Read accident case studies and aviation stories to help you stay sharp.
By Dan Sobczak
Editor's note: This content does not constitute flight instruction. Consult a certified flight instructor in your area for proper flight instruction.
In the 1995 movie Apollo 13, the crew -- Commander Jim Lovell, Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise, and Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert -- had just been "killed" in a simulator accident a few days before the actual mission launch.
A screenshot from the movie Apollo 13 just after the crew was "killed" in a simulator accident. Photo credit: Universal City Studios, Inc. and Imagine Entertainment.
As the crew talked about what went wrong with the Director of Flight Crew Operations Deke Slayton, actor Tom Hanks (who portrayed Jim Lovell) tells Slayton "Well, if I had a dollar for every time they've killed me in this thing, I wouldn't have to work for you, Deke. We have two days, we'll be ready."
Flight and mission simulation was vital to the Apollo program that landed men on the Moon from 1969 through 1972. In fact, if it wasn't for simulation practice, the Apollo 11 landing likely may have been aborted, and history would probably recall the first human to set foot on the Moon as being Commander Pete Conrad of Apollo 12.
Gene Kranz, NASA Flight Director during the Gemini and Apollo programs, wrote about the critical importance of simulation in his book Failure Is Not An Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond:
In the late 1960s our simulation technology had progressed to the point where it became virtually impossible to separate the training from the actual missions. The simulations became full dress rehearsals for the missions down to the smallest detail. The simulation tested the crew's and controllers' responses to normal and emergency conditions. It checked out the exact flight plan, mission rules, and procedures that the crew and controllers would use for the flight. The problems thrown at the controllers and crew by the SimSup (simulation supervisor) prepared them for the real crises that might come in any phase of the mission from launch to splashdown. Simulation attempted to make events that could happen in real time -- malfunctions in any one of the many spacecraft systems, trajectory problems, or failure in the ground systems -- as realistic as possible. With hundreds of possible malfunctions any many time-critical mission events, the training opportunities were limited only by the hours and weeks available to train. We simulated every mission phase under a variety of normal and emergency conditions. By the time the training period for a mission ends, the astronauts and the MCC teams must be thoroughly familiar with the pre-mission plan. They must know what should happen and be capable of making a correct decision to continue the planned mission or execute a mission abort under any set of circumstances."
Even before my days as a student pilot, the value of home computer flight simulators beyond simple entertainment, like Microsoft Flight Simulator, was not lost on me.
A screenshot of Microsoft Flight Simulator X shows a Cessna 172 simulator flying the Chicago VFR corridor over Lake Michigan. Photo by Dan Sobczak.
To give me an edge on my flight training (and help save me money on the cost of flight training), I used Microsoft Flight Simulator as a tool to learn what the flight instruments could tell me and how to use them.
Later as a student pilot, I used Microsoft Flight Simulator to simulate my cross country missions and fly the exact flight plans I would later file and fly in real life.
Simulating my flights actually benefited me during one particular student pilot cross country flight as I flew across the Arizona desert to a waypoint.
Because I flew that exact flight path in the simulator two days previously, I was able to easily spot one of the landmarks on the ground I had chosen during my flight planning. When I realized the relative position of that ground landmark to my actual flight path, I quickly deduced I was off course from my planned heading and made the appropriate course correction.
Such realistic scenario-based training made it possible for me to further enjoy aviation over the years, enhance my aviation knowledge, and keep my flying skills sharp during times I was unable to fly when life intervened.
The team at Redbird Flight Simulations recently wrote about the importance of scenario-based training in flight simulation.
"The key to effective scenario-based training is to create a scenario that is as realistic as possible," writes the Redbird team.
That is the exact same philosophy Kranz wrote about in his book, and practiced daily during his aviation career.
"By keeping everything in the simulator as close as possible to flying the actual plane, students will solidify what they already know while introducing and practicing the new, allowing for a seamless transition back into the plane," adds the Redbird team.
This philosophy applies equally to general aviation pilots of all ages and experience levels. The more scenarios you can simulate realistically -- from flight plans, to sight pictures for various flight maneuvers, to checklists and emergency procedures -- the more you'll be able to react accordingly, make correct decisions in real-world flights, and stay ahead of the power curve.
There are plenty of resources available to further your scenario-based training, some of which include the following products.
Recently, Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 was announced at E3, the annual computer video game expo, almost 10 years after Microsoft officially cancelled its Flight Simulator franchise due to budget cuts. This new Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 should be a great enhancement to realistic flight simulation and training.
Another popular home flight simulator is X-Plane. With its realistic graphics, aircraft and variety of options, X-Plane is a fantastic tool to further your flight simulation practice.
Additionally, the Federal Aviation Administration recently announced an enhanced mobile-friendly FAA Runway Safety Pilot simulator. This FAA simulator is an interactive, self-guided resource designed to assist with teaching pilots surface safety best practices.
Lastly, if you're looking to get into more realistic flight simulation at home to enhance your flight training or increase proficiency as a licensed pilot, you may want to check out Flight Chops' Epic Home Sim Giveaway, happening in June 2019.
The Flight Chain App team
Dan Sobczak is the founder of www.FlightChainApp.com, a mobile app that helps pilots learn from accident chains by making NTSB reports more convenient and easier to digest. Dan received his private pilot certificate in 2003.
Flight Chain App and its companion blog www.AheadOfThePowerCurve.com are committed to reducing general aviation accidents, helping improve aviation safety, and growing the pilot population.
The only aviation accident app that helps you see and understand the accident chain from NTSB reports.
Flight Chain App and its blog Ahead of the Power Curve are committed to reducing general aviation accidents, helping improve aviation safety, and growing the pilot population.