Flight Simulators :: At Home With The Sims

Practice approach with flight simulators

ABOVE : Many real general aviation pilots turn to home simd to practice proceedures like approaches to major airports.


Do home-based flight simulators represent a genuine opportunity to enhance your flying skills or are they just computer games? Long time flight simmer and one-time GA pilot Tim Wakeman takes us through home-style flight sims and reveals that there's more to them than meets the eye.

Flight simulators entered the home market initially as a game. Early Commodore 64 computers were little more than a moving top-down icon of an aircraft flying over a bright green background.

Microsoft released Microsoft Flight Simulator 3.0 in 1988. At the time, flight simulators for home PCs were just a bit of fun and a way for people to get in touch with their dream to fly. But each new version release of the MS Flight Simulator platform became more and more sophisticated, ultimately incorporating weather simulation, air traffic control, a huge range of aircraft, interactive lessons, flying challenges and check rides.

Today an active and richly diverse flight simulator community has created a range of add-ons for Flight Simulator that serve to furthe r enhance this capable piece of software.

In 2009 Microsoft closed down further development of their flight simulator product but only after it had reached a significant level of maturity and capability. As testament to how sophisticated MS Flight Simulator had become, in 2009 aerospace giant Lockheed Martin purchased the intellectual property for the product and announced that they would be releasing a new product based on the underlying Microsoft software called Prepar3D.

The other contender in the home flight simulator market is X-Plane produced by Laminar Research. Whilst not as well-known as Flight Simulator, it is just as capable. X-Plane differentiates itself from other simulators by implementing an aerodynamic model called "blade element theory" that bases the performance and behavior of aircraft on modeling of the physics rather than relying on empirical modeling of behavior. This allows users to design their own aircraft and fly them in the X-Plane simulated environment.

The simulator of choice for many is FSX, the final version of MS Flight Simulator. It is now five years old (which in computer terms is an eternity), but for reasons you will see remains a very capable flight simulation platform for home use.

Flight Simulator Software Add-ons

One of the key features of both FSX and X-Plane for that matter is its open architecture which allows anybody to develop add-ons of virtually any kind and add them on top of the base product. The range of add-ons includes scenery, airports, weather, aircraft and aviation traffic.

One of the more notable is ORBX, which produce a visually stunning set of scenery that replaces the FSX scenery and takes it to a whole new level.

The company was started in Australia and today the ORBX scenery suite covers Australia, USA, UK and Europe. ORBX also produces a range of highly detailed and accurate airport sceneries that are so close to real that it's hard to believe you're in a simulator.

For aircraft there are three notable companies that produce comprehensive and highly accurate aircraft for FSX. Alabeo, Carenado and A2A Simulations all produce high quality aircraft models that are so accurate you would swear you were flying the real thing.

In these products everything is accurately modeled including aircraft performance, weight and balance and failures. If you haven't flown your A2A aircraft in a while you'll even have trouble starting it - that is how realistically it has been modeled.

With all that software you might be forgiven for thinking that a lot of computer processing power would be needed. Certainly, there are particular components that will definitely ensure performance of your flight simulator software, but don't forget that the base operating software ceased development in 2009.

In computer terms that is a very long time ago, and in that time, the processing power of most home computers has doubled and then doubled again! For my flight simulator computer I actually purchased a second hand gaming computer which I bought for a fraction of the cost of a new one and whilst it is three years old it still has a capability well above what is required for FSX.

The most realistic flight simulators

ABOVE MAIN : Look familiar? This Cherokee interior is realistic down the screw heads.

ABOVE INSERT : Good scenery software can show important tracking points such as geographical features, good for rehearsing flights you've never done before.

There are a couple of essential elements for a computer to run flight simulator software:

  • a dual core CPU of at least 3.5 GHz
  • a bare minimum of 2GB of RAM but 4 GB or more is recommended

Talking Flight Simulator Hardware

  • a graphics card. Note that FSX is optimized for the NVIDIA brand of graphics card. Get as much VRAM as possible.
  • at least 80GB of free disc space to store FSX and a modest number of add-ons.

Flight Simulator Hardware Add-Ons

As well as software add-ons there are a huge range of hardware add-ons. You can certainly fly with your 10-year-old's gaming joystick, but to get the real feel of flying a Cessna 172 what you really want is a yoke and pedals. Again accuracy is the key - one manufacturer has even partnered with Cessna to produce a yoke that is exactly the same as the C172.

