Fixed Base vs Full Motion Simulators
What do we mean by fixed base and full motion?
The majority of simulators we see on our directory are fixed base. This means they are simulators that are fitted directly onto the floor and have no physical motion mechanisms. Some of the best fixed base simulators we have visited use devices such as rumble motors and ‘butt kickers’ to add a physical sensation of motion and fool the pilots’ senses (sight, sound, and haptics) to complement the imagery out of the flight deck windows – which is very effective by itself.
A full motion simulator is mounted on a motion platform which is able to move in all six degrees of freedom (roll, pitch, yaw, surge, heave, and sway) to give real physical sensations that are synchronised with the visual display. It’s worth noting that the motion one would see externally does not necessarily correlate with what is occurring inside ‘the box’. The motion system purely provides the physical sensations of flight. To elaborate, a significant pitch up (as seen from outside) would create a pressure on the pilot inside the simulator and represent an acceleration force. Conversely, a pitch down (as seen from outside) would simulate a deceleration force with the pilot feeling pressure on the seat harness.
Electric vs hydraulic full motion
There are two types of full motion system, hydraulic and electric. Hydraulic is the traditional system that has powered full motion systems for decades, but this is noisy, requires a lot of maintenance and space and is generally considered old technology. We’re not too worried about that though. What it gives us as pilots is a very realistic and accurate flight control ‘feel’. Most airliners (except the very latest jets) have hydraulically powered flight controls, and by pressurising the systems to the same level, you can accurately replicate the control forces required in the actual aircraft
Electric full motion is the modern standard and most, if not all, new full motion simulators are supplied on an electric platform. Some advantages for the owner are they have a lower maintenance cost, an advanced level of diagnostics, increased reliability, longer life parts, quieter, less space required (no need to house the hydraulics and associated items) and a reduced power consumption. They can also handle heavier payloads (bigger flight decks/more people) and provide smoother motion. You’ll also be pleased to read that they have thought about ensuring safety in the event of a power cut!
What are the benefits of full motion?
Whist the majority of my simulator experience has entailed flying fixed base simulators, I have been very fortunate to have flown several full motion ‘Level D’ simulators that are used by the airlines. I have to say the acceleration you experience when starting off down the runway and during rotation when taking off and the deceleration when braking during landing is incredible and as mentioned earlier is achieved by some clever trickery in terms of moving the simulator forward and aft about the pitch axis – even though the image in front of the pilot’s eyes is (or should be!) level.
The platform movement about both pitch and roll axies is certainly noticeable, but in the context of normal airline route flying (I’m assuming you wouldn’t be performing aerobatics at this stage!), the sensation/movements aren’t that dramatic, just in the same way it isn’t when you fly as a passenger on a real airliner.
The main advantage, as I see it, of full motion is in weather conditions such as turbulence in cloud or on a windy day, where you really can be thrown around a bit in your seat as the full motion system simulates that. It can be quite dramatic and very realistic.
A further benefit of full motion simulation is you get a very accurate portrayal of your landings. In a fixed base simulator, it is often difficult to tell whether you have perfected a good landing technique with a good flare and touchdown or it whether it was more on the firm side of where we’d like to be. It is possible to install software in a simulator which measures and assesses the landing phase in its entirety, but it is still difficult to really get an appreciation of landing performance. In a full motion simulator there is absolutely no doubt at all as to the success of the manoeuvre as it is very easy to feel whether you had a good landing, or perhaps flared too little and too late and hit the runway with a almighty thump – it happens to the best of us!
Are there any negatives aspects to full motion?
The primary negative aspect of full motion simulators is usually the cost of the systems, which invariable means higher prices for the customer. A turnkey purchase price of a brand new and advanced fixed base simulator is in the region of £200,000 ($250,000 ,€220,000), whereas an Airbus A350 or Boeing 787 Level D simulator is approximately £15m ($18.5m, €16.5m). 1 hour in a fixed base simulator is approximately £120 ($150, €135) compared to 1 hour in a full motion simulator at £450 ($560, €500). An exception to the rule, and we’re seeing more and more of these emerge, are the entertainment/non-Level D market simulators mounted on electronic motion platforms. These differ in terms of functionality and accuracy when compared to ATO quality Level D machines, but are on a par with the fixed base simulator pricing. A fantastic example is at Simulator Adventures (Manchester, UK) where an A320 full motion simulator operates. See our review here. Whilst ever so slightly more expensive than a fixed base simulator, the extra is well justified when considering the cost and complexity of the system.
Due to the strict and fixed dimensions of a simulator that sits on a moving platform, there isn’t usually a great deal of room inside for groups or guests. A few of the best fixed base simulators we have visited have gone to great lengths to create a passenger cabin immediately behind the flight deck simulator as it would be in real life, where spectators can sit, observe and really feel a part of the experience. Jet Sim School (Peterborough, UK) and Deeside (Ellesmere Port, UK) are two fantastic examples. Unfortunately, it really isn’t possible to have a cabin section with a full motion simulator, or at least have a cabin which is directly behind the cockpit due to the motion requirements.
If you do get the chance to sample flight in a full motion simulator, I would certainly recommend it as an experience that’s well worth having. Previously full motion simulation was the preserve of the airlines and commercial flight training organisations, and these simulators were either not available to the public at all, or if available, they were incredibly expensive. However, as full motion technology becomes cheaper with use of the electronic platforms/systems we are seeing more of, reasonably priced, full motion simulators are becoming available. Some examples we have seen and which are featured reviews on our site include Real Simulation (Harrogate, UK), Simulator Adventures (Salford, UK), and Dream Aero (Dubai, UAE). As I wrote earlier, the hourly rates for these is more in line with fixed based simulators, so they are not likely to break the bank if you fancy giving them a try.