The Healing Power of Flight Simulators

Updated on August 22, 2019
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Trudi Griffin, MS, LPC, is a former therapist who researches and writes about mental health connecting research to real life.

People dealing with chronic pain are often encouraged to try nonpharmacological therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, hypnosis, guided imagery, and mindfulness. Research says they help, but many of these therapies require financial investment, time, and going to a practitioner's office. Not an ideal situation for most people. Blackhat, a disabled veteran, flies with his virtual squadron at least two nights per week from the comfort of his home with minimal financial investment.

Imagine a fully interactive cockpit in the A-10C Warthog in DCS World.
Imagine a fully interactive cockpit in the A-10C Warthog in DCS World. | Source

DCS World is a digital combat simulator that combines air, sea, and land battlefield scenarios. Although listed as a “video game” the experience is much more realistic than what one might find on gaming consoles or traditional PC games. The platform provides multiple levels of flying experiences, including free versions, but Blackhat and his squadron go for realism, including naming the virtual squadron after the 74th Fighter Squadron stationed at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.

“I’ve always loved the A-10," says Blackhat, "I remember being on the ground rolling towards Iraq in Gulf War 1 seeing A-10s kicking ass and it was amazing. We chose the 74th to honor the real-life squadron. I saw that the 74th fighter squadron received the Gallant Unit Citation for operations in Syria. It was the fifth award in the history of the Air Force and the first individual unit to receive it.”

Blackhat's current pain issues resulted from multiple military injuries including his experiences in the first Gulf War. He managed for most of his life until a couple of years ago when they worsened to the point of making walking, working, and concentrating difficult. Some days it's impossible. Forced into early retirement, Blackhat needed something to keep his mind off the pain.

The flight simulator community is relatively small, but throughout DCS and its online community, there are groups of pilots all over the world forming virtual versions of real-life military units. The 74th virtual fighter squadron boasts a lineup of pilots from four countries and ten states. Pilots range in age from 18 to 55, with varying skill levels, and from a variety of backgrounds. Some are veterans, some are disabled veterans who use the sim to keep the pain from taking over. They get together online multiple times per week to train, socialize, plan, and fly combat missions as realistic as possible.

“Anybody with five minutes of instruction can fly an airplane around, but it takes a lot of gray matter, motivation, self-discipline, teamwork, training, and practice to fly as the military does.”

— Blackhat
In-Flight Photo
In-Flight Photo | Source

Fooling the Brain

How does a flight simulator help someone deal with chronic pain? The brain only has so much processing power before it begins filtering out stimuli. Think of it like when you're in a noisy cafe talking with a friend. Your attention is on your friend, so the rest of the noise blends into the background beyond your notice. Flight simulators use multiple senses and a lot of cognitive power. In most simulator setups, there is a stick and throttle each operated separately, as well as rudder pedals controlled by both feet. Additionally, a Track IR system or a Virtual Reality headset provides the pilot with an accurate view of the sky that changes based upon head position. All of that together in a fully functioning cockpit requiring the same startup, operating, and shut-down procedures as the real A-10C takes up a lot of cognitive space. Therefore, the pilot's attention is on operating the aircraft, flying in formation, receiving instructions and bombing targets. Meanwhile, the pain is still there, but there are not much of the brain's cognitive resources left to process it. In other words, the body creates pain signals that travel to the brain, but the brain just waves it off because it is busy with something else.

In-Flight Photo
In-Flight Photo | Source

Distraction and Connection

The immersive experience of the flight simulator, as well as the connection with other aviation buffs, keeps Blackhat from giving in to negative feelings about his situation. When he started the virtual 74th, the squadron chose realism, using declassified military training materials to train pilots in the simulator as close to real-life possible. Flying distracts him from the pain, but on the days where the pain is too much, he works on building training plans and planning complicated missions for future flights. The squadron also gives him a chance to socialize with guys who share an interest in military aviation. Any increased activity makes his pain worse, so going out is difficult. However, through online communication channels, Blackhat can keep in touch with his squad even on days he can't fly which helps him feel connected.

There are multiple online communities and immersive gaming experiences that serve the same purpose as flight sims. Immersive, multi-sensory activities can take up cognitive resources that drown out pain signals and provide an option for people who struggle with chronic pain.

This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Trudi Griffin

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      • Cooking Jam profile image

        Muhammad Abdullah 

        3 weeks ago

        Wow, never thought about such healing powers.

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