The Use of Full Flight Simulators for Accident Investigation

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Flight simulation has become an indispensable tool for training within aviation. In little more than 50 years it has established a reputation for high levels of fidelity and the ability to provide an environment in which the effective training of aircrew can be conducted economically and safely. Flight simulation has also proven itself to be invaluable to the aircraft accident investigator. However, with the onset of digitally controlled simulators and compelling visual systems it is easy to become beguiled by the supposed ‘fidelity’. Any dependency on simulation will invite legitimate questions about the validity of any subsequent conclusions, and may cast doubts on the technical veracity of the investigation as a whole. This paper suggests that the use of flight simulation in accident investigation should be approached with care, acknowledging the fact that simulators have limitations.

The traditional use of flight simulators in accident investigation is to use the digital data from the flight data recorder (FDR) to programme the simulator, usually a fixed base engineering simulator, which will then replicate the flight of the aircraft. Data from the air traffic control radar, TCAS units and the cockpit voice recorder can also be incorporated. Then, surely, the investigator has the complete picture! But how accurately does the simulator represent the aircraft and the ground and air environment in which it operates? Whilst many flight simulators have a debrief facility which allows simulator data to be replayed for training purposes a full flight simulator was simply not designed to accept data from the FDR; errors, particularly with systems integration, will occur. A malfunction of an aircraft system is often the precursor to an accident investigation; but how accurately are these malfunctions presented in the flight simulator? Furthermore, since pilots involved in accidents usually exhibit the symptoms of a high workload how can the simulator affect our understanding of the workload experienced by the pilot dealing with a problem?

In order to answer these questions I will start by considering the development of full flight simulators in order to identify those areas where the simulation can be expected to represent accurately the aircraft in flight and on the ground. The regulatory framework within which flight simulators operate will be outlined and will include the problems of data acquisition for malfunctions. The basic concepts of simulator modelling and its limitations will then be explained. Throughout the paper examples will be given of the potential for the miss-use of flight simulators in accident investigation. Download free The Use of Full Flight Simulators for Accident Investigation.pdf here

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