Mastery in the art of chair flying.

By Dave

My father-in-law, affectionately known as Captain Bob, has accumulated over 32,000 flight hours as a 747-400 captain in his 30-year airline career. He told me that the first time he ever flew the jumbo jet he carried over 400 passengers. “That was some training flight,” I exclaimed in disbelief, “how could that be?” He explained that airline pilots complete intensive training in sophisticated full-motion simulators. These simulators provide a training regimen that is so realistic, that given the right flight experience, simulator training is all a pilot needs. In fact, simulator instructors create complex emergency scenarios that are impossible to reproduce in real aircraft.

After my graduation from Navy Flight School some years ago, Captain Bob had a little graduation present in store: a training flight in the 747-400 simulator at the Northwest Aerospace Training Company (NATCO) in Minneapolis. Captain Bob had arranged for some after-hours simulator time with a fellow captain. Since they are both now safely collecting their retirement checks, we can share the story of the midnight simulator ride.

The thought of taking a 747-400 simulator ride with Captain Bob was a great thrill. He has a great sense of humor and knows how to have fun. But Captain Bob made sure I knew that this flight was not going to be just a joyride. He assigned copious amounts of reading from manuals that weighed more than my luggage. We converted our hotel room into a mini 747-400 ground school by setting up cockpit schematics for our flight deck. Sitting side by side, we practiced the basic procedures over and over. We studied systems, avionics, crew coordination, and checklists. Captain Bob explained the colors, sounds, feelings, and sequences of the flight in exact detail. We alternated between “eyes open” and “eyes closed” simulation. As we practiced the maneuvers, the paper cockpit came to life.
The reality of the simulator experience was even better than anticipated. The simulator was an impressive rig that looked like a giant insect on stilts. The legs were large hydraulic rams used to manipulate and tilt the flight deck to impart realistic motion sensations to the crew. The cockpit was an exact replica of a real 747-400, complete with all the avionics and controls, as well as the large sheepskin-covered “thrones” for seats. High-resolution video surrounded the cockpit in place of windows. The graphics were realistic down to the last detail, including lineman waving wands, ready to guide the aircraft into the gate.

After so much practice in our paper cockpit, the flight in the simulator was just what I was “used too”. Our one-hour flight consisted of manual and coupled instrument approaches, stalls, steep turns, and landings to San Francisco International Airport. Captain Bob served as my copilot and the flight was a complete success. Overall, he earned a passing grade, and I thanked him for his efforts with a handshake, smile, and a slap on the back.

Today, Captain Bob and I teach private and instrument ground schools together. At the beginning of each class we advise students that flying is like learning how to play a musical instrument; both demand fine motor skills. Practice and study are the keys to success. Studying for a ground lesson is relatively easy: read the manuals, take notes, and answer the practice questions. But what is the best way to prepare for a flight lesson? The answer is simulation.

Fortunately, all students are fully simulator equipped. The human mind is the ultimate simulator, better than the best simulators at NATCO or Flight Safety. Academic studies confirm that mental practice is superior to physical practice in every situation requiring motor skills under stress (see Fight or Flight sidebar). Flying is no exception to this rule. Simulation is best used to reinforce good habits, correct existing errors, teach specific skills, and teach pilots what to avoid. Here are some tricks of the trade that will put your flight training on the fast track. This is an owner’s manual for your mental simulation suite, a guide to the ancient art of “chair flying.” Try it and take your imagination for a flight!

Follow these key principles:

  • Scenario Based Training - use real world situations
  • Engage all Senses - enrich the experience for better retention
  • “Fly” with a Copilot - practice with a friend
  • Controlled Eye Movement - use flow patterns and prioritize
  • Micro-Simulate - break tasks down to small components
  • Positive Self-Talk - master your inner voice with action keywords


