Flight simulators have many practical uses. While flight training is one of the most common uses (and recreation as the other major use), many aircraft companies use them in development. Since simulators have become so realistic in the past few years, it would stand to reason that new technology should be tested in simulated circumstances before the new technology is used in a real aircraft.
Many aircraft manufacturers, such as Lockheed-Martin, build simulators for the military to mirror aircraft that they also make. For instance, the F-35 Lightning II aircraft has a comparable simulator for training and features a glass cockpit, as well as a 360-degree view to ensure as real an experience as possible. Simulators like this that are used for military training also integrate weapons systems as well to complement the high-fidelity view.
In addition to fully-integrated aircraft systems and ultra-realistic weather and environment, some of the most advanced training simulators are mounted on movable platforms to further the simulation experience and add motion.
One of the most obvious applications of flight simulation is the fact that the entire world is simulated and a pilot can essentially go anywhere they want, and they can fly in whatever weather they choose. But what about places they cannot go? Some private companies have worked with NASA to develop a space simulator. It would be impractical and inefficient to spend the millions that it would take to train in an actual shuttle, not to mention incredibly unsafe. These shuttle simulators can mimic an entire shuttle flight from launch to landing, or any part along the way.
Regardless of the type of simulator, whether it be military, civil, or space, an instructor station is usually part of the equation. An instructor station allows training personnel to create every conceivable condition whether it be inside the cockpit or environmental. Instructors can also use the integrated software to help grade pilot's performance as the instructor station has the ability to monitor and interpret every aspect of the session simultaneously. The instructor then has the ability to review the flight to and if need be, return to a portion of the flight to reinforce any weak areas that there may be.
Nearly every civilian flight school uses simulators as well for training purposes. Many times, desktop simulators are used during ground school to help orient students to aircraft systems and procedures. Students are usually given access to these simulators for practice time as well to help them become better pilots, however one downside to flight simulators is the fact that time logged in a simulator cannot be logged as flight time.
Before a school, whether it be civilian or military, can use a flight simulator for training purposes it must first be certified for training use by the FAA before it is implemented into a training program. Training simulators are broken down into seven levels of flight training devices and levels A-D full flight simulators. The highest level of flight simulation is the level D full flight simulator, which is most commonly used for zero flight time conversion. ZFT conversion is used to transition pilots from one type of aircraft to another that has very similar characteristics, such as a 757 pilot who is transitioning to a 767. During this type of training, the pilot will fly only the simulator until they become ready to fly the aircraft for real. The pilot will then fly the real aircraft under the close supervision of a training captain.
Flight simulators have evolved greatly over the years, and advances in both hardware and software will continue to enhance the reality of simulated flight so that pilots, both new and experienced, have a safer method of training. This, in turn, will raise the bar for safety in aviation all around.
One of the largest breakthroughs in this technology is the fact that failures can be simulated. Nowadays, pilots or pilots in training can experience things like loss of an engine, wind shear, or even excessive turbulence without ever leaving the ground. The safety of a well-engineered simulator allows flight instructors to really challenge their students and observe how they would react in these situations. Aside from the main and auxiliary panels that control all of the aircraft systems, today's simulators have a separate panel for the instructor to generate these conditions.