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Clay Benfield

June 28, 2016 - 15.8k views

Posted in Flight-sim

5 Ways That a Flight Simulator Can Make You a Better Pilot

8 min read

I remember my first experience with a flight simulator.  A family friend had Chuck Yeager's Advanced Pilot Trainer, 1989 edition. While cutting edge for its time, you would be hard pressed to convince me that anyone could gain much as a pilot from it. Blue was the sky, green or gray was the ground, and, well just take a look at the screen capture below. 

The 1989 Chuck Yeager's Advanced Pilot Trainer
Photo: Flightsim.com

Fast forward to today and look at what software like X-Plane is able to do (and I don't even boast a top of the line setup). The difference is as night and day as the blue sky that turned black in that 1989 simulator when you got into the upper atmosphere in the SR-71 Blackbird.  While you won't want to use a home flight simulator as a way to learn to fly initially, nor will it perfectly mimic the feel of an airplane (read: it won't help you learn to land), the level at which it mimics the real world has some astonishing benefits to the pilot in training. 

Today's flight simulator. This is a Cessna 172 on approach to Asheville Regional, NC (KAVL) using X-Plane.

1. Pilotage

In today's flight simulator, I can load my flight at the airport of my choice, which will have real world runway layouts. Once airborne, the roads, lakes, rivers, terrain and other airports are all represented visually well enough to compare a VFR sectional map and know exactly where I am. I might not can fly over my house and see my car there (buildings are mostly randomly generated based on population density), but one of my favorite sessions on the sim is to fly the route of the real world cross country that I have coming up.  I can plan the flight on my sectional, mark my checkpoints, and then fly it in the sim to get a feel for it. It helps me anticipate what that lake will look like from 5 miles away at my cruise altitude, or just what that rising terrain might look like on a flight near the mountains.

Looking out over Lake Hartwell in Georgia on X-Plane helps to see what that sectional charts looks like from the air. 

2. Navigation

Not only will I find that the visuals are well represented on the simulator, but I can tune in my NAV radios to the various VORs along my route, identify the morse code and practice keeping my CDI needle centered, all while using the real frequencies I find right on my real world map.  There's even a Garmin 430 on the Cessna 172 I fly in the simulator. You can't beat getting the hang of those different pages and buttons like its the real thing.  

The navigation on the simulator is remarkably similar to the real airplane.

3. Scan

For flying on instruments, the simulator is a great place to work on your instrument scan.  And as cool as I'm sure I would look with my Foggles on in front of the computer screen, there's no need; you can easily adjust the cloud bases and tops so you are really in the soup!  It's a great place to learn about and correct any fixation or omission problems you might be having.

Nothing but the white of the clouds outside on X-Plane make a good instrument scan necessary.

4. Instrument Approaches

I'm sure you see the common theme being that the documents you use to fly will work on the simulator as well, and approaches are no exception.  Learning to transfer all the info on an approach plate to the controls of the airplane can be overwhelming, but taking an approach and flying it repeatedly on the simulator can help you get the altitudes and headings into your head as you reference the chart.  Flying an approach is about staying ahead of the airplane. In the cockpit it's easy to get behind and overwhelmed in the learning environment. On the sim, just press "p" to pause the simulation if you need a moment to analyze the situation.  I can't for the life of me find an avionics shop in my area who can install that pause button into the real airplane.  Being able to set the clouds to your heart's desire also means you can fly that approach you've been practicing to minimums and experience the joy of keeping your localizer and glide slope needles centered until you see that beautiful runway appear in front of you just a few hundred feet below.  

Breaking out of the clouds on the ILS 27 approach into Athens, GA (KAHN). 

5. Chair Flying 

Chair flying can take many forms. You can grab a checklist and literally sit in a chair, reading through them as you visualize what you are doing, reaching out for an imaginary mixture knob and circuit breakers. Some will take it to the next level and draw a chalk or paint runway in their backyard, walking the imaginary taxiway as they complete the before takeoff checklist and make radio calls. Walking the traffic pattern, it is a great way to find the groove of what checks meet to happen when.  After all, you have to be able to visualize your flight in your mind before that will transfer to the airplane. Taking it a level further, using a simulator to chair fly can be fun and rewarding.  Using checklists for a simulator flight is another chance to practice the flow. Likewise, simulating different emergencies is like a visual flash card for checking your memory of flow checks and systems troubleshooting. 

I begin each flight at my home airport with the airplane "cold" and run through each checklist just like a real flight. 

