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How Flight Simulators Changed the Pilots Train? Term Paper



Ever since the conception of first airborne machines, it became obvious that planes are exceptionally dangerous to fly. First planes, although they were gliders, traveled at much greater speeds than cars or horses. This meant that to promote safety and proper conduct, pilots had to be exceptionally trained, much more so than drivers or riders. This remains true even now, as the profession of a pilot remains one of the most complicated and demanding in terms of knowledge and skill. Nowadays, pilots are responsible not only for their own lives but for the lives of hundreds of passengers as well.

Flight simulators form the backbone of modern pilot training programs. They allow prospective pilots to get a feel for flying aircraft, without leaving the ground. Modern simulators are complex machines with fully integrated VR complexes and authentic controls meant to imitate a real plane. However, it was not always like that. Just a hundred years ago, pilots had to learn through trial and error, while relying on primitive contraptions made out of wood and steel, to imitate flight. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the impact of flight simulators on pilot training programs as they evolved from primitive apparatuses to state-of-the-art machines employed nowadays.

Before the First Simulators

Soon after the appearance of the first gliders, it became obvious that pilots had to be extensively trained. The first “simulators” used for that reason were gliders themselves. They were either elevated or sometimes towed, to give the pilot a feel for the machine (Bodeen, 2011). This was not a very effective technique, however. Gliders were often damaged due to unpredictable wind conditions. The practice was eventually abandoned, as planes quickly advanced in complexity and construction. The addition of an engine helped solve the plane’s unpredictability and dependency on wind conditions but added its own set of challenges for the pilots.

Subsequently, another way to train pilots involved using the machine under an instructor’s guidance. First, the trainees had to fly in the second seat to get a feel for the flight, and then learn to drive the plane on the ground, much like a car. Advanced training methods included making hops around the flight field – lifting the plane a few feet in the air, and then landing it carefully (Rosen, 2013). Only after all three stages are completed, the pilot was allowed to take the plane in the air. Before moving on to the first real simulators, let us analyze the pros and cons of the live training method. Naturally, flying a real plane significantly improved a pilot’s skill. It is something no simulator will ever be able to imitate. However, there were significant drawbacks. The cost of flying a real plane was around 50 dollars an hour (Rosen, 2013). For the beginning of the 20th century, this was an incredible sum of money, which meant that only the rich would be able to become pilots. Also, it was dangerous. Even harmless hopping around the field had the potential to damage the plane, which was very expensive. Landing accidents were all too common. These factors contributed to the creation of the first mechanical flight simulators. Another factor that introduced simulators en-masse was the beginning of the First World War.

The First Flight Simulators

Necessity is said to be the mother of invention. The First World War saw a great need for many military pilots. Neither side of the conflict had the time, luxury, or resources to allow training cadets on real planes. Flight simulators helped solve this problem to a degree, allowing for training pilots in the use of plane controls, thus significantly cutting hours needed for live practice. The first recorded mechanical flight simulator appeared in 1909 and was called the Antoinette Trainer (Rosen, 2013). It had a peculiar design – it looked like a half-barrel with wings and a chair put on an elevated platform. Its analogs – the Billing Trainer and the Sanders Teacher worked on similar principles and appeared like mock-up airplanes placed on top of gimbals (Rosen, 2013).

Due to limitations of technology, these devices served very little in terms of actually simulating flight. However, they were useful in teaching pilots to use the plane’s pitch and roll controls. On Antoinette Trainer, there were two control wheels, which were later replaced by a standard centrally-mounted control lever, which became common in many planes (Rosen, 2013). Aside from that, real planes with shortened wings saw continued use in training, to get the pilot acquainted with controls within the pilot cabin. It was called the “Penguin System” (Rosen, 2013). It is possible to see that at this point, flight simulators did not do much beyond teaching the very basics, and pilots still received most of their experience from live practice.

Mechanical flight simulators evolved along with technology. In 1929, a pilot and a mechanical enthusiast named Ed Link constructed his first flight simulator, using a mock-up plane model and leftover bellows, pumps, and other electromechanical devices he got from his father, who was an inventor and a producer of theater organs (Rosen, 2013). The machine did not have any initial success and was employed in amusement parks as a novelty ride. However, by the end of 1934, Link was able to produce and supply his machines for the needs of the US Air force (Rosen, 2013). They were also exported to other countries, such as Germany, which developed its version of the simulator. This machine was vastly superior to the crude elevated barrel-types like the Antoinette trainer. These machines were able to rotate 360 degrees and use pneumatic cylinders to imitate landing and take-off (Rosen, 2013).

