Training for Flight with Simulators

Up until recently, there were no simulators available that could truly train you for your first flight. You would have to pay someone to train you in all of the material we've covered in this course so far. Don't get me wrong, personal hands on training is great. Experienced pilots can offer you a lot in terms of advice and insight that this course and a simulator will not teach you. That being said, we understand that people may not want to put the time, effort and money into this approach. You might want to train by yourself, at any time, for a minimal cost. This is where simulators come in.

While its entirely possible to get a 3CH trainer plane and just learn to fly "the hard way", its not recommended. You will likely destroy a bit of equipment in the learning process, costing you a bit of time and money. It will also slow the learning process down to a crawl in some instances. There is no "reset button" for real life. Once you crash, you will be waiting days or weeks to fly again. Just 15 minutes in a simulator will show you how valuable this is. When I first trained in my simulator, I crashed literally about 20 times in a row... usually within the first 45 seconds of flight. If these were real planes that I was learning how to fly with, it would have cost me several thousand dollars and I'd probably still be a trainee.

For first time flyers who will fly electric foam aircraft, we recommend Phoenix v3.0. There are a large variety of foam planes offered in this sim, and most of them fly reasonably close to the real thing. A point that we cannot stress enough is that, before you buy your simulator, please make sure it offers planes similar to those you'd like to fly. A simulator that offers mostly composite 3D planes will be useless to those who wish to fly foam gliders or other types of planes.

The Simulator Environment

Most of the simulators have amazing graphics nowadays. Unlike other 3D games, RC simulators use actual 360 degree panoramic "photo fields" for their environment. These are real places that you are flying at, and real photos of the locations. Your location in the environment is typically fixed in one place, and you cannot move or change position. You may only look in different directions within the photo field. The planes are regular 3D models, and like a real plane you will be able to fly it around in all directions. Any impact to trees, the ground, or any other stationary object will register a crash and cause the simulation to be reset.

There are quite a few display options available in the simulator. You will have the option of adding different sidebars that will allow you to measure and observe almost every aspect of your flight. All of them can be enabled or disabled at will. In the picture above you can see a sidebar that gives you the altitude, wind speed and velocity of the aircraft. There is also a "binocular view" for when the aircraft gets out of sight. Another useful feature is the compass in the bottom right that includes the direction of the plane and the direction of the wind inside of it. These sidebars are very useful when learning and training, but its important to try and outgrow them. You won't have these tools in a real flight, so you should gradually train yourself to fly without them.

Controlling the Weather

One of the best aspects of simulator training is that it gives you a power normally reserved for your favorite deity: the ability to control the weather. Learning how to fly in different wind conditions is probably one of the hardest things to fully master. Windy and gusty conditions introduce several variables that are hard for a beginner to fly in. Attention to wind speed, wind direction, and turbulence is the hallmark of a good pilot. The idea is to work your way up to managing 20 mph+ gusty winds in the simulator, rather than outside of it. While your first REAL flight should be performed in little to no wind, learning how to fly a simulated flight in tough wings will better prepare you for the real world and make you a better pilot.

When you first start flying in the simulator, its best to start with no wind. You want to work more on maintaining orientation and just feeling comfortable while flying. Do not start changing the wind conditions until you can fly and land reasonably well in dead calm conditions. Once you have that down, then you can start modifying the wind parameters. The wind controls are shown in the picture above. "Wind Direction" changes the direction of the wind, Wind Speed changes how fast the continuous wind speed is, and Wind Gusts determines how much additional speed will be added to the wind during gusts. Typically, you will find gusty conditions will be the hardest to fly in. The randomness and frequency settings will determine the variance of each setting and how often they will occur. The Turbulence setting will effect how "smooth" the air is and higher turbulence will cause your plane's flight to be relatively "bouncy". You should increase turbulence when you increase the wind speed, since turbulence will usually increase in windy conditions.

What Do Simulators Do Well?

