An RC flight simulator is an excellent tool if used properly. The big mistake so many people make is believing that the simulator will teach them how to fly RC planes. A simulator cannot teach anything. They are simply not programmed with that ability.
Many software packages have a built-in tutorial that allows the user to step through the functions of the program as it explains how to use each one. RC aircraft simulators do not have this feature. For instance, a simulator does not explain that stick movements should be gentle and only enough to get the model to perform a maneuver. It does not explain that the model must be controlled into and out of a turn with the ailerons. These are the functions of an instructor. The simulator is a tool to practice the maneuvers that have been taught by an instructor. A student pilot, especially a beginner, can develop some very bad habits while using a simulator that are difficult to break later.
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There is a young pilot who taught himself to fly using an R/C flight simulator. When he arrived at the field to get some one-on-one instruction, he had already developed some bad habits. He managed to fly circuits around the field maintaining a good altitude although a little low according to the instructor. The problem that he had developed was his execution of the turns. He would make the turn with a series of very quick movements of the aileron stick. This was obvious by the erratic banking into the turn. The instructor showed him on several occasions how to make the turns smoothly with gentle movements of the sticks. He is now flying an aerobatic plane, and his turns are only slightly less erratic.
For beginners, flight simulators are excellent tools for building spatial orientation, motor skills, and confidence. For more experienced pilots, flight simulators help in building motor skills required in doing the more difficult maneuvers. The amount of benefit that the pilot can gain from the simulator depends entirely on how well the simulator emulates the model. On most simulators, the flight characteristics can be adjusted so that it more closely emulates the “feel” of the model. None of the simulators have progressed to the point that the flight physics are perfect, but they are close enough that they can be of significant benefit.
One of the most difficult things to master for the beginning pilot is approach orientation. There is a natural tendency for the beginner to move the stick in the direction he wants the model to go. When the model is moving toward the pilot, the aileron and rudder controls are reversed. This means that in order for the model to turn to the pilot’s left, the stick must be moved to the right. Using a simulator allows the pilot to practice approaching maneuvers for hours on end so that it becomes second nature to move the stick in the correct direction for the model to take the desired flight path. After approach orientation has been mastered, all other maneuvers start to become easier to accomplish, especially landings.
The primary benefit of flight simulators is that of building motor skills. The pilot, whether a beginner or experienced, can practice specific maneuvers for hours without having to be concerned about weather, time of day, temperature, or number of people in the field. The motor skills that are developed through hours at the simulator are basically the same as “muscle memory” in golf. This means that the skills are related more to the muscles reacting to a simple command than the brain sending a series of commands to the muscle. For instance, the pilot wants to perform a snap roll with a Giles 202 model. He thinks “snap roll” and his fingers simply move the sticks to the appropriate position rather than his having to think in what position the sticks need to be. The end result of the muscle memory is where modelers get the term “feel” for a model. Since there is no positive feedback system built into a transmitter, there is not true feel for a model. The feel of the model comes from the difference in the expected feel based on muscle memory and the actual feel from the movement of the sticks.
Many beginners do not progress as well as others simply because of a lack of confidence. This is especially true if the student is not able to fly very often due to conflicts in scheduling time to devote to learning to fly. With each trip to the field, he must re-learn some of the things that he has forgotten during his absence from the field. He must again reinforce his motor skills and regain his muscle memory or feel for the trainer. Since his progress may be much slower than that of other students at the field, he may become frustrated and much less confident. The simulator allows the beginner to practice what he has learned to maintain or improve his motor skills and not lose his confidence. When he goes to the field, he will subconsciously think, “I can do this.”
A few years ago, there was an article in one of the leading R/C magazines about the benefits of a flight simulator. There was a story of a young man who flew a club trainer a few times then bought a flight simulator. He knew enough of the basics to be able to hone his skills on the different model configurations offered on the simulator. After several months of practicing on the simulator, he went back to the field and flew every model at the field including a ducted fan jet plane. He had no problems with basic maneuvers because he had developed the skills required through many hours of practice with the simulator. This is an extreme case but it shows what can be accomplished through using a simulator if the basic methods have been taught.
If pilots get proper instruction and use the flight simulator to practice what is taught, it can be of significant value in learning to fly or to perfect various maneuvers. It can greatly increase the “stick time” that the pilot is able to achieve in given period of time. It is a tool that if properly applied can help a pilot to progress at a much faster rate than normally possible. Above all, it is up to the pilot to make sure that this tool is properly applied by getting the right kind of instruction and not try to learn on his own.