Because of their interest in flight simulation, several of my friends have decided to begin helicopter flight training in the real world. In addition, Many more acquaintances of mine have taken the opportunity to fly at their local helicopter flight school. Although not necessarily striving for any type of certificate, they fly whenever they can manage the expense. If there is one thing that flight simulation enthusiasts love to do more than test their simulator-learned skills in the real world, it is to apply their real world experiences to their PC-based helicopter flight simulation activities. There continues to be a strong connection between those that enjoy serious flight simulation, and those that are poised to participate in, or continue with actual flight training. Helicopter flight schools, and the instructors that work for them, should keep this in mind and learn to benefit from it.
If you are already interested in flight simulation or are considering using it to augment your flight training, I would like to help you by sharing some feedback I have recieved from other students, professionals, and enthusiasts. Most importantly, make sure that you invest in good equipment for the simulator. If you are not able to use PC-based flight simulation software such as Microsoft Flight Simulator on a well performing computer with good graphics capability, then training by way of home flight simulation might not be a workable option for you. You should plan on having at least 2.6ghz in processor power, 1MB of DDR Ram Memory, and a high quality 128 or 256 MB Video Graphics card. Most game-ready computers sold at major retailers these days are able to meet those basic specifications. However, as with most tools, you will benefit more from higher quality. A bargain basement computer will likely give you a bargain basement experience when it comes to flight simulation. I also recommend that you purchase whatever controller hardware is necessary to match the basic ergonomics of a training helicopter such as the Robinson R22 or Schweizer 300. For a bare bones at-home training platform, I would recommend the Saitek X52 Joystick/Throttle Combo along with the Pro Pedals USB from CH Products. The appearance of the hardware is not as important as its ability to be configured and adjusted to get the ergonomics as close as possible to your real world training experience. You will not need a full-blown "home cockpit" in order to get training value from your PC-based flight simulator. There will be plenty of time to get into that later.
If you are a new student pilot that is looking forward to utilizing your previous experience with flight simulation, here are some tips for communicating with any new instructor you might be flying with. Keep in mind that many instructors are still entirely unaware of the advancements in modern PC-based flight simulators, so bragging about your experience before flying with them will probably not earn their confidence. It may even cause them to move at a slower pace with you, either out of spite or apprehension, either of which will only bring you frustration. You might consider keeping your flight simulation experience to yourself during the first couple of flights. Let your motor skills and experience speak for themselves. If and when the instructor inquires about your previous experience, then consider lightly approaching the subject, without getting into it too far. Also, understand that your instructor might not share your same passion for flight simulation. He or she might also may not believe it is valuable for training. You will need to respect that, even if you do not agree. If you feel that your instructor is reluctant to acknowledge the benefits that can be derived from flight simulation, you may consider searching for another instructor. Even if an instructor is not experienced with flight simulation, finding a instructor that is capable of embracing a wide range of learning methods is important.
How many times have you had a new student show up at the school for their first helicopter flight, excited at the prospect of becoming a pilot, only to have them finish out their first lesson or two and never show up again? By embracing PC-based helicopter flight simulation, you might find you have an additional tool for engaging new students and encouraging them to continue their flying. I don't think it is practical to outfit each one of your students with their own flight simulation package. However, your school will certainly have students from time to time that are familiar with, or perhaps even highly experienced with flight simulation. This is especially true as the up-and-coming generation is more comfortable with computer software and its various benefits. If you find that a student is experienced with PC-based flight simulation, and he or she seems to be taking it seriously, then embrace this to your and your school's advantage. Instead of disregarding a student's experience with simulation, consider discussing it with them. Find out how much experience they actually have and give them some detailed activities to work on between your training flights. You might just be surprised at the results. If they are a serious flight simulation user, they will probably be very excited to show you their progress between lessons. I mentioned in a previous column that instructors are often quick to recommend a stack of books, videos, or expensive DVD training kits to a new student. With that being the case, I would like to encourage you to consider home flight simulation as another tool that is useful for student pilots.