Simulators do not perfectly mimic the real world, and won't completely prepare you for real flight. All simulators are imperfect and have faults, but they all are extremely useful at a few select things. One of the most important aspects of flight is maintaining orientation with your plane, and the simulator is great at that. While you fly, you will have to mentally keep track of the direction and angle of your aircraft. Most people think this is purely visual, but to prove them wrong, just take a quick glance at the above picture. Is that plane flying towards you or away from you? Its too small to see, you say? Well, in real life your plane might become a tiny dot. Obviously, you need to rely more on your spatial memory than on your vision.

Another thing that the simulator is great at is training you how to use the controls. While you may have read about them and understand what they do, putting them to use can be very difficult. To make things more complicated, the direction you move the controls is different flying towards you than it is flying away from you. When you are flying towards you, you'll need to move the rudder and ailerons in the opposite direction. Remember, when you roll left it will be to the planes left, not your left. As the plane move's through the air, what is left to the plane will change and usually be different than your left. Again, this is where your ability to visualize the plane's orientation comes into play.

As mentioned in the previous section, the simulators are also very useful at teaching you how to fly in different wind conditions. While the simulators aren't perfect in this regard, they really do an adequate job emulating the basic fundamentals involved. How to manage windy flight is covered in more detail within the "first flight" and "fliying tips" sections.

A very nice feature of simulators is the ability to learn 4CH flight without any hassle. Most people who train without simulators need to first train themselves up to 3CH flight before they can fly 4CH. 3CH planes will not have the capability to roll, as they lack ailerons. With 3CH flight, its a lot like driving a car in the air. While the rudder does produce a little bit of roll, it mainly will just swivel the plane to the left or right and maintain a level flight. Most people have a lot of difficulty flying 4CH planes, as it adds a whole new axis of rotation. You can roll your plane so its facing pretty much any direction, and you need to develop good 3D spatialization to fly like this. Most people have a very hard timing jumping from 3CH to 4CH without the simulator.

Lastly, one of the coolest benefits of an RC simulator is the ability to try different planes. Everyone seems to want to fly RC Jets when they start, but a simulator allows you access to a very good collection of gliders, warbirds, 3D/aerobatic planes and even scaled down commercial aircraft. Some people find that they have interests in flying planes they never thought they'd even want to touch. Its just one of the little benefits of having a simulator.

What Do Simulators Do Poorly?

Some simulators will do a lot of things poorly, and are useless for everything except what was stated above. In regards to Phoenix v3.0, the software we recommend, it does a very reasonable job (wtih a few exceptions). While a seasoned pilot can probably find quite a few things to nitpick about, most of it is small minutia that the beginner pilot isn't capable of noticing. I personally notice one serious flaw with this simulator, and that is its inability to reproduce proper stall behavior. In fact, I find it almost impossible to stall most foam planes in Phoenix v3.0. I can usually get out of any problem by simply holding down the elevator controls. On a large portion of the planes, I simply float down to the ground, even at very low airspeeds. In real life, this is not what will happen at all. If you stall in real life, you can't just pull up and hope for the best. Instead, you need to gain air speed and try not to make large movements on the control until you pick up enough speed. You might notice that the Phoenix sim will let you do the opposite of this, and in real life that will spell disaster. As you might guess, this is a pretty major defect, as its very easy to train yourself to do the wrong things in a stall. While this is a huge negative for the simulator, it won't matter much to the beginner, since you should start flying with a very "floaty" plane that is not easy to stall.

Another problem, that really isn't the fault of the simulator, is that the visual nature of the simulator is very different from a real life experience. For one, your eyes have a very wide field of view. With your peripheral vision, you can see up to 150 degrees (horizontally)worth of the environment. Your computer will probably only show you about a 90 degree view. Your eyes also have a decent vertical field of view, and modern widescreen monitors can simply not do it justice. To make matters even worse, when your plane starts to get far away in the simulator it will just become a ball of pixels. In real life, the transition will likely be a bit more smooth and you will be able to maintain sight of your plane at longer distances. Due to all of this, its easier to get disoriented in regards to the environment and the position relative to the ground. This makes it slightly harder to fly in this respect. In my opinion though, this can actually help your orientation skills even more, so its not necessarily a bad thing.

