Flight Simulators are not only fun to use, they also offer a tremendously valuable tool during flight training and beyond. A flight simulator can be a great tool when learning to fly; for example, it gives you the opportunity to practice maneuvers and procedures at home, saving you a lot of money on fuel, aircraft rent and instructor fees!
In this guide, we will share some of the best hardware, software and books to enhance your flight simulation experience and training!
To start flying with a simulator you will need the right software. These days you have the choice between various flight simulator software, but two software packages remain the most obvious and best choice: Microsoft Flight Simulator and X-Plane.
These have been around for many years and have given aviation geeks the chance to feel like a real pilot, including us.
For the best experience, we recommend using the latest versions of each software, Microsoft Flight Simulator X and X-Plane 11. There are hundreds of add-ons you can buy to enhance your flight simulator experience even further!
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Besides software, you will also need the right hardware. You could fly using just your keyboard and mouse, but to get a more accurate and realistic feel, the proper hardware will give your flight simulator experience a whole new dimension.
Let's start with the most basic hardware you'll need: a stick or yoke. A simple USB joystick like the Thrustmaster T-Flight X is inexpensive and offers a great flight simulator experience.
If you want a little bit more flexibility, Thrustmaster also offers the T-Flight Stick with a detachable throttle quadrant: the HOTAS 4.
If you're looking for a more fighter jet-like feeling, the Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog Flight Stick is one we recommend. This flight stick is part of the Thrustmaster HOTAS products: a replica set of the joystick, dual throttle system and dual throttle control panel of the U.S. Air Force A-10C attack aircraft. With an average Amazon rating of 4.5/5 (460+ reviews!), this flight stick is one of the top-rated flight simulator joysticks available at the moment.
The dual-throttle system and control panel can be purchased separately here.
If you are flying a plane with a yoke, like a Cessna, Piper Tomahawk etc, a yoke will give you a more accurate and realistic experience while practicing in the simulator. Flying with a yoke and stick both require different movements and if you use the one similar to what you fly with in real life, it will only help you enhance the experience and give your training more value. I personally use and love the latter, the Logitech (former Saitek) Pro Flight Yoke for my home flight simulator. It's great because it resembles the yoke-fitted aircraft I flew during my real-life flight training, a Piper PA-38 Tomahawk.
Another company that makes great flight simulator hardware is CH Products. Their Eclipse Yoke with built-in engine controls levers can a great substitute for Saitek's Yoke and throttle quadrant. Its six analog 10-bit axes give you control over aileron, elevator, propeller pitch, fuel mixture, throttle, and rudder movement, and the colored knobs for throttle, prop, and mixture let you fly with ease and confidence.
Without any separate rudder controls, the simulator will just use auto-rudder, which means it will control the rudder automatically in the sim. However, for a better and more realistic experience, we recommend using some sort of rudder controls to give the sim the extra dimension needed for a realistic and accurate training experience.
The Thrustmaster joystick we mentioned before has built-in yoke controls, this is the rotating axis of the stick. If you're using a joystick without those extra rudder controls or a yoke, we advise buying separate rudder pedals. Again we can recommend the Logitech Pro Flight rudder pedals and as a cheaper option the CH Products pedals.
If you're looking for the ultimate flight experience; Thrustmaster offers the TPR Pedals: a pendulum rudder system with realistic dimensions and perfect precision, for total immersion in all types of flight simulation.
The positions of the TPR's springs can be adjusted, allowing users to adjust the resistance according to their preferences (two springs are included). On top of that, the pedals can be adjusted into five positions, at angles between 35 Degree and 75 Degree.
If you're joystick or yoke does not have the accurate engine controls like throttle, mixture and prop, it could a good option to add an extra throttle quadrant. The Saitek Pro Flight Throttle quadrant (which is standard included with the Saitek yoke) is a great and inexpensive add-in to your hardware and offers all the throttle controls you will need for a single-engine aircraft. You can even add more quadrants and switch the levers to adjust the controls for a multi-engine aircraft!
