A VR headset.

How to Use Virtual Reality (VR) for Private Pilot Training

Patrick Kotyuk
Patrick Kotyuk


Train with Me

How does VR improve your flight sim experience?

Learning to fly can be complicated. When you’re a beginner, that can mean struggling with the controls, wrestling with learning new skills and spending extra time and money perfecting maneuvers prior to your checkride. While PC-based flight simulators have been used to help student pilots in this process for over 30 years, they have always fallen short in certain areas.

One of the biggest problems has been the difficulty of performing certain maneuvers involving the need to freely look around the aircraft (like ground reference maneuvers, pattern work, and interactions with the cockpit layout). This is where virtual reality comes in.

With a traditional home PC sim setup, the “easiest” way to look around involves using the mouse or hat switch to pan your view around. This adds an extra level of workload to already complex tasks, requiring the student to take their hands off their yoke/throttle and manage not only flying the airplane but also controlling the view angle.

VR headsets provide a much more seamless experience. The ability to see everything around you effortlessly (simply by moving your head) and have a realistic view of the cockpit makes a big difference. This is why VR is becoming increasingly popular for private pilot training.

If you’re looking for a more immersive flight simulator experience, VR is the way to go. A traditional VR home simulator generally consists of the same flight control setup you may already use for your sim. All you really need to get started are a yoke or joystick, a throttle quadrant, and rudder pedals! The only thing remaining is selecting the right VR headset for your needs and budget.

Which VR headset should I buy?

Recently, VR technology has advanced rapidly, leaving the home sim user with more high-quality, affordable options than ever! Below are a couple of recommendations to get started:

There are many fantastic resources online to help you set up your new VR simulator. However, if you would like one-on-one assistance, Flight Sim Coach can set you up with your own personal sim expert who has experience in VR.

Now that you have everything you need to jump into VR flight simming, it’s time to look at some ways your VR flight simulator can help you supplement your private pilot training. 

How will VR help my flight training?

Ground Reference Maneuvers

Ground reference maneuvers have long been difficult to effectively practice in a home simulator due to the limitations of home flight simulators. With VR, you can now perform maneuvers like turns around a point, S-turns, and rectangular courses very naturally. During these maneuvers, the pilot constantly needs to move their focus between their selected reference point/line, the instruments, and in front of the aircraft (to check for traffic and obstacles). In VR, this is as simple as it is in the real aircraft; just turn your head! 

The primary focus of ground reference maneuvers in private pilot training is to learn how the aircraft is affected by wind, and how to properly adjust for it. In VR, this wind is just as noticeable as it is in the real aircraft, largely due to the fact that your entire visual field can perceive the drift of the aircraft.

Practicing ground reference maneuvers like S-Turns using VR is completely feasible. You can easily change focus between the reference line, instruments, and out the front windshield simply by turning your head.

Traffic Patterns and Landings

Pattern work and landings have been another area of difficulty when it comes to traditional home simulators. While it’s true that desktop sims are great tools for practicing the procedural flows, as well as airspeed and pitch control needed for flying a traffic pattern, VR takes it one step further. Now you can easily see the runway at all times, helping to practice judging the distance from the runway and when to turn base or final. VR also helps you visualize and “feel” the drift caused by wind on the different legs of the pattern.

When it comes time to land, traditional simulators struggle to give the learner the height/depth perception needed to practice the round out, flare, and landing. In virtual reality, you are able to perceive crosswinds and visualize the way the runway expands in your peripheral as you approach ground effect. You can even practice moving your eyes in the same way you would while flaring the real aircraft. I’ve found that when simming in VR, I often forget I’m using a simulator during these critical phases!

The superior Field of View (FOV) of VR allows you to use peripheral vision much like you would during a real landing.

Sight pictures, scanning, collision avoidance

The next benefit to VR in home sims is the ability to more immersively represent the sight picture required for different phases of flight. The vastly increased field of view (FOV) means you have more peripheral information to determine your aircraft’s attitude at any moment. Without so much of your computer monitor being filled with instruments (like is the case in non-VR setups), you can better practice your scanning pattern and maintain your primary focus outside the aircraft. It is also easier to practice FAA-recommended collision avoidance procedures, including best practices such as glancing to check for traffic in the direction of a turn, briefing lifting a wing, etc.

Furthermore, VR gives you the ability to interact with the instruments and controls in much the same way as you do in real aircraft. Most VR setups come with hand controllers that allow you to reach out and interact with the switches, knobs, and buttons found in your plane by flipping them, twisting them, and pressing them. This is a huge improvement compared to taking your hand off your flight controls, reaching for your mouse, moving your view, and then flipping a switch before going back through the process to return to your normal sight picture.

Oculus Rift S hand controller being used to control switches.

Not convinced about the value of VR yet?

A recent study from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University found that using virtual reality to augment flight simulators in the training environment improved the effectiveness of training, the realism of training, and even the enjoyment of training.

Specifically, the study showed a 28% decrease in time to solo and an average reduction of cost in private pilot training of 18%. Using $10,000 as an average figure for the cost of private pilot training in the U.S. amounts to a potential savings of $1,800! The study also found students were more prepared for flight training events, felt more comfortable with radio communications, and had less anxiety about training. It should be noted that the students involved in this study were using virtual reality alongside certified flight instructors and a private pilot curriculum, similar to what we offer for real-world pilots at Flight Sim Coach.

Home flight simulators will continue to be a staple of flight training, and by improving your simulator with virtual reality you open yourself up to new possibilities. From practicing ground reference maneuvers, perfecting the pattern, beginning to master the round out and flare, to feeling comfortable in the cockpit layout prior to a flight, VR has introduced a whole new way to use your home simulator to supplement your private pilot training.

While a home simulator may never truly be able to replicate the experience of real-world flight training, pairing your flight simulator with virtual reality, a certified flight instructor, and a curriculum can get you as close to the real thing as possible.

If you would like to work with a certified flight instructor from the comfort of your home and get the most out of your home sim and VR setup, check out our wide selection of instructors (I’m one of them — feel free to book me for a free consult!) and courses to begin using your home flight simulator to its full potential!

P.S. If you don’t have your own home simulator yet, or you want to speak with a flight sim/VR expert to help ensure your computer will be capable of running the VR headset you wish to purchase, we invite you to speak with our flight sim technical expert who can help you put together the ideal flight sim setup for your specific needs.

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