Is VR Better than a Homecockpit?
Preface: This is an English essay I wrote for my final project. Its possible there are errors in this paper, so please take everything presented with a grain of salt. Without further adieu, ladies and gentlemen. My paper:
Are Virtual Reality Flight Simulators More Effective than Traditional Fixed Cockpit Flight Simulators?
Through the years Virtual Reality (VR) has grown from a fantasy dream to a practical tool. This tool’s practicality has made its way into mainstream technology. As Brian Boyles wrote in his text on Virtual Reality in Education, “extremely low cost shifted the virtual reality market from the realm of technology enthusiasts to the common person.”(1) With this technology being more accessible than ever it has extreme potential to be a useful tool in pilot training. Building from the growth of this new tool, aviation professionals are investigating where this tool can be used to replace or supplement technologies to yield better pilot training programs. Home enthusiasts and student pilots are also giving virtual reality a look as it becomes more available off-the-shelf to the public. Using virtual reality, realistic home flight simulators can be achieved easily. Given the rise of this technology, virtual reality flight simulators are often more effective than traditional physical simulators because of their cost, immersion, and flexibility.
With the many nuances of Virtual Reality and Flight Simulation, terms must be clearly defined. When I use the term Traditional “Fixed Base” Flight Simulator I mean a device that replicates all aircraft systems as close to the real aircraft as possible inside a video game-like computer software. This form of flight simulator is static and is not mounted to a motion control platform (which would give pilots an enhanced feeling for how the aircraft would be moving). This specific type of flight simulator is commonly inspired directly from an existing aircraft cockpit design. These simulators play a crucial role in instrument training, in which a pilot has flies using reference to the cockpit instruments. Instrument training is done much safer and cheaper in a flight simulator than in a real airplane. A Flight Training Simulator Device (FTSD) is similar to a Traditional “Fixed Base” Flight Simulator, except a Flight Training Simulator Device (FTSD) is certified by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and approved for use in flight schools, with the ability to log pilot hours in. These simulators must be constructed to specific standards and show sufficient accuracy. Another term that must have clearly defined criteria is effectiveness. Effectiveness can be measured through a few variables. Production of an effective simulator should be scalable, with the ability to create tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of simulators for the hundreds of thousands of active student pilots in the world. If this simulator is to be used by flight schools, it must be able to easily fulfill the tens of thousands of flight schools in the world. An effective simulator must also be economical and obtainable to the average home for student pilot training. The simulator unit must also be a reasonable size, to allow a home or school to easily host it. The tool should have capabilities to easily train students on procedures and flight maneuvers. An effective simulator should also act as a real aircraft does, to give the student a feel for how an actual flight should be. When I use the term Virtual Reality Flight Simulation, I mean the method of flight simulation in which a pilot wears a Virtual Reality (VR) headset to create a virtual environment capable of looking around in 3D space as if in a real aircraft. A Virtual Reality Headset typically has small displays that are projected into the user’s eyes and accelerometers to sense movement in 3D space. The movement is then reflected in the displays as if looking around in a virtual world.
Virtual reality flight simulators are highly effective because they provide a more realistic and full view. These systems allow pilots to look around the virtual cockpit, which increases the pilot training realism. Since virtual reality places the user in a “virtual environment,” a pilot can see everything around them, including a more realistic view out of the windows. Using accelerometers and gyroscopes, a student pilot can look around easily around the entire cockpit, “[meaning] the student may look beyond the 180-degree field of view provided by traditional flight simulators, and [the student] is able to practice lookouts the same way he or she would do it in the real aircraft.” (Virtual Reality & Flight Training). With fixed simulators, the field of view is typically limited to a single screen in front of the controls, with a possibility of two side monitors. In addition, a traditional flight simulator’s screen does not properly display the correct depth of field. An image on a projected screen will not appear the same as an image in a virtual reality headset. (Virtual Reality & Flight Training) This perceived distance can be detrimental to gauging how close an object is. This traditional lacking view system is difficult for pilot maneuvers that require you to look around. One common maneuver done is traffic scans or “lookouts,” in which the pilot looks carefully to confirm where other aircraft are to ensure they are not on a collision course. Virtual reality also has exciting potential in landing practice. Traditional simulators do not have a full 360-degree view, so a pilot’s vantage point for judging runway height may be limited. A NASA article written by Naomi Seck explains the dangers of overshooting the runway. Whenever overshooting the runway, “often the pilot’s natural — and dangerous — instinct is to pitch the aircraft up to slow down and land. It’s one of the leading causes of accidents, especially with small airplanes.” (Seck) With an enhanced virtual reality system, precautions can be taken to train pilots to safely not overshoot the runway.
