Flight simulators

Devices which are used to enable a person to experience flight situations and/or movements without actually flying in an aircraft or spacecraft.

Flight simulation involves the use of a ground-based device to enable a pilot, student pilot, or an aerospace engineer to experience or evaluate the behavior of an aircraft or spacecraft in flight. The inside of the simulator looks like the cockpit of an airplane or spacecraft.

In the course of the first century of human aviation, flight simulators have evolved from crude devices consisting of little more than a chair and a set of imitation controls mounted on a wood platform that can be pitched and rolled by training personnel, to multimillion-dollar computer-controlled aircraft or spacecraft cockpits that can duplicate every conceivable motion and reaction of the real vehicle.

Every child who has placed a chair in a large cardboard box and used anything from a broomstick to a baseball bat to pretend to control a make-believe airplane has experienced flight simulation at a very basic level. Flight simulators allow people to “pretend” to fly.

Teaching Tools

An important use of flight simulators is to help teach pilots how to fly an airplane with only their instruments to tell them the position, attitude, and direction of flight of their airplane. An important aspect of such training is teaching pilots that they cannot rely on the body’s natural senses of sight and balance to fly under “instrument flight conditions”; they learn to fly using the information provided by the flight instruments alone. A simple desktop computer screen and a set of airplanelike controls can be used with any of many flight simulator computer codes to accomplish this task. Older pilots will recall training in simulators that were made to resemble little airplanes with small wings and tails and that were mounted on mechanically or hydraulically powered platforms designed to move the small cockpit like an airplane as the pilot “flew” the trainer, using an array of instruments identical to those on a real instrument panel.

Pilots of craft, from fighters to general aviation craft to space shuttles, train in sophisticated flight simulators in which the pilot can see realistic in-flight images of sky, terrain, and airports and learn to fly the vehicle using both its instruments and the simulated view from the cockpit. The simulator can, with the flick of a switch or the turning of a knob, subject pilots to the conditions they would face with the loss of an engine, severe turbulence and weather, loss of part of the control system, or almost any other emergency imaginable.

There is continued debate about whether training is more or less effective when the simulator moves to replicate the body forces which pilots might experience in training maneuvers. Both moving and nonmoving simulators are used in teaching pilots how to react to almost any situation that may be encountered, ranging from an ordinary flight to a severe emergency.

Research and Development Tools

These same simulators are used to study ways to improve the control systems of airplanes and spacecraft. Engineers can write “control law” equations that will alter the way the vehicle behaves in flight, simulating everything from a shift in payload weight, to the loss of a rudder in combat, to a complete redesign of the airplane wing or tail. Simulators are used to investigate such changes and events without risk of loss of life or vehicle in a flight test. If there is any question of control system failure or problems in an aircraft accident, simulators are used to determine the effect of that loss on the performance and handling of the plane and to compare the test results to the facts known about the accident. Using these control laws, every newly designed aircraft is “flown” for hundreds of hours in the simulator before a test airplane ever leaves the ground; it has become commonplace for the test pilot to report after the first flight that the plane flew just like it did in the simulator.

Some of the world’s most sophisticated flight simulators are used in the design and development of military aircraft such as fighters. Several government facilities have twin simulators in which two fighter pilots can fly simulated dog-fights against each other with the “enemy” simulator programmed to handle like real enemy aircraft. The simulators are coupled in such a way that the two pilots can see the opponent aircraft projected onto huge screens surrounding their multimillion-dollar full-motion flight simulators. This type of simulation allows the military to determine the best maneuvers for use in aerial combat and to design or redesign their aircraft and control systems to give them the edge in a fight.

Dozens of very sophisticated flight simulator programs and games now on the market allow anyone with a home computer to experience flight simulation. Many of these programs provide excellent simulations of actual airplane motion and control effectiveness, rivaling that of real flight training simulators. Some of the best such programs have been developed using the control laws of real aircraft, both modern or historic, and can give users an outstanding feel for the thrill of flight in their airplane of choice.


  • Boyne, Walter J. Flying: An Introduction to Flight, Airplanes, and Aviation Careers. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1980. A guide for anyone who is interested in getting into the world of flying airplanes.
  • Dickinson, B. Aircraft Stability and Control for Pilots and Engineers. London: Pitman Press, 1968. An older college-level text written with test pilots in mind.
  • Nelson, Robert C. Flight Stability and Automatic Control. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989. A college-level text which includes a discussion of flight simulation and the operation of simulators.
  • Rolfe, J. M., and K. J. Staples, eds. Flight Simulation. Reprint. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Twelve essays cover the basic principles and uses of flight simulators.

Accident investigation



Fighter pilots

Flight control systems


Pilots and copilots

Space shuttle



Training and education