Simulated Intro Cuts First-Flight Stress, Cost

By Scott Spangler on October 19th, 2011

At the August meeting about the AOPA Student Retention Initiative, a CFI in the audience suggested replacing a real airplane, the most expensive line of the flight training bill, with a simulator. Not totally, mind you, but enough to get students started, and to ease the natural anxiety arising with the noisy, demanding, distracting environment of the real thing.

ATRC Wannabee a Pilot LogoThe Aviation Training & Resource Center, I recently learned, is trying just such a program. Called Wannabee a Pilot, for $599 students get 5 hours with a CFI in a Redbird FMX1000 full-motion visual sim, complete with ground school and pre- and post-flight briefings. The time counts toward a private ticket, and given the 21st century proclivity for virtual experiences, this may be the perfect introduction to flying the real thing.

Let’s face it, to people who lived in a carefully controlled world where risk is managed at every turn, the cockpit of a single-engine general aviation trainer is a scary place. It’s loud. Glass or steam gauges gush with relentless and incomprehensible flow of information. You steer with your feet. And everybody is talking to you at the same time. The tower talks faster than you can listen. And the person sitting next to you is explaining everything in a foreign language. Oh, and you’re paying a lot of money to be here.

Honestly, my initial reaction to the simulator suggestion and, later, the Wannabee a Pilot program, was not positive because I compared them to my old-school life experiences. Fortunately, among the voices that mount my mental soapbox is a contrarian who objectively dissects initial reactions before they dribble from my mouth or fingertips. By putting me in the previous paragraph, it became immediately clear that a simulator is the perfect place to start the training of today’s pilots.

Unlike the unknown training airplane, the simulator is a safe, welcoming environment filled with technology that has matured with the younger half of the population. Ground school explains the unfamiliar and the preflight briefing eliminates surprises. Unlike real life, the simulator has a pause button, allowing student and instructor to talk about what just happened or what the controller just said, without the educationally distracting need to fly an airplane. As sim training has proven with airline aviators, it will surely deliver the same preparatory benefits to new student pilots.

In parallel with this cost-efficient transfer of skills, Sporty’s sent me notice of its new Flight Sim Training Guide. Derived from two decades of experience of integrating simulators with its flight school training programs, the 100-page book delivers 15 detailed lesson plans, complete with suggested maneuvers, performance standards, and study resources. It comes with a CD of Microsoft Flight Sim X scenarios specific to each lesson, along with instructions of configuring it for maximum reality.

About now your contrary voice might be speaking up about the fidelity of Flight Sim X. Having flown both, I’ll agree that it’s not the equal of the airline 777 sim I flew several years ago, but in some regards its better because it lets you safely make mistakes that come from thinking about every input, pilot actions that are often automated in the upper reaches of aviation. –Scott Spangler

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34 Responses to “Simulated Intro Cuts First-Flight Stress, Cost”

  1. Felipe Andrade Says:

    Instruction at a simulator can make aviation available to a broader audience, by making it cheaper. And according to industrys predictions, we need lots of people starting to work on aviation, fast.

  2. Gregg Maryniak Says:

    Great Idea!

    At the Saint Louis Science Center we have been training young people to fly using a suite of flight simulation products. After about 6 hours of direct hands-on sim. work the students take an actual flying lesson. The CFI’s advise that our students are operating at the level of students with 10 hours of conventional flight training. We are about to launch our first Adult Flight Academy Program at the end of this month. Feel free to visit for information.

  3. tigerpilot Says:

    This program is a non starter. The simulator sessions are almost as expensive as a real aircraft. The Redbird is a nice unit but certainly does not substitute for the excitment of the real thing, especially at the start of flying.
    Using it to teach the required instrument skills for the private pilot rating is where it truly fits in. There than that it is nothing but an expensive video game.

  4. Austin Goebel Says:

    I’m very interested in this program as I’m a high school grad and entering specialize certified ATC training college and computer sciece dual major and training as my dad is a CFII and 20,000 hour multi engine rated certified pilot and I would like a complete info on your program?????

    Please copy my dad on all communication at

    Any questions and comments, please advise….

    Look forward to your response and info….

    Thank you much.

  5. Mike Coligny Says:

    The first time Scott and I had this discussion was in 2000. Effective simulation and its utilization was the reason for the creation of FLYIT Simulators. We now have 10+ years of experience and there is no doubt that simulation enhances the flight training experience.
    As the cost of flying and flight training go up, affordable simulation will allow student pilots to earn their wings.

