Human factors of flight simulation


This page considers the uses of flight simulation, its advantages and disadvantages, and some human factors considerations to do with the issue of flight simulator realism and effectiveness.

Flight simulation involves the representation in a simulator environment of the flight and systems characteristics of an aircraft.1

Purpose and form

The primary purpose of flight simulation is to train a pilot to achieve, test, and maintain proficiency in the operation of an airplane without risk to person or property and at a lower cost to training in the air.

In its simplest form, a flight simulator system usually includes:

  • A display, or multiple displays, to represent visually the external environment.
  • Control devices, such as a yoke or control stick and rudder pedals, to provide control inputs to the simulator.
  • A audio system to produce communications, external, aircraft, and cockpit sounds.
  • A computer system or systems to process control inputs, to digitally generate visual and audio representations in response to those inputs, and to record flight data for analysis.

Types of flight simulator

For discussion of the history and various types of flight simulator, see this page.

Advantages and disadvantages as a training device

Flight simulators are used as a training device because of their overall effectiveness and efficiency in training pilots.

Some of the advantages of using flight simulators include the following:2

  • Permit novice pilots to experience simulated flight without risk to him or her or to valuable aircraft.
  • Availability - that is, flight simulation is not dependent on particular environmental conditions (good weather), or availability of a real aircraft. Correspondingly, it is possible to generate particular conditions without them having to be sought out in the real world.
  • Accessibility – simulation does not require a full flight progression (pre-flight, take-off, flight, landing, post-flight), but permits repeated practice of a particular stage of flight, such as an ILS approach.
  • Cost-effectiveness – savings in crew time, fuel, maintenance to real aircraft, revenue that would be lost using a real aircraft, and environmental impact.
  • Risk-free introduction of flight challenges, such as conflicting traffic, systems problems, difficult or unusual flight manoeuvres, poor weather conditions, wind sheer, and wake turbulence.
  • Risk-free introduction of emergencies and systems failures.
  • When used during air crash investigations - ability to accurately replicate the environmental and flight conditions at the time of an accident to test pilot responses to those conditions.
  • Instructional features – recorded flight data, ability to “replay” and review a simulated flight or parts of it, allow matching of performance against criteria.
  • Relieves instructor from flight duties and safety considerations.
  • Permits trainee to make and learn from mistakes without risk.

Some of the disadvantages include the following:

  • Effect of the simulator environment on the operator. In a simulated accident situation, for example, we would not expect the simulator operator to experience the same stress levels as would be expected in anticipation of a real accident.
  • Simulator users, particularly where used as part of a currency test, may be expected to have studied and therefore anticipate certain procedures, conditions, or emergencies during the course of their simulated flight.
  • Shorter flight cycles do not accurately reflect pilot fatigue or boredom.
  • In addition to the cost to build a simulator, they have ongoing operation and maintenance costs.

Realism and effectiveness

No flight simulator system is entirely “realistic”. Flight simulator systems vary in complexity and realism, with more complex and realistic systems producing a correspondingly more realistic experience for the operator of the simulator. For example, the more advanced simulators used by commercial air transport operators usually include a motion base that responds to control inputs and digitally generated environmental factors (such as weather) to mimic the expected movements of an aircraft. This results in more realistic motion cues being felt by the operator of the simulator.

There is controversy over whether achieving realism or achieving training objectives is most important in the development of simulators.

According to Hays and Singer, the effectiveness of a simulator depends on how its features support the total training system, and the realism of a simulator should vary according to stage of learning, type of task, and type of task analysis.3

1. CARDULLO (1994). ‘Motion and force cueing’, Flight simulation update-1994 (10th ed). SUNY Watson School of Engineering, Binghampton, 1994.
2. MORONEY & MORONEY (2010). ‘Flight Simulation’, in J. A. Wise et al (eds.) Handbook of Aviation Human Factors (2nd ed). CRC Press, Boca Ratton, 2010.
2. HAYS & SINGER (1989).Simulation fidelity in training system design. Springer-Verlag, New York, 1989


1 See F. M. Cardullo, ‘Motion and force cueing’, Flight simulation update-1994 (10th ed). SUNY Watson School of Engineering, Binghampton, 1994.

2 See W. F. Moroney and B. W. Moroney, ‘Flight Simulation’, in J. A. Wise et al (eds.) Handbook of Aviation Human Factors (2nd ed). CRC Press, Boca Ratton, 2010, pp. 19-4 to 19-6.

3 See R. T. Hays and M. J. Singer, Simulation fidelity in training system design. Springer-Verlag, New York, 1989.

Contributors to this page

Authors / Editors

Nick Christiansen

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License