Flight simulators have been popular personal computer games since Microsoft released Version 1.0 of Flight Simulator in 1982.
Technology and graphics have come a long way since then, as you might imagine. But fundamentally, these applications haven’t changed much. They have always aimed to provide a hyper-realistic flying experience so that anyone might try their hand at being a pilot.
Flight simulators are fun, but can they be a valuable part of flight training? Here’s a look at what makes these programs stand out and why they make great study aids when used correctly.
What Are Flight Simulators?
Flight simulators are computer programs that feel like games but go much further than a game would. The focus is on recreating an authentic flying experience for anyone who wants to try–whether a complete newbie or a 10,000-hour airline captain. That’s right, they’re accurate enough to keep anyone happy.
All simulators come with a variety of planes to try your hand at, from Cessnas to Airbuses.
In addition, they often have rotorcraft, seaplanes, and even historic aircraft like the Spruce Goose or Spirit of St. Louis.
One simulator lets you try your hand at landing the space shuttle, and the newest expansion pack to Microsoft Flight Simulator lets you train with Maverick for some high-speed maneuvers in the F/A-18 Super Hornet (check out the difference between Microsoft Flight Simulator vs. X-Plane).
To keep adding layers of realism to their apps, the flight simulator makers keep adding more global scenery layers so you can fly anywhere in the world. Many notable landmarks have 3D-generated effects for photo-realistic flying experiences anywhere in the world.
What Are Flight Simulators Good For?
Flying a real plane is expensive.
But for $60 or so, you can download a flight simulator on your computer and start flying. You can practice landings, shoot an ILS approach in zero visibility, or play around in an F-22 Raptor for giggles. So first and foremost, flight simulators are a fun hobby for anyone who likes aviation.
But modern flight simulators are also accurate enough to keep experienced pilots interested.
The cockpits are recreated with exacting detail, and the avionics functions like they do in real planes. You can practice emergency procedures, shoot instrument approaches to places you’d never get to, and fly planes (or choppers, or jets, or gliders, or…) that you only dream of.
There’s also an exciting social element to modern flight simulators. You can connect with networks of human air traffic controllers, fly in formation with your friends, dogfight opponents online, or fly the line for a virtual airline.
Another benefit of flight simulators is you can slow the flying down in order to learn procedures. Commercial airplanes fly incredibly fast, so flying in the simulator can help you learn to think ahead of the airplane.
Do Flight Simulators Help With Flight Training?
So, they’re fun, but do flight sims help you during training?
As already mentioned, experienced pilots won’t get bored with flight simulators. These programs provide so many things that help throughout a pilot’s career.
Of course, they aren’t perfect, but they are essentially free tools you can use to study in an interactive way.
For student pilots, the answer is more nuanced. If you are interested in flying a simulator, it can be a helpful tool for learning certain things throughout your flight training. At the least, it will teach you a ton about aviation.
But some things won’t translate to the plane, and some things from the plane won’t translate to the simulator.
At its core, a flight simulator is a study aid. Since long before personal computers, pilots have trained using a technique called “chair flying.”
If you’re training part 141 you’ll want to remember part 141 requirements dictate how much sim time you can do.
Chair flying is simply pretending you’re in the plane and walking through checklists, maneuvers, and procedures step-by-step, working your way through the flow from beginning to end.
One step up from using your imagination is sitting in front of a cockpit poster or photograph. But one step up from that is using a digital cockpit that reacts when you move the controls or flip a switch. That’s where the power of a flight simulator shines.
Pros of Training with a Flight Simulator
On the whole, using a flight simulator has more advantages than disadvantages.
Flying an airplane is about developing habits, using checklists, and building familiarity with the plane. Pilots talk about cockpit flows, meaning how to get things efficiently done from checklists and knowing just what to reach for and when. This is the skill that pilots develop when chair flying. Simulator cockpits are very accurate and can help a lot.
There’s also the cadence of a flight. How long does a downwind leg take, how does the plane react when you set flaps to approach, and how much power does it take to nail a perfect glideslope on a normal landing? The flight characteristics of individual planes are accurately depicted in simulators, so they are a great way to get the rhythms of a flight down.
Flight sims are a good way to refresh the memory and knock off the rust for pilots who haven’t flown in a while. They already know the fundamental methods of flying and have developed muscle memory, and it’s just a matter of getting back into it.
The simulator refreshes your memory and lets you practice for free before getting back in the plane with an instructor.
Still, flight simulators are excellent cockpit trainers. The flight simulator is a great place to start if you’re new to flying a glass cockpit. The reverse is true–if you’ve only ever flown glass, you can practice on steam gauges.
