In The Beginning

I was like many young fellas of my generation growing up with a fascination for flight. I had my copy of FS98 and spent my time flying heavies all over the world instead of doing homework. With add-ons like Eric Ernst’s brilliant 767 add on, many of the real world type systems began to be modeled with a high level of accuracy. I was one of many that would proclaim that I had the ability to operate such complex machinery and would one day take my place in the cockpit of such a machine.

With my increasing age, my interest started to shift to GA (whatever the hell General Aviation means) and I really couldn’t see my future in Boeings but in light aircraft and helicopters. My flight simming habits changed also and so the biggest aircraft I was flying was a Twin Otter or something similar. My level of confidence in my own ability continued to grow as did the fidelity and complexity of simulator add-ons and soon I was proclaiming the same nonsense about being able to fly the real aircraft.

About this time, in the late 90s, I took my first actual lesson in one of the aircraft I had been using in the simulator, a Cherokee 140. Saying I was humbled would be a slight understatement. I was able to fumble my way around the sky with all the dexterity and grace of a toddler learning to walk but the sim had left me pretty much unprepared. What was the difference? Well, the noise, the feel through the controls and the fact that I was acutely aware of actually being in the air. I was comfortable up there and I felt that I knew how to handle the aircraft but I was putting so much brain power into flying and I didn’t feel like I was truly in control of the aircraft.

About a day later, I fired up the simulator again and something in me changed. I took the same aircraft from the same airport and flew more or less the same route as I had done time and time again in the past but this time, I was trying to replicate what I had experienced. I started to fly correct speeds and set power settings that I had observed. In short, I was treating the simulator as I would treat the real aircraft.

Onward to Rotary

Fast forward a number of years to starting my helicopter training and the process almost repeated itself. I had been flying around in the wonderful Dodosim Bell 206 for a few years and felt pretty comfortable but getting into the R22 for the first time, I was a rookie like everyone else. Oh sure, I knew how the controls worked which probably partially came from the sim but the sensation of using peripheral vision and very light control pressures was all new. Like my previous experience, I started treating my helicopter sim time completely differently after starting my real world helicopter training.

Where am I going with all this rubbish that I’m spewing forth? I said at the start of this piece that sim proponents often say that simulator time helps your real world flying far more than many pilots give it credit for. I guess this is true for things like procedures and instrument flying for which the process is more important than the physical flying but for true hand flying skills? Well…. I think it’s almost the opposite.

Flying, helicopters in particular, require one to become part of the machine to use an overused phrase. Simulator flying alone doesn’t allow you to do this. In short, my simulator flying skills were improved by my real world flying skills.

Now I can almost hear you X-Plane people screaming at your monitors "But what about X-Plane????? That’s light years ahead Microsoft Flight Simulator for helicopters." Well sure, the X-Plane aerodynamics engine, from the little I’ve seen of it, is a long way ahead of Microsoft’s but it still doesn’t give you the true feel of flying.

Now there are things like Track IR and some of the marvelous but horrendously expensive helicopter controls available but I’ll just say that I’ve had a brief go at X-Plane with Track IR and proper helicopter controls. I still suffered from the same issues with depth perception and peripheral vision that I did without all that stuff.

And so...

Not all of us are able to have a career in aviation or even hold a flight crew licence. The reasons are many and varied. From medical to family and, the most common, financial. Flying for a career ends relationships, dominates your life and in my case, takes you away from home for long periods of time. Flying for a hobby, particularly helicopters, is almost prohibitively expensive and so there are many for whom, a flight crew licence just isn’t possible or practical. If you fall into this category for which simming is your release or you think that you can fly anything because you can in the simulator, then I would say that it’ll benefit your hobby if you can scrape together enough change to go do an hour or two of flight training. Even if you have no intention of getting a licence, it’ll improve your sim flying and give you a new or renewed appreciation for your hobby.

Photo credit: The U.S. Army via / CC BY