Oh, And It's Fun

While a simulator is a great way to practice, it doesn't have to be all work. One of my favorite flights is to select a glider and ride along the mountain peaks, or load up a fighter jet and skim the surface at several hundred knots. But outside of goofing off, the sense of accomplishment is real when I shut the plane down after a cross county flight. My seven year old has fun with it, too. I'll give him a direction to fly and he loves finding another airport, chopping the throttle and putting it down on the runway. 

Soaring in a glider near the mountains makes me want to get my glider rating. (Gliding is in our Pilots Bucket List!)

What Equipment Is Needed?

In college, I traveled around with my laptop and a joystick for my simulator sessions (yes, I was, and still am, a nerd).  It was beautifully simple. The flight simulator software and joystick cost probably around $100 together. On the other hand, a quick YouTube search and you will find some impressive, if not slightly ridiculous home setups. Multiple screens, high powered computers, and physical cockpit panels that look just like the real thing can get pricey.  I recommend X-Plane as my personal preference, although there are several great simulators on the market. The newest version as of this writing is X-Plane 11, although I'm still happily running version 9 because my computer runs it more smoothly. A basic joystick will do the trick, but you will get more out of your sessions with a flight yoke and rudder pedals if your budget allows. I use the CH Products Eclipse Flight Sim Yoke and enjoy the all-in-one benefits of the single unit.

I dig that my Eclipse yoke has the Throttle/Mixture/Prop levers as well as thumb rudder pedals. 

You might have noticed that many flight schools offer time in an advanced simulator, like Redbird simulators. At my flight school, you can hook up your iPad and use it to navigate and reference just like you would in the airplane.  They are well worth the hourly cost with an instructor to work on some flight training in a relatively low stress and low cost environment.  Oh, and up to 20 hours may now be logged as time towards your instrument rating when using an approved simulator such as Redbird at your flight school.

Editor's note: below you can find some of our hardware and software recommendations to enhance your flight simulator experience!

Find Your Groove

A quality tool is only as good as the user makes it, and flight simulators won't teach you how to fly, but taking some of the lessons you are working on in your flight training and practicing them on a flight simulator can sharpen your skills and save a lot of money by getting concepts into your head.  Just like you can sing along to a song you've heard enough times, learn to "sing along" to the groove of your flight - checklists, procedural flow, situational awareness, systems and more.  And you'll probably have some fun while you're at it.  Fly to your favorite airport on the sim and then light up the grill for your own $100 hamburger for a fraction of the cost.  I'll have mine medium with bacon and cheese, please.

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Guest - 4 years ago

Hi Clay, what do you think is the most realistic flight simulator; Microsoft Flight Simulator X or XPlane?

Clay Benfield - 4 years ago

Both simulators have very realistic qualities, and picking apart the differences is kinda like splitting hairs. I followed the Microsoft Flight Simulator brand for close to 10 years before switching X-Plane. Microsoft stopped providing support and updates some time ago but the platform was just purchased by Dovetail Games who recently released Flight School. I like X-Plane for a couple reasons: the team that creates and keeps it going is a small team of folks who do what they do well. Each have a specialization in the brand. I also found it a little more user friendly from a setup and peripheral perspective (adding joysticks).

Guest - 4 years ago

I want that eclipse flight sim yoke...I think it will be well match with my x-plane 10.

Guest - 4 years ago

I remember that Chuck sim! Forgot all about it! Remember when you could trade in your disks and try something else? Great fun. I have that Eclipse, Bought it used off somebody, I prefer the rudder pedals separate but trying to get a 9 pin d-sub to work in Win 8 wasn't worth the effort anymore. I do need to program some more of the buttons. Oh and I am finding out some of the buttons are failing, I guess there's a reason you get so many! LOL

Clay Benfield - 4 years ago

I too would prefer to have the foot rudder pedals. I used to own the Saitek yoke, throttle quadrant and rudder pedals. Functionally I enjoyed them, but it took a dedication of space. To have the rudder pedals not slip on the floor, I created a special board that I mounted them to that connected to my chair. It worked but since I "pack up" my sim gear after each flight, I found that I spend more time trying to configure the controls than actually flying. The Eclipse is a great way to get up flying quickly, and I've found that for what I use flight sim for, the rudder pedals aren't a level of realism that I find incredibly necessary.

I think what I like most about the Eclipse so far is the fact that the elevator has a little bit of play in it instead of springing back to a certain position. I believe this is intentional by the manufacturer to mimic the play in the yoke you have for a given trim setting. When I flew with a joystick that sprang back to the center, I found myself "flying the trim" - just adjusting the trim to make corrections to altitude - instead of the proper way of adjusting the yoke and then using the trim to relive control pressures on the yoke.

olivella - 4 years ago

Great article Clay, I´ve been using Flight Simulator X for many years now along with all the Saitek accesories. I am a private pilot with about 250 hours now and I own a Piper Turbo Arrow IV. I just purchase the same model for my sim and painted the same. Now I spend a lot of time in instrument flying and make my real flights a lot easier. Thanks a lot for your article. Great...