  6. Injured reserve Says:

    I can certainly see the value in a tool like this. And honestly I dont think that anyone, not the CFI, not the FAA, not even the student is going to see this as a replacement for the real thing. No one, I would think, would go into this assuming that it was going to provide more than it was designed to which is to provide a safe introduction to the flying experience. I can see something like this even being a benefit to people who have been grounded for a while (say, for an injury ) to keep their skills from going totally soft. I think its a great idea and it will certainly find its place as both a safe and reliable recruitment and learning tool. Now to find one of these around Tampa

  7. Marc Robertson Says:

    Now that they have gotten so good, I think using a simulator for the initial lessons is a Great Idea. Not the more basic simulators( Elite comes to mind ) that are really only good for IFR training( but fantastic for that! ), but systems like FLYIT, and Redbird.

    To tigerpilot, I only wish that I could rent airplanes where you do, if $599 pays for 5 hours in an airplane with a CFI. At my home airport, a 172 with an instructor is going to cost about $145, and the FLYIT simulator they have, with a CFI, costs about $90.

    Marc Robertson

  8. Tom Says:

    Are you serious?? This is the dumbest thing I have ever heard. To all new students, this is a drain on your wallet. You are getting in to flying because, duh, you want to fly airplanes right?

    “ease the natural anxiety arising with the noisy, demanding, distracting environment of the real thing.”

    Come on seriously? This is just not right at all. Students want to learn to fly an airplane, not fly a simulator. For $599 they can go to Best Buy and purchase 10 copies of flight simulator. Let’s get real please. This really fumes me sorry, I just don’t see the value.

  9. Chris Says:

    I think this is an excellent approach to the first five hours. Prior to any of my primary lessons, I spent hours using Microsoft Flight Simulator and while it isn’t a “real world” experience, it certainly gave me confidence in understanding the function and interpretting the instrumentation in a C172.

    My gut feeling is that the detractors and naysayers are likely FBO owners/CFI’s who are making a living off renting their aircraft. Get with the 21st Century already!

  10. Herb Bates Says:

    To much money for nothing, I was ahead of other students by reading all I could find to read before I started and could have passed my written the first day of Flight Training.

    I can sit at home and fly Sims, now I can understand where they can be better in instrument training, as you can repeat the same approach with just a push of the button, but still this shouldn’t be charged at the same rate as in an airplane.

    Insurance rates has pushed flying way out of being affordable since 9/11 and it wasn’t cheap then, it was the 200 hundred dollar burger, now you can’t do that in a LSA.

  11. Rob Says:

    Looks to me like you’d be getting 5 hrs on the ground for what approx. 4 hrs. in the sky would be. Maybe its worth it, but I’d like to see a greater savings to sell it on cost. Otherwise, why not use good simulation to effectively train?

  12. David Says:

    The use of a simulator for new students is fine, but I see it as more costly rather than less in the long run for students. Expensive, on-airport simulators could be substituted for a 60 dollar computer sim program that the student uses at home with a syllabus from the instructor, all the while putting that 600 dollars into actual flight training. Persuasive lobbying from simulator companies? Much can be done at home nowadays with a flight sim unstead of paying off the FBO’s cost for one of their own.

  13. Brian Says:

    Please forgive the following “Rant” folks, as I rarely (only the 3rd. time in the last decade) submit an online comment of any kind, BUT …this is a subject all to dear and becoming ever more of a ‘pet peeve’ to me and guess I just can’t hold back…

    After over 35 years in Aviation, flying everything from parachutes to 747’s. With stints in Flight Instruction, Corporate, Air Taxi, Regional & Major Airline flying, and …is it just me??

    We wonder why new Pilot Certification is half what it was just two decades ago? Why (aircraft) rental rates have gotten beyond the reach of most would be “Sunday Flyers”? What could possibly be causing this decline in our beloved activity??

    $250,000 for a Cessna 172 …$300,000+ for a Piper Archer?!? Both, simple, 4 place, fixed
    prop, fixed gear, LIGHT airplanes! Almost 200 grand for a Carbon Cub, an even simpler, two place fixed prop/gear and the next generation of “Light Sport” aircraft that are supposed to make flying more affordable?!? How can even an “Upper” Middle Class, “Above Average” Joe afford/justify such a purchase (especially after tacking on all the actual operating expenses) or the rental expense? How can such a sums for such airplanes ever be (reasonably) justified??
    And now of course … (What does this have to do with the above subject of “‘Simulator Training”‘?)

