Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Why We Sim

People (especially real-world pilots) occasionally ask me why I settle for flight simulation instead of actually going out and getting a real pilot's license. The assumption seems to be that, given a choice between flying a real airplane and flying a simulator, flying a real airplane is always preferable. However, the reality is that there are many persuasive reasons to sim (even for those who have a pilot's license).

One key reason is cost. Where I live, getting a private pilot's license and an instrument rating (I don't consider a PPL worthwhile unless an IR comes with it) costs about $50,000 (yes, you read correctly!). Renting an aircraft might cost $300-$500 per hour. Buying a new twin-engine Baron (the kind I routinely fly in simulation) would cost over a million dollars. And then there are things like fuel, insurance, and airport and ATC fees. It's a very expensive hobby, especially on this side of the pond.

In contrast, my entire investment in flight simulation has cost only a fraction of one hour of rental time in a small airplane.

Another problem is the time and paperwork required to become a pilot for real, even for purposes of leisure. You have to find the time to fly around with an instructor—an instructor who typically knows and cares very little about instructing and is just trying to build up hours so that he can become an airline pilot one day. You have to solo. You have to stay current. You have to pass all sorts of exams. I hate tests and exams.

Simulation requires no specific instruction or exams, although serious simmers will obviously study.

Then there are the medical requirements. The FAA and its brethren in developed countries still expect pilots to be as robustly healthy as astronauts. Airline pilots have to have a medical exam every six months; if the doctor finds anything he doesn't like, the pilot's career ends. That's quite a sword to have hanging over your head. And with my luck, I'd fail the exam. And where I live, you need a second-class medical for an instrument rating; third class isn't good enough. Just being nervous about the exam (and how can one not be nervous, with one's flying career on the line?) is enough to make me fail it. I don't need that kind of stress.

No scary medical exam for simulation.

Then there is the need to travel. See, real airplanes leave one airport and land at another (usually). Meaning that when you finish a flight, you're in a different place. I don't like being in a different place. I can't stand to travel. I want to start and finish in my apartment. That cannot happen in real life. Even if you just go out for pattern work, you still have to travel to and from the airport. There are no general-aviation airports within easy reach of public transport where I live, and I don't have a car. And what if I don't want to do pattern work? And what if I want to fly from somewhere else, somewhere other than the handful of nearby general-aviation fields? Can't be done in real life.

However, in simulation, I can start from any airport, finish at any airport, and never even leave home. No need to go outside, no need to commute for hours, no need for hotels or rental cars. If I want to fly from Los Angeles to Seattle, I can. In real life, though, I'm thousands of miles from both cities; I'd have to fly as a passenger all day just to get to one of them, and all day again to get back home. There's just no comparison.

And then there's the weather. In real life, you take what you get. In simulation, you pick the weather you want. Even if you're a stickler for real-world weather, as I am, you can pick your departure and arrival airports to match the kind of weather in which you wish to fly. And you can always change the weather in the sim to anything you want. If you want to practice instrument flight, you can set up hard IMC; if you don't want to be disturbed by clouds, you can set up severe-clear VMC.

Then there's the choice of aircraft. In real life, you can only fly what you are certified to fly. If you like to fly tiny Cessnas, this isn't a problem, as any licensed pilot can fly those. But if you like to fly 747s or Concordes, you have a problem. Even real-life airline pilots can only fly the big iron when and where their employers dictate; they cannot take a company 737 out for a pleasure ride. Military aircraft are also out of reach (although I'm not interested in those).

In simulation, you can fly anything you want. I routinely fly Cessnas, Barons and Bonanzas, 737s, 747s, and 767s. Nobody can fly with this degree of freedom in real life, not even airline captains.

In real life, you must respect regulations and worry about safety. The dedicated simmer does the same, but in simulation you always have the option of suspending regulations or throwing caution to the wind if you want to try something special. For example, the airport on Santa Catalina Island closes in the evening. If you fly there after hours, you pay a big fine, or worse. But in simulation, you can choose to ignore or observe this restriction; if you really want to land on the island at midnight, no problem. Or if you want to try to glide a 767 to a landing with no fuel or engines, you can do that in simulation; in reality, it's out of the question.

Simulation also lets you fly when you want, in comfort. You don't have to worry about the cockpit being too hot or too cold, or too noisy. You don't have to postpone going to the bathroom until you land, and if you get too tired to fly, you just stop the flight. In real life, these are all potentially serious problems. In a real airplane, if you start to nod off over the mountains, you might die. If you get tired while flying over the mountains in simulation, you stop the sim (or you pause it, if you want to resume later) and take a nap.

Some pilots, especially private pilots of small planes, enjoy sensations. I don't. I don't like roller-coasters or sudden movements. I don't necessarily find these objectionable, but they don't thrill me, either (that's why I'd unhesitatingly turn down a ride in a fighter jet). The fact that my sim doesn't move physically is more of an advantage than a disadvantage, although movement would certainly enhance realism and I probably wouldn't refuse it if the opportunity to have it came up (as long as I could shut it off when I didn't want it).

I'm a procedural person. I like flying in zero visibility for an hour, using just instruments, and then breaking out of the clouds at the last minute and seeing that I'm perfectly aligned over the runway. It's an intellectual exercise. At the other extreme, aerobatics bore me, even just watching them. Fortunately, sims are superb at simulating instrument flight, even if they are very poor at simulating aerobatic flight.

In summary, then, while it's true that simulation isn't the same as real life, it's also true that simulation has advantages over real life. I like the idea of flying in real life to a certain extent, but there are parts of it that don't appeal to me. I don't like the idea of spending huge amounts of money and time just to get the opportunity to fly a tiny tin can (the big iron being permanently out of reach). I don't want to travel or commute. I don't like written, practical, or medical exams, which stress me uselessly. I don't want to be constrained to tiny airports in one small region of the globe. I want to be comfy in the cockpit, not freezing or sweating or thinking about landing as soon as possible just to find a restroom. The list goes on and on.

I also can take heart in the fact that simulation will only get better in the future, whereas flying for real will only get more and more difficult and unpleasant.

I've flown as a passenger in big planes, which was fun (although the hours spent at airports before and after the flight were not, and long flights can be very boring). I've never flown in a small aircraft. Maybe someday I'll try one of those “discovery flights,” maybe not. Right now, though, simulation gives me the parts of aviation that I like most, without the irritations that the real thing would also impose.

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