A long time ago they discovered that training pilots could be done more efficiently if there were a means to duplicate the objectives of instruction given in an aircraft. Not only could pilot training be cheaper but some maneuvers could be accomplished without the window of vulnerability for hazards that comes with some training scenarios when attempted in an aircraft.
Very rudimentary ground-based simulators had been developed to teach pilots target practice during World War I. It wasn’t until a musical instrument manufacturer and hobby flier became dissatisfied with his own flight training that the first functional simulator became a reality. In 1927, Edwin Link used components from church organs to build his first simulator which featured spartan generic cockpit controls and instruments mounted on a movable platform. Other than erratic and wobbly instrument indications and movement of the student’s seat in the trainer, it provided little else. Even so, Link sold the idea to the military and manufactured some 10,000 of these Link trainers. The Link trainer remained the standard for pilot simulator training until the mid-1950s when Pan American Airways contracted the Curtiss-Wright Aircraft Company to develop the first full-motion, aircraft-specific simulator. At the same time, United Airlines bought the same simulator but added a visual display which was provided by a camera moving over a model of miniature cities and ground terrain.
Over the years the development of flight simulator training has steadily improved and its value increased. As aircraft operators noticed the cost-effectiveness of using such devices, government agencies took notice as well and began to offer “relief” from some pilot licensing requirements when simulators are used.
At the center of the simulator-versus-aircraft training issue is the credit toward pilot certification for one over the other. For the purpose of this narrative let’s confine our discussion to flight simulation that comes under the watch of the US Federal Aviation Administration. Other countries have their own governance such as the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) that define their own certification criteria. In order to receive FAA approval for use of a flight simulator, it must meet many design, functional and demonstrable requirements. In other words, the PC computer program, Microsoft® Flight Simulator does not satisfy those requirements. Although some maintain the program is helpful to pilots for casual use, it fails to meet the strict demands of the FAA regulations as a training tool.
The classifications of simulators have become confusing and sometimes clumsily blurred. In fact, there are over 30 such classifications worldwide! Simply stated, the difference in the classifications is this: If the simulator has a letter designation (i.e. Level “C” simulator) it moves and costs big bucks. If the simulator has a numerical designation (i.e. Level “5” simulator), it doesn’t move but still costs a lot of dough (although not as much). The higher the number or letter, the more sophisticated the device. Only devices that move are recognized by the FAA as “simulators.” Those that don’t are considered “trainers” or “devices.” The big difference is that full flight simulators can be used to meet most requirements of a pilot check-ride whereas partial credit for training hours is all you can expect from a trainer.
Level 1 flight training devices (FTDs) are no longer manufactured and those few that still exist have been grandfathered into the approval process, but it is unlikely you will encounter one today.
Level 2 FTDs are also no longer manufactured although some operators still use theirs that were grandfathered into the approval process years ago.
Level 3 FTDs are no longer approved however some continue to be in use. The FAA now considers those Level 3 trainers as “Advanced Aviation Training Devices” which is a new classification that we’ll cover later.
Level 4 FTDs consist of a touch-screen and are used only for procedural, navigation and flight management system training. Such trainers are generic and do not have any distinction between aircraft class such as single engine or multi-engine nor do they incorporate a control yoke. These are similar to what is known as a “cockpit procedures trainer” and today the FAA is only officially certifying them for use in helicopter training. They do exist for airplanes however their use is not approved for the training requirements of fixed wing ratings. Visual systems are not required.
Level 5 FTDs begin to look more like an aircraft and are configured with aircraft class attributes (single-engine, multi-engine etc). While Level 5 trainers are certified as representative of a generic single-engine aircraft, some manufacturers are producing Level 5 devices with specific attributes of a particular model of aircraft. Level 5 trainers require special FAA certification and a control yoke, but a visual system is not required.
Level 6 FTDs must be designed and certificated to provide you with accurate function as well as tactile, aerodynamic and spatial relationships (i.e. as you increase power you receive instrument indications of a commenced climb and increased backward pressure on the yoke requiring input and trim). A physical cockpit with accurate controls and instrumentation is required, but a visual system is still not required.
Level 7 FTDs must be model specific with all applicable aerodynamics, flight controls, and systems including a vibration and visual system. These trainers are presently only certificated for helicopters.
