Air Transportation: Going Big Time With Class D

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November 11, 2021: A Chinese firm has developed, produced and obtained certification for the first Chinese full-motion (Class D) flight simulator for commercial airliners. This first one is for the AirBus A320, which is widely used in China. Western models of this type of flight simulator cost $15 million each. The Chinese are selling theirs for about $12 million. While export sales are expected, the Chinese made flight simulators will mainly service the Chinese market, which will need at least 500 of them over the next 20 years.

Until now all Class D simulators came from American or European manufacturers. These flight simulators duplicate the cockpit of a specific airliner model and are mounted on four pistons to simulate the movement of the cockpit during landing, takeoff and turbulence. The cockpit windows are photo-realistic, full color displays of what the pilots would see at various airports. The simulator software replicates the performance characteristics of the aircraft as well as unique conditions for various airports. This is important because some airports are more difficult to land and takeoff in than others. The differences include altitude, weather conditions and surrounding geography and structures.

These Class D simulators can also familiarize pilots with various types of emergency situations. Each model of airliner has different flight control software and handles differently under emergency conditions. A Class D Simulator is the cheapest and safest way to train pilots on specific model characteristics.

Class D type simulators for combat aircraft are at least twice as expensive because the pilot can see a lot more from the cockpit and there are more possible maneuvers. There are more possible emergencies, some of them because of combat damage. China has already been building and using various types of simulators for combat aircraft.

These Class D, military or civilian, usually operate round-the-clock for about 6,000 hours a year. It costs about $500 an hour to operate these simulators and that covers maintenance of the hardware and software as well as staff to brief pilots on new features and monitor use. This is only a few percent of what it costs to operate the aircraft being simulated. But it’s not only cost. A Class D simulator can prepare a pilot for emergency situations and the flight control software quirks of a specific airliner or combat aircraft. Flight simulators allow pilots to learn how to deal with many different flight emergencies without risking a pilot or actual aircraft.

The development of flight simulators began in the 1930s. Back then, the simulators were much more primitive, and were used to teach pilots how to fly, and navigate, at night. It was much cheaper, and safer, to do this kind of training on the ground, via a simulator. Even today, the main emphasis with simulators is handling in-flight emergencies. Flights tend to be rather uneventful most of the time. But many emergencies can crop up, if only rarely, so the pilots have a safe way to practice handling common, and not so common, emergencies.

New technology has made flight simulators a lot more effective. Until the late 1990s, a realistic combat flight simulator cost about as much as the aircraft it was simulating. While that did reduce the cost (per "flying" hour) of pilots practicing, it was not enough of a savings to make it practical for less wealthy countries to get these simulators and use them heavily. Thus, we had a continuation of the situation where countries could scrape together enough money to buy high performance aircraft, but not enough to pay for all that flight time needed to make their pilots good enough to face a better trained foe. It is different with commercial airliners, where there are international standards for pilots taking airliners outside their own country. Pilots have to be certified to handle emergencies as well as the unique characteristics of some local airports. Commercial airlines either have to buy their own Class D simulators or rent time on one. As a result Class D simulators, and their combat aircraft equivalents are rarely idle.

Since the 1990s a new generation of simulators, especially for combat aircraft, were developed. These only 20-30 percent as much as the aircraft they simulate. Suddenly, countries like China could buy dozens of combat simulators, and give their pilots enough realistic training to make them a threat in the air, at least to Western pilots. While a hundred hours a year in a simulator isn't a complete replacement for a hundred hours of actual air time, it's close enough if the training scenarios are well thought out. And another 40-50 hours of actual air time a year gives you a competent pilot. Add another few hundred hours using commercial (game store bought) flight simulators (especially when played in groups via a LAN), and you have some deadly pilots. The Chinese have, since the 1990s, stressed the use of PCs as a foundation for cheaper and more powerful simulators. Now they have an opportunity to really cash in on this insight.

But now China is in the big leagues for flight simulators and will provide some price competition for Western manufacturers of Class D simulators.

 


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