Clay Benfield - 4 years ago

Olivella, that must be awesome to own a Turbo Arrow, and it makes my inner avkeep happy to know that your sim plane matches the real thing. 250 hours, huh? Sounds like you are about ready for instrument and commercial!

Guest - 3 years ago

For those that are looking for a nice setup, the Saitek yoke and pedals can be found on Craigslist. It's hit or miss there, so stick around to evaluate what's out there. Here's what I did:
I live in the Seattle area, so I set the search to look for areas around me.
Perform the search and contact for the word, "Saitek" and "Flight yoke" separately. Some people don't put the brand name in there.
1. The price for the yoke and throttle controls (they come as a set) should be no more than $150 (New, they're $199)
2. The price for rudder pedals should be no more than $100, and the price for the combo (yoke/throttle/rudder) should be no more than $250. Any more than these prices, move on.
3. Most people don't abuse these items (all the ones I looked at were in like new condition).
4. Take a laptop with your flight simulator on it, and when you talk to the people ask if you can try them out first, or if they have them set up on their computer, unplug and plug them in. Hey' it's $250 we're talking about here...

Using that knowledge, here's what I did:
I found a set in Canada for $200. I asked the guy if it was $200 CDN or USD? CDN. So, I drove up to Canada, and bought them at the ferry terminal. Nice guy, needed the $$$ more than the stuff, plus there was a lot thrown in there. The $200 (USD - gas money, ferry fee) broke out like this:
$155 - for the flight yoke, throttle quadrant, and pedals, plus 3 joysticks and throttles (HOTAS), and a copy of MS Flight Simulator X, plus the FSX add on.
$45 for gas

Next, there was a guy in Seattle selling the Saitek Switch Panel, BIP (the light panel), Radio Panel, and Autopilot panel, plus a yoke, throttle quadrant, and pedals for $405. I wanted just the panels, and I asked if he'd take $400 for them. He said, "yes, and I just put the extra $5 on there so people feel like they talked me down." We both laughed at that. The setup looked like it was out of the box, complete with driver disks (you can download them from saitek.com .

Not needing the yoke and pedals, I put them up on Craiglist for $325 (yes, I said they shouldn't cost more than $250, but Saitek was not having them at the stores, so supply/demand), and I had 4 offers to buy within an hour. (It was a Saturday). Two from people that would send me a certified check (a scam), one guy that would be there in a week, and one guy that was an hour away that would be there in two hours. That last guy was working on his instrument rating, and appreciated the deal.

So, in the end (geez, this is looking like it's own blog post...), I paid $275 for a pretty sweet setup for my Mac. My former boss paid $75 for his yoke and rudder set, so he got an even better deal.

Guest - 3 years ago

Hello I'm Keegan!
Real world pilot and owner of Pilot Resources and More!
As a young boy, I gazed ever skyward and forever dreamed of slipping the bonds of earth. My ever present dream for flight has taken me on a journey through challenges, perseverance, encouragement and excitement. This is my story:

I started my journey in March 2015 with the purchase of several saitek simulator components. After familiarizing myself with the basic controls, I jumped into real world training with both feet. I bought a real airplane! As you might tell in the picture to the left, I don't look very old, and in all honesty, I'm really not. In fact this picture was taken when I was just 16. (I couldn't even drive back then) So how on earth did I afford an airplane? Well, for four years before this picture was taken, I ran my own business. ​
Yes, I was just 12 years old when I started selling coins. But wait, I'm getting off point. Did I save some monumental amount of money selling coins, and shell out some 60k for an airplane?​ No! Although I had a few thousand from selling coins, it was pennies toward the enormous cost of a plane. But with the help of 8 friends, we all split the cost of the gorgeous Cessna 172 pictured above.

My training lasted just over one year. I first flew solo in October 2015. A few months later, training was going great, I had 60 hours of rigorous training under my belt and I was looking forward to taking my final test and getting my licence when WHAM! Out of the blue a pilot in the area made us a big cash offer on our plane. Just like that, our beautiful plane was gone. With my share of the plane sold, I rented another plane nearby and finished my training. I received my licence for single engine land aircraft on 7/27/16. Since then, I've never stopped encouraging others to experience the thrill of flight!

Check out our store at http://www.pilotresourcesandmore.com

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