But wait! We’re not done yet!
A new classification of FTD has appeared on the scene: The Advanced Aviation Training Device (AATD) and the Basic Aviation Training Device (BATD). What makes the BATD and AATD confusing is that certification by the FAA is often subjective and without specific criteria as defined by regulation. To further muddy the water…although the BATD and AATD is a flight training device and not a simulator, it is not required to move; however, it might, depending on its manufacturer! Furthermore, even though an AATD may offer motion it still does not qualify under the FAA guidelines for meeting the requirements of pilot training in the same way that a full flight simulator would. An AATD can save up to a maximum of 10 hours of aircraft flight time toward your instrument rating and 2.5 hours toward your private license. Like any FTD, an AATD assists in making you more familiar so as not to require repetitive practice while an aircraft Hobbs meter is ticking away (which means: $$$).
Now that all this talk about the 7 levels has given you a headache, let’s add the coup de grâce to send you running for the aspirin bottle: SIMULATORS.
Mercifully there are only 4 categories of full-flight simulators, Level “A,” “B,” “C,” and “D.”
Level “A” simulators are now gasping and wheezing and nearly extinct. In fact, there are only about a dozen left. They’re required to provide motion of course but provide only rudimentary visual displays and less sophisticated aerodynamic modeling such as the properties of ground effect. Level “A” simulators are only certified for fixed wing aircraft and not helicopters.
Level “B” is slightly more sophisticated than Level “A” simulators although only a handful remain in the US. 80% of an FAA type rating may be completed in one, but the remainder of the check ride must be accomplished in an actual aircraft. These simulators provide you with a higher degree of aerodynamic feedback, physical movement on their motion bases and better panoramic visual displays. In addition to widespread use for airplane training, this is the lowest level simulator that is approved for helicopters.
Level “C” simulators are only slightly different than Level “B” simulators. The visual displays are improved and both feedback and response time is more realistic. Only Level “C” and “D” simulators are approved for a full pilot proficiency check. Other simulators can be used for instrument portions of your proficiency check, but credit is not given for the landing portion as is permitted in Level “C” and “D” versions.
Level “D” simulators are approved for use for a full type rating because of their sophistication. This is the highest level of simulator currently available. In addition to sound, these simulators can even generate smoke in the cockpit to simulate a system fire; no kidding! Full daytime and nighttime visuals are required as well as 150 degrees of up, down and horizontally accurate visual displays. Such simulators are incredibly expensive with a price tag that runs between $1 million to $40 million, depending on whether your shopping with coupons.
The answer to this question is simple: utilize some form of training device that will not only save money on aircraft rental/expense but also permit you to make mistakes, practice and repeat maneuvers until you are confident and comfortable.
Today there are a lot of different flight simulator training devices being manufactured and the question as to which one is best for you comes down to either an AATD or a Level 5 FTD. Right now the FAA credits more FTD training time toward your license when you use a Level 5 FTD than with an AATD. To be fair, however, there is an FAA Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to grant applicants the same credit toward a license or rating in either type of training device. What a student should not ignore is the enormous benefits offered in a Level 5 FTD over an AATD. A Level 5 FTD provides far greater fidelity in feel, response and performance and the experience is closer to what you experience in a real aircraft. At the same time, the Level 5 FTD is aircraft specific whereas an AATD is generic and is to flying like foosball is to playing real soccer.
The bottom line is that Level 5 FTDs provide better quality training because the perceptions are well defined. In the event that the NPRM does not become law, Level 5 FTD training will still stand head and shoulders above AATDs, not only by saving you a great deal in cost on the minimum hour requirements but by making your training time much more realistic and efficient.
FAA Advisory Circular 61-136A November 17, 2014
FAA Advisory Circular AC-120-40B July 29, 1991
FAA Part 61 Regulations
Federal Register, July 6, 2015 NPRM Aviation Training Device Credit for Pilot Certification
FAA Flight Simulation Training Device Qualification (FSTD) Bulletin 10-02
Telephone conversation with Jeremy Brown, Frasca December 2, 2015
AOPA “ABCs of Simulators” Alton Marsh May 1, 2011 (http://www.aopa.org/News-and-Video/All-News/2011/May/1/ABCs-of-Simulators)