The Power of Flight Simulators

Flight Training on a Budget

By Rod Machado

Over a period of two semesters, a young college student with two intro flights in his logbook acquired approximately 60 hours of supervised training using a desktop flight simulator. Curious to test his chops at the controls of a real airplane, this student signed up for another intro flight at the end of the second semester. Instead of riding along passively, he asked the accompanying flight instructor to let him do everything—and I mean everything—including talking with ATC, taxiing, flying, et cetera. The instructor reluctantly agreed.

The result? With less than two hours of actual flight time,the student handled the airplane and ATC with ease. The instructor touched nothing, much to his surprise.

Airport fiction? Tales from Playpilot magazine? Nope. It’s all true.

This student was lucky enough to spend two semesters in Ed Valdez’s flight simulator class at Cypress College in Southern California. Ed is the assistant professor of aviation at Cypress and an über-simulator fan who leverages the devices to reinforce and accelerate his students' acquisition of flight skills.

Ed’s simulator platforms use traditional desktop computers running Microsoft Flight Simulator X (or Elite) and a network known as PilotEdge to provide real-time ATC communication. Several of Ed’s simulators have large TV monitors that enhance the simulation experience (shown here). My favorite one consists of three supersized TV monitors arranged in the shape of a small cubicle (it’s a mini IMAX machine). A traditional computer screen sits slightly below the front main screen and displays the basic analog (not glass) flight instruments.

FREE Flight Training Syllabus

When a student sits down to take the controls, he or she can see the bottom of each wing through the right or left (large) simulated window. This allows the student to directly evaluate the wing’s in-flight angle of attack, a necessary component to learning stick-and-rudder skills. The surrounding terrain also is observable through each large window. This means the instructor can teach the basic concepts of attitude flying, ground reference maneuvers, pilotage, dead reckoning navigation, and pretty much anything else required for private pilot certification.

Additionally, the large monitor in front of the student allows him or her to evaluate height above the runway during landing. This is possible because the runway can still be seen at the bottom left side of the instrument panel and cowling during the flare. After all, this is where students should look if they want to evaluate their height above the runway.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the guidance of a highly skilled instructor such as Ed Valdez, who uses a practical flight syllabus (created by Ralph Butcher at

One of the secrets to Ed’s success (and there are many) is that he requires his students to have three to four hours of simulator time for every hour of dual instruction they obtain. He also avoids using glass cockpits for primary training, since this has little to do with learning to fly an airplane.

The Best Deal for Private Pilot Students

When I visited Ed at Cypress College in mid-October 2014, I met one of his students, Rito, who had 39 hours of Cessna 172 flight time and was ready for his private pilot checkride. Rito had acquired about 30 hours of supervised sim time over a period of several months. According to Rito, Ed’s simulator training program will shave nearly $4,500 off the cost of a private pilot certificate earned at a traditional flight school.

Airport fiction? Nope. Just good simulation software, large monitors, an effective syllabus, good management, and exceptional teaching skill that help students earn their pilot certificates in less time and with less money.

If you or your flight school operate on a budget (and who doesn’t?), then consider using Ed’s flight simulation strategy. Start by acquiring a few large-screen TVs for way under $1,000 each (and they certainly don’t have to be as big as the ones you see here), a desktop computer with a good CPU, and one or two good video cards. Build the “Big Bertha” of flight simulators and obtain a good syllabus to aid in your training. Now you’re on your way to replicating the success that Ed has experienced with his students at Cypress. 



next post → ← previous post


  • Klaus Axhausen - May 19, 2020

    I use my sim with X-Plane11 and PilotEdge (or VatSim for European locations) regularly. I think, it is an great learning tool and the immersion, especially with ATC, is amazing. You can train things there, especially emergency procedures among others, that are hardly possible in real flight. The quality of the flight models are also astonishing. I wrote down my performance numbers for IFR flying from my C172S REP model in the simulator and then checked them out on a VFR flight with the real plane. They were 1:1, which is pretty amazing. You can aquire bad habbits during sim flying, as you can during training (bad CFI`s do exist) or thereafter. It is a matter of attitude. In the sim I do all the planing (including weather, because you have real time weather) and use all charts, checklists etc. as in the real flight. When I do a flight to a unknown destination, I do it before in the sim to become aquainted to the flight view from the airport and surrounding. And so on and so on…
    Used in a proper way a sim is the best investment you can do to become and stay current.

  • David C Freed - March 09, 2020

    A flight simulator should ALWAYS be used with the checklist! I have two simulators here at home and
    use the checklist for whatever airplane I simulate flying. Checklists are available online for the most
    common aircraft and are inexpensive. They also prevent “bad habits” and “short cuts” from forming.
    I also keep a pilot logbook for all of my simulator flights, just like with the real airplane, and mark off all
    simulated flights on the VFR Sectional Chart, so as to keep a running “record” of what I have been doing.
    These efforts keep me from becoming rusty, lazy and sloppy. Nearly everything I do on the simulators
    transfers easily to the real airplane. I have both FSX (Steam) and X-Plane with all the controls, GPS and
    other necessary cockpit items and supplemental training aids to keep it interesting and maintain some
    degree of proficiency when not in the real airplane. I have 3000+ hours on simulators alone.