You also have to remember that the physics in any simulator environment will not be able to exactly duplicate the flight effects you experience in the real world. Some things that will be easy in the simulator will be difficult and unpredictable in real life. You may even find that you trained yourself to "beat" the simulator, without actually mastering the skills you need to perform adequately outside the sim. It is only a computer, programmed by human beings, and incapable of reproducing most of the nuances of the real world. The thing to remember is that the simulator does not exist to replace real world experience. What it does do, is to allow you to hone your mind, reflexes and motor control so that you can easily deal with whatever mother nature throws at you.

Aside from this, not much else is really wrong with the Phoenix simulator. Sure, the planes aren't usually an exact match to the real ones, and they may not fly exactly the same in real life... but its close enough to learn the basics of flight from it. The planes are a little on the floaty side, but this really only negatively effects the heavier planes (like gas powered models), and the buoyant flight characteristics are actually appropriate for most foam beginner planes. Beginner planes are made to be difficult to stall, and will feel pretty similar to the flight experience in phoenix. You may want to move to a simulator with better physics, like RealFlight, if you start flying more advanced and stall prone planes.

The Game Plan for Learning in the Simulator

Most of the instructions on how you should fly will be covered in the "first flight" and "flying tips" modules. I strongly recommend you read them before flying in the simulator. In this section we are going to cover how your training should progress. Even though you are in a simulator, you will want to do everything one step at a time. If you rush into things, or are inconsistent about your goals, you will end up understanding less and it will actually take you longer to learn what you need to.

The first thing you should focus on is going from a takeoff into a standard, level and controlled flight. Pick a beginner plane to fly with and stick with it until later on in the training. Start by trying your best to fly in ovals, and don't worry if you find yourself only turning in one direction. You will want to avoid flying directly overhead (a good idea for all pilots), as it makes you lose orientation. Try to keep the flight in front of you, and just work on keeping your plane in the air. As you get better at it, feel free to progress into any flight pattern you desire. Fly in any direction you want and focus on learning how to avoid crashing. Don't worry about landing it just yet, we'll deal with that later. As I mentioned earlier in this module, keep the weather calm while you start learning how to fly.

After a few days of practicing this, you will probably be able to keep your plane in the air without driving it into the ground. When you feel you are ready to progress to the next level, then we can start practicing our landings. This will probably take the longest to learn, and many people struggle with this even after their training is complete. Its a good idea to practice coming in from different angles at different speeds (i.e. come in high and fast, then try low and slow). Phoenix v3.0 actually provides you with a landing training option where you can repeatedly land over and over with different approaches. This is a great tool as it saves time and lets you experience more landings, but don't forget that you also need to practice on lining the approach up yourself. Lining up the proper approach with the proper speed is the most crucial part, and you don't want to skip over learning how to do this.

At this point, you should be able to fly and land with some consistency. If you are still flailing around in the air and crashing half of the time, do not continue. You will want those fundamental skills more developed before you start increasing difficulty. On the other hand, if you have the basics down, I suggest your try an additional variety of planes. I highly recommend moving up to a 4CH plane (if you haven't already), and try repeating the training steps up to this point. If you have already trained with a 4CH plane, its not a bad idea to start introducing some variety into the mix. The chances are that the first plane you choose to fly outside of the simulator will not fly exactly the same as those in the simulator. Flying a variety of planes in the simulator will help you become more flexible and comfortable when flying a plane you have never flown before.

