Don’t panic… keep your hair on… I am a fan of the touch-panel-based training device, so don’t get the wrong idea… BUT… are they usurping the role of the genuine cockpit trainer and leaving us worse off as a result?

A plethora of training devices based on touch-sensitive flat panels is emerging into the world of flight simulation. They are designed to provide economic lead-in training for type rating students who are then required to complete the process in either a non-motion FTD, Level D Full Flight Simulator (FFS), or the real thing.

The FFS is an expensive device but even more costly if you have no choice other than to use it for the teaching of basic procedures such as engine starting and stopping or the basics of automation management. A more cost-effective way of teaching these protocols would be to use a lower level training device that had all the attributes of the genuine replica cockpit without the luxuries of visual and motion systems. Of course, any such device should be capable of achieving the necessary approvals from the regulators so needs to be reasonably sophisticated as well as reliable and simple to operate and maintain.

Help is on hand for such a strategy in the shape of ICAO document ‘9625’. In Part 2 (Helicopters), of this guide to the use of flight training equipment, it recommends a ‘ladder’ of such devices that range from the basic to the sophisticated. Every flight training school will seek to provide its students with a graduated training process using a selection of emulators and simulators according to the depth of their pockets.

The touch-sensitive trainers I refer to use a range of panels (TV-like screens) to represent the cockpit. The images of switches and buttons are capable of translating, with the touch of a finger (or dedicated pointer) into an appropriate response on the display itself, or on other cockpit display screens and indicators. All this is possible courtesy of powerful software connected to a server.

The problem I do have with touch-sensitive devices is where they should fit in the scheme of things. I fear that the pressures from management are driving them towards the upper end of the training device spectrum because they superficially do the job and as Flight Training Devices, (FTD’s) go, they are comparatively inexpensive. Touch-sensitive devices, in my opinion, have a role to play just a step above the desk-top computer-based training aids. It is a huge mistake, I believe, to underestimate two vital ingredients that are so very important to a pilot learning a new type. One is the tactile qualities of the device compared with the ‘real thing’. The other is the disposition of the screens and panels within a ‘mock-up’ cockpit.

The aviator lives and works in a three-dimensional world, and his situational awareness depends on his mastery of this 3-D environment. To harness the two-dimensional world of the touch-sensitive panel is a clever idea but we should not lose sight of the fact that a two-dimensional training device will do nothing to develop three-dimensional skills. They can make a contribution but only if well designed, are accurate replicas of the real thing, operate with one touch and are stable and reliable tools.

The very act of pressing a button and feeling it pushing back, (called a ‘haptic’ response), gives the genuine device a feedback quality that seems to complete the mental pathway and enhance understanding of the resulting system response. A touch-panel provides the illusion of this effect, but in reality, the vagaries of slow software and inaccurate finger-tips more often make it a frustrating experience. The user is left, at times, with the feeling that one is taking part in a box-ticking process rather than immersing oneself in a truly representative environment. This is the curse of a world that seems to permanently survive on ‘Beta’ software (that’s software that is still ‘under development’).

Hermann Ebbinghaus was a pioneering psychologist of the Victorian era. His research into the abilities of the human mind to absorb and retain learned knowledge was the basis for much research that followed, and this modern research has shaped the way the world of teaching addresses the problems associated with the retention of knowledge.

One thing we certainly understand is that the more involved the student is with the material he is attempting to learn the longer the majority of that new knowledge will be retained. The US founding father and polymath, Benjamin Franklin, once summed up the situation very well when, 100 years or so before Ebbinghaus, he said,

“Tell me, and I forget. Teach me, and I remember. Involve me, and I learn”.

This advice leads us to maximise the physical involvement of the student in the learning process, and procedure trainers score a million more points than a simple classroom lecture – PowerPoint or no PowerPoint.

The pilot’s working environment is the cockpit. He or she must, at all times, be comfortable in it and believe in its credibility. The pilot achieves this by maximising his situational awareness by ensuring he or she knows not only where everything is in the cockpit but also what it does and how it operates.

The term ‘muscle-memory’ has been used synonymously with ‘motor learning’. This process is based on the repetitive use of items in an environment such as an aircraft cockpit. This conveys upon the pilot a semi-automatic awareness of his surroundings. A familiarity that enhances situational awareness and improves reaction times. For a training device to be truly effective, it must accurately replicate the real aircraft cockpit.