Finally, simulators allow you to do things you’d never dream of doing in a real plane. For example, we don’t simulate engine failures in flight at low altitudes. But on the simulator, you can kill the engine at 500 feet AGL and see if you can make it back to the airport. You can fly into the clouds and see if you can get out. There’s no limit to the realism you can add to learning emergency procedures.
Cons of Training with a Flight Simulator
It’s not all good, of course. You still need time in the plane, but a simulator can certainly help you make the most of that time.
It’s easy for students to pick up bad habits from the simulator. Top “bad habits” include not scanning outside for traffic, over-emphasizing one or more cockpit instruments, and insufficient or inappropriate rudder use.
Looking around on a simulator is difficult. It’s often unnatural to look left and right or behind you, which leads you to focus much more on instruments than you should in the real plane. Try taxiing a taildragger on the simulator and see how that goes! Of course, this problem gets better all the time with VR technologies.
Traffic isn’t a real threat on a simulator, which leaves students ill-prepared for dealing with it in real life. Scanning for traffic constantly during flight must be a habit developed early in flight training. Unfortunately, flight simulator time habituates a lack of concern for this threat.
And while the cockpits on simulators are extremely accurate, you must move many switches and some controls with a mouse click or touch.
The fact that the muscle motion of moving the switch is different, that you may be moving your arm in a different way to access something, is an impediment when flying the plane.
You need enough time in the plane to know what the real thing feels like and how it’s different. In other words, it’s often clunky to change radio frequencies or switch on a landing light on a simulator, where these things are much easier in the plane.
Flight simulators won’t ever recreate the “feel” of flying. An old-timer might call this “flying by the seat of your pants.” In more concrete terms, there is no kinesthetic feedback from the controls or the forces acting on the plane.
In the real world, this means that maneuvers like stalls, slow flight, steep turns, and landings can only be half-learned on the simulator.
You can learn to go through the flows and know what to do and when, but being in the plane adds a whole new element.
Instrument Training with a Flight Simulator
Simulators deserve a separate discussion for instrument students. Most of a flight simulator’s limitations revolve around private pilot training. These become much less important for a licensed private pilots working on their instrument rating.
The major skills of instrument flying can all be practiced on your home flight simulator. VOR tracking and intercepts, DME arcs, holds, and every kind of approach you can imagine work just like they would work in the plane.
You can download the approach plates for any airport and shoot the approach with all the frequencies working and the instruments, just like in the real world.
Instrument flight is all about procedures, checklists, and habits. Flying the perfect approach is only meaningful if you set it up properly, brief it, and have your missed approach procedure at hand. It’s easy to load up the ILS frequency and follow the “crosshairs” to the runway and land. But that’s a tiny part of what an ILS is.
To be truly useful, you want to use the flight simulator at the right phase of your flight training with guidance from your flight instructor. Learn to set up and brief approaches just like you would in real life, fly them to minimums, and then fly the missed approach and enter the hold. This is much better instrument training and much more realistic.
And, of course, the simulator is the perfect place to work on instrument failures. Fly with only your backup instruments, experience a vacuum failure, or fly into icing conditions. Follow your checklists, treat it as realistically as possible, and see how it works out.
How Do Home Flight Simulators Compare with FTDs and ATDs?
It’s for these reasons that the FAA doesn’t allow you to consider time flying your home flight simulator as “flight training.” So they have a specific definition of what is and is not a “flight simulator.”
As defined by the FAA, a flight simulator has full motion and a cockpit that precisely replicates a make and model of aircraft. These are the big box simulators where airline and corporate pilots train for type ratings and upgrades.
Operating a flight simulator is cheaper than an aircraft, but they’re still thousands of dollars per hour and the hardware costs as much as a plane.
The FAA also defines other training aids, including the Flight Training Device (FTD) and the Aviation Training Device (ATD). These are simpler setups that don’t necessarily have motion and are more than likely PC-based.
A basic aviation training device is likely running X-Plane or Flight Sim, but it still requires FAA approval for the training time to count in your logbook. Most flight schools have a few that you can use to train with your instructor.
Flight Simulator Wrap Up
So, are flight simulators valuable for students just learning to fly? The answer is a qualified “yes.” There’s so much about aviation and flying that you can pick up from a flight simulator–they’re exceptional study aids that are tons of fun to get into. But there are some things you just need to learn in the plane.
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Brian is an experienced digital marketer who joined Thrust Flight in 2022 as the Chief Marketing Officer. He discovered a passion for aviation at 10 when he went for his first flight in a Piper Cherokee and enjoys helping others discover a career path as a professional pilot. He is an experienced marketing consultant helping brands with a variety of marketing initiatives. Brian received a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Brigham Young University.