Home flight simulators – keeping proficient when you cannot fly

Paul Ingram

10 May 2020

There’s no denying that we are in some very strange times. The take-no-prisoners approach to global domination that COVID-19 has taken has affected pretty much everyone in one way or another. For many pilots – both commercial and private – this has meant an inability to fly due to Government restrictions, or airfields being unavailable for use as a precautionary measure.

Here in the UK we’re now entering our seventh week of a Government-imposed “lockdown”, and with that the Civil Aviation Authority stated that no General Aviation recreational flying should take place, which has left a number of pilots like myself with an aeroplane at arm’s length they cannot fly… scenes of rage behind closed doors are the only thing I can imagine is happening country-wide. Ripping the ability to shout “CLEAR PROP!”, usually at nobody, from any pilot for even the shortest amount of time is a bit like ripping the beating heart from a lion’s chest and dangling it in front of them…

I digress.

So there are two concerns with this situation – and I’m going to focus on private pilots here since I do not really know enough about commercial flying to comment. The first is engine health and the risk of corrosion – and that call has been answered by the CAA in the form of “engine health flights” which have strict but fair rules attached to them. There are three people in the group I fly in (including myself) and so that technically means I get to perform an engine health flight once every three months. Cool.

(If this “lockdown” goes on much longer than that I think there’ll be bigger problems… my youngest son – 9 years old – is already running around the house with his arms out making aeroplane noises. Draw your own conclusions…)

The biggest concern on a lot of people’s minds is currency and proficiency. We solve the currency issue by kindly asking an instructor, while handing them our wallet, to help us with that if needed. I suspect there will be a number of instructors inundated with check flights once this is over… but the interesting pub quiz question remains. “Who checks their currency?!” I’m sure that’s easily answered, but anyway.

How do you solve a problem like proficiency?
Unlike the famous film set in Austria during the last time the world faced a huge crisis, we can’t just sing our way out of this proficiency issue. We can read books and watch videos of other people flying – and you definitely should do that. Keeping the theory skills sharp means when you’re next in the plane faced with having to calculate ETAs, density altitudes, descent rates or anything else in-flight, you won’t end up thinking you’ve suddenly forgotten how to do basic mathematics. I’m in the middle of instrument training at the moment, so I’m placing a lot of focus on IFR-related theory to around the point I got to.

The other method a number of pilots have turned to – myself included – is a home flight simulator. I’ve had one of these for the best part of 20 years – back in the days of Microsoft Flight Simulator 98 it was just a bit of fun. Didn’t know what I was doing, wasn’t really anything serious for me. Now I have a dedicated triple-screen set up in the corner of my home office, a powerful PC, couple of iPads (they’re also the ones I use in real flight), pedals, flight stick or yoke plus a headset to use a service called VATSIM for virtual ATC services. I would love to go further but it’s good enough for now, and it gets me my buzz as well as keeping my skills sharp.

In real life I currently fly G-AVWT – a 1968 Piper PA28 Arrow 180hp twin-blade propeller aeroplane. It’s a beautiful plane – well looked after, flies well and fulfils my mission for the foreseeable future. And so recently I’ve bought the nearest model I could find for my sim – an Arrow III model from Just Flight – some differences but the flight model is close enough that I can keep my head in the game as much as possible. It even sounds pretty close to the real thing – from the slight tone drop when going to full power on takeoff, to the way the engine noise changes when you advance the prop lever to full on the pre-landing checks. Pretty impressive I have to say.

I also bought another couple of models – a Cirrus SR22T and a Premier 1. Both of these aeroplanes are on my “money no object” list as machines I would at least like to try. I’m a big fan of the YouTube channels Stefan Drury, Niko’s Wings and Premier 1 Driver – both Stefan and Niko fly the SR22 with Greg flying a Beechcraft Premier 1. The TBM series is on my list to explore as well thanks to steveo1kinevo’s channel – I thoroughly recommend checking out their channels if you haven’t seen them already!

How are three planes – two of which I don’t fly for real – helping me?
Aside from using my flight simulator for a bit of fun and enjoyment, I have three main goals.

  • Keeping proficient in the procedures for my own aeroplane – the Piper Arrow
    This includes but is not limited to: general handling, emergency procedures, circuit practice, keeping proficient with the checklist and making sure I still know how a Constant Speed Propeller works. The model I’ve bought flies pretty well in comparison to the real thing, so it makes sense to keep these skills sharp in this plane.

  • IFR flying, VFR navigation, general airspace procedures – Cirrus SR22T
    Arguably I could do this with the Arrow, but the SR22T is quite a bit quicker and also has a Garmin G1000. Back when I did my PPL skills test in 2018, I was using a G1000 and spent a good hour or two with an iPad the night before my test with a G1000 simulator app, practicing everything from radio tuning to using radio navigation aids. Clearly it paid off, and the PFD setup is useful for instrument flying. The same G1000 simulator app connects to X-Plane – the flight simulator I’m currently using – and that means I can have touch screen interaction with the avionics without having to struggle with the mouse in the sim, while trying to fly.

    This makes the SR22T model I have a great fit for the navigation procedures – as the G1000 app does pretty much everything I need. I also mentioned speed – you could argue that a faster plane is actually not the best fit since there is less time to think and react. I actually see it as the other way around – it keeps me sharp as I’m having to think faster to stay ahead of the aeroplane, which is vital to avoid task saturation or even flying into a potentially dangerous situation. So any practice I’m doing in relation to my IFR training, VFR navigation and airspace procedures (joins/VRP transits/etc) is generally done in the SR22T at the moment.

  • Radio telephony work with VATSIM – Premier 1
    Now you may think I’m nuts here. I can already hear someone at the back shouting, “why are you taking a much faster aeroplane online with VATSIM when you fly a light aircraft for real?!” This ties in a fair amount with my thought process on the SR22 – things happen faster, therefore I have to think faster. I’ve just recently done a flight from Jersey to Southampton, then from there to Lydd in the UK. It was a fairly busy time on the VATSIM network; there was a tower and approach controller at Jersey, nothing at Southampton but I was asked to speak to London who gave me a radar control service on my flight to Lydd.

    Not only is this fantastic practice for me as it’s breaking down controlled airspace apprehension even further, but it’s keeping my RT skills sharp and focused. With the accurate comparisons most of the time to the CAP413 radiotelephony document the CAA publish, you end up getting real-world clearances for transits including altitude limits, squawk code changes, vectored headings and so on. Keeping it real means writing notes on paper – just like I would in real flight. And because it’s done at a faster pace than I’m used to in an Arrow, it’s also helping me with keeping ahead of the game.

    The other benefit to flying a faster plane is that you can go through more controllers faster. More controllers means more radio communications, and that means more practice.

When the UK Government lift restrictions enough to allow those with the ability to fly solo, I want to be ready to go. And so whether it’s proficiency work in my flight sim or theory work with my trusty books, this keen enthusiastic pilot is not allowing even the slightest bit of rust to set in. I’m looking forward to taking to the skies once again – I know many of us are looking up, thinking the same.