Mysteries of Flight Simulator Motion

Captain Chris RigbyI am often asked about motion on our flight simulators. How does it work and how do you give the feeling of real flight by tipping up and down? Firstly it is important to understand that aircraft very rarely move sideways and even if they do, the motion feeling our body experiences is often not in that direction.

What do I mean by that? Well let’s look at riding a bicycle. When you brake, the sensation that your body experiences is that of tipping forward. So in a flight simulator, to simulate braking on the runway, we tip the simulator forward. The visual screen stays level in front of you, so your brain translates this as you decelerating. Conversely, when we are accelerating down the runway in the flight simulator, we tip it skywards so your body is pressed back into the seat, so again your brain interprets this as acceleration as your vision tells you that you are still level on the runway.

Turning is more interesting in that going back to our bicycle, when we lean over to one side to go around a corner, we do not feel a tipping sensation because the body is in balance. In actual fact we will feel a vertical acceleration, just as if we were accelerating down a runway. So again in a flight simulator, we tip it upwards a little, not over on one side, when simulating a turn. This is a common mistake amateur flight simulator builders often make. They design a motion platform that tips on its side which is not in any way realistic. So you can see, nearly all the motion we need is in the pitch plane and not roll or yaw.

The other interesting thing is what the brain does to compensate for motion feeling. The sensation of motion is a warning signal to the brain that something might be going wrong. Falling off a cliff for example. But when the brain is expecting the feeling, it will cancel it out. A good example of this is when you are driving a car and come to a hump back bridge. As the driver, you do not feel anything whereas a passenger in the back seat, not watching, will feel their stomach go up and down and yet the two bodies actually experienced the exact same movement. This is because the driver’s brain knew what was about to happen and cancelled the sensation so it could be aware for the next task.

In fact when the brain sees a movement but it is not accompanied by an actual movement sensation, it gets even more confused and you will often feel sick (sea sickness). So in a flight simulator, even when you are moving, you brain will not ‘feel’ it. Funny stuff this motion simulator business!

Our 737 simulator has hydraulic motion which mainly operates just in pitch and the A320 simulator uses electric motors, also just in pitch. Both are instructor controlled for safety reasons. The 747 simulator does not actually move but has induced vibration which coupled with the strong graphics, makes the brain think it is on the move. We actually had a 747 captain who was standing in the back, nearly fall over, so powerful is the visual display.

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Captain Chris Rigby

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