Learning To Fly on Simulated Wings

 - January 29, 2019, 3:09 PM
Expert X-Plane pilot Bill Forelli soloed in less than 10 hours, which includes two discovery flights followed by 6.7 hours of focused training in a Piper Archer.

The pilot training infrastructure is under enormous pressure to produce more new pilots to satisfy the needs of airlines, charter providers, business aircraft operators, and every other aviation segment. But for the most part, the training process hasn’t changed much over the past few decades, except to adapt to new regulations and modern equipment such as glass panel avionics and autopilots in technically advanced aircraft.

While simulators are an important part of pilot training, these devices haven’t done much to reduce the amount of in-aircraft flight time needed for ab initio pilot certification. Simulator manufacturer Redbird has tested methods of incorporating simulators into the training process and did make some progress reducing in-aircraft flight hours, but that hasn’t translated into a wholesale change in the way pilot training is conducted worldwide.

There is another way that simulation can help, however, and that is the use of personal computer-based programs such as X-Plane or what used to be called Microsoft Flight Simulator (which lives on in the FSX or Flight Simulator X: Steam Edition personal version and the commercial Prepar3D version).

Bill Forelli, a self-avowed aviation geek and marketing manager for an online electronics retailer based in southern California, is a one-man test-case for using X-Plane to accelerate the learning process. He has not only used X-Plane and other platforms for practice that has accelerated his in-airplane training, but he has also documented his experience online, with videos on YouTube and livestreaming on Amazon’s Twitch platform.

Simulated ATC

Forelli, who had logged about 20 hours of training as of the end of January, soloed in less than 10 hours, which includes two discovery flights followed by 6.7 hours of focused training in a Piper Archer. He attributes that relatively short flight time to the hours of practice in X-Plane. What is fascinating about Forelli’s experience is watching video of him fly in X-Plane and comparing it to his flying in real life (IRL). It doesn’t take him long to transfer the simulator experience into getting comfortable IRL. (Forelli’s material can be found by searching for “Bill4LE” on YouTube and Twitch.)

About two years ago when he was living in the Seattle area, Forelli built up a customized Windows PC and installed X-Plane. After publishing videos of his simulated flights on YouTube, he joined the Twitch community and started streaming his "flights." That opened up a new world of communicating with people from all over the globe, watching the livestreams and commenting on his flying. It was Twitch viewers who introduced Forelli to PilotEdge, a service that provides real-time live air traffic controllers for simulated flying.

Once set up (as a plugin for X-Plane), PilotEdge enables a simulator pilot to simply make a radio call for a VFR or tower enroute IFR flight or log into the app and file a flight plan, then contact the PilotEdge controller and request a clearance. The PilotEdge controller can observe the simulated aircraft as if it were visible on his radar screen. PilotEdge controllers include some with real-world ATC experience and also enthusiasts who have logged more than 1,000 hours directing traffic on other virtual networks, according to PilotEdge founder Keith Smith. "In either case, there is three to four months of airspace familiarization and system training before they get checked out in our system."

The pilot makes all the normal calls to ATC during the simulated flight, usually starting from the ramp, calling clearance delivery (if applicable at that airport), ground, tower, departure, etc. The experience is highly realistic. And the controllers will point out errors and expect participants to use proper radio phraseology. According to Smith, "We provide full coverage of every towered airport within the Los Angeles ARTCC, which amounts to 43 towered airports. Separately, we also cover the other five ARTCCs that make up the western half of the U.S. (Seattle, Oakland, Salt Lake, Denver, and Albuquerque), including all of the Class Bravos, all of the Charlies, and strategically-selected Deltas. We also provide IFR service into and out of the non-towered fields, giving literally thousands of fields to choose from."

Starting with the X-Plane Cessna 172, Forelli upgraded to a Beechcraft Bonanza, which comes with an Aspen EFD glass panel. He flew that for a while before taking his first IRL discovery flight at an airport near Seattle in a C-172 that just happened to be equipped with an Aspen EFD. When he climbed into the left seat, he was delighted to see the Aspen because he knew how to use it. “The CFI was impressed I knew where the buttons were,” he said. “I was validated the further I went [into flying IRL]; what I was doing with the simulator was translating to the real world.”

When Forelli flew his first simulated flight with PilotEdge, he found the experience nerve-wracking, but fulfilling. “On PilotEdge, I was terrified," he recalled. Watching the video of his first PilotEdge flight with X-Plane, it’s easy to pick out the errors, but it is also clear that Forelli had learned a lot from his practice. His first error was not calling clearance delivery, but the PilotEdge controller (usually it’s the same person handling all positions, for efficiency) was accommodating and gave the clearance to Forelli without making him switch frequencies. Forelli was also not prepared to write down and read back the clearance, but he quickly got the hang of it.

In the video of this first PilotEdge flight, which includes audio, Forelli can be heard getting the clearance and reading it back correctly, then saying: “I can’t believe I pulled that off! That was awesome!” Next he told himself, “Okay, focus.”

simulated flight
Bil Forelli livestreams his simulated and real flights on the Twitch platform, sharing his learning and mistakes with a global audience and at the same time improving his knowledge of real-world flying.

