Simulate or stagnate

Photo of two males operating a home flight simulator
image: Adobe stock | Franklyn

After years of flying a desk Adrian Park faces the dilemma of how to preserve his skills. Could the solution be in the computer screen in front of him?

‘I prefer to do my worrying, imagining and suffering on the ground, not in the air. Then, no matter what happens, I’ve thought it through and I’ve got a plan to deal with it.’ Matt Hall, Red Bull Air Race champion

How good are desk-based simulation devices in prepping for real-world piloting? Can they allow me to, in Matt Hall’s words, get my aeronautical ‘worrying, imagining and suffering’ done before I fly for real?

In my 30 years as a pilot and instructor, and many times as a desk-bound executive, I’ve often had such questions (albeit in less poetic terms). But recently those questions are a lot more relevant. I haven’t flown real-world for 18 months. The only ‘flying’ I’m doing these days is on a desktop Mac with the ‘X-Plane’ sim program (cue whimsical sigh). Which makes me wonder: could my desktop sim sorties stave off the otherwise inevitable perishing of my perishable skills?

After a bit of thought, I decided the best way to answer that was to talk to some regulatory, frontline and academic experts. Could I pass not one, but 2, flight checks – in the AW139 helicopter and the A320 airliner – using only this desktop simulation to prepare after what will be nearly 2 flightless years?

Now, I have to be honest, my outer voice, the voice writing this article, sounds kind of nonchalant about the whole check ride thing but the inner voice, probably empowered by the threat of impending professional shame, has a serious complaint: ‘You haven’t flown the AW139 since your endorsement 4 years ago and you haven’t flown an aeroplane since your Army pilot’s course in 1994 – and that was a tiny CT-4 aerobatic trainer, not an A320!’

With due respect to my inner voice, sure, it’s a bit crazy – but what better way to get a solid answer to the pressing question of desktop-sim fidelity? The more I think about it, the more compelling it becomes. I decided to run the idea by Brian Guthrie, Group Head of Training Services and Innovation at the LifeFlight Academy in Brisbane and his Head of Operations, John Barnard. They operate a state-of-the-art, full-motion, CASA-accredited AW139 simulator.

They have a lot of thoughts on desktop devices as well as their big, full-motion sim. They are also amenable (or is that eager?) to the idea of putting me through my check-ride paces in their AW139 simulator (cue again the slightly shrill tone of my inner voice).

Aircrew going back many generations have known intuitively the benefits of ‘simulation’ using simple props and mental rehearsing.

Okay, success on the IFR rotary-wing side – now for fixed-wing. Associate Professor Tarryn Kille is Head of Aviation at the University of Southern Queensland which operates an A320 sim at Toowoomba and a B737 simulator at Springfield. She is intrigued by my idea and keen to let me try out my desktop simulation skills via a check ride in the A320 sim. Rotary wing check ride, tick. Fixed wing check ride, tick. Looks like it’s on!

Chasing consensus

With the check rides now more than a far-fetched idea, I’m feeling the need to listen very closely to my chosen experts if I’m to truly optimise my desktop prep for my crazily construed check-ride aspirations – aspirations, fulfilled or otherwise, that you’ll be reading about in a later story.

First things first – the discussion with my regulatory expert, John Frearson, CASA’s Flight Simulation Team Leader. He’s an airline pilot and instructor, with 13,000 hours’ flight time. He has extensive simulation experience with both off-the-shelf desktop devices and the full-motion, commercial airliner kinds. Plus, he’s been with the regulator for more than a decade and has a rich flight standards and simulation background as a result.

I introduce myself and invite him to call me Parky as I do with most people. We talk for a bit and I’m instantly struck by his enthusiasm for simulation – all types of simulation. I quickly find out why – his involvement with simulation goes way back. John’s flown and instructed on MD80s and 777s, through the tricky transition from round-dial panels to glass cockpits. In it all, he’s been a big fan of virtually all types of simulation including the various desktop kinds. Perfect.

Rulers and bicycles

I ask John about his thoughts on the merits of desktop simulation. He pauses for a moment and then proceeds to give a somewhat unexpected, but enthralling, background to desktop simulation. ‘Parky, any type of mental visualisation properly done can allow pre-flight confidence to be built and can bring some significant real world competence,’ he says. ‘I remember as a young pilot being told to sit in the unpowered cockpit of our aircraft, in the dark, to practice the aircraft’s normal and emergency checks. Doing so bought cockpit familiarisation as well as mental preparation for the flights ahead.’

I smile to myself, remembering my military pilot’s course and sitting at a desk in front of a large poster of the cockpit, with wooden rulers as ‘controls’, practising my checks and visualising how I would move the controls in the next flight.