    When utilized in the proper context, Sims are a great tool, (even more so today than they were when I first started using them over 30 years ago). But the whole point of utilizing a “Flight Simulator” is to SIGNIFICANTLY reduce the cost of flight training. Sims such as the Redbird example referred to here are almost as sophisticated as those used by the Airlines in the 70’s-80’s and are wonderful for flight training (with a good instructor, as always) But if one is going to have to shell out the same amount (or even closed to) to train in a Sim, as the already currently prohibited rates for an actual airplane like a C-172 for instance, especially for those just beginning the adventure of flight, then there’s no contest. The Actual airplane (with the exception of a Level D type simulator perhaps :-) ) will still provide the most bang for the buck and go a lot further towards earning that Sport, Recreational or Private Pilot ticket …not to mention the exhilaration …the “Fun Factor”

    I’ve had a few opportunities to look over (and yes actually ‘fly’) some of today’s emerging “Light Airplane” Sims and they’re a far cry from the desktop ATC Pacers or even the Link GAT’s of the last few decades BUT make no mistake, their manufacturers/operators sole purpose is for generating as much profit as possible, catering more and more only to the “Elite” that can afford them. But what about the rest (OK …I’ll say it …the 99%!) of us? …We’re killing “General Aviation” in this country …making it solely a “Rich Mans” “Sport” …and spiraling ever faster into becoming just like most of Europe and other countries such as Japan, Korea ect …where “General Aviation” for the mass is practically non- existent. (due to the astronomical costs associated with owning or even operating just about anything that flies)

    Again …sorry bout’ the rant.

  14. Scott Spangler Says:

    Reading these comments it is good to see only a few reflexive comments reflecting what aviation used to be, which, as I wrote, was my initial response. Only one made a correct cost comparison: the sim intro price includes Redbird time, CFI, and ground school.

    By a three to one margin people saw the sim for what is has always been, a tool that works in concert with the classroom and the cockpit.

    Here’s the reality of it. In the past three decades, what things cost has grown disportionately. For many reasons, primarily decreasing demand and over supply, aviation is one of these things.

    Over the same period, only a single-digit percentage of the population has seen its real income grow. They may hire pilots, but few have the time or inclination to become one.

    So, for the rest of us who must make sacrifices when allocating our stagnant income to ever more expensive needs and wants, we should celebrate innovations, like the sim intro, that give a better than good return on their investment.

  15. Says:

    This is a great ALTERNATIVE offering. As the author states, “people who lived in a carefully controlled world” will likely find this very attractive.

    Most of us flying now spent our young years ‘borrowing’ the car, riding dirt bikes, making go-carts, jeeping, 4 wheeling etc. That was the thrill / hobby of the era. Transitioning to an airplane was just taking it to the next level.

    Naturally growing up with that would make the simulator seem silly to us of that era. However, in my experience, today’s youth are much less likely to risk ‘skinning their knees’ outdoors and much more likely to risk being exploded by zombies or digital mortars.

    This offering plays to perhaps the reason we’re not getting new pilots. These youth don’t ride their bikes out to to the airport and offer to wash planes. They log on with their x-box and find the next battlefield or challenge.

    If we keep doing what we have been doing we are going to get the same results. If we want different results we’re going to have to think outside our boxes and do something different.

    I applaud this idea and look forward to seeing how it works, and what else we can do to keep our planes flying and airports open!

  16. Mike Coligny Says:

    Hi Scott,
    I did not realize that I was chatting directly with you. Good to see you are still hard at it. I now live in Prescott, AZ and look forward to more of your articles. Take care and…..
    Mike Coligny

  17. Herb Bates Says:

    Please tell me how. For many reasons, primarily decreasing demand and over supply, aviation is one of these things.

    I sorry this usally brings the price of things down, when you have low demand and over supply the prices fall, not raise.

  18. Tom Says:

    I’m sorry, but this is the wrong direction for general aviation. This will only make a dwindling student situation only worse.

  19. Scott Spangler Says:

    The price controls brought about by changes in supply and demand today seem only to apply to mass-produced items made by many companies using machines. Airplanes, on the other hand, are almost custom made by hand by a handful of companies, so if you want one, you pay their price.

    When the demand for these high-priced products falls, instead of lowering the price, they just stop making them, like they did in the 1980s.

    Yes, I know liability insurance played a roll in this, just as it does today. But it is the penalty we, as a society, pay to avoid responsibility for our less than stellar decisions.

