Simulators – Ultimate Video Games!

Baltic Aviation B737 Simulator
Thales Simulation B-737 Simulator

At the heart of every airline training program is an amazing, multi-million dollar machine. A “Level D” aircraft simulator is the closest you can get to flying without leaving the ground. Costing close to $20 million USD, many aviation fans would love a chance to ride in a simulator. Airline pilots, however, might prefer a root canal over their annual visit to “The Box.” Find out just how cool these machines are…

Subscription Form

A Little Simulator History

1909 training device for the Antoinette aircraft.

The very first documented “simulator” was constructed in 1909 for the French Antoinette monoplane. It was used to familiarize pilots with the aircraft’s control wheels. As the “pilot” manipulated the wheels, a couple of helpers would stand beside the rig and move it around. It’s a good reminder that a simulator doesn’t have to be fancy to be an effective training device!

Link Trainer: W. Canada Aviation Museum

As aircraft technology progressed, so did the simulators. In the late 1920’s, a musical organ manufacturer named Edwin Link started tinkering with aircraft trainers. Link was an amateur pilot that decided to build a better training device. His first models used pneumatic organ parts like air bellows and reed switches. Link Trainers soon became widely used by both civilian and military pilots. Eighty years later, Link Simulation & Training remains a leader in simulation technology.

Simulator Model Board
Simulator model board

In the 1960’s, simulators became really interesting with the development of out-the-window displays. Large model boards with scenery were built and mounted on their sides. As the pilots “flew” the simulator, a small video camera would move across the board. The live images would be projected outside the cockpit windows. The system had obvious limitations but was a vast improvement over the opaque, frosted windows used in earlier sims.

Model boards wouldn’t last long. Advances in microprocessors and computer graphics in the 70’s and 80’s revolutionized aircraft simulation.

Modern Flight Simulators

Procedures Trainer
757/767 Cockpit Procedures Trainer

Full-motion simulators are really expensive. To keep training costs down, airlines use other tools to supplement the simulators. The simplest is a cockpit procedures trainer. It’s exactly what it looks like: a plywood mock-up with pictures of instruments and few, if any, moving parts. A device like this is used to familiarize crews with the layout of an unfamiliar flight deck. Basic procedures can be rehearsed.

Aerosim Technologies VPT
Aerosim Technologies A320 Virtual Procedure Trainer

The next step up in sim-tech is the Virtual Procedure Trainer. VPT’s are fairly new on the simulator scene. Instead of plywood and pictures, the VPT uses LCD touch screens to display the instrument panels. Most of the switches and instruments function properly when touched. Like a fancy version of Microsoft Flight Simulator, The VPT has the ability to “fly,” allowing pilots to practice ground and flight procedures. While VPT’s are great for learning new procedures, they don’t provide the real-airplane flying experience that’s so important. For that, we need to pull out the big guns…

Level D Simulators

Southwest Airlines 737 Simulators
Southwest Airlines 737 Simulators (Time-Lapse)

They are the ultimate video games. Simulators certified as Level D can be used for “Zero Flight Time” training. After a pilot completes an approved training program that includes Level D simulation, he or she is qualified to fly passengers or freight without ever stepping foot in the real airplane. Level D simulators are that good.

Motion + Visual

The most obvious difference between a Level D sim and the previous devices is the motion. These things move all over the place. Surprisingly, when you’re inside the sim, you don’t notice the extreme movements. The actual motion is exaggerated to simulate the forces of acceleration and deceleration. When “accelerating” down the runway, the front of the sim tips up high to give the occupants the illusion of forward of acceleration. When combined with the out-the-window view of a runway, we don’t notice that the sim is tilted upwards. It feels like normal takeoff acceleration. The motion combined with state-of-the-art visual displays provides an extraordinary and realistic flying experience.

Modern, out-the-window displays are amazing. The visuals of Level D sims are projected through special lenses onto a large wraparound screen a few feet outside of the cockpit. Any of the flight deck windows provides a near photo-realistic scene. Views of the ground are created with satellite imagery. Runways, cars, buildings, people and weather are computer generated. Daytime views are impressive and night-time scenes are dead-on realistic.

767 Simulator with instuctor station
Thales Training & Simulation B-767-300ER Simulator showing instructor’s station behind pilot seats.

What Do We Simulate In The Simulator?

I’d love to tell you that spending eight hours in the simulator is fun. I definitely had gee-whiz moments the first few times I climbed into the box, but after the amazement wears off, it’s all business. The hours are spent focused on procedures, problem solving and flying skills under pressure.

