Home flight simulation technology has made impressive leaps forward over the past 10 years. With Microsoft’s release of the latest version of their simulator program in late 2020 and Laminar Research finalizing testing on X-Plane 12 in early 2023, we finally have at-home flight simulation real enough to provide tangible benefits to those who are currently in flight training or already hold a pilot’s license. This realism does come with a warning: unstructured or “game” flying can detract from your actual flight lessons or skill set. Here are some things to consider when using a home simulator setup.
- Hardware setup considerations – There are many choices to make to determine your home setup; Yoke, joystick, rudders, control panels, avionics, etc. The key to making this setup work is your comfort. Having a system that you feel comfortable working with is the best place to start. Keep in mind that some setups can get fairly expensive, and although this adds realism, it isn’t necessary to get the most basic learning functions out of the simulators. For those working with aircraft that use a standard yoke setup such as a Cessna Skyhawk or Piper Cherokee, we encourage yoke and rudder pedals as a basic equipment package to train with. If you’re training in a Diamond DA20 or the nostalgic Piper Cub, we recommend a flight stick and pedals.
- Software choices – The Microsoft Flight Simulator program released in August of 2020 took the flight sim community by storm. In sixteen days the program logged one million unique users with over one billion (digital) miles flown. Microsoft’s user interface and ease of operation make it a phenomenal program for new simmers. If you are inclined to learn a more detailed program with added features, X-Plane 12 has a great reputation for flight simulation realism. The aerodynamics and avionics logic allow this program to run on a few Basic Aviation Training Devices (BATDs). There are many other programs available on the market that range from highly sophisticated to near game-only level. Regardless of your choice, learn what the program can and can’t do and carry that into your training. (For more, watch our MSFS 2020 overview, and X-Plane 12 overview)
- Training structure – This is the largest piece to transform your simulator into a true training machine. There are several strategies (see below), but regardless of which method you choose, make sure that each time you approach your simulator you treat it as an airplane and not a toy. Each flight should have a specific objective or purpose in mind. By adhering to this level of structure, you are able to take the lessons learned in the simulation world and translate them to the actual aircraft.
- Feedback – If you fly your simulator and then observe your performance, either with an automatic scoring/evaluation system built into some systems or with recording and replaying your flights, you can act as both student and examiner. While you are flying, it is easy to miss deviations in performance (altitude, airspeed, centerline tracking, etc.), but if you replay your flight, you can distance yourself from your performance and observe with an objective eye.
Earlier I mentioned training structure and different ideas of how to give your flying time structure while at home. Each system has its different options for reviewing your flying, but the best way to truly structure your training is to work from a syllabus designed for home simulator flying. Examples include a resource such as Scenario-Based Training with X-Plane and Microsoft Flight Simulator by Bruce Williams, or similar books and syllabi. These products are specifically designed to give you a purpose for your lesson at home, and allow the most amount of positive transfer of learning from simulator to aircraft. For additional training tips, click here.
In addition to these training products, sometimes the best resource for your home simulator is your flight instructor. Talk to your CFI and inform them that you have a home simulator and you want to make the best use of it by practicing your lessons at home to review and prepare for your in-aircraft lessons. Although CFIs have different views on how best to use home simulators, most instructors will support its use when using the procedures and techniques taught from the aircraft. It can be difficult to make a breakthrough while learning on your own, but keeping your skills sharp and practicing your homework between lessons will definitely accelerate those breakthroughs with your instructor in the airplane.
For those pilots who already hold a license, the structure used in the simulator world can be more relaxed, provided that you continue to use your in-aircraft procedures when flying your sim. I recommend pilots stay sharp by flying their home simulators like they fly their aircraft, including full checklist usage, simulated radio calls, and airport traffic procedures. Many pilots will use home simulators to remain instrument current with procedures and scan techniques, but basic VFR skills can also be kept sharp by the same process of practicing on the ground and then using the aircraft to fill in the “experience” gap. In particular, failures or emergency procedures that are not often practiced in flight can be very beneficial when exercised in the home simulator setup. Review your POH and emergency checklist for ideas to practice at home.
Instrument currency is an obvious item to practice at home for instrument pilots. The very nature of IFR flying dictates a procedure mentality instead of a feel/look mentality. Although approaches done on a non-certified system do not count towards the required FAA 61.57 recency of experience requirements, the act of practicing approaches can still be very beneficial to keep your IFR procedures sharp and your instrument scan from getting rusty.
I encourage students to run through a simulated flight using their own navigation, as opposed to just placing the aircraft already lined up on the final approach course and completing the final approach segment to the missed approach point. By running the simulation through from beginning to end, the instrument pilot is forced to set up radios, brief the full instrument procedure and contemplate a full instrument approach, including course reversal in some cases, as opposed to the easier vectors-to-final option. Don’t forget to simulate going missed and entering that hold to maintain your skills.
Flying in your simulator will not recreate the muscle memory and “feel” of flying the real aircraft, but your practice of procedures and techniques can be just as real at home as it is in the plane, making your next flight an even better experience.