This machine was exceptionally useful in teaching pilots to fly in bad weather when visibility was close to zero. Link installed a compass in addition to a turn and bank indicators, which allowed the pilots to train to navigate the plane using instruments alone. Although these instruments were rather rudimentary, this was a big step forward in integrating flight simulators into the training program. The machine proved to be useful, reliable, and relatively cheap to maintain, which was why Link’s simulators remained in use until the late 1950s (Rosen, 2013).

Analog Computers and their Use in Flight Simulations

Analog computers were the precursors of modern digital technology. They used transistors, coils, and condensers to calculate the plane’s trajectory and position in flight. They were superior to mechanical planes in numerous ways, such as responsiveness to commands, which became more fluid. This resulted in a more accurate representation of flight. While visual imaging was unavailable, this was another large step forward to improving the realism of the flight simulation.

The first analog flight simulator was developed by Richard Dehmel in 1941, with the patent approved in 1950 (Lee, 2005). The inventor managed to solve the equations of flight to make the machine realistically respond to controls. Curtis-Wright developed another analog flight simulator, after the Second World War. His machines were meant to imitate commercial Boeing 337 and its military version, C-97 (Lee, 2005). These simulators were made to resemble particular planes and were outfitted with completely outfitted pilot cabins for the pilots and entire crews to train in.

At this point, flight simulators started to take the leading role in training new pilots. The introduction of analog flight simulators in American pilot schools managed to cut instruction costs by 60% (Rosen, 2013). This was largely achieved by reducing the number of in-flight time down to 8 hours and replacing the rest with simulator training. At this point, the simulator became capable of imitating all flying functions of the plane – the use of navigational instruments and the controls and was able to imitate landing and take-off (Rosen, 2013). However, there was still room left for improvement. Navigational instruments were still rather basic, and information input and output remained basic and limited. Effective visualization was still largely beyond reach. One attempt at emulating visualization was the “model board,” which involved a large landscape of modeled terrain and a camera connected to the TV screen in the cockpit for visual feed. However, this system was proven to be largely ineffective due to the focal distance of these displays.

The Era of Digital Computers in Flight Simulations

While analog computers were able to largely imitate all of the functions and instruments a pilot had to use during flight, the simulations remained largely approximate. This was due to a lack of relevant data about plane flight speeds and weather impacts. However, this absence of data started to vanish with the introduction of a multitude of commercial flights, where several popular airplane models started to dominate the field.

Analog computers were unable to process all this new data and implement it in their programming. Besides, analog simulators were rather bulky and required complex maintenance and had high upkeep. Arithmetic algorithms have spent their innovation capability. This is where digital computers came into play. One of the first digital simulators appeared in 1960, produced by the Navy by Pennsylvania Institute (Frodeman, 2016). This machine had three parallel processors installed, and each had a separate function. One was used for calculating arithmetic algorithms and processing simulation data. The other was used for function generation. The third processor dealt with radio station selections (Frodeman, 2016). This model, as most early digital models, did not have any visual displays. At the time, such luxuries were deemed expensive and unnecessary, as the main purpose of these flight simulators was to teach the pilots to navigate using instruments alone, with no visual assistance. A classic representative of a flight simulator in that era is the Comet IV simulator, which was created to imitate a cockpit of a Boeing. It was created by Redifon Simulation in 1958 (Rosen, 2013). The machine had the capability of limited pitch movement, similar to the 6-degree movement used in most full-flight simulators nowadays.

The first image simulators appeared in the 1970s, and were, at first, meant for use in NASA’s space program. The Shuttle project, which presumed the creation of a multi-use spacecraft, required a high-end flight simulator, and visualization was among the requirements for it. The first visualization systems were produced by General Electric in partnership with the University of Utah. Two professors of computer science – David Evans and Ivan Sutherland, were credited for the creation of a computer-generated 3D imaging system that did not require model fields or cameras. Together, they formed a company called Rediffusion Simulation, which was responsible for the creation of advanced visual systems for the cockpits of flight simulators (Frodeman, 2016).

Modern Flight Simulators

After the last barrier – the lack of visuals within flight simulators, was eliminated, the world entered a new era of pilot training. At last, simulators were able to imitate all major factors involved during flight – use of controls, use of navigational instruments, pitch and turn motions, and visuals. These were the major milestones of flight simulator development. Afterward, there was not much else to add – only to improve on the already existing technology.

With the advance of computers and programming, flight simulators continued to evolve as well. Modern flight programming is capable of imitating multiple weather conditions, such as rain, snow, powerful winds, and air turbulence (Earshaw, Gigante, & Jones, 2014). Visualization of the environment offered great help in practicing landings. Historically, landing is considered to be the most difficult part of flying an airship. Before the introduction of 3D imaging, practicing proper landing in a simulator was considered impossible.

