Aircraft are primarily for flying, and simulators are primarily for teaching. That seems obvious, but what it really means is that even aircraft developed specifically as trainers aren't going to be able to do things a simulator can do.
With a real airplane you can't conjure a thunderstorm whenever you want one. Of course you also have to taxi, take off, fly out to the desired distance and reorient the aircraft before trying to shoot an approach. In a simulator you click a few buttons and you're there, and you can have the thunder storm if you want it.
A simulator also allows an instructor to monitor the flight in progress without interrupting the student, this helps keep the student in the simulation (referred to as immersion or presence) so that they can maintain focus and maximize learning.
The instructor's primary means of interacting with the simulator is the Instructor Operating Station.
The Instructor Operating Station (IOS) is a control center for the simulator which allows an instructor to control many aspects of the simulator. On the most entry level simulators this is a component of the software being used to run the simulation, generally a window which is accessed via a drop down menu at the top of the main display of the simulator. On more advanced simulators the IOS generally has it's own keyboard, mouse and screen not visible to the student. This is a real advantage as the student doesn't know what's coming, and can't peak if asked to look away. Some simulators also use wireless tablets for the IOS. Due to the tight coupling of the software the IOS is generally provided by the simulator manufacturer, however there are third party IOS packages available which work with some simulators.
Generally speaking the Instructor Operating Station allows the instructor to
- Monitor the flight in progress
- Reposition and orientation the aircraft
- Change the time of day and weather (usually with a fairly high degree of sophistication)
- Trigger a simulated equipment failure
- Review a detailed log the flight
- Preform emergency scenarios
- Invoke specific aircraft failure modes
- Control surrounding air traffic
Most modern flight simulation systems provide a fairly sophisticated degree of control over the simulated weather. Although this technology isn't standardized across the simulation industry, generally the systems work by defining "layers" of weather of arbitrary thickness with specific attributes. At the most basic an instructor can configure one thick layer for the entire world with a single temperature and no wind, precipitation or clouds. At the other end of the spectrum an instructor can create a complex mufti-layered environments simulating a realistic storm system with different temperature, wind, visibility, precipitation, and visibility conditions. Typical weather controls include setting multiple layers of some or all of the following:
- Temperature and pressure
- Visibility (haze and fog not related to clouds)
- Cloud frequency
- Cloud type
- Icing probability
- Wind direction and velocity
One of the best parts of a flight simulator is you can spring surprise failures on students. It's very educational for a student who believes they're practicing a simple approach to suddenly experience a popped breaker, or the failure of an aircraft system, control surface such as flaps, without knowing what's going on in advance. This allows students to practice their reasoning and develop judgement.
When a student is new to flying and the aircraft isn't behaving the way they expect it can take quite a long time for them to figure out what the fault is, and even longer to decide what they should do. Of course it's possible to land without flaps, but how will a student know that's what the problem is? Experience, and that's exactly the sort of experience simulators are excellent at building. You can do things in a simulator that would compromise safety in the real aircraft.
Simulating failures is one of the most complex aspects of developing a flight simulator and as such what can and can not be simulated in going to be specific to each simulator design. Flight simulators can even be built to simulate the failure of proprietary equipment.
For example a search and rescue operator may wish to have a simulator built to help their crews learn to handle the patient-hoist specific aspects of their aircraft, including simulating equipment failures related to that specialized equipment. When a patient is on the hoist isn't the time to decide how to deal with a failure.
Possible issues to simulate
- Control surface icing
- Popped breakers and resultant systems failures
- Dead instruments
- Instruments with incorrect readings
- Complete / partial failure, or detachment of control surfaces
- Complete or partial engine failures
- Fuel flow and consumption issues
- Carburetor icing
- Tire blow outs
- Break failures
Recording performance for analysis and review has become standard practice across many disciplines, even high school tennis teams are recording practices and matches to analyze performance and determine how to improve.
Most flight simulators allow recording details of the flight as it happens. That generally means recording position, attitude, and speed. Many simulators can record the condition of every light, switch, control knob, the reading of every instrument, and exact meteorological conditions at every moment, effectively everything that's happening in the simulator system. Some simulators even use infra-red cameras to record the students in order to monitor and if desired record where they are looking, and what they're doing. Special projection and systems also allow for the training of and use of NVIS and NVG (Night Vision Imaging Systems and Night Vision Goggles). Of course such sophistication can be useful for highly technical analysis, but can also lead to information overload and make it difficult to determine what you want to know. Be sure to read our articles on choosing what's important for your simulation needs.