Once you've become comfortable flying and landing a variety of different planes, its time to start making things difficult. As mentioned before, the wind changes just about everything. Flying becomes much harder. I'd start with some small 5-10 mph winds, and then work your way into gustier and higher wind conditions. When you start raising the wind speed, also raise the turbulence. Remember to also adjust the frequency and randomization of the variables. You want to change things up and make them less predictable. Feel free to go as high as 30 mph winds as you get better, as it will certainly challenge your abilities. At this point in the training, we are focused on making it harder for you to fly. Challenging yourself is the main goal. Fighting unexpected winds is a part of flying, and I would not recommend trying your first flight until you've performed some wind training.

After all of this, you will probably want to jump into a real flight right away. Try to hold off on doing so for just a little bit longer. You've spent all of this time flying in the simulator, trying not to crash. You've trained yourself to avoid putting your plane into a difficult positions, and you've become a safer pilot for doing that. Unfortunately, things don't always go as planned. In the real world, its not uncommon to find yourself in a position you shouldn't have gotten yourself into in the first place. There are people who will say "there is no way to train for that type of situation..", but that is actually the whole point of the simulator. You want to put yourself in uncomfortable positions.

In a real flight, you aren't supposed to do things like fly directly at yourself, or fly over your head, because it can easily disorientate you... but what if you do it on accident? If you panic and don't know what to do, you will probably crash. In a simulator, you can practice this over and over again. If you crash, you can just try again. While you should not train yourself to do any of these dangerous activities, you will need to know how to react in those situations. When I was training on the simulator, I had a real problem when I flew directly at myself. I would completely lose control due to disorientation. To solve this, I sat down and did hundreds of repetitions where I flew the plane directly towards me, and by the time I was done I no longer lost control and orientation.

The important thing to take away for all of this is that the simulator is meant to make you a better pilot. With that being said, this doesn't mean that the goal of simulator training is to avoid crashing. Quite the opposite. In fact, the more that you do things that cause you to lose control and crash, the more valuable your time will be. Each time you make a mistake, or encounter an unfamiliar scenario, your brain will learn a little more about how it needs to instinctively react. Compared to the person who goes into the simulator and flies in an oval pattern all day, you will make much more progress pushing the limits of your flight skill. When you switch to flying a non-simulated plane THEN you can start playing it safe... but in the mean time, just remember that a crashed simulator plane doesn't cost a dime.

Extra Tips: Mastering Orientation Problems

As I previously mentioned, the hardest part when you first start flying is maintaining orientation. This involves not only tracking the proper angle and direction of your aircraft, but also moving your controls in the right direction. In the beginning, you will probably try to ascertain the orientation of your aircraft by simply looking at it. This will not work, and you will quickly learn that you will have to track the angle and position in your head, and use your vision to simply confirm your mental image. This will take some time to develop, and merely attempting to fly your aircraft in the simulator will naturally build this skill.

After you can properly track your aircraft's motions, you will have to struggle with making the right stick movements. It sounds simple, but the direction you need to move the controls will differ depending on which way the aircraft is facing. For instance, your first flight might go fine for a while, as you takeoff and fly straight. As soon as you turn the aircraft back around, you will almost certainly crash it. The reason will be because when you turned the plane around, you will need to bank or rudder left to move the plane to your right, and bank or rudder right to move the plane to your left. After a while, this will also come naturally, and you'll learn to reverse the rudder and aileron when the plane is coming at you.

If you are having a lot of trouble with this, I found a simple trick that will help train your brain to perform the correct maneuver. The first thing to do is to consciously take notice when your plane starts coming towards you. This will give your brain the first clue that it needs to change its reactions. The second thing to do is to pick a wing, and identify it. Look for the left wing, or the right wing. It really doesn't matter which one you choose, as long as you point it out to yourself. Keep track of the wing instead of the nose of the plane. Doing this will help you create a mental picture of the aircraft, and keep you "locked in" on the orientation. At first, doing this will require a lot of thought and feel rather clumsy. After a while, it will become second nature and you won't even realize you are doing it. You can apply this tactic to almost any orientation problem you may have. I find that this little trick saves quite a lot of time when learning how to fly.

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