For commercial pilots' training, airlines rely heavily on the training at computer simulators (fixed base simulators), where one can learn the cockpit controls and how to use the cockpit displays to control the airplane. But this does not give them the physical feel of controlling the airplane (which can be felt while using a real physical simulator (Hydraulic Simulators), as used by NASA in training their astronauts). Do airlines use such physical simulators to train pilots or are computer simulators the only ones used? Moreover, what is the usefulness of simple computer simulators as such then?

As a follow-up, do military pilots undergo training in physical real life simulators or they too are trained first in the computer simulators and then directly in the training planes?

  • $\begingroup$ Just to verify, you are asking about the usefulness of fixed-base (stationary) simulators vs full-motion (hydraulic) simulators? Or do you have different simulators in mind? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 7, 2015 at 11:16
  • $\begingroup$ You guessed that right!! Edited the question to make it less ambiguous $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 7, 2015 at 11:18
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ For use of software simulators, this question has detailed discussions. $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Commented Jul 7, 2015 at 11:47

3 Answers 3


Flight training devices (FTD) are the non-moving, no-visuals cockpit replicas you seem to be reference as "computer simulators". These provide a real cockpit layout (real avionics, switches, buttons, etc) that are used as procedure trainers and to learn cockpit flows. The main purpose of these is so you are aren't wasting time in the expensive full flight simulator and can get right to work once you get in there.

Once FTD training is finished, you move into the full flight simulator (FFS, typically a level-D sim per FAA certification) which are simulators with exterior visuals and a 6-axis hydraulic motion platform. These are the devices used for the actual flight training in airline training. You are expected in your first sim session to already know your way around the cockpit and not be too distracted by where all the buttons you need are so you can focus on the flight training. Being at that comfort level for the first sim session is the purpose of spending time in the FTD to start.


As someone who works on commercial flight simulators I hope I can help answer your questions.

In a typical training environment you find the following:

Computer Based Training

Custom designed applications are provided by various manufacturers and they are designed to represent/simulator the entire aircraft, or they can focus on a specific system like the Flight Management System.

Examples include

CAE Simfinity


These tools are valuable because they can run on most any computers, and even tablets now, thus allowing the student to learn at their own pace without tying up an actual training device.

Flight Training Devices

These are physical mock ups of the aircraft cockpit in question, there are various levels that these can be certified to that (mostly) relate to the hardware configuration. These are typically used for initial training only. These are fixed based and usually do not include any out the window visuals.

Full Flight Simulators

A full flight simulator provides a complete representation of the simulated aircraft in question. It consists of a fully accurate flight deck, a visual system, a control loading system and a motion system. There are 4 levels of certification a full flight simulator can receive (A, B, C and D) with D being the highest one currently. A level D simulator consists of a 6 degrees of freedom motion system as well as a wrap around collimated visuals. Level D simulators must provide additional special effects and cues to the pilot and there are more quality tests that are required to be run to demonstrate the simulator matches the aircraft.

To answer your question, airlines most definitely do make use of full flight simulators and they are incredibly useful. The average level D simulator might cost $15 million dollars but it is a small fraction of the cost required to train on the real aircraft (factoring in fuel and maintenance etc.), stats I've read show that FFS training can be as much as 1/40th the cost of using the real aircraft. In addition to the cost savings, they allow crews to train for situations that would be too dangerous or impossible to simulate using a real aircraft (for example a sudden engine seizure at V1, among many others).

The advantage of a level D simulator is that it is certified to allow zero flight time training, where the first flight a pilot flies is a revenue flight. Full flight simulators are used in both initial and recurrent pilot training.


When I went through USAF pilot training...

Useful? Absolutely invaluable. Many of our instructors had experience before "real" simulators were used in training. All of them commented on how obviously better we were on our very first actual flight.

We had "cockpit familiarization" trainers. This looked like a cockpit, sat still on the floor, had all the switches but all they did was switch. They did nothing. We practiced "switchology", checklists, and so forth. Beyond required time and tasks in this thing we could spend free time playing around with these. Not unlike checking out a book from the library.

The above are very useful because it kept the "real" simulators available for actual flight training. We had quite a few hours in this simulator before we got in a real airplane. And simulator training continued throughout the year in flight school.

But this does not give them the physical feel of controlling the airplane

Yes it does. But as we got more expert in the aircraft, flying every day, sometimes twice a day, we could tell the difference. But the simulator feel was quite good and in no way did it hinder acquiring the touch for precision, when in formation for example.


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