As a CFI, I find that having a simulator with full controls, using software that realistically simulates helicopter flight (X-Plane 9 and 10) can substantially benefit both licensed pilots and help students to become proficient at maneuvers faster than they would otherwise. We all know that most flying is a combination of in depth knowledge and good decision making skills all held together by MUSCLE MEMORY. Proper hand-eye reaction training is built up over time. Most pilots need dozens of hours just to reach a minimum level of competency, and must maintain that competency by flying regularly.
The cost of aircraft operation precludes a lot of student pilots and licensed pilots from maintaining that proficiency. Using a simulator is a cost effective way to maintain the hand-eye coordination and muscle memory. I find the simulator also helps reduce the danger of doing emergency procedures training like low rotor RPM recovery and autorotation.
There is no substitute for the real thing, but giving a few lessons on autorotations in the simulator before getting in the aircraft gives the student a general idea of what everything should look like in the cockpit, and the real experience will not seem so shocking and overwhelming to them. When the student knows how quickly the rotor RPM rises and drops, and how to properly manage the colective, they are less likely to put themselves and the instructor in a potentially dangerous situation when practicing in the real aircraft. Building a good sight-picture, developing a good scan, and other important elements of performing the maneuvers can also be developed using the sim.
In addition, the simulator can be used by the instructor to show the student what could happen should they make a fatal mistake, and allows the student to see how their actios can affect the flight without putting themselves at risk. By the time the student moves on to do the real maneuver in the aircraft, they also may have already started to build some of the proper muscle memory to execute the maneuvers safely and flight time can be used much more efficiently. In essence, I feel that using the simulator as a training tool (when using the proper equipment) can be of great benefit in the training environment, both as a cost reducer and as a safety net. Even experienced pilots can benefit from the simulator.
It is well known that larger commercial operators use full motion simulators to keep their pilots proficient and to do emergency procedures training, both keeping operating costs low and reducing the risk inherent in performing EP training in the real aircraft. I personally have been able to maintain a high level of proficiency during the long periods of downtime and I always feel sharp and in control when I get back into the real aircraft after weeks or even months of not flying.
CFI Rotorcraft/Helicopter, USA
After 17 years with no practice other than on simulators, I recently took to the air. The results are in - simulator experience does maintain your skills!