Realistic simulator beaver flying Alaska

ABOVE : Want to fly a Beaver? How about flying some fishermen up to a remote lake in the Alaskan fjords north of Ketchikan.

A standard kit could consist of a Saitek yoke, rudder pedals and throttle quadrant, and some people will even ensure seating position and distance to yoke and pedals is as close to the real thing as possible - if you also fly in the real world you need to be wary of developing the wrong "muscle memory".

Flight Simulator or Just a game?

Of course everybody is going perceive flight simulators as simply a computer game, and in fact FSX installs into the Microsoft Games directory.

Whether it is a game experience or a full flight simulation experience is entirely up to you and how you use it, FSX is also a serious flight simulation platform. Most airfields in the world are depicted, as are VORs and NDBs. Terrain is true to life, weather is real, aircraft systems are accurate, and aircraft behave exactly the same as the real thing.

So, your flight simulation experience can also be going through the full start-up sequence, inputting your flight into the flight management computer, calculating your weight, balance and fuel load, getting an ATC clearance and taking-off for a flight from LAX to Pheonix.

Flight Simulators - Are they training tools?

Best home flight simulator review

ABOVE : It doesn't need to be elaborate, this simple system can be enough to make a home flight sim a valuable training tool.

World renowned flying trainer Rod Machado says "read lots, ask a lot of questions, and practice, practice, practice." That's really the key to getting the most out of your home-based flight simulator - practice and preparedness.

You can spend countless hours practicing forced landings. In a short one-hour flight simulator session you can do six or seven forced landings without an engine, and all the way to the ground. How many forced landings have you practiced in the past 12 months?

The other big advantage is cost. On the simulator you can do a lot more flying practice at a fraction of the cost and, what's more, the time you've spent on the simulator will almost certainly translate to benefits when you do get behind the controls of the real thing.

Flight Simulator & Real Life Flight Failures

Best flight simulator controls review ABOVE TOP : Rudder pedals are a must-have if you're serious about using a home sim to hone your flying skills.
ABOVE BOTTOM : Hardware add-ons can be very realistic, and for serious flight are better than a gaming joystick.

Practicing various types of flight failures is one of the biggest benefits of flight simulator training - as the airlines can attest it is the one aspect where simulator-based training exceeds real world training in terms of practice and experience. It also allows the pilot a view of what actually happens in such and emergency allowing pre-recognition and the ability to correct an error prior to flight failure in some circumstances.

In FSX you can experience the full range of failures possible, and whether they be full or partial failures they can be experienced to their fullest extent, not just a simple "engine out" situation.

This is one of the biggest advantages and can make you a much safer pilot having dealt with multiple and varying failures on your home-based flight simulator, and it's also cheap than having someone demonstarte in real flight training - showing every possible scenario, or at least the most common could cost you many dollars - not to mention your life!

FSX can be programmed to generate random failures during any flight. You can set up the likelihood of a failure and can set up failures against individual systems.

Engine, electrical, instruments, and airframe failures can all be programmed individually with many different options in each category.

Flying To Unfamiliar Airports

With FSX you can become intimately familiar with any airfield in the world. You can familiarise yourself with approach procedures, learn to sequence with other traffic, learn the runway alignments, and once on the ground learn where the taxiways and aprons are.

With the flight simulator you can do that over and over again until you've developed intimate familiarity with a particular airfield or region. If you have difficulty learning complex approaches into larger airports, you can spend many simulator hours flying approaches from the north, south, east and west to the point now where you get comfortable flying there in the real world.

Are you planning a flight to somewhere new? If you fly the approach on the simulator you will expose the pitfalls that may lie in wait for you so that when you're actually flying they won't come as a surprise to you. It really does prepare you with what to expect when you fly it for real.

Saitek C182 simulator

ABOVE : The author's Saitek system set-up for a C182 with three screens for a more realistic world.

For VFR pilots there is one aspect of the flight simulator that is somewhat lacking. Whilst rivers, coastlines, mountains, major roads, cities, towns and other features are accurately depicted what isn't included are significant ground features commonly used by VFR pilots. So where a shopping centre or racecourse is used as a VFR approach point you won't find that featured on the flight simulator.

"My flying instructor told me recently that FSX was good for training in instrument flying but not much else. I think that will change now with the arrival of true VR as I've done circuits in my Piper Warrior and they mimic beautifully those done in real life."