Modern simulators are not all alike. They are separated into two groups – Aviation Training Devices, or ATDs, and Full-Flight simulators (Bodeen, 2011). The difference between the two is that ATDs are stationary, and can be used on a PC, with a mouse and a keyboard. These programs are basic and are generally used in preparation for Full-flight Simulators, or the FFS. Full-flight Simulators tend to have a 6-degree cockpit movement and other systems to imitate a real flight with maximum realism. They can imitate the shaking of a plane when entering a turbulence area, as well as incline the cockpit when veering left, right, up, or down. Naturally, these machines are more expensive than ATDs and require more upkeep, as the motion systems and all of the sensitive machinery require delicate maintenance. The experience they provide, however, is invaluable and can be easily compared to that of a real airplane.

One of the most famous examples of modern flight simulation software is the X-Plane, developed by Laminar Research in 1982 (Rosen, 2013). Although at first it was marketed as a computer game that imitated flight systems of several aircraft, helicopters, and lighter-than-air vehicles, the potential was eventually noticed by the piloting community. Follow-up versions of the program were developed in partnership with Precision Flight Controls and Fidelity Flight simulations, adding accuracy to the program and becoming the most popular software to be used in flight simulators. The last version of the program, X-Plane 10, was released in 2011 and has been receiving regular updates ever since (“History of simulations,” 2015).

Is Real Flight Practice even needed?

With the advancements in flight simulators, the number of real flight hours for pilots steadily declined. This beckons the question of whether it is possible to eliminate live practice out of the question when training pilots. The answer to that lies in current limitations in simulation technology. While flight simulators made great progress in the last 100 years, evolving from primitive wooden constructions to fully-fledged digitized systems that imitate every aspect of flying with a high degree of precision, there is still some room left for improvement.

Many pilots reflect how flying a real plane feels different from piloting a grounded cockpit with a computer screen. Although modern Full-flight Simulators are capable of imitating certain plane movements, the imitation is not spot-on. The gears are not fluid enough to simulate the trembling of the plane as it lands a poorly-maintained landing strip, and the shaking associated with the turbulence in real life is much more pronounced and disturbing than it is in the simulation (Frodeman, 2016). The psychological factor plays a great role as well – a pilot feels safe in the simulator on the ground, where nothing could go wrong. This kind of psychological strength and fortitude is associated with experienced pilots who spent multiple hours in the air. Critics of flight simulators point out the feeling of complacency it instills in pilots, making them vulnerable and unprepared for the extreme situations that may happen during the flight (Lee, 2005).

While certain aspects of flight simulation can be improved upon, there is no doubt that excluding live practice from the pilot training program completely would be impossible and unreasonable – flying a real plane offers a kind of experience no simulator could replicate.


In this paper, we observed the evolution of pilot simulators throughout the last century. In the beginning, piloting was an exclusive profession reserved only for those rich and brave enough to dare to undergo many hours of live piloting practice. This kind of practice was very expensive and dangerous at the same time, as chances of crashing were very real.

Flight simulators transformed a pilot’s training regimen. They started small, undertaking the role of teaching the pilots to use basic controls. However, as technology made progress and planes became bigger, faster, and more complex, the role of simulators in pilot training grew exponentially. Eventually, they allowed the pilots to learn to land and take off the ground, pilot with the use of navigational instruments, and even respond to the ever-changing weather conditions, without leaving the ground.

The contribution of flight simulators to piloting is two-fold. First, the simulators managed to substantially reduce costs by cutting down the number of hours required to be spent in the air. The second contribution is in increasing pilot safety – practicing on the ground is much safer. Also, simulators increased the quality of pilots before taking to the air – modern pilots approach their airplanes already knowing every system and instrument within the cabin, and how it works.

The profession of a commercial or a military pilot is now open to everyone, as basic aviation training programs are available on the internet. Although the experience they offer is limited when compared even to a Full-flight Simulation, it offers a basic understanding of how pilots work and can spark interest in learning more about this exciting profession. To summarize, flight simulators made flying cheaper, safer, and available to everyone. This does not diminish the individual capabilities of a pilot. Even with the assistance of modern technology and automatic flight control systems, piloting remains one of the more difficult jobs that require constant practice, vigilance, and dedication.


Bodeen, C. (2011). Web.

Earshaw, R.A., Gigante, M.A., & Jones, H. (2014). Virtual reality systems. New York, NY: Academic Press.

Frodeman, R. (2016). Computation and simulation. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

(2015). Web.

Lee, A.T. (2005). Flight simulation. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing.

Rosen, K. (2013). The history of simulation. The Comprehensive Textbook of Healthcare Simulation, 4(1), 5-49.

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