"Study" Level

Greetings helicopter enthusiasts! I notice a distinct lack of OP-ED’s floating around Helisimmer and as a (I would like to think) involved member of the community, I love discussions that spark interesting debate and discussion. If anything, just to make people think or, make me think more about my pre-conceived notions.

Todays topic of discussion: The use of the phrase “study-level”. This is a phrase that irks me on a cellular level. One of the tenants I have always admired about the simulation community is that they are so often dedicated to doing things very thoroughly.

Therefore, let me clear that up immediately – I genuinely enjoy that we are a demanding bunch. We push developers to put better work into the modules we purchase for our sims. We demand that they try to integrate systems and functions that we could expect in the real aircraft.


Although, that same argument has some serious implications to the hobby as well. From my perspective, there are two huge issues here. Let’s examine who’s making our favorite add-ons.

According to a study done by Flight Sim Elite in 2017, done by Timothy Thomas, across three platforms (one of which is no longer produced), our community is about 910,000 strong. This doesn’t necessarily include helicopter-exclusive pilots although, another report done by Laminar suggests that helicopter pilots only make up about 5% of the X Plane community.

Compared to many other companies that target a specific group, 910K is a very low number. Most companies won’t even blink an eye for a profit audience under a million. There simply isn’t a market for a product that requires extensive time and development costs where the return on investment would be so low.

Specifically, Sérgio did a fantastic article a few months back about third-party developers and what goes into making modules. If we couple those numbers with the required complexity of simulating real-world aviation equipment (which is extraordinarily expensive), sometimes the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.

Amazingly, despite these limitations, we still see some amazing equipment released by people like DreamFoil, Zibo, FlyJSim, Carenado, Polychop, Razbam and HeatBlur.

Commonly, these teams are not huge. Maybe a handful of 3D artists, a few coders and other miscellaneous staff. I know Alfredo does most of his work for DreamFoil completely alone and PolyChop is three people. That’s it: three. A lot of these folks’ wade through mountains of technical manuals, each encompassing different producers and systems, to try to provide a sliver of realism.

These dedicated people understand their work goes mostly transparent. Half the systems can only marginally be replicated on the simulator and most of the folks who use the product don’t know how to use the equipment or do not have the resources to learn how to use the systems fully themselves.

Let me provide an example (and before you read further, no, I’m not aware of anyone making a CH-47F simulator for any platforms nor do I think they could), but during my day job, I fly the CH-47F.

That helicopter has many computers (more than ten, less than 20). Each MFD (Five in total) has a dedicated processor. Then each CDU (2) has a processor. And then all that information is managed through about a billion miles of dedicated wiring to a few million data buses somehow crammed between the sound-proofing.

Compound with some very sophisticated monitoring systems and a host of other tertiary enabling systems, that helicopter has systems that could probably fly it to the moon and make the Apollo program look like child’s play.  You don’t even want to know what all is crammed into an Apache, trust me.

But let’s look realistically: is that computing technology really any different than what goes into a Boeing 737-800 or Airbus A380? Spoiler: not really.

Sure, there are some intrinsic differences as far as combat hardening and weapons interfaces. But the basics are the same. We still fly off from an attitude indicator and use a form of an FMS to interface with the systems on board.

Lest we forget, being a real pilot of one of these aircraft isn’t a task to take lightly; I figured the numbers one day for a colleague and the amount of education your average ATP-licensed pilot or military pilot equals the same as what a surgeon endures to earn a doctorate.

I’m not even exaggerating. When you include the time required to go from zero flight time, to a Cessna, then to multi-engine, complex, instrument rating, flight time requirements to even get a job flying the million-dollar meat tubes, then the dedicated course-work and recurring simulator time learning to use the systems, it’s a lot of work; specifically, 8 years of it.

One more example: the class for using the FMS I use on the Chinook (which we call a CDU) was several weeks of five hours a day class room instruction and then a few more hours of practical application in the sim before we ever touched it in the real helicopter.

Now, lets jump back to home simulators.

We expect these dedicated folks to make a mirror-functioning piece of software to go in the simulator without the training, without the expertise, and on their free time? (Most of these guys have day jobs outside of writing code so they can actually afford to eat, provide for their families and still keep selling-costs low on their products).

HA! But still, we demand “STUDY LEVEL”! This phrase is a joke.

What is real “Study Level”

Okay, so what is real study level then?

Let me break a bubble and I’m sure that it would make a lot of people angry: it has nothing to do with the systems, computers or button pushes.

It has to do with the computer located between the pilots eye-balls. It’s the pilots – whether simulator or real, doesn’t matter.

It’s the attitude that you guys and those guys out there doing the daily connection between Philly and New Jersey, take into the cockpit every day. Sullenberger didn’t successfully land in the Hudson and save everyone on board by using a fancy computer.

He used his brain and his instincts. Lindbergh didn’t cross the Atlantic using a fancy computer. He used a sextant and a star chart in a rickety, wooden Ryan aircraft. General Chuck Yeager didn’t break the sound barrier with a computer either. These men were studious. They learned the systems and limitations of what they had and then they learned how to employ them to do amazing feats.

They were not ones to sit back and say, “Yeah, I guess that works.” Instead, they said, “what do I have to do with what I have?” and figured out a way to get the job done.

Study level doesn’t start with systems replication. That’s a fantastic goal and if the producer can make that, then they deserve an award or at least far more recognition than what they get in our tiny community.

I hold a massive amount of respect for the people that help to expand and improve this hobby and I’m willing to pay the money that is required if I want that kind of simulation. God knows those guys deserve it.

But, at the end of the day, I always remember that study level doesn’t start in the cockpit. It starts in the books. It involves the methods and procedures we use to accomplish the task. It requires the mindset necessary to employ what we have when we get in that cockpit.

Remember: when we demand “study-level” from the dedicated men and women who help improve this hobby (and, sure, maybe make a few bucks in the process), we’re not placing the burden on our shoulders. We’re placing the burden on theirs. Because, in order to fully replicate most of those systems, they have to do the studying to understand a system that entire teams are dedicated to developing and maintaining.

That’s a billion-dollar industry, but don’t take my word for it. Look up how much a Garmin G1000 costs or Google how much Rockwell-Collins is worth. Let’s remember that when we demand “study level” from those folks.

Okay, enough of my rant – thank you for reading. I have to cut this short so I can quickly skim the very-detailed manual of the new Zibo 737 I downloaded. I need to figure out the button-pushes to open the doors…

[Editor’s note: a 737? Jeff, you’re fired…]