Like many others, I’ve enthusiastically resumed flight training after a decades-long break. My earlier training aids included a cockpit poster of a Cessna 172 on my wall and hours of daydreaming. Fast forward to today, and one of my most effective training tools is my home flight simulator – with startling realism including more than a little stress. I’m keenly aware of today’s technology advantages and I wouldn’t dream of training without them. So, strap in and I will share some of these observations that may be helpful to you.
You may have seen the stunning video ads for various flight simulators. But when you FLY the latest version of them, you’ll also notice the accurate representation of aerodynamics and physics. Practice stall and spin recovery; try crosswind landings; and experience the need for right rudder to counteract adverse yaw. You’ll likely be impressed with the advanced aerodynamic modeling, an element essential for realism in your training.
“But flight simulation isn’t exactly like flying a real plane.” That’s true, but let’s consider how training works in other disciplines. Emergency Medical Services trainees practice on CPR dummies, not real people. Astronauts train in giant swimming pools to simulate zero-gravity environments. Climbers hone their skills on artificial climbing walls.
The key is not to perfectly recreate reality, but to simulate scenarios that cultivate the necessary skills. And of course, commercial pilots have always trained with simulators, which many attribute to their excellent safety record. The good news is that these days you don’t need a million-dollar investment in equipment to get great results.
But: “Isn’t a home flight simulator just a game?” Well, it certainly can be, but to dismiss it as such overlooks some positive defining aspects of games – evaluation and engagement. In your core flight training, evaluation is a constant – by your flight instructor, your DPE at your check ride, the grader of your FAA written exam, and by yourself.
Simulators provide the same element of evaluation in a pressure-free environment, and they add an element of fun. This combination of assessment and enjoyment can supercharge your progress. Fun is a good thing and is probably why you’re taking flying lessons in the first place. Remember this: The best training tools are the ones you will actually use and enjoy.
To illustrate the impact of simulators on flight training, let’s delve into three defining benefits they offer – SAFETY, PROFICIENCY, and significant TIME & MONEY savings.
Safety is understandably on the mind of every pilot and the safety benefits of flight simulation are undeniable. Pilots can practice and master challenging situations in a risk-free environment. If you take a close look at the NTSB’s General Aviation Accident Dashboard, you’ll notice that the great majority of often-lethal accidents are caused by about ten specific scenarios. The gravest of these situations usually involves a sudden unexpected condition causing panic due to inadequate training, followed by poor decision-making, leading to avoidable accidents.
With simulators, pilots can proactively confront these specific scenarios, and practice until effective responses become second nature. The goal is to replace the “startle factor” with calm, strategic reactions, reducing these dangerous outcomes to manageable incidents, or better yet, preventing them from occurring at all.
Proficiency is probably the number one goal among flight simming student pilots. Simulators are excellent tools for improving nearly any practical aviation activity, from perfecting your traffic pattern to using advanced avionics to shooting the most complicated instrument approaches into busy airports.
As an example, one critical skill that many students struggle with is landing. Microsoft Flight Simulator offers dozens of “Landing Challenges” with a variety of aircraft, locations, and conditions.
These challenges are stringently evaluated based on proximity to the indicated touch-down point, lateral deviation from the centerline, and vertical speed at touchdown. This allows you to evaluate your own performance over time, and even compare your landing proficiency to other simmers.
Both X-Plane and Microsoft Flight Simulator make it easy to set your plane on a short final for any runway in the world, allowing for many more landings to be practiced in an hour than would ever be possible with a real airplane.
Air Traffic Control (ATC) interaction is another hurdle for many student pilots, and often one of the most intimidating. Communicating effectively with ATC is a crucial skill, and simulators offer reasonably accurate AI ATC radio communication.
In addition, third-party platforms like PilotEdge and VATSIM let simulator pilots interact with live controllers directing simulated traffic worldwide, mimicking real-world radio communication to fully develop your radio skills.
Next, let’s focus on a few proficiency exercises that may be a little less obvious:
- Flying with ForeFlight – From GPS tracking to synthetic vision to terrain warnings, ForeFlight works the same with your simulator as with your real plane and is a skill worthy of its own practice and experience. How else will you be ready to use ForeFlight effectively in-flight with your real plane?
- Thinking through commonly confusing activities – Ex: Choosing a runway and entering the traffic pattern at an unfamiliar non-towered airport from the “wrong” side. Best to work through this in the simulator until it’s no longer a stressful challenge.
- Replaying a botched go-around – X-Plane has an amazing Replay feature that works like a time machine – not only can you rewind your flight to any point, you can also examine all flight conditions and instrument readings to analyze what went wrong then provide a better ending to the flight.