    The chance that our elected officials will reform torts to address this liability problem is small. Many of them are lawyers, and lawyers take a quarter to a third of liability awards as their fees.

  20. Lou Gregoire Says:

    Initially, I didn’t like the idea, but having thought about it, I’m warming up to it. Thinking about any introduction into a new arena of multi-tasking with both mental and physical tasks being done simultaneously, the student probably overloads with incoming information and probably loses 70-90% of the lesson. That wasn’t too bad back when a 152 ran 19 per hour wet (I/m dating myself here), but in today’s world and prices, an instructor could get a student alot further along toward the private ticket for the money, and the student would get alot more out of those first few lessons.

  21. Marc Santacroce Says:

    NO WAY! Using the sim may cut down not the actual flight time, but none of this is loggable, other than as ground instruction, towards the PPSEL>

  22. James Carlson Says:

    Rather than an “either/or” situation, I think it should be viewed as an optimization. There are things that no simulator can do — getting a prospective pilot excited at seeing the world from a new perspective is certainly one that happens in that first intro flight. There are things that no trainer should do in the air — realistically depicting emergencies and practicing good responses, for instance.

    Sims are usually cheaper to operate, and I’m sure the vendors have a motivation to sell Earth-bound equipment, but I think the reality is that a good cost-effective introduction to aviation does in fact require both simulation and the real thing to get the best of both. Playing it as a hard choice, as this offer seems to do, seems a bit less of a leap forward than a step sideways.

  23. Mark C. Says:

    Well, maybe I’m just lucky to live where I do, but I’m currently paying $116/hr. for a C152 and a terrific CFII. I find the thought of sim flying at $120/hr. absolutely ludicrous. Besides that, a large part of being a pilot is dealing with that environment, 6 people talking all at once, 5 things to do, 3 things to say, a checklist to read, all while staying on course and logging the time you arrived at a checkpoint, with no chance to push a “pause” button and make it all stop. I think a lot of students are going to feel during their first “real” lesson that the sim time was a waste of time and money.

  24. @williamAirways Says:

    14 CFR 61.109 – Aeronautical experience.
    (k) Permitted credit for use of a flight simulator or flight training device.
    (1) Except as provided in paragraphs (k)(2) of this section, a maximum of 2.5 hours of training in a flight simulator or flight training device representing the category, class, and type, if applicable, of aircraft appropriate to the rating sought, may be credited toward the flight training time required by this section, if received from an authorized instructor.
    (2) A maximum of 5 hours of training in a flight simulator or flight training device representing the category, class, and type, if applicable, of aircraft appropriate to the rating sought, may be credited toward the flight training time required by this section if the training is accomplished in a course conducted by a training center certificated under part 142 of this chapter.

    I can see how this can be good for Part 142. I don’t think it’s worth while for Part 61.

    I really can’t see this program spreading across the country, however. Redbird sims aren’t exactly cheap. They need to be housed and maintained (read: more space, more rent, more overhead, more cost passed to the customer). And in certain markets, getting in the real aircraft is only slightly more expensive than this program. In other markets, this price tag would hurt a flight school’s bottom line. I don’t buy the “noise” and “stressful environment” argument. It takes a CFI all of 5 minutes to prepare a student to adjust for this. Spending some dry time sitting in the real plane with a student pays dividends too, and doesn’t cost the student an arm and a leg (read: $599).

  25. Marc Santacroce Says:

    I forgot about the para “K” in 61-109. Thanks William. Live and learn. I agree though, it’s not likely worth it.

  26. Robert Mark Says:

    Boy Scott … tough crowd.

    I must fly from the wrong airport too where we happen to have a new Redbird at $75 an hour. To me, at least, I’d donate a few hours of my time to keep the cost down if I thought I might eventually gain a student. That’s the business answer.

    From the love of flying aspect, and spoken as a kid who at 17 the instructor through into a yellow box called a Link Trainer for a few hours early on in my flying career, I think some of you are making a mountain out of a mole hill.

    Even if you can’t log every single hour, so what?

    If the experience got someone jazzed enough to think about finishing up the training, I’d be a happy guy.

    If they didn’t, well, they’re out a couple hundred bucks.

  27. Scott Spangler Says:

    One thing that bonds pilots trough time is shared suffering, a concept the US Marine Corps has perfected to an elegant art form.

