How It Works
In a nutshell, simulators allow us to practice dealing with dangerous or difficult situations without exposure to the risk that would normally accompany them. These include engine-out landings, partial panel in IMC, and critical malfunctions. In the real world, we have to place restrictions on these maneuvers to ensure safety. In the simulator, we don’t have to worry about that. Bungled that ILS? No problem. Just a few key strokes put you back at the Initial Approach Fix to try again. In real life, you would have to execute the missed approach and wait for ATC to work you back into the sequence. While there’s value in practicing such maneuvers, simulating the task can reduce the amount of time spent learning the basics.
Psychologists have a term for these kinds of highly drilled tasks. “We call them ‘overlearned’ skills,” says Dr. Chris Front, an aerospace clinical psychologist with the FAA’s Office of Aerospace Medicine. “These tasks are practiced to the point of mastery. Overlearned skills tend to be maintained under stress because they have become automatic. So, overlearned skills reduce the mental workload during a high stress situation and improve the odds of successfully executing the correct procedures. That’s what makes the drilling of those tasks so useful as preparation for an actual emergency. Additionally, overlearned skills tend to be retained during the early stages of cognitive decline such as dementia,” Dr. Front explains.
Getting on the Right Level
Fidelity is the term used to describe how close to real something is. In the case of flight simulation technology, there are different categories of fidelity to consider: physical, visual, and what we might call modeling. The physical fidelity has to do with how closely the actual device conforms to the aircraft. In a perfect world, the controls, switches, and layout would look and feel identical to the real world counterpart. The fidelity of the visuals is especially important, because vision is the most powerful sense and because it directly impacts how immersive the simulation will be. Modeling is a term that conveys how well the simulation handles the aircraft’s character in the virtual world, i.e., does it fly like the real aircraft? The combination of these factors lead to an overall level of fidelity, which basically dictates how “real” the experience is. Which level of fidelity works best for the task at hand?
The snap answer is usually “well, the best one I can get my hands on.” But that’s not really the case. When I was working on my instrument rating, my flight school had two different Flight Training Devices which, in today’s definitions, would be called Advanced Aviation Training Devices (AATD). The school had an older one and a newer, “better” one. Without fail, all of us preferred the older one. In reality, though, the “better” one was pitchier than an early round American Idol contestant. As a result, the theoretically “better” equipment actually offered a worse training experience in terms of learning the basics of instrument procedures because it forced the student to spend too much mental energy trying to keep the aircraft under control, when that energy should have been directed to learning how to execute procedures.
The Case for the Low Road
The bottom line is that what you need in terms of simulation fidelity depends mainly on the aeronautical skill you’re looking to sharpen. If the goal is to better understand your avionics so that you don’t get confused and distracted while reprogramming a route, then a simple software simulation of the avionics box is probably a good place to start. With this setup, you are both overlearning the desired skill and reducing the novelty of potential mistakes. Both reduce the mental processing required during any future encounter.