Professional Simulations – Not Playing Around

Take a bucket, a broomstick, a potentiometer, and a desk chair, and you’ve got a simulator – if you do it right. Flight simulators are incredibly lifelike because of computers and computing, though they were developed for teaching and training for decades before computers were invented. As simulators evolved from crude contraptions to multi-million dollar machines capable of certifying pilots, their evolution changed the what and how of learning and education in an industry. How we learned a new way to learn deserves significantly more research, which we are doing and are inviting others to do, too.

Critical tasks, by their nature, benefit greatly from training and practice in safe environments. A soldier needs to know the basics of how to attack and defend. A surgeon needs to know how to do no harm while also caring and curing. A pilot needs to know how to fly without dealing with the consequences of a failed flight. Falling out of the sky teaches a lesson, but the grading is fatally harsh. It is an invaluable learning tool to be able to stop and talk about a situation, something that can’t be done with a plane wobbling through the sky.

Modern flight simulators are so realistic that pilots can receive the majority of their training on the ground. The most expensive simulators cost millions of dollars and can throw the cockpit and the crew through wild and potentially damaging gyrations. The greater the motions, the more money is spent on hardware for moving the cockpit. Reality is always different because the real vehicles are more complex, the atmosphere is chaotic, and accidents happen. But, the simulator allows for unlimited training so a pilot’s actions are more intuitive and quicker. The extent of the flight’s accelerations and vibrations is only limited by the mechanical systems of the simulator.

Take the same software and constrain the flight to something more benign that a Shuttle landing, and it is possible to simulate the majority of a flight by tilting the pilot and the cockpit. Simulating a different vehicle may only require new data for the simulator and swapping cockpits. The pilot can learn the basics, train for failures, and refine techniques. The vibrations and accelerations are only representative for part of the flight envelope, but obvious hints are provided if limits are exceeded.

Remove most of the hardware and all of the motion, and the cost comes down dramatically. The result is a simulator that can run on a PC, which why some simulators are used more as games than trainers. The graphics can simulate as much as more sophisticated systems. The cockpit and controls can be simplified to be computer generated views, instruments, and controls. The basics of flight, though, can still be taught, though that first real takeoff and landing can be real surprises. It may not be possible to complete the majority of training with a fixed-base simulator, but a lot of training can happen for very little money.

Prior to the PCs were the mainframe simulators that could only be operated by corporations and governments. Many of them were motion simulators after the industry cleared the motion’s first main technological hurdle: hydraulics. The cockpits could mimic the real cockpits because it was possible to get pieces of an airplane and bolt them to a platform. A lot of heavy structure and non-essential systems were removed, though, to ease the mechanical load. The main difference within the era of the mainframes was the view. Current systems can pull in 3-D maps of the world. Step back far enough and the view was from a camera mechanically driven across enormous maps. Fly off course, and the view would blank out as if there was no more world. The pilot’s acceptance of the simulation was interrupted.

Digital computers access databases and algorithms that model the world, the vehicle, scenarios, and internal systems. Complex computers use complex models. Simple computers used far simpler models. The capacity of the simulation was limited only by processing power and memory available.

Prior to digital computers there were analog computers. Few remember working on them, but there were computers that weren’t based on ones and zeroes. Analog computers were based on electronic components: resistors, capacitors, and inductance coils. That may not seem obvious, but physical systems like vehicles can be modeled as a collection of springs, masses, and dampers – which have analogs that are resistors, capacitors, and inductance coils. Analog simulators are like the difference between LPs and MP3s. An LP is a continuous record of the vibrations that are a song. MP3s break up the continuous vibrations into a digital representation that captures most, but not all of the song’s dynamic range. Analog computers were smooth, and therefore more representative of fine motion; but programming one required skills that were more like circuitry design than writing in a formulaic language. The extra setup costs meant each simulation had a very limited flight envelope. The lack of computer generated graphics or computer driven cameras meant the main feedback for the pilot was the instrument panel.

There were simulators prior to computers. The risks and costs of in-flight training were too high to ignore. Vehicles can be modeled as springs, masses, and dampers – so they were. Mechanical simulators provided relatively rudimentary responses to pitch, yaw, and roll which were still better to learn on land rather than in the air. The pilot was much more aware of being in a contraption instead of an aircraft.

At each stage of the evolution of flight simulators the learning and the education changed. The pilot’s immersion was originally superficial with rudimentary systems, and has become so deep that entire flights can be simulated with pilots experiencing many of the physiological reactions from fatigue, failures, and even figuring out how to feed themselves in flight.

The role of computers and computing on professional pilot training deserves far greater research than a simple blog post can embody. That is one of the goals for the History of Computing in Learning and Education’s Virtual Museum. The story is undoubtedly similar within other industries. They all warrant significantly more studies. There are many papers to write and read and support. Contact us if you are working on something similar. In the meantime, here’s the list of simulators we’re starting with: ATC, CAE, Flight Gear, Flight Safety, Frasca, InMotion, Link, X-Plane – and a link to our digital loading dock.

That broomstick, bucket, and desk chair simulator did exist. A few decades ago, a small group of design engineers needed to test a new type of airplane before it left the drawing board. One of the engineers settled into the chair with the bucket between his legs. They housed it in a small room with only a moving horizon on a television and a few spare instruments bolted to a board. After only a few minutes of flight the test engineer was sweating and so anxious about the flight that he had to look over his shoulder to regain his composure.

The technology behind the learning experience isn’t as powerful as the learner’s depth of involvement. Technology is valuable for enhancing the learning experience, but the learner is more important.


2 thoughts on “Professional Simulations – Not Playing Around

  1. Thanks for this informative article, Tom. I firmly believe that we all need to understand the difference between “reality” and the predictions of simulations and computer models. The press bombards us with the output of simulations, from weather predictions to GDP, and presents them as “facts”. Unless we are aware of the difference we are all living in the movie, The Truman Show. ( (

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