Scenario Based Training

Realistic training scenarios are the key to great flight simulation. Each practice session in your training program should be based on a specific, real world situation. Previous training flights are the best source of scenarios. Follow each training flight by noting what went right and which items need more work. Focus primarily on the positives, and reinforce these skills with simulator training. Another great source of inspiration is Flight Training Magazine. The articles detail systems descriptions and procedural tips. Go beyond merely reading the article; mentally rehearse how the information applies to your specific training aircraft. Finally, learn from the misfortune of others. Classic “what if?” scenarios allow you to reenact accident scenarios and learn how to safely handle the same emergency. AOPA Pilot lists a series of aircraft accidents each month. Other resources include the Flight Safety Foundation website at, and the National Transportation Safety Board’s searchable database at

Engage All Senses

Use your imagination to conjure sights, sounds, feelings, and smells. Practice scenarios repeatedly, concentrating on a different sense each time. People generally fall into one of three primary learning categories: kinesthetic, auditory, or visual. Which kind of learner are you? Most people are visual learners and take most cues from their eyes, while auditory learners take cues from their sense of hearing. Kinesthetic learners are unique; they focus more on “feelings”, taking cues from their sense of touch, smell, and unspoken communications. Force yourself to concentrate on a sensory system other than what comes naturally during practice. Pilots who do this will increase the size of their perceptual field. A visual learner that practices focusing on kinesthetic or auditory cues will react better in stressful conditions. An auditory or kinesthetic learner that focuses on visual cues would receive the same benefit.

Cockpit designers strive to make controls easy to identify. In a Cessna 310, the mixture controls are round and knurled, the propellers are flat and ridged, while the throttles are tall lollipops. Practicing kinesthetically (eyes closed) allows a pilot to identify controls in the dark, or under stress. For example, choosing the correct control during a power reduction should be automatic. You already know what 1700-rpm sounds like. You should be able to complete the task by touch and sound, with only a brief glance inside the aircraft to confirm the correct control is selected and that the power is set as desired, rather than having to watch yourself perform the task.

"Fly" with a Copilot

Practice with a friend whenever you have a chance. During flight school, our class would set up an “airport” in a living room. The coffee table became the runway, and we would take turns “flying” (walking) around the room, entering the pattern, making radio calls, and giving each other emergencies to perform. We would sit in the “cockpit” (a chair) and quiz each other on procedures and limitations. To train for cross-country flights, we would visualize taxiing around unfamiliar airports, guided by airport diagrams in the Airport Facility Directory. Practice your scenario several times, increasing the level of detail each time to increase the concentration required.

Controlled Eye Movement

The eyes are the window to the soul. Practice and develop the scan that your instructor recommends. Don’t allow a random scan to become your normal habit pattern. The three classic scan errors are fixation, omission and overemphasis. The same mental errors occur. To combat this, develop smooth flow patterns. Your eyes will keep your mind limber. Your scan creates priorities for your hands to complete. Don’t let your scan linger. Keep your eyes moving and your perceptual field will grow.


Great pilots have mental techniques that slow down the action, and break tasks down to small parts (see The Ultimate What If Scenario sidebar). By rehearsing small tasks in simulation, putting everything together in-flight is easy. Recently, a multi-engine transition pilot was reaching sensory overload while practicing engine-out procedures. There was simply too much going on to process all at once. How did we get through the task? We could have continued to do the same thing, spending $185 an hour, or we could shift gears and micro-simulate for free.

We first broke the engine-out procedure into the following steps: aircraft control and airspeed, mixtures, propellers, throttles, gear and flaps as required, identify the inoperative engine, verify that the correct engine has been selected, and finally secure the bad engine. Whew! That being done, we practiced each step individually while sitting in the cockpit. We spoke out loud and moved through the motions. For the first step, we would expect the pilot to turn the yoke slightly, push on a rudder, and trim aft elevator, while scanning both the instruments and outside the aircraft. We went through step one several times, correlating how each control would affect the aerodynamic roll, pitch, and yaw (this is especially important for helicopter students). Then we moved on to adjusting the mixtures. We worked through the procedures one by one, and then all together, until it took less than six seconds to complete the entire procedure without looking rushed. In all, we performed over 50 practice “engine failures.” Needless to say, the next time we failed an engine, the student played the procedure like his favorite song.