  • RMM - February 19, 2020

    Most of the above concerns are valid but have easy remedies. For Syllabus, Rod offers an excellent PPL syllabus. Regarding habits….First and foremost, fly in the sim with a CFI who is simulator friendly. Then you will avoid picking up bad habits. Second, after a short while, fly a few hours real world with a CFI for landing practice and basic maneuvers. Third, invest in quality equipment for your simulator. You will be rewarded with huge savings in both time and $$. Effectively paying for your sim rig. FWIW – I fly with a Yoko Yoke/MFG Crosswind rudders/Saitek Throttle Quadrant/Cessna Trim Wheel/Desktop Aviator Flap Switch/65" LED TV/Track IR.

  • Aaron Hill - January 01, 2020

    Nice article, but if it’s not FAA Approved it’s negative training. I’ve had instructors get FSX joystick student pilots only to regret having them unlearn bad habits (keyboard parking brakes?) so they can form correct, safe habits. Our FAA Approved XSPEC 142 AATD is a great example of an affordable, accurate training device. These “PC ATDs” are bad for the industry in my humble opinion. PC ATD is not an actual approval level. It starts BATD, then ATD, then AATD.

  • Bruce Mamont - November 03, 2019
    It’s an intriguing article, but lacking in “executable” detail. I’d like to know more about how Cypress College uses their “lab”. I think we could accomplish more with primary students as well as beginning instrument students during the months when the weather is marginal if we had a better structured and systematic program that’s based on ATD use. Is Cypress College willing to post their syllabus or other material that could be used by flight schools that have ATDs or PC-ATDs? Sign me: former Cypress resident now living in Puget Sound.
  • Louis Loizides - November 25, 2018

    I’m using flight simulators with Pilot Edge to supplement my PPL training. I think there are definite pros and cons… the main pro is that time is free. The con is you can develop bad habits. For a while it was helping a lot, but then I had a really bad day once while doing touch and go’s with my instructor (landed each time, but poorly). She kept asking me why I wasn’t going through the exact steps I was supposed to, such as dropping to 1700 RPM when abeam the numbers.

    I realized that in the flight sim I had started doing everything by feel and I stopped paying attention to the procedures… I forced myself to go through the mental checklist again and everything has been better since, so I really think that’s the key. Now as far as Pilot Edge (ATC communications), wind corrections, ground maneuvers, etc. all of those are fantastic in a simulator.

    I’d also recommend purchasing a VR headset with yoke and rudder pedals instead of multiple screens. It’s almost absurdly realistic. Turn your head to the side and you get the 3D view out the side.

Leave a comment

Stay in Touch

Physical Product Ordering Only (800) 437-7080

If you'd like to order a PHYSICAL product by phone, please call the number above. Digital (downloadable) products can't be ordered by phone.

Latest Posts

  • It's Time to Speak Up

       “Hey Rod, tomorrow I’m taking my little airplane out to see what it can do. I’ll see ya later.”   Those were the last words I ever heard my best friend speak. I never saw him again. The next day,... read more

  • The Forgotten Mechanic

    The Forgotten Mechanic Here’s today’s riddle: Name something that all pilots need and use all the time, often don’t know by name, and depend on completely for the safety of every flight. The answer isn’t obvious, and neither is this... read more

  • Weber's Law

    By Rod Machado If you closed your eyes, held out a cup, and asked someone to gently pour water in it, how much liquid would need to be added before you noticed a change in weight? One drop? Probably not.... read more

  • It’s a Long Way Down, Isn’t It?

    Psst! Psst! Come here. Come a little bit closer. I’ve got something I want to ask you, and I don’t want anyone else to hear. Are you afraid of heights? It’s probably embarrassing to admit it, but if you’re like... read more

  • A Foot in the Mind

    By Rod Machado Psychologist Robert Ornstein, in his book Evolution of Consciousness: Origins of the Way We Think, talks about a person he knew as Jim. Jim’s reputation was based on his ability to get others to do things for... read more

  • Dive and Drive: Fact or Fiction? Maybe Both?

    By Rod Machado I am a "dive and drive" denier. There, I said it and I'm not taking it back. The term "Dive and Drive" is used by some instructors in the pejorative sense. It's a pointy phrase that's released like a... read more

  • Pilots, Poets & Psychologists

    By Rod Machado Mention the word poetry to a pilot and he'll act like he's in a hotel fire. He'll think: get low, get down, get out. Admittedly, even I get the heebie-jeebies at the mere mention of haiku (that's... read more

  • The Power of Flight Simulators

    Flight Training on a Budget By Rod Machado Over a period of two semesters, a young college student with two intro flights in his logbook acquired approximately 60 hours of supervised training using a desktop flight simulator. Curious to test... read more

  • The Prevalence Error - Why We Look but Do Not See

    Looking Good, but Seeing Little By Rod Machado Recently, I was having a difficult time seeing things that were in plain view. I was even thinking about visiting the Our Lady of Fatima Optometry Center, where their motto is, “If... read more

  • The Middle-aged Aviator

     By Rod Machado Over the years, I’ve heard many stories about middle-aged pilots (45-65 years) who gave up flying due to a sudden onset of anxiety. Apparently this wasn’t induced by any specific aviation trauma nor inspired by the relatively... read more

  • Cargo Cult Thinking

    By Rod Machado  Early in the 20th Century, pilots visited remote islands by air, dropping off goodies for Tarzan and Jane. On subsequent visits, these pilots noticed that the natives had built flimsy stick-and-twig replicas of their airplanes. Anthropologists named... read more

  • Recent Changes to Part-61 and Why They Are FANTASTIC!

    By Rod Machado Am I happy about the recent changes to FAR Part 61? You bet I’m happy. These changes will be helpful to general aviation in much the same way a corkscrew is to a Frenchman on Bastille Day.... read more