The exception to this is photorealistic scenary add' ons. One company called MegaSceneryEarth has gone down the path of producing ultra-high resolution photorealistic landscapes based on satellite images and with this add-on what you see on the simulator is exactly what you would see in real life. Unfortunately for those wanting to fly in Australia, MegaSceneryEarth principally covers the USA.

Flying Weather

One of the most difficult elements for any computer software to emulate is weather. Whilst the out-of-the-box FSX depiction of weather is well short of what you would want for real-world simulation, there are one or two very sophisticated weather add-ons that generate incredibly realistic weather. One of the more capable is Active Sky Next (ASN), which gives you the ability to generate real time weather, historical weather or customised weather. With ASN you can even access an incredible two years' worth of historical weather for any location on the planet!

Have you faced a challenging weather situation recently?

Using the simulator you have the opportunity to go back to that date, time and place and re-fly your journey in the same weather that you experienced on the day and assess how you might have done things differently.

For practicing weather-related decisions and diversions simply select the "search for trouble" option and the simulator will throw up weather events for you to contend with during your flight. Finally, there's an option to set up your own weather conditions, either selected from a pre-programmed set of weather conditions or customised specifically by you.

Of course the big advantage with the flight simulator is that although you might be flying in weather that is beyond your personal minimums you can do so from the safety of the simulated world.

Learning Flight Performance Parameters

Have you ever wanted to know what would happen if your aircraft was overloaded or your weight was out of balance? What better way to find out than in the simulator. All weight and balance is accurately modeled so you can load up fuel, passengers and baggage and see what happens when you try to rake off. You can also experience take-offs at different density altitudes and compare the different performance s of your selected aircraft.

On Instruments :: IFR Practice & Training

One thing that most instructors will concede as far as simulators are concerned is that they are very good for practicing IFR.

All VORs, NDBs and ILSs are depicted in FSX covering the entire world. It is a very straight-forward exercise to set up IFR conditions and then fly an IFR approach to any airfield in the world. After your flight is complete you can access the flight analysis and compare your approach to the approach plate you were attempting to follow.

Air Traffic Control Familiarization

Apart from a fairly rudimentary air traffic control capability within FSX, there are online communities of air traffic control enthusiasts you can pair up with. Whilst the folks on the community are amateurs, they can be highly skilled and very professional, and you would struggle to tell the difference between them and a live controller. Taking it a step furthe r there is also a company in the US who employs professional air traffic controllers and for a modest subscription you can gain experience flying in controlled airspace.

Fly anywhere, any time...

Pilots would fly every day if they could afford the time and money, but the reality is that most can't. The flight simulator enables you to spend time away trom the airfield doing what you love the most - flying. Through the flight simulator experience you can choose to fly wherever you like, set the time of day, the season and the weather.

Do you want to challenge yourself flying the Canadian Rockies in winter? How about flying the Whitsunday Islands at the height of the tourist season? All of this is possible and more; the world is your oyster.

The Future Of Flight Simulators & Flight Training

The future of home-based flight simulators lies un virtual reality. Already simulator enthusiasts and enterprising developers have successfully integrated FSX with the much anticipated Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.

Reviewer Dean Crawford said;

"Much has already been written about the VR experience but there are really no words for how amazing it is to first view a truly 3D world in the Rift.

Your jaw drops and you suck in a breath as the sheer size of everything hits you. You can judge distance. The field of view is beyond peripheral vision and warped to fit...

The feeling of being there is so deep that after removing the headset you don't remember the experience of the VR world as 'playing a game' - you remember it as something you've actually done in real life, so total is the immersion...

The Oculus Rift was released commercially this year and came with a pretty hefty price tag of USD$600, significantly more expensive than consumers were expecting. That has left many wondering whether or not it's worth it. Over the course of the next few years the price of virtual reality will probably come down to more affordable levels and promises to make a significant contribution to home-based flight simulation.

Flying - As Real As It Gets

Without doubt there are obvious limitations with the simulator. Whilst the simulator experience is very close to actual, there is no substitute for instructor-based training in the real world. But in terms of practice away from the airfield there is simply nothing that is better or more accessible.

"It really does prepare you with what to expect when you fly it for real."

Home-based flight simulation has certainly evolved to a level where it can be used very effectively to enhance flight training and facilitate development of some very important skills that you can take with you into the air. Ultimately it comes down to how you use it; it could be one of the most valuable items in your flight bag.