Flight simulators are everywhere. People have them in their garages and bedrooms, excellent software packages such as Microsoft Flight Simulator and X-Plane are available for game consoles and PCs. There are stores in shopping malls where you can spend an hour as the Captain on a commercial jet. These devices use state of the art technology, have ultra-realistic 3D scenery and may include genuine aircraft parts in the simulated cockpit, but they can’t be used for professional pilot training.
What’s the difference between these ‘hobby’ devices and professional flight simulators?
The difference is qualification. To be used for training towards the issue or revalidation of a pilot’s licence or rating, a flight simulation training device (FSTD) must be qualified by the relevant aviation authority. Qualification certificates are issued to the ‘operator’ of an FSTD once the authority is satisfied that the operator and the device meet all the applicable requirements.
The requirements for FSTDs are documented in certification standards. In Europe, these certification standards are published by EASA. The certification standards list the requirements for different qualification levels. The qualification level determines which types of training a device can be used for. Higher qualification levels require greater sophistication in-flight modelling, technical systems, visual systems, motion etc.
Flight Test Data
If an FSTD needs to represent a particular aircraft type (e.g. for type-rating training), the FSTD operator will need to demonstrate that the FSTD “flies” like the aircraft. This requires access to actual flight-test data, which is usually provided by the manufacturer of the relevant aircraft (for a fee). During the qualification process, the applicant conducts a series of engineering and flight tests on the FSTD, records the results and compares these to the flight test data. When the tests are complete, the results are reviewed by the authority. Inspectors from the authority then spend a couple of days on-site conducting their own tests to verify the results provided by the applicant. At the same time, the inspectors will check that the building where the FSTD is installed provides a safe and suitable environment for flight training.
Authority inspectors will also investigate an applicant’s organisation and management system. To hold an FSTD qualification, an organisation must have procedures to maintain and update the FSTD and a periodic testing programme to verify that it continues to meet the qualification basis. The organisation needs to show that staff (e.g. technicians) are appropriately qualified, and there must be a compliance monitoring programme. The management system must be documented in a procedures manual, and there must be a reliable system for keeping records.
If a qualification certificate is issued, that isn’t the end of the story. The qualification will only be valid if the FTSD and operator continue to comply with the applicable requirements. The authority will conduct inspections and audits to check this, usually at least once a year. Any aircraft operator or flight school that wants to use the FSTD for training also needs to be approved to use it by showing that it is suitable for their training programme.
Are qualified devices better than ‘hobby’ simulators?
No simulator flies precisely like an aircraft. The regulations intend to ensure that FSTDs are useful training devices. A secondary consequence of regulation is that it is very difficult to innovate. FSTDs can only be qualified against standards written many years ago and updated infrequently. This is one of the reasons why some professional flight simulators costing millions of euros are less sophisticated than those in the shopping mall!
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