There is a fundamental mental process at work when we ‘make a switch’ or ‘press a button’, and it relates to the outcome of that simple act. If the resultant tactile experience is convincing then we ‘believe’ that outcome and our memory logs it as something worthy of retention. If the outcome is unconvincing, then retention seems a lot less certain. If the designers of these devices don’t appreciate these limitations, then they may be guilty of overselling their value in the marketplace. Those that make the decisions about what to buy and what not to buy may also be unaware of these limitations and be persuaded by the apparent economy and simplicity.

While teaching pilots to use the modern ‘flat-screen’ cockpit displays, sometimes referred to as ‘glass cockpits’, I have learnt a lot about what works and what doesn’t. These displays are densely packed with data, much of it in digital format. For those that have been raised in cockpits equipped with dials, the flat screen displays can often represent a significant challenge. Digital data has to be acquired from the displays by reading it, understanding it, comprehending it, analysing it and then deciding what to do with it. To acquire data quickly, the eye must fall upon the exact location on the display where this critical fragment of information is located. We can call this motor skill ‘eye-muscle-memory’. Every opportunity to deliver the necessary training for this and all the other muscle memory related actions and drills should be conducted in a device where the ‘cockpit’ is a very accurate replica of the real thing.

I recently used a device based on correctly oriented touch-sensitive panels, and up to a point, it worked very well, with some reservations. I have also had to use a device that was designed down to a price and lacked correct panel and flight control orientation, had incorrect display configuration and was one panel short of that necessary for true cockpit replication. Not only was it painful to use because one screen had to do the job of two, but the whole setup delivered an unconvincing sub-optimal training experience.

There is an old proverb that I am fond of –

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost…

For want of a shoe, the horse was lost…

For want of a horse, the rider was lost…

For want of a rider, the message was lost…

For want of a message, the battle was lost…

For want of a battle, the Kingdom was lost…

… All for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Ex-Naval types like me may prefer a more succinct variation…

Don’t spoil the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar.

For sure there have been many incidents in the past where accident investigators have stared at a smoking hole in the ground and came to that same conclusion. Good quality training may not solve all such problems, but at least if we do our best, we are not left wondering.

Attention to detail will deliver the best training possible and not necessarily cost a whole lot more. Better to pay up than kid ourselves that we are doing it right when really, we haven’t properly understood the problem. This attitude only satisfies the bean-counters who may only be interested in ‘window-dressing’.

It is my considered opinion that there should be another tool between the touch-screen training device and the FFS and that is a non-motion, replica cockpit with basic visual system. It should feature aircraft quality software emulation that will permit the most critical systems to be used without necessarily requiring aircraft-grade equipment but the tactile qualities must be close to the real thing. The complete lack of tactile integrity is the Achilles Heel of the touch-sensitive device. This basic FTD I describe is, on the other hand, a wonderfully cost-effective tool for it can at one and the same time be used like a small classroom or for more focused scenario training – PLUS – it is capable of gaining significant training and testing ‘credits’ from the regulators.

So, my ideal Training Centre equipment will include four steps –

1.    Desk top PC based emulators for starting, stopping and automation management.

2.    Touch-sensitive panel-based cockpit trainers capable of being operated by the student with minimal technical supervision.

3.    A non-motion FTD, preferably with a good quality visual presentation. (Some such devices are available with a token motion system but nothing like the sophistication of an FFS). It will require a separate room or enclosure to ensure optimum training environment.

4.    A well developed, reliable, stable (software), FFS to Level-D that was fully de-bugged before being introduced into service. This is an essential if the plan is to do licence related testing or, if used by the military, capable of meeting their testing standards.

One advantage of such a ‘masterplan’ is that if capacity is a problem or technical failures occur then the FTD can do 95% of the work (including TR’s), an FFS does. A good ‘flat-panel’ trainer will do 80% of the work an FTD does (but cannot substitute for the FFS) and the PC based trainer can at least keep the students busy and focused.


If the Training Centre you manage is based on just one FFS, then you should know that when it breaks or becomes fully booked, you will have a potentially severe problem. Heaven forbid the chaos when both occur, for there will be customers reliant on access to the sim to deal with critical, time-related, elements of their training programme. Make sure you know where your hard-hat and flack-jacket are.

Training isn’t cheap, but if we combine good quality flight simulation training devices with well-trained simulator instructors, we will at least get value for money. Another quote from Benjamin Franklin sums it up –

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

Training, remember is not a ‘cost’ – it’s an investment. If your customer ends up in a hole in the ground, the first thing the investigators will ask for is the crew’s training files. A sobering thought.