Figure 1a: Perceived distance of three targets (red, green, blue) seen on a curved screen. “Virtual Reality & Flight Training.” VRpilot, 18 Apr. 2021,
Figure1b: Perceived distance of three targets (red, green, blue) seen through VR goggles. “Virtual Reality & Flight Training.” VRpilot, 18 Apr. 2021,
In virtual reality, switches cannot be simulated as accurately. With Traditional “Fixed Base” Flight Simulators, switches are extremely realistic in operation. Careful attention to detail is ensured to make the switch function and experience as similar to the real airplane as possible. Sometimes simulators even use real aircraft switches to give an extra level of detail for operation. Unfortunately, virtual reality flight simulation does not always have a realistic experience activating switches. Because there is no physical world to click switches in, there can be a disconnect between how an aircraft would operate in real life, and how the virtual reality simulator feels. This method of triggering switches is not as realistic. Eric Adams argues this method is not as effective, “You ‘activate’ the switches and dials by poking and jabbing into thin air. That amplifies the challenge of VR-based training, where the nuances of touch and movement are essential to programming the pilot’s brain.” (Adams) There are also some challenges with timing the switch event. This simulated virtual interaction, misses “…is challenging and has some drawbacks such as missing haptic feed-back and real time constraints” (Aslandere 10) Though this tactile disconnect is present, switches are not always critical for most realistic operations. Simulating switches is only one part of the flight simulator experience, and the benefits given through other aspects of virtual reality flight simulation far outweigh this bottleneck. The virtual reality switch experience can be enhanced through devices such as virtual reality controllers that can offer a semi-realistic feeling for flicking switches. Though activating switches is less appealing in a virtual reality flight simulator, it is quickly improving with innovative technologies.
Virtual Reality Flight Simulators come at a much lower cost, which makes them more appealing options than traditional flight simulators. One reason virtual reality systems are becoming more prevalent is due to their cost. Cost can be an enormous disadvantage, and even a reason for the rise of virtual reality systems, “Full-scale flight simulators have high costs and dependency on aircraft type due to hardware constraints. Hence, virtual reality flight simulators are designed.” (Aslandere 1) While full flight simulators require many components, virtual reality flight simulators can be used and operated with a minimalistic system, reducing the overall cost. A fixed base “traditional” simulator replicating the common Cessna 172 could cost upwards of $44,000 (The Most Realistic Analog Flight Simulator) for the base model. Each system must be completely simulated and accurately reviewed to meet certification standards and perform indistinctly from the real plane. This difference can be exaggerated even more as the level of simulator accuracy is increased. Dan Parsons, an author of the Aviation Today Publication claims, “High-fidelity full flight sims are pricey. FAA-qualified full flight simulators can cost $10 million…[the] industry should focus on how individual students learn and use new technology” (Parsons) On the other side, the Oculus Rift is an extremely popular and capable virtual reality headset, that costs only $299 to obtain the entire virtual reality display system. (VR Headset for VR Ready PCs) With such a low relative cost, a student pilot can purchase a headset to practice flight maneuvers at home in between flight training lessons. Though this cost is just the headset, adding additional parts such as controls and a computer with a flight simulation program, this total is still significantly less than that of a full-scale fixed base simulator. With increasing interest in owning a VR device, many individuals would already have the desire for a virtual reality device. (Figure 2) This cost can be partially justified and offset by the already apparent desire for virtual reality.