- Avoid getting rusty – At any stage of your aviation career. Another NTSB finding is that many accidents are associated with long gaps in flying experience. Starting as a student, use your simulator to keep from ever getting rusty throughout your career. Many pilots furloughed during COVID used simulators to keep their skills sharp while commercial air traffic was minimal.
- Night Flight – Another potentially intimidating challenge for student pilots. By learning to navigate inky blackness or correctly interpret the kaleidoscope of lights on the ground and in-flight, you can build confidence and competence before you ever have to venture into the night sky in a real aircraft.
TIME AND MONEY SAVINGS
The discussion of time savings must include the issue of accessibility. How much time is required for a 1-hour flight lesson at your local airport? Consider 1-2 hours round trip commute time; prepping the plane; preflight inspection; taxi and flight time; refueling; securing the plane after the flight; filling out log forms; interacting with airport staff; etc. It’s clear that each flying lesson probably requires a half-day of your time.
And if you consider coordination with your flight instructor, weather delays, and airplane availability, it might take a week or more to schedule that 1-hour lesson.
With instant accessibility, flight simulation can be a significant timesaver. With a home simulator, even 15-minute sessions can be effective, turning otherwise unproductive time into progress towards your certification.
The time savings translates directly into money savings. Traditional flying lessons are absolutely required, but with instructor fees and plane rental can easily cost over $300 per hour. This means each minute saved preserves $5.
Saving minutes mastering a skill, saving hours of flight instruction, and saving months in getting your license can significantly reduce your overall training costs while allowing you to reach your goals more quickly.
Although exact financial savings are difficult to generalize, it’s safe to assume that your simulator can more than pay for itself during your training, then remain an asset for you for years to come.
Exactly how should I use a simulator with my PPL training?
Your simulator is a supplement, not a replacement, for traditional flight training. To maximize your simulator’s utility, usage should be synchronized with ACTUAL CFI flight instruction and ground school studies from reputable sources. Use the simulator to preview and reinforce in-flight lessons, and familiarize yourself with various weather and other flight conditions. For best results, treat each simulator session as a real flight.
Many online ground schools, such as Sporty’s, offer various tools that align home simulator training with their curriculum. Following these resources, typically available for Microsoft Flight Simulator and/or X-Plane, ensures your simulator training is structured and directly contributes to your progress.
As with other examples of self-teaching, care should be taken to avoid developing bad habits. Study the recommended procedures before practicing in the simulator. Resist the temptation to reinforce bad habits like setting up your avionics on taxi or climb-out, skipping parts of the checklist, ignoring nearby traffic, or habitually taking other shortcuts.
If you only wish to practice a specific maneuver such as landings, then use the simulator to teleport directly to a landing scenario. Don’t improperly perform a takeoff and climb just to enter a landing configuration. As you may have guessed, I have learned each of these lessons the hard way.
Take advantage of post-flight analysis. ForeFlight will create 2D or 3D track logs for your simulated flights and both MSFS and X-Plane offer some form of logbook, recording, and/or analysis of each flight, as does TakeFlight Interactive. These can be valuable learning tools and helpful for tracking your progress.
Do I need to invest thousands of dollars in simulator hardware to have a good experience?
In short, NO. In fact, consider that the more you invest in model-specific flight simulation hardware, the more you may be limiting your future training versatility. This is the advantage to keeping cockpits mostly virtual in your early training.
Many flight sim enthusiasts start with just the basics: a yoke, throttle quadrant, and rudder pedals, plus a 4K TV. Compatible with various aircraft models, these components cost less than $1,000 in total and serve as an ideal starting point for most trainees.
Remember, the core value of a simulator is its ability to replicate key flight dynamics and maneuvers, not the exact physical feel of a specific cockpit. As you gain proficiency, you can then decide if further investment in specialized hardware will add value to your training experience.
Embrace the gaming benefit of flight simulation; the beautifully realistic graphics, evaluation, progression, and competition inherent in games can also make learning engaging and effective.
Critically evaluate the opinions of others, particularly on social media. These reviews are quickly outdated and may not compare the most recent versions of simulator products. Are they hobbyists, gamers, student pilots, or pros? Ultimately, the best solution is the one that suits YOUR unique needs and aspirations.
Flight simulation instills confidence. When you transition into a real plane, your training in procedures, controls, and ATC interactions will make you prepared and focused, enhancing the joy of flying. This has been one of the most notable benefits for me.
Most excitingly, make flight simulation your own. Address your specific interests, confront your fears, and work on your problem areas. Flight simulation accommodates your unique journey. So, make it enjoyable and get creative! Try a virtual tour of the entire country, one manageable but unique leg each day.
Flight simulation is more than a game. It’s a potent tool that can transform your flight training experience. Get ready to explore the captivating world of flight simulation. Your enhanced pilot journey starts now.