The beauty of a simulator is that any sort of problem or emergency can be rehearsed, and we get wrung through the ringer. We practice engine failures, fires, landing gear failures, hydraulic system failures, communication failures, windshear recovery, weather avoidance, rejected takeoffs, rejected landings, landing in wind, rain, and snow, and landing with engines on fire. If there is something bad that can happen to an airplane, we have probably rehearsed it in the simulator. Once we master flying the simulator, the real airplane is a piece of cake. Modern, full-motion simulators are one of the reasons airlines are still the safest way to travel.

Thales Training & Simulation B-767-300ER Simulator. Sitting on the apron, ready for engine start and taxi.
Thales Training & Simulation B-767-300ER Simulator. Sitting on the apron, ready for engine start and taxi.

Ride A Full Motion Simulator! (at a theme park)

Star Tours
Star Tours Attraction Poster – © Disney

Hitching a ride in an airline simulator is a very rare treat for non-pilots. Airlines sometimes donate rides to charity auctions or sell them for frequent flier miles. If you can’t afford to buy a ride, there’s another way to experience modern simulator technology.

Theme parks have discovered that flight simulators make great platforms for action-adventure rides.

One of the best simulator-based rides I’ve seen is Disney’s “Star Tours.” The ride uses large, modified military aircraft simulators designed by Thales Training & Simulation. Thales (formally Rediffusion) builds some of the best aircraft simulators in the world. The original Star Tours ride was a fun, immersive, and realistic experience. The recently upgraded Star Tours attractions are even better. If you visit a Disney park, don’t miss it!


Here’s a short video about the installation and operation of Lufthansa’s Airbus A380 simulator in Frankfurt, Germany. The A380 is the world’s largest airliner. You’ll get a good idea of how much motion there is on a full-motion simulator.



  1. With over 1,000 hours instructing in a Level D sim, I’ve learned a couple things in regards to how good the visuals are: never simulate a mid-air collision, and never let the sim/airplane crash. Both of those could possible give the students a heart attack, especially the mid-air.

  2. im not a pilot ( although, i wished to be ) but im always interested on aviation world. i tried the 737-800 simulator once when i was in Singapore , and boy , you are right ! it was a fantastic and almost addictive experience … great article of yours …cheers

    • What a great opportunity to play in the 737 sim! The simulators are almost more amazing than the airplanes. Thanks for the great comment and thanks again for reading!

  3. i am interested in knowing how the pilot is using the yoke/side stick for controlling the aircraft. i have seen so many cockpit videos in youtube where pilot used to move the yoke/side stick in all direction. how they are deciding in which direction need to move and also how the plane nose wheel is aligning properly with line marked during taxing and landing

    • Hello,

      When pilots move the yoke or side stick, we are doing so to change the direction of the aircraft or reacting to changes that need to be corrected (sometimes due to gusty winds or turbulence). Determining when and how much to move the yoke is similar to how you use a steering wheel in a car. When learning to drive a car, you become familiar with when and how much to turn the wheel. After practice and experience, it becomes natural.

      There are a couple of different techniques we use to steer the aircraft on the ground. You can read about nosewheel steering here:

      Thanks for reading!

  4. Really looking forward to trying Emirates a380 sim experience soon in London. Not quite as high tech as the full motion sims but should be good fun!

  5. I wonder how much fun is it for a real pilot to play MS Flight Simulator. And what about the other way round: a REALLY skillful player answering the flight attendants question for someone with pilot experience to handle an in-flight emergency (yeah, I know, won’t happen. but what if?)

    • Hi Marc,
      A few pilots I know enjoy flying MS Flight Simulator. I like playing with it with my kids. I don’t play it by myself, it’s too much like work!

      Flight Simulator pilots flying a real airliner in an emergency: Microsoft Flight Sim is a really useful learning tool (it’s great for teaching instrument navigation fundamentals). Unfortunately, the program can’t provide the feedback necessary to develop real flying skills.

      Thanks for reading!

  6. I’m about to get my first regional airline job. I’ve had the privilege of flying a level D sim at an event at JetBlue. I’ve also flown a full motion sim at a flight school. I have an issue getting nauseous in sims. The level D was a lot better than the flight school sims, but still had some nausea. I’m excited to finally be going to training, but I’m dreading the nausea. Any advice?

    • This is more common that you might imagine. You are not alone! If the instructor tells you they are re-positioning the simulator, try closing your eyes to avoid seeing the distracting visual cues. Most pilots find that once they are concentrating on tasks, nausea goes away.

      Congratulations and good luck with your training!

Don't just sit there... Say something!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.