Figure 2. “Is Virtual Reality the Next Big Thing?” Statista Infographics, 17 Mar. 2016, www.statista.com/chart/4522/consumer-interest-in-virtual-reality/.
Virtual reality systems are incredibly flexible and versatile. Because the world is being created digitally instead of physically, many different situations can be created. Unlike traditional flight simulators, where aircraft cannot be easily switched out for a different aircraft’s components, virtual reality presents a new group of possibilities for modular versatile flight education. A virtual situation for one aircraft could be loaded into a simulator to make a flexible, and modular flight simulator. There is also a desire for generic flight simulators, which take this to a new concept by introducing a completely modular flight simulator system that can fit the need for multiple simulators. (Aslandere 2) With the size of flight simulators, the space requirements are much less than a traditional flight simulator. As long enough storage for the virtual reality headset and controls are allocated, a virtual reality flight experience can be created from a desk at home.
I would encourage student pilots to look further into virtual reality as a supplement to traditional flight simulator training devices. Though they may not offer the same level of tactile feedback as traditional flight simulators, virtual reality simulators offer a much better viewing experience that can help pilots recognize trivial details of flying more effectively. On top of this, Virtual reality is a technology that is still in its infancy, it can be improved from its already impressive levels to reach new heights. Due to this emerging technology’s current flexibility, cost, and immersion, virtual reality flight simulators are often more effective than traditional physical simulators at pilot training. Using these training devices can take flight simulator training devices from virtuality to reality and increase student pilot competency and airmanship.
Adams, Eric. “VR Pilot Training Now Comes with a Sense of Touch.” Wired, Conde Nast, 26 June 2018, www.wired.com/story/pilot-training-simulator-vr-haptic-touch/.
Aslandere, Turgay, et al. “A Generic Virtual Reality Flight Simulator.” Core.ac.uk, German Aerospace Center and Airbus Group Innovations, 9 Apr. 2021, https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/31012496.pdf.
Boyles, Brian. “Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality in Education.” West Point, 2017, www.westpoint.edu/sites/default/files/inline-images/centers_research/center_for_teching_excellence/PDFs/mtp_project_papers/Boyles_17.pdf.
Lewis, Russell. “New Virtual Reality Tool Aims to Reduce Aviation Crashes.” NPR (National Public Radio), NPR, 15 Feb. 2021, www.npr.org/2021/02/15/967697239/new-virtual-reality-tool-aims-to-reduce-aviation-crashes.
Losey, Stephen. “The Air Force Is Revolutionizing the Way Airmen Learn to Be Aviators.” Air Force Times, Air Force Times, 2 Oct. 2018, www.airforcetimes.com/news/your-air-force/2018/09/30/the-air-force-is-revolutionizing-the-way-airmen-learn-to-be-aviators/.
“Oculus Rift S: VR Headset for VR Ready PCs.” Oculus, www.oculus.com/rift-s/.
Parsons, Dan. “Full Flight Simulators Incorporate VR for Next Generation of Pilots.” Aviation Today, Aviation Today, 1 Aug. 2019, www.aviationtoday.com/2019/08/01/training-brain-mind/.
Richter, Felix. “Infographic: Is Virtual Reality the Next Big Thing?” Statista Infographics, 17 Mar. 2016, www.statista.com/chart/4522/consumer-interest-in-virtual-reality/.
Seck, Naomi. “Virtual Runway, Real Pilot Practice.” NASA, NASA, 27 Nov. 2018, www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/spinoff/feature/Virtual_Runway_Real_Pilot_Practice.
“Stepping into the Virtual World to Enhance Aircraft Maintenance.” Airbus, 12 Feb. 2019, www.airbus.com/newsroom/stories/stepping-into-the-virtual-world-to-enhance-aircraft-maintenance-.html.
“The Most Realistic & Compact Fixed Base Cessna 172 Analog Flight Simulator.” TRC Simulators, 5 Nov. 2020, www.trcsimulators.com/trc3000-c172a/.
“Virtual Reality & Flight Training.” VRpilot, 18 Apr. 2021, www.vrpilot.aero/virtual-reality-flight-training/.