Virgin America flight simulator experience

Photo of a Virgin America flight simulator in warehouse.
 We talked to Capt. Christopher Owens, our chief instructor pilot, about how Virgin America uses our flight simulator. For those of you not familiar with professional flight simulators, think of it like a large machine that perfectly replicates our Airbus A320-family aircraft. The avionics and flight deck controls are exactly the same as those in our A320s, and the simulator mimics the motion and sounds pilots would normally feel and hear in flight. In our interview, Capt. Owens explains why we need a flight simulator and how our flight instructors and pilots use it.

Flyer Feed: What does a pilot need to achieve in the simulator before flying the actual aircraft?

Capt. Owens: We start with excellent raw materials! A typical new pilot recruit at Virgin America would have many years of experience and thousands of hours flying high-performance aircraft. Once hired, a new Virgin America pilot would need 45 hours of extensive training in the simulator, including evaluation modules, before being released to fly the actual aircraft with a line instructor where he or she will receive another 30-40 hours of additional training. Once fully qualified, he or she will then return every six months for recurrent training.

FF: What physical forces do the pilots experience in the simulator?

Owens: We call them the four forces of flight:

1.    Weight is the force of gravity.

2.    Lift is created by the differential air pressure above and below the wing.

3.    Thrust is the force that propels the aircraft in the direction of motion.

4.    Drag is the force that acts opposite to the direction of motion.

FF: How often is the simulator in use?

Owens: The simulator is in use 20 hours per day most days of the year. The balance of time is used for daily maintenance.

FF: Is the simulator tailored to replicate a specific aircraft that a pilot needs training on?

Owens: Yes, Virgin America flies the Airbus A320-series aircraft and this is an Airbus A320-series simulator. Once inside, it’s virtually indistinguishable from the aircraft. It has precise flight deck replication, incredible visual capabilities, and the same high-fidelity avionics as the actual aircraft flight deck.

FF: Both in control layout and physics?

Owens: Yes, it can accurately reproduce the visual and operational environment that pilots experience in the aircraft.  In short, a full-flight simulator combines sight, sound and movement to create a thoroughly realistic, fully immersive experience, which is incredibly accurate.

FF: To what extent are environmental conditions simulated?

Owens: We can simulate rain, thunderstorms — with thunder and lightning — windshear, hail, snow, high and gusty winds and very low visibility.

FF: What are the benefits of simulated flight for a pilot? Why not just read an instructional manual before flying the actual aircraft?

Owens: By its very nature simulator training is safer than aircraft training because it allows pilots to learn abnormal and emergency procedures and practice those procedures. We can perform several hundred emergency procedures in the simulator. Also, the simulator offers considerable savings to the company and reduces our environmental impact by reducing carbon emissions.

FF: How valuable is simulator training for pilots before they fly the actual aircraft?

Owens: Very! The simulator is the ultimate classroom in which students develop the competence and confidence to handle many dangerous situations they could possibly face in the actual aircraft. Virgin America’s goal is to train and maintain highly skilled pilots capable of ensuring a superior level of safety in both normal and abnormal flight operations. The full-flight simulator is an exceptional tool for achieving those goals.

Virgin America pilots take us for a ride in the flight simulator. Watch how the outside of  the simulator moves as it responds to take-offs and landings.