Simulator or In-Airplane?

Simulator or In-Airplane?

Simulator or In-Airplane?


Which is more effective: training in a simulator or training in a real airplane? It’s a common argument in our industry. And as one might guess, the providers of simulator training claim simulators are best, while providers of in-airplane training often say the airplane is better. With this article, I hope to challenge both ideas as most pilots should do both. Here’s why. 

Each platform offers strengths and weaknesses. In some cases, one platform is superior to the other. However, in all cases, training in both will result in a sharper pilot. Here is a comparison of some of the areas each platform does well and not so well. Let’s first review the characteristics of simulators.

Simulator Advantages
• Great procedure trainers 
• Ability to freeze the simulator at any point 
• Training things that can’t or shouldn’t be done in reality 
• Relatively more cost-effective 

Simulator Disadvantages 
• Simulation is simply not real
• Inaccurate representation
• Landings are not the same
• Other “sim-isms”
• Not representative of the customer’s plane
• Training often “handcuffed” by Part 142
• Class demographics 
• Higher time and travel costs 

The ability to freeze the simulator at any point allows
the instructor to focus on a precise point in time to reveal an error and teach the correction. Considering the previous example of the single-engine go-around, after the instructional moment, they move the “plane” back to the 3-mile final, configured, on profile, and do it again. This can be far more effective than discussing the same event following a real flight while relying on notes and memory for the debrief. 

Training things that can’t or shouldn’t be done in reality. The natural example here is an inadvertent thrust reverser deployment at V1. Even if it could be set up in reality, I certainly hope nobody would risk trying it. Most other events can safely be practiced in the plane.

Simulators are relatively more cost-effective. Although more of that benefit usually goes to the company providing the sim than to the pilot. Twenty hours of sim training is always less expensive for the customer than 20 hours of jet time. 

Now, let’s look at some reasons simulators are not perfect. 

Simulation is simply not real. The normal level of anxiety, discomfort and distraction is almost impossible to create in a sim. During some teaching moments this is actually an advantage. However, the realities of flight are always present in the actual airplane; a pilot must be able to function regardless. One of our most important skills as pilots is processing the vast amount of information and prioritizing our thoughts and actions. 

Even the best simulators don’t feel quite right. Although today’s technology is impressive, several seat-of-the-pants cues, cockpit lighting/shadows and sounds we experience in flight are not accurately replicated. While this can make it easier to focus on some things, it removes information pilots frequently use to maintain situational awareness. The disconnect between visual and vestibular inputs can cause motion sickness in simulators. 

Landings are not the same in simulators. This usually results in a student being given a mechanical technique to land the sim that shouldn’t be used in a real plane. 

Other sim-isms include instruments that may not move the same. For example, many ITT gauges don’t realistically display a hot start. The temperature rise is often quite different than in real life. Is this critical? Not necessarily, but it does degrade training a bit. Another issue, more common in older sims, is that the sequences used for some tasks may be different from those in a real plane. This is often due to programming or equipment issues. 

The simulator may not represent the customer plane. This is often the most critical issue. Simulators for say a new King Air 350, Phenom 300, Pilatus or CJ2 tend to very accurately represent the customer’s plane. However, very few legacy airplanes like older King Airs or CE500 series Citations still have the original avionics. Almost all have since had one or more avionics modifications. Many also have other substantial modifications to include different engines. 

Simulator training is often handcuffed by Part 142. It’s not that the simulator can’t be used to teach other things. It’s simply because the “approved” training program is quite specific and must be followed until completion. Also, the pilot is usually one of several people in a given class. The schedule has to accommodate everyone in the class, leaving little extra time to cover additional material. That said, many of the simulator-based training providers will develop customized programs on request. 

Class demographics and teaching to minimum training standards. Initial classes will often include pilots with vastly different experience and abilities. More experienced, highly capable pilots might be held back while the instructor works to help the less experienced (or less capable) pilots keep up with the material. 

Higher time and travel costs. Training in a simulator requires the student to travel to the sim location – enduring airlines, hotels, restaurant meals, and more time away from home and family. 

Now let’s look at the good and bad about training in
the airplane. 

In-Airplane Training Advantages:
• It’s a real, accurate representation
• There is no excuse for bad landings 
• It is the customer plane
• Training is where the client wants
• Training is more personalized in the airplane

In-Airplane Training Disadvantages:
• First-timers do not get as much practice
• No ability to freeze the flight
• Items that can’t (or shouldn’t) be done in flight
• Operational cost

First, let’s summarize the areas in which training in the airplane is not as good. 

Pilots working toward their first jet type rating don’t get as much practice on each event. There is considerable time spent burning jet fuel between each training moment when flying a real plane. This can be good when a student needs a little time to catch up. However, it’s usually just increasing the cost. For recurrent or transition jet pilots, this is less of an issue.

We haven’t found a way to freeze time in flight. We have to deal with reality. This includes all of the distractions (ATC, weather, traffic, turbulence, etc.) while keeping the student focused on the task at hand. 

Some items can’t or shouldn’t be done in flight. Nobody I know is going to try to practice a thrust reverser deploying at V1 in a plane. Also, I have yet to meet a person who thinks shutting down both engines and gliding to a runway is a good idea. That said, dual engine failures and inadvertent thrust reverser deployments are not likely events. 

Operational cost can be excessive. Direct costs plus fuel can add up quickly. Naturally, if a proficient pilot is simply completing a 61.58 Pilot Proficiency Evaluation, it’s not bad. However, a new or rusty pilot that needs several extra hours can burn a bunch of fuel before attaining the required level of proficiency.

Let’s now look at where in-airplane training excels:

It’s real and feels exactly as it should. There is simply no better way to assess if a pilot can properly operate an aircraft than by watching them do it. Seeing how they deal with the problems and distractions in real-time is critical. 

There is no excuse for bad landings. The pilot can either land the plane properly or we need to find and correct the problem. 

There are no sim-isms. If something isn’t working, figure out if it’s a system problem or an operator problem. Then, fix the problem. This also presents a great opportunity to ensure the pilot understands how to use the Minimum Equipment List.

It is the customer’s plane and usually the location where
they fly it. These are the exact avionics and systems the pilot needs to operate proficiently. No time is wasted learning irrelevant information. Nothing is gained, and much is risked by learning material that doesn’t apply to the plane the pilot will fly. This is especially critical when it comes to avionics or home airports with high elevation or short runways. 

Training is where the client wants. Professional instructors who teach in the airplane usually travel to where the client wants to train. Naturally, most owner/operators get to sleep in their own bed and maximize time with their family and friends. The instructor deals with the travel.

Training is when the client wants. The schedule can be custom-fit to the client’s needs, with dates, and even times of the day, easily adapted. Imagine calling one of the established sim schools and asking to skip class two days or start a day early. 

Training is more personalized in the airplane. Typically, simulator courses entail up to 10 people at a time for academics, and two pilots for simulator sessions. The instructor must divide his or her instruction and attention between the pilots, which can result in missed training opportunities. Whereas, academic classes preparing for in-plane training rarely involve more than two pilots at a time. Then, in the airplane, it’s always one-on-one training. 


Bottom line, each environment offers a superior training experience in certain areas. If you’re training only in simulators or only in the airplane, you’re probably missing an excellent opportunity to quickly expand your skills and knowledge of your plane. Seek training from multiple sources and gather the best information and techniques you can from each source. 

About the Author

Leave a Reply