After requesting to taxi to the runup area then to the active runway, he used the wrong frequency and forgot to turn on his transponder, probably because he didn’t do a pre-takeoff checklist. Then, after takeoff, Forelli switched to departure before being told to do so by the tower controller. The PilotEdge controller admonished him: “You should remain with the tower until told otherwise.” In Forelli's commentary about the flight, he said, “I knew you had to change frequency. I just freaked out and switched it too early.”

The rest of the flight is fairly routine, with Forelli asking for flight following, then returning to land. He did make some other mistakes, including reading back a direction to enter the left downwind for Runway 20L as “20G,” probably because his airplane’s callsign ended in G. “I screwed that one up,” he admitted. He also got confused about being cleared for the option instead of to land. When he reported turning base after the clearance, the controller told him he didn’t have to say anything after being cleared for the option. Forelli commented: “[The controller is] like ‘What is this jabroni doing?’”

After that flight, Forelli said, he realized “[PilotEdge] is an absolute simulation game-changer. I cannot believe how nerve-wracking that was. When you get on the radio with a live person, it’s a completely different deal.”

After moving to Orange, California, Forelli planned another discovery flight. “I wanted to try a new school and a new location and experience it before jumping in feet first.” Having flown from John Wayne Airport (KSNA) many times in X-Plane using PilotEdge, he said, “I was mindful of the complex airspace and how insane it was.” To prepare for the second discovery flight, he replicated the planned route in X-Plane and PilotEdge, with a departure from KSNA south along the coastline to Dana Point, then north along the 5 freeway to Irvine and back to the airport. Before taking this second IRL flight, Forelli also asked a friend who was a former Navy controller to help him understand radio communications. They chatted over the online Discord system and flew a simulated flight together using PilotEdge, and this helped Forelli further master his radio work.

At this point, Forelli had logged just 1.2 hours on the first discovery flight. He told the CFI at KSNA that he had been practicing radio communications and asked if he could work the radios. The CFI told him to go ahead, Forelli did all the radio communications for the flight, and the CFI was impressed with his skills.

Coincidentally, while attending the Flight Sim Expo simulation convention in Las Vegas a month later, Forelli met the PilotEdge controller he had communicated with during that first PilotEdge flight. “I met the guy who yelled at me,” he recalled, and then he explained to the controller that he was just learning how to use PilotEdge. The controller said he felt terrible about reprimanding him, but Forelli assured him that it was a great experience. “I loved it,” he said, “the realism. They don’t put on the kid gloves for you. They’ve been a great resource and very nurturing. It’s a community that has helped me learn these procedures and get so much of the radio procedures down. By the time I get in an airplane, it’s second nature, and I can focus on flying the airplane.”

Real-world Benefits

After his second demo flight at KSNA, when Forelli began actual IRL flying lessons, the simulation experience became even more valuable. He doesn’t attribute the value necessarily to X-Plane and PilotEdge, however, although they are a significant factor. It is Forelli’s approach to using these tools that he said has made all the difference. He takes it seriously; not like it's a video game.

“I treat it as the real world,” he explained. “I’m truly using this as a practice tool. I’m not wasting my time.”

Forelli had used PilotEdge for about 10 hours before his second discovery flight, where he did all the radio work, and that validated PilotEdge’s value. But as he began flying lessons, he spent hundreds of hours simulating, practicing IRL flights in X-Plane and PilotEdge first. He also published videos of his simulated and real flights on YouTube and then livestreamed his debrief on Twitch. The Twitch sessions provided valuable interactive feedback, in the form of questions from viewers and comments and critique from other IRL pilots.

“I practice in the simulator, do the flight, debrief it, then talk about what it was like,” Forelli said. “Then I do the flight in the simulator again. All the preparation helps me for the real-world flight, then I go back in the simulator and debrief everything I learned and pick out things that were different from the simulator. Because I do that extra step—and the video editing—I’m that much more fresh. I do lessons [only] every other week. [But] because I fill in those gaps with a lot of studying, by the time I get into the real airplane, I’ve tricked my brain into thinking I’ve been flying all week. My brain doesn’t know the difference.”

It's clear this simulation practice works, not just in how quickly Forelli is learning to fly, but in what happens during many of his flying lessons. His first formal lesson after his two discovery flights, for example, was in a Piper Archer from KSNA to Fullerton (KFUL), which is complicated by the permanent flight restriction over Disneyland in Anaheim.

The flight instructor was new to the area and nervous about the Disneyland restricted airspace. He didn’t understand that when receiving flight following from the local Socal approach controller, it is legal to fly through the Disneyland airspace. So he kept trying to get Forelli to fly east around Disneyland. Forelli, of course, had flown this route many times in X-Plane with PilotEdge controllers, knew the drill, and ended up teaching the instructor. “I now know this airspace like the back of my hand,” he said.

cross-country flight
Forelli’s first solo cross country from KSNA to KCMA underscored how quickly he has learned to fly real airplanes after practicng for hundreds of hours with X-Plane and PilotEdge.

