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.

Line Up and Wait

Most pilots know that way back in 2010 the FAA retired the phrase “Position and Hold”. Instead “Line Up and Wait” came into usage, indicated to an aircraft at a towered field that they are to taxi onto the runway, line up for departure, and then wait until takeoff clearance is given.

This change gets the US phraseology “lined up” with the rest of the world (bad pun, I know).

Line Up and Wait for Non-Towered fields

It is not uncommon at a non-towered field to hear a pilot use the “Position and Hold” or “Line Up and Wait” phraseology to indicate that they are taxiing onto the runway.

Sometimes this is done as another aircraft is departing, and sometimes it is used just to indicate that the aircraft will pause for a moment before departure. I will give these pilots some credit because this, at least, does give a clear picture of the pilot’s intention to stop on the runway before departing.

However, this phraseology is not meant for non-towered airports….for good reason.

Did you know that ATC will not issue “Line Up and Wait” if they can’t see the departure point (with a few exceptions)?

By taxiing into position at a non-towered field you are putting your aircraft into a vulnerable position. You can’t see behind you very well and an aircraft could be landing right where you are parked. The best solution here is to be patient for one more minute and wait until it is your turn to depart.

It can be tempting, if the pattern is full, to call a “Line Up and Wait” as a landing aircraft passes you. This way you are stepping into line for departure. But again, you are putting your fate into the hands of the landing traffic who could be distracted. Furthermore, there is no requirement for radio communications at a non-towered field so a landing aircraft might not even announce. Please don’t “Line Up and Wait”.

A Better Solution

Tired of waiting for the same 4 aircraft to let you into the pattern? Every time one takes off the next one is on final for a touch-and-go. This can be frustrating but don’t “Line Up and Wait”. Instead, communicate! Try a polite: “Cessna 12345, this is Cessna 54321 on Taxiway Alpha, do you mind extending downwind a little bit so we can depart runway 29?”

You will usually get a “Yes” and have plenty of time to takeoff….but if not, just try another plane. It’s very unlikely you will get 4 grumpy pilots!

The other reason people use “Line Up and Wait” is to indicate that they will be delayed in their departure once they are on the runway. The delay can be caused by a desire to conduct a shortfield takeoff and run the engine up, or to set the heading bug to runway heading.

However, I would argue that these common procedural tasks can all be conducted easily within a few seconds, and you should not even consider that a delay because it adds confusion for other pilots in the pattern. A pilot on downwind might begin extending their downwind when they are abeam even though you would have been off the ground before they turned final.

In these cases I recommend an ordinary departure announcement. It is clear and well understood, and it does not leave you in a vulnerable position.

Can a simulator teach you to fly?

I have been a CFI for 10 years now and a simulator user for much longer than that. I am frequently asked if flight simulators are just games or if they can really teach someone to fly.

YES, simulators can teach you to fly (almost). They are more than worth the time you put into them and here is why.

Flying is VERY expensive! By comparison, a home simulator (even with a high-end computer) is very inexpensive. So the cost savings are significant, as long as the simulator can make real-world training go faster.

I have given flight instruction to many people of all ages, with all sorts of backgrounds and skill levels. Everybody can be taught to fly, but some people take longer than others to get the hang of it. Almost everybody gets stalled somewhere in their training.

The most common place for people to get slowed down in training is when learning to land. This usually takes 10-20 tries before the student can perform survivable landings, and 50-100 landings before they are consistently good. Once the student can consistently make good landings (and decide to go-around as needed) they can do their first solo and move forward in training.

The Simulator Difference

This is where flight simulators come in. I always ask my students if they use flight simulators and most say “no”, or “just a little”. However, the students that report using flight simulators frequently have one amazing thing in common…..They land well in real life ON THE VERY FIRST TRY!

This one difference gets these students to solo very quickly and saves them hundreds of dollars in training costs. I have one important note here. I do not mean that they land well on the first lesson. In fact, I always have my students hold the controls and watch me land on the first lesson.

But after a few lessons of airwork they have a feel for the plane, and I always share the controls during landing on these lessons. But after seeing a few landings and really getting a feel for how the plane handles they are ready for the first lesson dedicated to them landing the plane. And that is when they do it.

As we approach the runway my hand is floating next to the yoke with my fingers outstretched – ready to grab or just bump the yoke as needed. I watch as they begin to roundout at just the right spot and float in for a smooth landing. It’s amazing!

There is a lot more that the simulator offers, especially if it is used for intentional training but this is the greatest example of the powerful difference it makes. This is why I am devoting significant effort on this website towards helping people to get the most training value out of their home simulators.

Want to learn more about training for real life flying in your home simulator?

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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”

Accident Study: Focus on Takeoff

Today, January 25th 2018, a Piper Lance had an accident at Marathon airport in the Florida Keys. It veered off the runway during takeoff and came to rest in some trees. It is not clear if it had broken ground or not but it appears that it rolled at least 1000 feet before getting into trouble.

Local News Report

Based on the news report I have created this image of the approximate track of the aircraft.

 

According to the news story above the plane caught a gust of wind as it lifted off. Wind gets a bit funny during liftoff….

Here is the METAR from near the time of the accident:

METAR KMTH 251953Z AUTO 05018KT 10SM OVC047 22/16 A3019 RMK
           AO2 PK WND 06027/1854 SLP222 T02220161=

Quick quiz: If you are still rolling on the runway and a gust of wind blows from the left, how will the plane react?

The plane will want to turn left, into the wind. This is because the wind pushes equally on the surfaces of the plane, but the large vertical tail surface is far behind the main wheels, which will act as a pivot point.

Once airborne this is still true, but the wind will also push the plane as a whole to the right (causing a natural crabbing effect).

The passenger’s report makes sense in light of the METAR provided although it doesn’t explain why the wind wasn’t handled by correcting the controls.

The NTSB is on the job but we are left to speculate. Taking off in these conditions requires focus and a level of professionalism.

In this case, I am speculating that the runway centerline was being ignored. If this is the case the aircraft may have been lined up sloppily with the wide runway and during departure, the aircraft may have drifted steadily to the left. If the pilot was not correcting for this drift he may have found himself dangerously close to the edge of the runway at too high a speed to stop. Perhaps he tried to brake or tried to rotate to get out of the situation, but whatever the correction was, it didn’t quite work.

A pilot with a professional attitude would depart on the runway centerline and correct for drift to stay on the runway centerline through takeoff. This ensures a safe buffer with the edge of the runway and plenty of time to handle gusts.

IMPORTANT: Please read my disclaimer below about accident studies


 

This study and all accident studies are not meant to judge anyone, their actions, or their skills as a pilot. I do not claim to know what the pilot did or what he/she was thinking. The purpose of these accident studies is to better understand what causes accidents and how to avoid them. Comments and other points of view are always welcome as long as they are respectful towards everyone involved.

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”