Orville Wright changed history on December 17, 1903, by taking the airplane he had designed with his brother Wilbur, the Wright Flyer, into the air in a flight that lasted 12 seconds and covered 36 meters. The distance completed in that feat is almost half the length between the folding wingtips of the new Boeing 777X when extended (71.7 meters). Comparing the aircraft of these and other pioneers with those currently being manufactured in Toulouse, France, or Seattle, USA, provides incontrovertible evidence of the brilliant technological evolution of an industry that, compared to others (e.g., mining, textiles), is still young, with only 120 years of history.
The success story that aviation has written in these decades has necessarily gone hand in hand with progress in air simulation. The first simulators on record, built by the French company Antoniette around 1910, had a wooden skeleton and an appearance far removed from the powerful flight simulators we know today, similar to the Wright brothers’ airplane. Future pilots had their first contact with a replica of the aircraft controls in that contraption –half a barrel on which a seat was installed. There, they could practice the basic, often counterintuitive movements, later enabling them to carry out a controlled flight.
‘Flight simulation, yesterday and today.’ Illustration by Armando Ríos for Aerovía/Hispaviación.
Being able to practice responding to risk situations in an environment that is faithful to reality – but at the same time does not involve danger – is undoubtedly one of the keys to explaining the enormous resources aircraft manufacturers, airlines, schools, and professionals devote to simulation. In aviation, where automation has been gaining ground for decades, having well-trained pilots to react appropriately when something goes wrong is crucial to maintain safety. This prevents accidents and saves lives. As if that were not enough, using simulators is also more economical. “Flight simulation plays a key role in reducing cost inefficiencies and time requirements for flight training. The cockpit of an aircraft is an ineffective learning environment: it is costly and distracting,” said Ethan Willinger, marketing director at Redbird Flight Simulations.
The economic aspect is crucial in an industry that, by nature, is highly competitive. It is, therefore, easy to find simulators in the sector that, among other things, offer cost savings for their operators and users. Another highly valued feature is the versatility of the equipment, which can be used to the maximum to meet the growing demand that this industry has been facing for years. A good example is the Airliner, the latest generation simulator by French company Alsim. This cockpit combines the philosophies of the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737 in a single device. In this case, it is a simulator certified for two standard training courses, the MCC and its optimized version, the APS MCC, which allow pilots to practice and demonstrate their ability to cooperate when flying multi-crew commercial aircraft.
Photo caption: Using virtual reality for helicopter simulators. Photo: VRM Switzerland
As the above examples demonstrate, virtual reality goggles are gradually becoming a handy tool for pilot training. However, the spectacular nature of this technology can also have other valuable uses for air transport. The United States has been seeking solutions to address the pilot shortage for years, an issue that was put on the back burner by the pandemic but which, in recent months, has once again become topical in that country. Simulators that create virtual reality are being used to attract young people to professions in the sector. “This technology allows complete immersion, so many people who have never tried flying can now experience it fascinatingly,” explained Óscar Mateos, Director of Marketing and Sales at Virtual Fly, a company whose simulation products have reached places like the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach where hundreds of students enjoy the experience of combining virtual reality glasses with the flight components (such as the pedals or yoke) manufactured by this Barcelona-based company.