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Flight simulators:

the flight simulator
(In this photo: a full motion flight simulator)

An article about different types of flight sims and how cockpit simulators and flight sim games work:

A flight simulator is a device that recreates an aircraft and its environment in order to simulate its flight behaviour, understand how the aircraft’s systems work and how external forces such as air density, wind, rain turbulence (and many other factors) affect the aircraft’s flight. A full motion state of the art flight simulator is used primarily to train real pilots; however there are a lot of various flight simulator games available to anyone interested in flying. A simulator is especially useful, if a pilot needs training before switching to a new aircraft model. For example when transitioning from one aircraft type to another or just to undergo differences training like from the Boeing 737-200 cockpit to a 737 EFIS/NG cockpit.

In this video: a real flight sim used for pilot training

In this case a flight simulator most likely will have the same type of cockpit as a real aircraft, and a pilot will be able to get used to the new airplane before taking command of a real craft.  Flight simulators also play an important role in research. For example different systems that simulate different parts of the aircraft and its environment may be used before the real aircraft will be built in order to test new features and aerodynamics. Furthermore flight simulators could be used to assess pilot behaviour in different kind of demanding situations without having to do so in real aircraft which is both safe and cost effective. 

Flight sim cockpit
(In this photo: Flight simulator trainer)

There are generally two main types of flight simulators. The first ones are PC-based flight simulators that replicate some systems of the aircraft (this could include a visual environment like in the Flight Simulator X or FS2004 for example). The second ones are full cockpits (pilot training simulators) with which may vary from simple fixed base platforms (FNPT I and FNPT II) to more advanced models and can be a full copy of real aircraft with motion platforms that move according to the pilot’s control movements and the simulation of external forces. These are commonly used to train real airline pilots.

Flightsim FNPT 2
(FNPT 2 flight sim used during initial pilot training during CPL/IR)

A PC-based flight simulator is a software program that can be installed on a computer and that will recreate the feeling of flight and aircraft systems (very often on a highly detailed level). Generally such programs display sky images on the screen, with horizontal vision and image of earth, depending on the direction of the “imaginable” aircraft in which the user is supposed to be. In order to control flight on the screen, such programs make use of a physical panel with instruments that replicate the real instrumental panel of the aircraft. Using the necessary control levers and switches, the pilot behind the screen governs the flight to his preference. Normally, such programs are able to replicate several aircraft models, allowing you to switch modes and test different panels. Some of them are available free of charge and for the more complex ones you will probably need to pay. To make flight simulation experience more enjoyable and realistic you can buy all sorts of hardware to enhance the flight experience. There are companies that sell control yokes, rudder pedals, throttle quadrants and communication stacks of various aircraft models to suit the need of a computer simulator pilot.

Here are some pictures of different cockpit simulators:

FNPT 1 cockpit simulator

FNPT 1 cockpit sim

plane flight sim

Airplane flight sim

Boeing 747 Simulator

Boeing 747 simulator

A full cockpit (pilot training simulator) allows its user to become familiar with the aircraft cockpit of a specific aircraft type and/or variant. The interior of such a cockpit will closely resemble the real thing only instead of the windows there will be computer screens that will display sky or earth/airport images depending on the pilot’s movements. These screens, together with all the instruments, are connected to a central computer that coordinates their functionality. In addition the cockpit simulators will have several large speakers, to recreate three-dimensional sound in order to build a very convincing illusion of flight as close to reality as possible.

In this video: a professional full motion simulator pushed to the limits

Along with pilots undergoing flight training there will usually be a station for a flight instructor/examiner who will supervise their training and input all kinds of emergencies and failures into their training profile. Before pilots are allowed to fly real aircraft they have to undergo type rating training in full motion simulators and learn about the airplane systems in this synthetic environment. The simulators which are used for flight training are generally very expensive and can cost millions of dollars depending on the aircraft and systems which they are required to replicate.

Full motion flight sim
(Full motion cockpit sim used for pilot training)

Full motion cockpit simulators feature movable hydraulic legs and actuators that recreate the motion of a moving cockpit. These legs are also controlled by the central computer and react in accordance to the pilot’s control movements and the weather profile inserted in the system. When the pilot decides to change the direction of flight in a full motion simulator, the hydraulic legs will then tilt the entire cockpit in the requested direction. This pilot allows the pilots not only to see a visual picture of a turn but also to feel the movements that result from his/her control movements. In an advanced motion cockpit simulator you can also feel acceleration when adding or reducing power. This is done by either tilting the whole simulator back (during acceleration) or forward (when simulating braking). Very advanced simulators can even simulate an environment on the ground showing cars on the road and airport service vehicles as well as ground personnel.

So if you decide one day that you want to become an airline pilot then at some point in your future career you will most likely be flying a full motion cockpit simulator both during your type training as well as subsequent revalidation flights and exams.

(Full motion flight sim video: pilots landing in strong wind)

motion flight sim
(Professional motion flight sim)