In Praise of Simulators; A Simple Example

By traditional training I am not a Naval Architect. I actually studied to become an Aerospace and Ocean engineer. My education at Virginia Tech as an Aerospace and Ocean engineer was nothing more than a lucky coincidence, since it allowed me to indulge my youthful passions of sailing, flight and space.

Over the years I ended up spending much more time on the water, but that path was not so clear at the time of my graduation. My senior project was a self launched home buildable glider, not a boat.

My team won a national award for the design and after that it was shelved and I went the maritime way.

However, recently, I have decided to reopen my personal path to flight, mostly to re-experience what it feels like to learn something from scratch.

Last fall, I started taking soaring lessons at Jersey Ridge Soaring in Blairstown, NJ. Jersey Ridge Soaring is one of those unexpected New Jersey gems; a surprisingly good soaring location with excellent staff, and instructors on a lovely airport with an excellent diner.

While it is a rather long drive for me, the last part of the drive is a truly pretty country drive and the return drive always gives me the chance to mentally go over my old man feeble attempts at learning a new eye hand coordination routine.

Especially as an engineer, I generally feel I am overthinking the task at hand, and that tends to make a mess of things when it requires rapid eye, hand, feet, and instrument feedback response. Stick and rudder coordination is no different than riding a bike or sailing a sailboat. The only difference is that I learned to ride a bike, and sail a sailboat when I was quite young with a blank slate brain and felt little social pressure or embarrassment when I made a mess of things. Today, I have to deal with a brain that is mostly prewired for not flying gliders.

Learning to fly gliders really only consists of three components: take-off, soaring and landing.

In general aviation lore, the landing tends to be the tricky thing (The ideal number of successful landings is the sum of landings and take offs divided by two). Very strangely, the landings (at least in low wind conditions) pose no problems for me. It feels like taking a sailboat to a dock, you just modulate energy and glide in. The soaring part is not so easy, but, hey, that is why we do it, to enjoy the soaring and to gradually get better at it.

But the take off is another story. At the school, the gliders are aerotowed, which means a crop duster type airplane tows the glider into the air. That means that you are sitting in an airplane that loves to fly better than the tow plane, but has relatively slow response characteristics and I end up struggling to keep it lined up behind the tow plane. The instructor says: “Just imagine you have to shoot the tow plane down.” Meanwhile, I am thinking why does this tow place continually appear in a different part of the sky?  Undoubtedly, practice is the game, but simple math works against me, since the aerotow portion of the flight only takes a few minutes.

Bring in the simulator. Jersey Ridge Soaring has a nice simulator right in the office building, and I took a simulator lesson. There the take off was even more miserable since, by the instructor’s own admission, a simulator take off is more difficult than an actual take off. But the advantage is that you can do a take off, mess up, and repeat.

But the drive is long for a simulator lesson, and here comes the neat part, the simulator program and a nice set of controls retails for about $300. In the heart of winter I bought such an outfit and for the last month or so I have been able to embarrass myself in private to practice take offs.

After about 10 hours of practice (and at least another 10 hours inefficiently getting mesmerized by the soaring and landing functions), it now feels that I can manage to take the glider up without getting disconnected by the tow plane, most of the time. Soon, I hope to be able to take the drive up to see whether I have improved in real life too.

Simulators are a big deal in maritime too, and for the most part I am a fan. However, I think simulator use should be an integral part of training, not a substitute.

In pondering the experience I would say there are few take home issues:

  1. 1.  Real life is real life, and nothing can really substitute for real life, but there are simulations that can come close and those should be embraced.
  2. 2.  There is nothing wrong with ultimately making the simulation a little more frustrating than the real life experience.
  3. 3.  Simulations shine in shifting time. That means that simulators can grab a certain training chunk out of a whole training program and allow a student to just work that one chunk until they get it right. That is not always easy to do in real life, but a simulator can fix that issue effectively.
  4. 4.  Simulators allow you to screw up so they can be very helpful in evaluating and learning about very complex tasks, like driving a car and texting. (I am not kidding, why not let student drivers use simulators where they get to kill virtual innocent bystanders while trying to text?)
  5. 5.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, beats the feedback from a top notch instructor, whether in real life or in the simulator (and, boy, my flight instructors are good).
  6. I am looking forward to my next lesson at Jersey Ridge Soaring with trepidation, I fully expect an instructor comment along the line: “Yeah you got it up in the air, now let me show you how to do it gracefully.”