Is flying a simulator good preparation for flying the real aircraft? Rachel Ramsay compares the Alsim AL20 sim with a real Cirrus SR22
10 August 2023
To what degree can you familiarise yourself on a new aircraft type using a simulator? I had the opportunity to find out at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2023, where I was given the chance to undertake some Cirrus familiarisation – first in a sim, and then in the real thing.
The sim I have a go in is the ALSIM ALSR Compact. It’s the SR20, and it’s programmed to show me on the runway at Oshkosh. It’s a panoramic three-TV set-up, but not a full-motion sim, so the realism is a little limited. The graphics are detailed, though, and during the flight I get to experience a range of weather.
I can immediately see the value of the sim for getting to grips with the cockpit layout (not that this is overly complex). I learn the basics, like where the flaps and parking brake are. More importantly, had I had more time, I’d also have been able to immerse myself in the glass cockpit, which contains the same avionics – Cirrus Perspective+ by Garmin – as the real thing.
For someone like me who’s only really flown with old-fashioned instruments (maybe a G5 at a push), being able to conduct ground-based familiarisation training on the Garmin avionics would presumably shave a fair bit off the cost of doing so while flying around in the real thing.
Though I don’t get to try it, the sim also has CAPS deployment and fall simulation, which is a major bonus given that Cirrus’s famous parachute system is not something you’d get to experience except in anger.
Not having flown a Cirrus before, the first noticeable difference is the side stick. On a Cirrus cockpit tour at AERO Friedrichshafen, I’d asked Director of SR Product Line Ivy McIver how long it takes to get used to the side stick. “About 600ft,” was her succinct and, it turns out, completely accurate answer. In the sim and later in the real aircraft, the side stick proves more relaxed and natural than any other controls I’ve flown with, largely thanks to the arm rest.
What’s missing is the ‘feel’ of the aircraft, and I find that this makes it very difficult to fly the simulator instinctively in the way you would in the real thing. In the real world, whatever aircraft you’re flying, you detect the slightest changes in engine sound or vibration, both within and outside its normal range. On the take-off roll, you feel when it’s ready to fly. Even a wraparound screen isn’t enough to adequately replicate the visual references by which you instinctively judge your approach path.
Maybe it’s that the instruction isn’t clear enough, but in the simulator, I struggle with basic things like keeping the aircraft in trim and getting the power setting right to maintain level flight (it just wants to keep climbing) and descend into the circuit. I’m even inadvertently stalling on final approach – something that I’ve never even come close to doing in real life!
The good news is that the real thing is considerably easier to fly, as I discover the next day when I get to fly a nearly-new SR22 GTS from Oshkosh to a less busy airfield, nearby Waupaca, for some circuits with Ivy.
The sim doesn’t convey just how comfortable the real Cirrus is, nor the beauty of its design – those gorgeous gullwing doors, for instance. Pilot comfort improves pilot performance, and on the long wait for the busy runway taxiing out from Oshkosh’s Basler FBO, I’m glad of the air conditioning!
After an enjoyable flight over the farm-dotted Wisconsin countryside to Waupaca, I’m straight in at the deep end with some circuits. The SR22’s 310 horsepower is considerably more powerful than the PA28s I usually fly, and I’m surprised by how far I need to power back to maintain level flight.
Nevertheless, I find that once you understand what percentage of power you need for each stage of the flight, it’s a piece of cake. The aircraft just does what you want it to, with minimal input needed even when flying it manually. (It probably helps that it’s a nice calm day!)
My approach is a little low on the first circuit, and I discover I need a little more power nearly all the way down to the ground. But my landing is smooth, and each circuit gets noticeably better.
The pitch angle takes a little bit of getting used to, with the sight picture looking different from what I’m used to (and from the sim), but that’s minor and easily learned. Garmin’s flight director, activated by the ‘Go Around’ button on the throttle, provides useful guidance to help with this on the climbout.
Several circuits later and I’m firmly convinced that the side stick, with its comfy arm rest, is quite honestly an improvement on a standard stick or yoke configuration. The aircraft itself is easy to fly, which means it’s a real pleasure – and its comfort levels make it the ideal machine for conveying you luxuriously around America’s fantastic network of well-provisioned airfields. Flying around Lake Winnebago on our way back to Oshkosh is effortless, even without the autopilot engaged.
From my admittedly limited experience, the only real challenge I can see with converting over to the Cirrus is mastering the avionics – something that, as noted earlier, a sim can help with. From the moment we start up and go through the electronic checklist, I’m in awe of how easily Ivy navigates the numerous handy Garmin features, even adding in waypoints ‘on the fly’ to get us onto the Warbird Arrival back into Oshkosh.
Once you’ve got the hang of that, the world is your oyster. The beauty of Cirrus is that, as the branding reflects, it’s a lifestyle thing – and as the pilot or owner of one, you feel part of something. And if your budget doesn’t stretch that far? Well, a girl can dream…