Since soloing last year, Forelli has made it through his first solo cross country from KSNA to Camarillo (KCMA), which is well documented in his Bill4LE YouTube channel and Twitch account, both as simulated and IRL flights.

In one of the videos, he fast forwards through the parts without radio calls so the viewer can more easily see how he communicates with ATC. His IRL radio work is impressive for a pilot with less than 20 hours of flying time. During the flight, Forelli ably executes the special-flight-rules-area transition over Los Angeles International Airport at 4,500 feet and the coastal route through the LAX Class B at 5,500 feet on return.

Forelli does make mistakes, but he handles the flight well and as always, learns from his errors. For example, at the hold-short line at KSNA, Forelli asks the tower if he is cleared to takeoff but does so before receiving his flight clearance. The tower controller is nice about it and just says “negative…”

After he did the full debrief during a livestreamed Twitch session, one of the commenters critiqued Forelli’s crosswind landing at KMCA. “Is it weird I’m comfortable showing you guys my crappy landings?” he asked. “You guys in the chat here are invaluable to helping me learn this stuff.” One of the commenters said about his landing back at KSNA that he needed more practice flying in the low-speed regime. “I absolutely agree,” he said, although it was a perfectly good landing, especially for a 20-hour pilot.

Forelli is convinced that practicing with X-Plane and PilotEdge significantly accelerated learning to fly a real airplane. “Absolutely, 100 percent,” he said. “It got me excited about continuing down this path.” It has also generated excitement among his viewers, he added, and six or seven have gone for a discovery flight, themselves, "just from watching my videos and streams.”


So, I was pretty amazed that X-plane so nicely translated into the real-life experience for this guy. It is perhaps the set up that Mr. Forelli has and the extra equipment he was willing to invest into. I could not make X-plane main flight controls to act like those in the real life. I used Simtech pedals and yoke: every take-off has been wide drunken sailor's ride down the runway, every, even minimal changes to bank or pitch results in huge gains/losses... nothing like a real Archer I trained in. Yes, I played with the sensitivity adjustments and the results were disappointing. I'm a new PPL with only 100 hours of real-life flight time. I hoped to use the X-Plane for my instrument training, but VOR's OBS (in the stock 172) when adjusted with the mouse are very hard to center, the G430 is quite unresponsive... and the radios are unusable. I do understand that there are additional sim controls available (for example G550 console and the full radio set; cost of approx. $800), but if the full price of those additional gadgets are considered along with the cost of a big gaming machine and 3-monitor set up, the training on the sim does't seem like a great bargain.

Matt Thurber's picture

Actually, Bill has a fairly simple setup. No rudder pedals, just a decent joystick and computer. I have a Gladiator stick (sometimes as low as $89), but what really makes X-Plane work well for me is a fairly powerful Windows PC with a high-end graphics card. My monitors (two) are connected via HDMI. Forget about connecting using the old VGA connector, you won't get a decent frame rate, and that is key. Keep in mind that you can't expect similar feel to a real airplane; it's all about processes and procedures. For example, when flying IFR I use the autopilot a lot because I don't care about the feel of hand-flying, I care about practicing the procedures. The GNS430 and 530 in X-Plane works great, but I usually expand it whenever I set up a flight plan, procedure, or change frequencies. It would be nice to have the RealSimGear avionics, but they aren't required. I have a Desktop Aviator 2670 panel for the GNS430. While it doesn't include the screen, it's a good value for $90 and has all the buttons and switches so you can manipulate the GNS430 without using your mouse on the screen. Feel free to email me at mthurber@ainonline.com if I can help.

Hi Piotrpaw,
Yes, you are correct, some flight simulator hardware can be somewhat expensive. May I recommend a very realistic GNS 430 that is about half the price you mentioned? I have been using a GNS 430 IRL in a Diamond DA20 since before I earned my PPL (2006), so I know the unit fairly well. RealSimGear makes a very realistic GNS 430 that sells for $400. Of course, they also make a GNS 530. Regardless of thesomewhat high cost of good quality flight sim hardware, it's a one-time cost, and FAR less money than the real stuff in a real airplane!

I love this. I have long been a proponent of armchair pilot practice. Thirty years ago as a kid I logged hundreds of "practice" hours on the early versions of Microsoft Flight Simulator and learned a tremendous amount on procedures, weather, and lots of other basic ground school stuff. This plus studying my dad's old Air Force dash ones helped me advance quickly at the US Air Force Academy even past the guys who already had PPLs. In the end, there's no substitute for actual hands-on stick time with actual G-forces and real time traffic/tower interaction, but it's expensive for general aviation, and obviously there is tremendous benefit from simulators as both military and civilian services use them, and I would add even from the safety of you home computer. The FAA for some time now has been working on certifying X-Plane for actual training, and examples like this gentleman will surely gain further support. Great piece!