Positive Self-Talk

Athletes learn to talk themselves to victory. Olympians use “positive self-talk” to program themselves for peak performance. As stress on the body increases, blood vessels constrict, breathing and heart rates increase, and the sensory perceptual field shrinks, hence “tunnel vision.” All excess processing power has been used and the computer is ready to crash. Have you ever experienced this fight or flight reaction during a crosswind landing? Every pilot has felt like his or her arms were set in concrete, unwilling to respond. Use keywords to talk yourself out of this situation. Keywords are procedures converted into commands to the body. Keywords fire rapidly through practice. Self-talk will extract us from doubt, overload, and confusion during emergencies and cure hazardous attitudes.

During the landing flare pilots could use keywords such as; hand back, eyes up, smoooooth pull, straight feet. “Eyes up” is a command that requires no further processing from the brain. Whereas, shift your gaze, must be translated by the brain into the required motor movements. Choose words that command motor movements, and the skill will follow naturally.

Putting It All Together

The best place to practice in your mental simulator is sitting in the aircraft. Put a “flight plan” together with a copilot based on a realistic scenario. Choose a sense to focus on and start with the small tasks. The copilot will monitor progress with the checklist, operating handbook, or flashcards as appropriate. Practice and develop keywords, talk out loud, don’t be shy. Practice the procedures until they flow without effort. Trust the experts, preparing for a flight lesson with mental simulation will make any training day more rewarding and relaxing. Take this challenge: try 15 minutes of chair flying prior to the next three flights and I guarantee you and your instructor will see the difference.

Byline: Dave is a Master Flight Instructor with helicopter, single engine, and multiengine ratings. He completed his Citation type rating in the simulator at Flight Safety. He works with Momentum Interactive, creators of FLITELite.

Sidebar - Fight or Flight

Stress falls into two broad categories, chronic and acute. Chronic stress is what we might describe as the “daily grind.” Management of the chronic stress in our lives is essential to safe flight. Acute stress responses are often described as “fight or flight” reactions. Pilot performance increases as acute stress levels increase, like increasing the angle of attack on a wing increases lift. However, just like an airfoil, too much stress can cause the brain to “stall.” Understanding how the body reacts to acute stressors is critical to managing overwhelming situations in the cockpit. A calm, upbeat demeanor, positive self-talk, and slow breathing help to keep reactions under control. Recovery from a stress event is just as important. Pilots tend to have a “low” after the action has subsided. Accidents are just as likely to occur when experiencing this “sinker” as during the height of the stress event.

Fight or Flight Body Responses:

 Organ Effect
Eyes Pupil dilation, field of view shrinks. Extreme cases can cause "grey out"
Heart Increased heart rate
Lungs Increased breathing rate. Extreme cases can cause hyperventilation
Liver Blood glucose released, short term energy boost. After stress event expect an energy low
Basal Metabolism Increased up to 50%
Sweat Glands Copious sweating
Brain Increased brain activity. Events seem to slow down. In extreme cases the brain can become overloaded and tune out critical information

Sidebar – The Ultimate What If Scenario

Man is the best computer we can put aboard a spacecraft...and the only one that can be mass-produced with unskilled labor.- Wernher von Braun

Space flight simulation is the ultimate in gaming a complex flight. During the Mercury mission days, no one knew what space flight would actually be like. The theories ranged from highly probable to downright crazy. Spacecraft simulators could not be manufactured fast enough to keep up with changing system requirements. The astronauts had to rely upon their own imaginations to learn how to fly. According to Dr. Charlie Justiz, a NASA space shuttle flight instructor and test pilot, the Mercury astronauts would sit side by side and mark switch positions on a blank board with grease pencils. Using just these crude techniques, theydetermined flow patterns and practiced emergency procedures while the spacecraft cockpits were still under construction. Today, NASA has capitalized on these lessons learned by implementing the Single System Training Program to break tasks down into simpler pieces during astronaut flight training. All pilots can learn from the creativity of the Mercury astronauts by using simple simulation techniques in their own training and currency programs.

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