Landing in a Simulator: Advantages

Yes, there are some downsides to using a simulator to learn how to land a plane. However, there are significant benefits to landing in a simulator over real-life.

Cost

This is the big obvious advantage. Learning to land in the sim costs basically nothing compared to landing in real life which usually costs around $10 per attempt when renting a plane.

Time

Practicing landings in real life allows for one trip around the pattern every 5 minutes or so. This means that in a 1 hour lesson you usually can’t do more than 12 landing attempts.

The simulator however, let’s you save and load quickly. A good approach leads to a good landing so make sure to spend plenty of time practicing both. It is nice to save on midfield downwind at pattern altitude and the correct speed and then reload this save over and over again to quickly practice approaches to landing.

Once you get the approaches down try saving about 100 feet before the end of the runway so you can practice the touchdown over and over again. Some simulators will even allow you to load your save with a joystick button so you can land again and again!

Views

When landing a real plane you can only access one view: the 3D cockpit view. This is nice but the simulator allows you to land from chase view and really get an idea of how the airplane is behaving during landing.

Practice landings in the chase view sometimes and you will get better at touching down softly.

Replays

Debriefing after a flight is one of the best ways to solidify your learning. Use replays of your landings to help recall what worked and what went wrong.

Landing in a Simulator: Disadvantages

I am a big supporter of flight simulators as a training tool. But, like every tool, there are several drawbacks to using it. In this post we will go through a few of the shortcomings that simulators have when learning to land.

You can’t feel the plane

A big part of the getting the muscle memory and physical skill involved in landing is based on your almost subconscious feeling of the way the airplane is moving. When you are floating just above the pavement your main goal is to keep the aircraft on a steady track despite shifts in the wind and ever-changing airspeed.

When your body senses a pull to one side you can react without thinking with corrective rudder. In the simulator you can only see this motion, so there is a bit of a delay.

The same effect occurs with sinking. As the aircraft loses airspeed it will want to sink and for the early part of the landing you generally want to resist sinking to lose more airspeed. Again, your body can feel this happening a bit faster than your eyes will see it.

The effect of this disadvantage is small, but important.

You can’t see properly

This one has to do with peripheral vision. In a simulator, you generally can’t see out the side of your eyes like you can in real life.

In real-life your eyes can see just about 90 degrees on each side, which is a huge amount of extra information coming in. When landing this means that you can see the pavement racing by out the side and front windows. This little bit of extra information helps your brain to put together an estimate of how high you are in real-time.

I believe modern virtual reality headsets will mitigate this factor somewhat and eventually peripheral vision in a sim may be just as good as real-life.

Your controls feel wrong

When you land a real plane your controls begin to feel “mushy” as the plane slows down. This is simply because there is less air flowing over the wings and you need lots of aileron to get any sort of roll control at all. The same is true for your other control surfaces as well.

In the simulator, the yoke or stick is often very sensitive because there is no feedback to push against. There are some force feedback joysticks out there that may help with this one somewhat.

Conclusion

Despite these drawbacks there are some serious positives to using a simulator to learn how to land.

Think like a Glider Pilot

Recently I was flying a Piper Arrow at 2500 feet in turbulent air. I was carefully maintaining my altitude with pitch and trim changes. It was a bumpy ride but it was nice watching the puffy cumulus clouds pass by overhead.

Then I began to notice my indicated airspeed was changing despite my unchanged engine settings. First, my speed would be up about 10-15 knots for a minute or so, then it would drop back down for another minute. The next minute it was back up.

Why was this happening?

I thought about it for a few minutes. The engine RPM and manifold pressure were constant, and my altitude was constant.

This could only be caused by updrafts and downdrafts! Yes, the same turbulent air that was creating those clouds was pushing the plane up every time I passed under one.

You can imagine my plane flying in that mass of rising air, and me correcting almost subconsciously to maintain altitude. As the air mass rises, I need to pitch down to stay at the same altitude. This is as good as descending as far as airspeed is concerned.

These updrafts are what glider pilots use to stay airborne and even climb without an engine. A single-engine plane is far too heavy to stay aloft on the updrafts alone, but they do offer us free airspeed which can save on rental or fuel costs.

But how do we take advantage of them?

First, there is terrain: When you have any kind of terrain plan to stay on the upwind side as much as possible. As the wind reaches rising terrain it will rise to go over it and this rising air provides a great updraft that you might be able to take advantage of by altering your course just a little.

Second is cloud streets: Puffy cumulus clouds are formed in rising air so alter course slightly if it will put you under some cumulus clouds. It may be bumpy but if you are between clouds the air will generally be descending to replace the rising air under the cloud. Glider pilots look for cloud streets, which are long rows of clouds that can provide an updraft over a very long distance.

Just think like a glider pilot and consider how the air around you is moving. Tailwinds get all the attention when looking for bonus performance from the environment, but a nice updraft can help any aircraft to go just a little bit faster for the same power.

 

Taxiing An Airplane

Taxiing an airplane is easy to learn once you get some muscle memory in place.

Taxi Controls

You may already know this, but for most airplanes, you taxi with your feet. Some large planes have a tiller but that is another story for another day. Your foot controls consist of rudder pedals that will control the rudder and, for many planes, also directly control the nosewheel steering. Continue reading “Taxiing An Airplane”

Takeoff

Taking off in an airplane is a fairly simple process, especially compared to landing. But this easy task can be filled with danger, especially because of complacency.

“Just throttle up and pull back!”

It might be easy to think of take off this way, but don’t lose your focus because it’s not hard to make a mistake that can pull the tire off the wheel or leave you stuck in the mud at the side of the runway. Continue reading “Takeoff”