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Helicopter Training and Desktop Simulators

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In this article I'll take an unapologetic look into the training capabilities of desktop helicopter simulation using Microsoft Flight Simulator and other important tools. Is preparing for Helicopter Flight Training via a desktop simulator going to work for you?

The short answer is yes. However, it heavily depends on how seriously you are willing to take it. Which stands true for almost all training endevours.

Back before I had the vantage point of Hovercontrol, I could have only spoken for myself, and my own positive experiences with learning how to fly by utilizing at-home desktop simulation. However, I have been fortunate enough in the past 4 years to share what seems like countless tales of our members getting an opportunity to fly or begin real-world helicopter (and fixed wing) flight training. When Hovercontrol.com first started, it was just an occasional story from a few members, here and there, regarding the positive transition from simulation to real-world technique. Not enough information to really form a strong personal opinion. However, as this community has grown, so has its reach. I have now heard enough experiences, from enough sources, covering a wide enough range of circumstances, that I can now be completely sure that at home simulation-based helicopter training preparation can truely pay off. In a variety of ways.

Before I go into specific examples, I will share the common theme that has bubbled up from each pilot experience I have had the opportunity to listen to, or read. The level of skill and knowledge translation that is possible when moving from simulated helicopter training to real-world flight training is almost entirely dependent on how seriously the person in question is willing to take their flight simulation experience, and to what extent he/she is willing to invest in the appropriate tools to achieve their goals.

Many of us have boiled that sentiment down into one simple statment.

When it comes to helicopter flight simulation, you get out of it, what you put into it.

One of the most important points about training at home with flight simulation that I have learned through my own experience is that it is not a one way street. That is to say that it is not simply about learning and practicing some technique at home, and then applying it during your next real-world flight. Training via simulation, goes both ways. For every time I chose a skill to practice on the simulation at home, and take to the field for my next flight, there was also something new that I had learned in the real-world that I couldn't wait to get home to repeat and explore in the simulator.

I would later find out that this two way concept is important in our community. Because in addition to many young people, and members that have never flown or been in training, we have many members that are professionally operating helicopters, or in advanced stages of their training. They aren't just getting started, they already have some level of experience, but are still very curious about what home simulation has to offer them in regards to their skills and continued training.

The most important thing for experienced pilots who are interested in at-home flight simulation to remember is that just because you have a great deal of real-world experience (perhaps even thousands of commercially flown hours), that there is a lot to learn about at-home flight simulation in order to get the most out of it. This is where communities can come in very handy. The real-world experienced members can share their flight related skills and knowledge, while the experienced flight simulation users can share their ability to get the flight simulator working at its best. Both groups have skills and knowledge that the other will depend on in order to get the most out of their flight simulation experience.

I admit to getting frustrated by well-experienced real-world pilots who do not have a high opinion of at-home flight simulation, but in the same conversation clearly show that they have no experience with the software, hardware, or its optimal configuration. Because things have become so complex in this home flight simulation landscape, it can be difficult to win them over in a single conversation. Because simply stated, they won't believe it until they have seen it, and experienced it for themselves.

On the bright side, I have now met many new simulator flyers, and experienced real-world pilots as well, that have come around and have begun to fully appreciate just how powerful desktop helicopter flight simulation and training can be, when done well. Obviously, Hovercontrol has made it much easier to find and meet these people.

A recent example comes to mind. An active member of Hovercontrol that is also a recently minted commercial helicopter pilot (congratulations!) is still very much in the midst of real-world helicopter training. Every time I speak to him, he has something new, some new training point or certification that he is working on finishing up. Even though this person came to Hovercontrol with almost no flight simulator experience, within just a few weeks, he had gotten things to a point where he was using the simulator to help run through navigational tasks, and other flight related tasks that he was wanting to be as sharp as possible on. On one meeting, he simply said "I wish I had found Hovercontrol and helicopter flight simulation sooner than I did, it would have saved me so much time, frustration, and money". Our community loves to have lengthy discussions about the limitations and weaknesses of at-home flight simulation for training purposes, but this was a person that had never seen the community before, and was too busy using the simulation software to help with his real-world training to pay much attention to the noise.

What is an unapologetic approach to helicopter flight simulation? Some of us have spent a great deal of time and money in order to have the maximum helicopter flight simulation experience at home. We are aware of just how much quality and accuracy can be derived from the sim with the right add-ons and configurations. When we meet new users, especially real-world experienced users, we tend to have an apologetic approach to introducing them to the simulator. When they start from scratch, they often have tons of questions about percieved limitations/inaccuracies about the simulator. In response we tend to come up with apologetic, or compensating answers that paint our favorite simulator in a more favorable light. We can even get downright defensive if we feel that someone is not giving our simulator the credit it deserves. A lot of time and energy has been wasted by simulation enthusiasts, trying to convince others just how good this sim can be. Especially when that other person is a real-world helicopter pilot or professional.

An unapologetic approach to helicopter flight simulation, simply means that an enthusiasts energy is going into their own simulation experience, and less so into trying to convince others that the simulator software can be quite powerful. We have gathered a large enough community at this point, that we do not need to convince each person how good things are. We can share what we've learned in some open format, such as forums or tutorials, but as far as "believing" in the capabilities of the sim. If they do...great...if they don't...we'll be too busy flying and performing training-prep to be concerned.

From my own experience, I know that by using a high quality simulator setup at home can prepare you for real-world helicopter flight as well as aid in your regular real-world training. When I applied nearly 1000+ sim helicopter hours to my first real-world helicopter flight, I was asking myself the same burning question that anyone would be asking. "Is all the time I spent preparing at home really going to count?" The answer is yes. It wasn't that I went out and had a 25 minute intro flight in an R22, and got to handle the controls for a few minutes, and didn't crash, and so now I think the simulator helped a lot. Although we do get quite a few of those experiences coming in from Hovercontrol members. However, in my situation, this was not the case at all. Instead, my first flight in a helicopter consisted of nearly 2 hours in a Schweizer 300 where I was soley at the controls for the majority of the time, through a wide variety of different tasks. Not a single task was unfamiliar to me. I was able to do every task on my own without assistance, the first time, with precision. Hover, transition, pedal turns, slow flight, approaches, hover-taxi, landing, ground-line tracking, altitude and airspeed precision (both while flying straight, and turning), the list goes on.

The percentage of skills that I believe transfered directly to my real-world experience from my work with the at-home flying and preparation was near 90%. I had answered the biggest flight simulation related question on my mind, and began to have a great feeling about all the time I had spent flying helicopter using a simulator. Knowing that it could truly contribute to a more successful real-world helicopter flight training experience, if that should be the route I chose to embark upon.

The unapologetic approach to helicopter flight simulation means that at this point, I will not try to convince you that the same results are posssible for you. I can only share my experienece, and the other experiences that have been shared with me via Hovercontrol. If you choose to get the most out of helicopter flight simulation and its capability to help you prepare or stay "sharp" in your real-world flying and training then Hovercontrol will continue to be a resource to help you along the way.