    The quickest way to to upset an Marine is to suggest any change to its ardous basic training program. You see, in shared suffering, anyone who does not endure the hardhips survived by those who came before are not true members of the Marine family.

    It’s no different for pilots.

  28. Victor Veltz Says:

    Inthink it’s good that companies like RedBird beat the sim drum but please understand none of this is new. Decades ago Frasca did studies with Purdue University in I believe a 303 crusader where one group did all training in airplane and one group ONLY simulator and then check rides. It came out even with both groups passing their check ride at first attempt. Simulators do work but the thing that people pay less attention to is transfer of learning – being able to introduce a training task in the sim and transfer that learning to the airplane. There is also a little thing called Law of Primacy which fits in and the bottom line for it to work you need accurate simulation. If the instructor has to keep saying you push this button in the sim but a different one in the airplane then what has the student actually learned?

    Quality sims can get expensive but if you can use them for more training tasks and help students achieve their check rides closer to FAA minimums then they are worth a lot because you can easily train more students more efficiently. The threat of “negative transfer of learning” is great though especially with emergence of sophisticated avionics. The G1000 has about 1,7 MILLION lines of code and changes. Simulating this equipment correctly is very difficult or use the actual instrument which ensures accuaracy but costs more. While I understand economic realities the goal is quality training and a quality training device may cost more but end up saving money in reducing overages. In my opinion the problem is less how much the airplane costs per hour but the fact that national average for Private is between 60-75 hrs pending who you talk to – that’s a 20 hr cost increase that wasn’t planned…

  29. Paddy Says:

    Interesting that some are so very against this idea. As if its their way or the highway. the author points out that this may attract some people because of the way the new generation has been raised. No, not everyone will find it enticing and may be ready to jump in and fly in controlled busy airspace. But others may find this alternative a perfect way to try it without the perceived danger et al.
    My goodness, there’s narcissism exploding all over these pages.

  30. Myron Oakley Says:

    Sims will be a way of life, especially with more expensive aircraft. I flew a “bolted to the ground” MU-2 sim this summer. Beyond getting a real feel (and it did feel real) for the MU-2, we were able to do engine failures at 200 feet. Heck we even did a couple of rolls in it.

  31. Gregg Maryniak Says:

    The greatest benefit of using devices like the Redbird may be to introduce people to the possibility of flying lessons AWAY FROM THE AIRPORT ENVIRONMENT. For example we get more than a million visitors per year at our St. Louis Science Center. If we could offer the equivalent of Intro Rides in a Redbird we could identify potential new student starts and feed them to the flight schools and aviation universities in our region.

    All of the problems that we face in General Aviation including high costs, airport closures, fuel choices etc. are related to the fact that there are not nearly enough of us. Unless we take immediate and drastic measures to increase student starts, GA as we know it will cease to exist.

    Robert Goyer wrote an excellent blog on the subject of using the Redbird to entice newbies which can be found at:

  32. Robert Mark Says:

    To Victor’s point, yes Frasca has been around a long time and Link before them.

    But it seems to me we’re getting bogged down in this simulations is either good or bad and I think it’s some of both.

    I think it’s a great idea to put someone in a simulator — Frasca, Redbird, MS Flight Sim even — to get them acquainted with what they’re about to experience when they climb into the cockpit.

    There’s no better way to show them what the dials and levers do in real time, short of flying the airplane which easily overwhelms many.

    Too much pretend though is no good either, as is ignoring some of the more in-depth topics pilots need, not to mention some good old hand-flying, which gets me started on my other horse from the previous post about Air France 447.

  33. Bas Scheffers Says:

    Here’s another thought to make the first hours less intimidating or scary: use simpler aircraft!

    There’s nothing you can teach an ab-initio student in a noisy, cramped, poor visibility, gas guzzling G1000 C172 that you can’t teach them in a simple day VFR panel SportStar or other roomy, great visibility LSA.

    Preferably at a little uncontrolled airfield.

    Do that, and I don’t think a sim-intro is required and they can get straight into the excitement of doing the thing they set out to do: leave the ground.

    But if you must train in a Cirrus or G1000 C172 or the like, I reckon getting them familiar with it on the ground can make for a much more enjoyable first flight. Even if it’s an hour or two that’s not actually logged.

  34. JuniorLee Says:

    I don’t understand why so many people opposed to the idea. As long as it can serve good purpose to enhance the skills, I don’t see anything wrong with it. This gives the chance for the trainee to explore and learn the basics.
    Next move is to use light aircraft.

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