It’s pretty much the Pong of flight simulators, but this little tool can seriously save you on ground school and flight training. I’ve seen friends struggle with VOR navigation, especially when studying for the PPL and CPL written exams, since most of the helicopters we fly aren’t equipped with an VOR or HSI. Worse, an ADF in a helicopter is as common as an AM radio in a new car, and I’ve never seen an RMI outside of a textbook. Yet these are worth more than a few points on every written you’ll take.
Even in instrument trainers, these traditional navigation systems–even if they’re in there–often get passed over for the ubiquitous GPS. It’s just as well. Everything you need to know about navigating by VOR/HSI/ADF/RMI can be done efficiently and cheaply at your computer. You can forgo thousands of dollars trying to do the mental work that interpreting these instruments requires while continuing to fly an aircraft in the real-world (with turbulence, imperfect/absent lesson plans, ATC and radio chatter, etc.). You just have to have the right tools.
When you start your instrument training, you’ll be tempted by Microsoft Flight Simulator. For the cost of 15 minutes in the school’s R44 instrument trainer or a half hour in their Frasca, you can get MSFS X and a joystick. Then it won’t run smoothly on your computer, and you won’t be able to fly the Jet Ranger (but you’ll spend a few hours trying). Then you start thinking about a better machine and rudder pedals, get bored and frustrated, then take a few turns in the Extra 300. 3 hours later you’ve accomplished nothing. Save yourself. MSFS has it’s place for practicing instrument skills, but not in the Jet Ranger, and not from pick-up to set-down, but that’ll be the topic of another post.
Tim’s VOR Simulator, in contrast, is free, runs pretty well, is easy to find online, and you just have to know a few keyboard commands to fly it. It has all the functionality you need to practice simple problems (where am I relative to the VOR?), and can help you isolate the skills you’ll need to fly complex holds and approaches. Best of all, it’s free to anybody with a computer and internet connection, saving expensive cockpit time for consolidating the motor skills that can’t be replicated well even in the best simulators. Tim’s VOR Simulator allows you to set your speed and heading/turn rate with simple keyboard commands. Master that and the program’s quirks, and you can sit at your desk, at school, or in a coffee shop and focus on the mental part of instrument flying (and instrument flying is all mental). Make a mistake, and you can stop the simulation immediately and start over. Altitude isn’t a variable (which further improves the value of this tool for isolating specific skills), but wind can be introduced to teach wind angle corrections.
Most people don’t know about this option though. My instructors didn’t (and they weren’t interested when I showed them). And every few months somebody will get on the forums asking about the best simulator for learning instrument procedures. So I’ve added a Tim’s VOR Simulator Lesson. It’s not a VOR navigation lesson, but just a lesson on how to use Tim’s VOR simulator to learn radio navigation. It’s also not an instrument lesson. This lesson is intended for student pilots working through their ground school and studying for their FAA written tests. The problems are remedial, but if you don’t understand radio navigation, you’ll struggle with them. I’ve also put some simple videos on YouTube that demonstrates these problems (sorry, no audio for them…I’ve had a sore throat for the last couple of days).
Once you know how to work the simulator, you’ll see how you can easily use it to learn instrument skills (when you’re ready). But in the beginning, its simple interface can actually be a pain in the ass if you aren’t committed to trying it out. This lesson plan demonstrates some simple exercises you can do with the simulator that will open this tool up to you. Once you get past how to set up problems, the biggest barrier to continuing to use it is boredom. But that’s actually what you’re trying to accomplish. When navigating by VOR is as mundane as following a highway, or you can fly some wacky procedure while drinking a beer at 01:30 while seeing what the JustHelicopter trolls are up to in another window, then you won’t be making expensive mistakes in the air.
Really, ADF/RMI navigation, approaches, and holds are so much easier when you can see the instruments react in real-time and test your understanding. While drinking beer. I’ll do more of those video lessons or design some more structured problems, but it’d help if I got some feedback about what types of problems students are having trouble with.