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Visual Simulators for GA


Visual Simulators for GA  

"Some of the solutions currently available to the problem of producing a convincing simulation of visual flying at moderate cost"

A cheaper version of the 'approved' simulator

In the Summer issue of the GASCO safety magazine l looked at two visual simulators for experiencing scud running and found that MS Flight Sim on a PC was cheap but unconvincing while an ‘approved’ simulator at an advanced flying school was convincing but expensive.The search continues for a visual simulator that is both convincing and inexpensive.

Roger Harris

Roger Harris is an experienced microlight pilot and amateur simulator enthusiast. He tells me that his proposed answer to the problem, on which he is now working, is the development of a better visual system that will cost less than the professional collimated optical system found in ‘approved’ simulators. His solution in based on a spherical mirror and he says that he has already obtained good results.

Saxon Microlights

Joan Walsh flying the Saxon Microlights simulator. Copyright unknown.

Operating out of a strip at Jenkins Farrn, near Brentwood, Essex and training both from the strip and from North Weaid you will find Saxon Microlights. The CFI and proprietor is Joan Walsh, who teaches on a Thruster T600N three axis microlight with a nosewhel and she also has available her earlier taildragger Thruster. Joan has a considerable professional background in simulator testing and design. She came to microlight flying via gliding and once she had set up her school it was only natural that she should investigate a possible role for a simulator in flying training.

She regards her Mk 2 simulator as a valuable training resource and likes the ability to set up a variety of weather conditions, including gusty crosswinds, on the approach. She finds that by using real terrain simulations, cross countries in realistic weather conditions can be practised to good effect and best of all, she likes the ability to pause the flight for a short discussion, just before the student makes his favourite mistake, and then continue.

Saxon Microlight’s simulator seeks to replicate their Thruster microlight as nearly as possible.The main software used is XPlane, with the facility of adjusting the handling characteristics to replicate those of the Thruster closely. There is a 50 in. flat screen high definition television set at about 1.2 m ahead of the pilot and the struts and engine pod of the Thruster form part of the image on the screen, interrupting part of the view ahead. The whole gives a far more realistic impression of actual flying than does an ordinary PC. Joan demonstrated approaches and landings and explained that landings can be replayed from the viewpoint of a spectator and the niceties of the approach, hold off and touch down discussed from this perspective. She believes that many of her students benefit greatly from this resource. The Mk 2 simulator cost around £3,000, of which about £2,000 was the cost of the TV set. l should expect this simulator to be very useful for training in basic handling, landings and navigation but for my particular interest in replicating scud running it lacks high definition scenery and although the view ahead is impressive on the 50 inch screen, the lack of side views is a significant drawback. The Saxon simulator rents out, with an instructor, at £45 per hour.

R C Simulators

Bob Sidwick with his TripleHead2go, trackIR simulator. A small movement of the head alters what is seen on the screens. That's a checklist that he has displayed on his right hand screen. Copyright unknown.

The Sim Kits equipment demonstrated by TRC Developments b.v. at the AeroExpo relied for visual representation of the world beyond the cockpit on a standard PowerPoint style projector playing on a large screen in front ofthe user but no adequate side views were offered.Their set up would cost around £3,500 altogether. Sim Kits is a Dutch company and their UK representative is RC Simulations; it was a visit to that company which revealed the most advanced low cost visual simulator that I have come across to date.

Bob Sidwick at R C Simulations had a business interest in flying simulators and decided that it would be helpful to gain a rudimentary knowledge of actual flying and so he attended ground school courses at a local flying club. He now has an aeroplane PPL and an IMC Rating and flies about 30 hours a year for real. His software is very versatile, including detailed actual terrain, and VoxATC UK voice recognition based ATC. To provide convincing visual simulation Bob Sidwick’s answer is three adjoining 19 in PC flat screens served by TripleHead2go, trackIR software, a three point infra red array fixed to the headset and a sensor on top of the central screen. The sensor detects movements in the pilot's head and the screens then show the view that the pilot wants to see. As any competent pilot should, Bob looks left and right before taxying out and on the screens appear the views beyond the wing tips of the PA38 Tomahawk that Bob is flying today, rapidly swivelling what is seen on the screens first to the left and then to the right. Of course, the head movement is geared so that only a relatively small movement will generate a larger change in what appears on the screen so that the pilot can comfortably still see the screens at all times.This software was designed for simulated aerial combat so the field ofvision is, necessarily, considerable. Looking down in front of one wing for an overhead join, for instance, presents no problem. For his demonstration flight Bob used a facility that he has built in whereby the current real life METAR for the airfield nearest to the location of the simulated flight is, by default, the weather simulated. Bristol International was giving good visibility that day but Scattered at 100 ft and Broken at 300 ft. Just the sort of weather that some naive pilot, anxious above all else to get home, might attempt. The demonstration was impressive: we groped our way along to the destination airfield at about 5oo ft, dodging around the low clouds, but never saw the actual airfield or approach lights until we were overhead, too late to land and long after Bob would have turned back to Filton in real life.

l flew the simulator for a short time myself. The trackIR solution is not quite as convincing as a full ‘approved’ simulator but it is, nonetheless, an impressive substitute. When I wanted to glance down from the view ahead to the panel I found that just lowering my eyes did not answer and l had to nod my head down a fraction to get the panel up on the screens. I should imagine that this departure from real life would soon become instinctive. The full set up, as demonstrated, costs around £5,000 and this puts it within range of flying clubs, schools and even some private individuals.

The Microlight Flying School


The Microlight Flying School and Club at Popham Airfield in Hampshire have the most sophisticated non ‘approved’ simulator that l have come across and they have been using some sort of simulator since 1991. Mac Smith, the proprietor, tells me that his simulator cost something like £50,000 to set up and there has been further substantial expenditure since on upgrades and improvements. The system is similar to that used by ‘approved’ systems and I should expect the result to be as satisfactory. The school incorporates simulator training into its flying training, selling a training package to solo standard that comprises six hours in the simulator and six hours flying. Non ‘approved’ simulator training does not count towards the minimum training hours required for a licence, but as few students qualify at any school with only the minimum hours anyway, this is not much of a drawback in practice. This simulator rents out with an instructor at £35 per hour.

One day we shall all fly them

The argument for using simulators for the continuation training of qualified pilots was accepted long ago in Civil Air Transport (CAT) and the military and it is now only within GA that simulators do not play a part in keeping nearly every pilot’s skills well honed. The obstacle to the universal adoption of simulators within GA has been, so far, the cost. Simulators, even though not ‘approved’, appear to have significant benefits to offer basic training schools and now that it appears that costs are becoming affordable at last. The time seems ripe for every aeroplane and microlight school and club in the land to expect their qualified pilots and instructors to spend some time regularly on a simulator following a suitable refresher training programme. The flight safety benefits would inevitably match those experienced in CAT and the military. Glider, helicopter and balloon organisations will no doubt move in the same direction.

Reggie Bender demonstrating one of his captivating visual simulations. Copyright unknown.


It is interesting to note that so far it has been the microlighters and the glider pilots who have promoted the development of visual flight simulators and once again the aeroplane people seem to be stuck in a torpor. Why that should be, I cannot say.

By Nigel Everett

(Our thanks go to GASCO flight safety for providing us with this informarion).


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