CH Products offers a great throttle quadrant as well, with enough levers to simulate a twin-engine aircraft - something you would need two Saitek throttle quadrants for. It has six programmable axis and 12 buttons, that can be configured using the custom software this product comes with.
Instruments and Switches
Although not really necessary, some physical switches and knobs can greatly enhance your simulator experience compared to using your mouse or keyboard to control those functions. It's easy and fast to turn on the master switch, start the engine, turn on the lights and retract the gear with this Logitech Switch Panel (you might notice we love Logitech simulator products!).
If you really want to take your simulator experience to another level you can even buy physical flight simulator instruments, on which you can show 12 separate instruments with a touch of a button.
Now, if you really, réally want to improve your flight simulator experience, especially while learning procedures and navigation: the company RealSimGear builds some awesome flight simulator hardware. Take for example their GNS530 and GNS430, simulator versions of Garmin famous GNS navigation systems. It's a lot more convenient to turn actual knobs then zooming around with your mouse trying to turn the simulated switches and knobs by clicking them.
From their website: The GNS530 and GNS430 simulators are compatible with X-Plane 10,11, Prepar3D v3 and v4, and FSX Steam and Boxed Edition. Plugin software is provided for X-Plane v10 and v11, P3D v3 & v4 and FSX. Note P3D and FSX require Reality-XP GNS430 or the Mindstar GNS430 (sold separately through Reality XP or Mindstar)
TIP: Garmin offers free simulators to get used to the GNS430 and GNS530. You can download them here.
To help you get the most out of your flight simulator experience, there is some additional hardware that could prove very useful.
One of the problems you might experience when buying a complete set of yoke/stick, throttle quadrants, rudder pedals, switches,.. is the question where to put and mount everything. A company called Wheel Stand Pro developed a simulator stand that is compatible with all Saitek Pro Flight hardware, such as the Saitek Yoke, throttles, switches and rudder pedals. It's a Stable, portable and adjustable stand, heavily reviewed and highly recommended on Amazon by other simulator enthusiasts and pilots.
In case you're looking for something a little more compact, PEIN Gear has developed the J-PEIN, a desk mount for your flight sim joystick, throttle and Hotas systems. Fully support almost all of flight sim game hand-control devices, such as the above-mentioned Thrustmaster HOTAS and HOTAS Warthog joystick/throttles!
Most joysticks are equipped with a head-switch, making it easy to look around the cockpit. The only downside is that it takes time to look around using a switch, and the view can sometimes "get lost", costing you valuable seconds during a virtual approach. That's where a so-called optical head tracking system comes into play! The TrackIr5, for example, offers you the possibility to look around the cockpit by just moving your head, just like in real life!
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Since you're investing in all those fancy flight simulator systems, it might be a good idea to invest a small part of your budget in a decent gaming chair. Unlike normal desk chairs, gaming chairs are developed to offer more support for your neck and back, giving you the most comfort possible, for longer periods at a time. And luckily, they are often more comfortable than the cockpit seats of most older aircraft!
We personally recommend the Homall Gaming Chair, a top-rated gaming chair that's perfect for some hours of virtual flying!
If you're planning on using a lot of USB-connected devices at the same time, it's a good idea to buy a powered USB-hub. All those devices like yokes, throttles, rudder pedals, instruments, etc can draw quite a lot of power from your computers' USB ports, especially when using a laptop. A powered USB hub plugs directly into a power outlet, taking the load off your computer's USB ports.
This powered USB-hub provides 7 USB 3.0 ports to connect and charge 7 devices at the same time, perfect for all you flight simulator hardware!
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A good pilot is always learning. Books are a great way to do that. There are a number of great books and guides out there specifically focused on using Flight Simulator as a training aid for student pilots.
Wiley's Microsoft Flight Simulator X For Pilots Real World Training is one we own and use to get the most out of Microsoft Flight Simulator. ASA also has a great guide on this same topic.
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Here are some additional guides and stories about flight simulator worth reading:
Last updated on September 16, 2019 by Senne Vandenputte
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