pilot elects this combination, we will require one hour in a flight simulator or flight training device, and three hours in a training device within the preceding six calendar months.
Finally, the FAA clarifies the use of flight simulators and FTDs for accomplishing an IPC:
The revision to §61.57(d) concerning the instrument proficiency check does not prohibit the use of a flight simulator or flight training device for performing an IPC check, nor did the proposal in the NPRM propose eliminating use of FS or FTDs for performing an IPC. An FS or FTD may be used for accomplishing an IPC if the training device is approved for performing an instrument proficiency check. The content of an instrument proficiency check is addressed on page 16 of the Instrument Rating Practical Test Standards.
Comments in the preamble to the original notice in the Federal Register led to considerable confusion about the requirement that an instructor be present when a pilot uses an FTD to maintain IFR currency. That original notice said in part:
Provided the person is instrument current or is within the
second 6-calendar month period’’ (See § 61.57(d) for currency). A person would
not need a flight instructor or ground instructor present when accomplishing the
approaches, holding, and course intercepting/tracking tasks of § 61.57(c)(1)(i),
(ii), and (iii) in an approved flight training device or flight simulator. Only
when a person is required to submit to an instrument proficiency check must a
flight instructor or ground instructor be present. The rationale is that a
person is not required to have a flight instructor or ground instructor present
when performing the approaches, holding, and course intercepting/tracking tasks
in an aircraft. If the person is using a view-limiting device (i.e., hood
device) when performing the approaches, holding, and course
intercepting/tracking tasks in an aircraft, only a safety pilot is required to
be present. If a person is performing approaches, holding, and course
intercepting/tracking tasks in an aircraft in IMC, it is permissible to log the
tasks without a flight instructor being present. Therefore, a person who is
instrument current or is within the second 6-calendar month period (See §
61.57(d) for currency) need not have a flight instructor or ground instructor
present when accomplishing the approaches, holding, and course
intercepting/tracking tasks of § 61.57(c)(1)(i), (ii), and (iii) in an approved
device or flight simulator.
But the October 2009 revision removed that language and stated instead that:
This final rule amends Sec. 61.51(g)(4) to allow logging of instrument time in a flight simulator (FS), flight training device (FTD), or aviation training device (ATD) conforming to existing regulation or policy. An authorized instructor (See Sec. 61.1(b)(2)) must be present in the FS, FTD, or ATD when instrument training time is logged for training and aeronautical experience for meeting the requirements for a certificate, rating, or flight review (See Sec. 61.51(a)). The instructor must sign the person's logbook verifying training time and session content. Examples of situations in which an authorized instructor will be considered present would be where an authorized instructor is seated at a center control panel in a flight simulation lab and is monitoring each student's performance from control panel display. Another example would be a situation where an instructor assigns a student several instrument tasks and then leaves the room. In such cases, if the flight training device has a monitoring and tracking system that allows the authorized instructor to review the entire training session, the instructor need not be physically present. Another example would be a situation where one authorized instructor monitors several students simultaneously in the same room at a flight simulation lab.
Confusion remained, however. The latest word from FAA came in a letter from FAA Office of Chief Counsel on August 6, 2010. That letter (PDF), addressed to Terrence K. Keller, Jr., offers the following guidance:
This responds to your request for a legal interpretation clarifying whether a flight instructor must observe an individual using a flight training device or flight simulator to maintain instrument recency experience under 14 C.F.R. §61.51(g)(4)…. The preamble language you quote states, "a person who is instrument current or is within the second 6-calendar month period ... need not have a flight instructor or ground instructor present when accomplishing the approaches, holding, and course intercepting/tracking tasks of §61.57 (c )(1)(i), (ii), and (iii) in an approved flight training device or flight simulator." …Preambles to final rules serve two purposes; they explain the reasons for adopting the new rule, including responses to public comments, and they provide interpretive guidance on operation of the rule. However, when the rule and the preamble conflict, the rule controls. Accordingly, the regulatory text of §61.51(g)(4) is clear that in order to log the time an instructor must be present to observe an individual using a flight training device or flight simulator to maintain instrument recency experience. We acknowledge that the preamble language indicates some intent to change the rule. For that reason, this issue has been forwarded to the Flight Standards Service.
In the end, whether you can enter the hours spent “flying” a PC simulation as “simulator time” has little to do with the value that such experience adds to the quality and efficiency of your training. An hour in an airplane isn’t always an hour well-spent, especially if the goal of a lesson is frustrated by traffic-saturated ATC, weather, or other factors.
If you and your instructor want to keep track of “dual” time spent using a PC-simulation as a training aid, log those hours as ground instruction. After all, “flying” Microsoft Flight Simulator with your instructor to learn about holding patterns is a great way to visualize and “chair-fly”—better than a white board and static diagrams. Even if you’re “flying” solo at home, enjoy and benefit from the experience. It’s no different (and probably more fun) than other solo (and not-loggable) “training” such as poring over books and taking practice tests.
With proper guidance, time spent “virtual flying” will help you climb over learning plateaus and make the time you spend in a real airplane more efficient and effective if you remember that earning a new certificate or rating ultimately is about learning, not logging.
Tom Gilmore has also written a new book, Teaching Confidence in the Clouds, published by ASA, that offers additional guidance about using PC-based simulations in flight training. Gilmore’s book focuses on purpose-built PCATDs and Basic ATDs.
In late 2007, the Flight Simulator team announced Microsoft ESP, a development platform for companies that want to create products that use the technology in Flight Simulator. Microsoft ESP is a Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) platform designed for government and commercial organizations.