John continues: ‘I also know of some instructors who get their students to place a garden hose in their backyard in the shape of an aerodrome circuit and then walk the hose imagining the real circuit and rehearsing their checks and their radio calls as they walk around.’

Again I smile. I remember holding a ‘tactical left’ formation with my instructors on our bikes as we pedalled around making radio calls, manoeuvring on our ‘tactical arc of freedom’ and generally having a fun (but professional) time.

‘My point is that aircrew going back many generations have known intuitively the benefits of ‘simulation’ using simple props and mental rehearsing,’ John says.

One of my favourite instructors used to say, ‘You should never go anywhere you haven’t first been in your mind’. His point was the same as John’s: mental rehearsals bring tangible readiness benefits.

John’s comments prompt an obvious question. ‘Would it be fair to say modern desktop simulators should provide a more immersive experience than mental rehearsals?’ John replies: ‘The company I worked for offered some of their near-retirement round-dial MD80 pilots an upgrade to the glass B777, but with a catch – each pilot was expected to foot the $50,000 cost of the upgrade, even if they failed the course. For a bunch of round-dial pilots, that provoked no small amount of concern. But, not to be overly deterred and after a bit of a think, a few of them decided to purchase their own personal computers each with a version of Microsoft flight simulator. They proceeded to set the PCs up in the hotel rooms they were staying at for the training and began to practise as much as they could on the computers.’

I could easily envisage that these Part 60 features could well develop into further regulatory recognition of smaller devices.

It’s encouraging that such an old desktop flight sim program could be used in such a real-world way. Also, that older pilots, rather than just young guns, were attempting to leverage desktop simulation.

How did they go? ‘Every one of the pilots who’d practised on a PC passed with flying colours,’ John says. ‘I would go on to see similar results for anyone who used desktop simulation to practice FMC programming, HUD familiarisation, general and emergency procedures and so on.’

Given the improvement in desktop sims, does he think a time is coming when we’ll be doing check rides using a desktop device or something equally cost effective? The virtual and mixed reality devices available off the shelf are impressive.

Regulation and reality

John is passionate about the potential of affordable VR and mixed reality devices but points out the regulatory challenges. ‘The difficulty is in assessing the benefits of desktop simulators with a standardised and consistent metric,’ he says. ‘CASR Part 60 and its associated MOS regulates what we call synthetic training devices which includes flight simulators and flight training devices but there is no comprehensive set of regulations that allows you to do a Part 61 check ride on your desktop device. That said, we’re watching the space closely. Even now, many will note that a subpart of Part 60 – 60c – has a section reserved for future use. It’s called basic instrument flight trainers.

‘We delineate between a flight simulator and a flight training device in the definitions. The latter does not, in every respect, simulate the aircraft in ground and flight operations whereas the former does. Probably nothing will ever quite replace the need for an aircraft check ride before you get let loose with passengers but I could easily envisage that these Part 60 features could well develop into further regulatory recognition of smaller devices – provided the training effectiveness and fidelity of desktop devices can be successfully measured, standardised and regulated one day.’

But does he think my simple desktop system is good enough for me to pass an AW139 check ride after nearly 4 years of not flying?

‘If you are relatively experienced, you could probably white knuckle your way through a check ride regardless, but it will also depend on how you use your desktop setup in the first place,’ he says.

This article has been more encouraging than I thought. John was enthusiastic about desktop devices and I’ve really appreciated his blending of regulatory, technical and frontline expertise. Plus, with his colourful anecdotes about mental visualisation, he’s really got me thinking about ways I can optimise my desktop prep for the dreaded check rides. I’m especially interested in what the industry experts will say as I build up to those check rides.

I just hope I can get the majority of my ‘worrying, imagining and suffering’ done at the controls of my desktop sim – not, embarrassingly, sweating it out shamefully in the big simulators under the penetrating stare of the flight examiners. Stay tuned for my next instalment.


  1. Great article, Parky. Certainly some food for thought in there.
    As you know, P60 (and equiv.) operators remain responsible for device qualification whilst aircraft operators remain responsible for their own training and operational standards.
    There is a myriad of procedure trainers available that are not ‘qualified’ but provide ability to practice relevant procedures – the desk top solution being one type and push bikes in a car park being another….
    I interpret the premise of your article to be: is it possible to go from non-qualified procedure trainer (desktop) to flight deck (with a long period away from the controls being a baseline condition).
    Well, that is up to the aircraft operator (or other such agency with delegation i.e. P142), and I suggest it would be a bold delegate to allow such a step. I wonder how related questions would be answered at an enquiry.


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