Future Tense

Keeping It Real

Why the airline industry is sticking with its old flight simulators.

Airplane cockpit.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock.

This article is part of Update or Die, a series from Future Tense about how businesses and other organizations keep up with technological change—and the cost of falling behind.

Few passengers realize that in the airline industry, we exclusively train our pilots using simulators. When a new-hire pilot flies the real airplane for the first time, it’s with paying customers in the back.

To create one of our simulators, we hacksaw off the pointy end of a real airplane, put it on a 6-degree-of-freedom hexapod motion platform, and outfit it with video displays so pilots have something to look at out the front window. These simulators take up half a building, they weigh a few tons, and they are not exactly cheap: A Level D simulator sets us back about $12 million, plus the cost of operating it. When a newer model airplane comes out and companies stop flying the old one, training facilities usually donate the sim to a school or a museum, or just drive it to the dump.

So it might seem like we should just step up to the world of virtual reality, where we could just have pilots in training throw on a headset and choose any airplane we want from a drop-down menu. But the industry is sticking with our old simulators because we don’t think our technology has lagged behind. We think that our understanding of the physical world has forged ahead.

If you have a messy desk or office, I bet you probably still know where everything is. And if someone dared to rearrange it—or worse yet, clean it—you would lose your mind. Your workspace isn’t just a workspace: It’s an extension of your brain, and a lot of what you know is stored there. Cockpits are no different. Ed Hutchins, a pilot and cognitive anthropologist at the University of California–San Diego, believes that cockpits are that desk idea taken to the limit. “There’s all this embodied knowledge in the cockpit,” says Hutchins, who writes about the many ways pilots use their physical surroundings to store knowledge. A favorite trick is to put a plastic-foam coffee cup over the landing gear or flap handle to remind them if they’ve been cleared to land. Notecards with numbers jotted down are common. We put stuff where we know to find it in case all hell breaks loose. When the cockpit starts filling with smoke, I can drag my hand along the familiar contour of that side panel and find my oxygen mask and goggles in the blind. The latch doohickey that keeps them in place is an old familiar friend. Go ahead, simulate that.

We tend to think of pilots as lone actors who furiously work the controls while they fight through thunderstorms. In reality, most of what happens in a cockpit is strategizing and communicating. And we do it together. Flight crews spend as much time interacting with one another as they do with the airplane, and not just verbally: Facial expressions and gestures are a big part of the game. “I can see when you’re looking at a display and that tells me what makes sense for me to say to you,” says Hutchins. When you dial a new altitude in the autopilot, you are also telling me, your co-pilot, that you would like me to double-check that entry. I’ll do that by making finger guns in the direction of your set altitude. Teamwork accomplished, zero words exchanged. Pilots learn about those silent exchanges in their giant, expensive, sawed-off cockpits—and using VR headsets to re-create things like fleeting eye contact and subtle facial expressions is still in the future.

And a pilot’s perceptions aren’t just visual. You’ve heard the phrase “flying by the seat of your pants”? Well, learn to fly and you’ll discover that you have a sixth-sense organ: your ass. My eyes and ears can’t tell if an airplane is slowly drifting away from its assigned altitude, but my butt learned—in simulators and in real airplanes—to unequivocally spell it out for me. These proprioceptive and exteroceptive cues play an important part in our learning and later in our performance. Researchers have looked at how well stationary simulators prepare us for the real airplane when compared to motion-based sims. To date, no convincing evidence has been presented that tells us that our state-of-the-art motion-based platforms could be safely removed or replaced with a simpler VR platform.

So for now, we’re going to keep our big, expensive cockpit sitting on top of our big, expensive motion system.

When you close the door of one of our simulators, you are there. It even smells like a box of pilots drinking lousy coffee. When you sit down, push the thrust levers forward, and feel the rumble using your sixth sense, you feel what is perhaps the most important thing that our sims provide us with: total engagement. When something goes astray in that cockpit, pulses quicken, shirts sweat through, and you can’t help but to feel that your life is on the line. Researchers have begun to develop measures of how well a virtual reality interface captures our hearts and minds in this way. In a fun article, Tyler Renshaw, then a graduate student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, proposed a version of the Turing test for virtual reality interfaces. A VR world passes the Turing test when users can’t tell whether they’re in a sim or the real world. (Philosophers like Nick Bostrom tell us that we might be living in a simulation now.) Renshaw told me that VR designers are using questionnaires and even fMRI brain imaging to measure the degree to which these sims are capturing us. “You’re trying to fool them into believing that there are real consequences,” says Renshaw. “But you need sophisticated equipment to tell when someone is afraid.”

For now, I use a modified version of the Turing test called the “Oh shit” test. When something out of the ordinary happens in a low-fidelity sim, pilots usually laugh. When it happens in a Level D simulator, pilots invariably yell “Oh shit!”

Renshaw pointed out another way that our current simulators provide us with a captivated audience: “With a VR headset, the first thing people do when they get scared is rip it off their head.” I’ve never been scared by my own flying but, as a flight instructor, I’ve been occasionally scared by the flying of others. Exiting the aircraft is seldom a practical option.

When it comes to safety, we bet all the marbles (yes, ours and yours) on our simulators, and we have to proceed thoughtfully. Take it from us: If you’re thinking of upgrading to the latest and greatest work or training technologies, you might want to thoroughly explore what your existing tools and environment are providing for you now.