Can You Learn to Fly Using a Flight Simulator?

Does mastering the simulator translate into real-world flying skills, or is it all marketing hype?

If you’re a student pilot wondering if flight simulation will supercharge your flight training, you’ve come to the right place.

Does mastering the simulator translate into real-world flying skills, or is it all marketing hype?

What Flight Simulators Can (And Can’t) Do

There’s no denying that flight simulators like Microsoft Flight Simulator and X-Plane offer immersive experiences.

But where do they excel, and where do they fall short regarding real-life flight training?

Flight Simulators Can Teach You The Basics

Flight simulators are truly excellent for mastering the fundamentals of flying.

Learning basic maneuvers such as climbing, descending, and turning is often overwhelming for student pilots. It’s a complete information overload. 

From how to read the instruments to how to use controls, flight simulators will allow you to learn the fundamentals at your own pace, one by one – instead of all at once.

A remote flight instructor can also help you avoid bad habits which often plague student pilots using simulators. For example, they can help direct your attention out the window by covering up instruments. This will help you learn to fly using outside visual references and practice collision avoidance.

Flight Simulators Can Simulate Procedures

When it comes to mastering flight procedures, flight simulators are a game-changer.

Think of the preflight checklist. In a simulator, you can take your time and go through each item meticulously. You can understand the purpose behind each check, learn what to look for, and feel the flow of the process.

What about in-flight procedures? 

Sure thing! Flight simulators are excellent tools for simulating normal and emergency procedures. 

Let’s say you’re interested in practicing engine failure procedures. You can safely simulate the entire sequence, from initial recognition and response to a safe landing, in the comfort of your simulator setup.

Navigation procedures? Flight simulators have got you covered. 

You can practice tuning navigation aids, flying airways, and even carrying out instrument approaches. You can familiarize yourself with different navigational charts and learn to interpret and apply the information they contain. Not to mention flying using real-life landmarks.

You can even practice complex procedures in flight simulators, such as executing Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flight plans or handling advanced avionics systems.

The best part?

If you mess up, you don’t break an airplane.

Flight Simulators Can Help You Learn to Land

There’s no argument that one of the most exciting and critical parts of any flight is the landing.

Flight simulators can be your secret weapon to master this art.

Have you heard the saying that “a good landing starts with a good approach”?

Luckily, your home flight sim is an excellent tool for learning how to fly a stabilized approach. You can learn to make pitch, power, and trim changes in a way that transfers very well to the real aircraft.

You can practice these approaches over and over under a range of conditions, including in crosswinds and at runways of various sizes. You can replay and repeat as many times as you want – without any added cost or risks.

Practicing the actual landing flare and touchdown is more difficult in a home simulator. This is because most home sims do not provide depth perception or the “seat of the pants” feeling. These are critical cues to learning to land an actual aircraft.

While your home sim is not likely to help you directly master the moment of touchdown, you can still visualize and practice the basics of the flare, touchdown, and rollout.

To bring your landing practice to the next level, is there a way to bring depth perception into your simulator?

Enter Virtual Reality (VR) headsets.

When you wear a VR headset, you’re no longer limited to the static viewpoint of a computer monitor. You can look around the virtual cockpit, lean forward to get a closer look at instruments, or even turn your head to check for traffic, just like in an actual airplane. 

VR headsets offer a more accurate visual representation, particularly for VFR (Visual Flight Rules) flying and landing practice, where visual references and depth perception are vital.

However, even with VR’s immersive capabilities, it still can’t entirely replicate the full visual and sensory experience of real flight. 

For example, peripheral vision can be limited in VR.

But considering how close it gets, it’s a remarkable way to practice visual flying without the real thing.

Side note: I had a student using VR fall out of their chair because they reached for an imaginary dashboard to adjust their seat!

Our brains can hardly tell the difference.

Flight Simulators Can Teach You Radio Procedures

Speaking to Air Traffic Control (ATC) might seem like a foreign language initially, but flight simulators can help you become fluent.

First off, Microsoft Flight Simulator and X-Plane feature built-in simulated Air Traffic Control. The built-in systems are fine if you’re learning the basics (like the phonetic alphabet), but they aren’t realistic enough for serious practice.

For the ultimate experience, virtual ATC networks like VATSIM and PilotEdge take it to another level. 

These platforms offer live, human-controlled ATC, bringing you as close as possible to the real thing. The controllers on these networks follow real-world procedures, providing an invaluable tool for polishing your radio skills.

With these resources, you can practice correct phraseology, develop your ability to respond under pressure, and deal with unexpected instructions. And since these are simulations, you can repeat these procedures until they become second nature.

The virtual ATC networks also let you experience radio communications in various settings. You can interact with towered and non-towered airports and even simulate emergencies.

Flight Simulators Can Teach You Different Systems

A core part of becoming a pilot is understanding the myriad of systems in your aircraft. This includes the engine, avionics, autopilot, and everything in between. 

Microsoft Flight Simulator and X-Plane offer detailed and realistic simulations of numerous aircraft, each with their own unique systems. 

You can switch from a simple single-engine Cessna to a complex twin-engine aircraft at the click of a button. This gives you a chance to familiarize yourself with different types of avionics and systems without leaving your desk.

Take the Garmin G1000, for instance, a popular glass cockpit avionics suite found in many modern aircraft. With a simulator, you can explore its functionalities and intricacies, practice inputting flight plans, alter settings, or interpret the instruments and menus.

Simulators also offer a safe and controlled environment to learn and understand various autopilot systems. These can vary greatly across different aircraft, and mastering them can significantly reduce your workload during flight. 

In a simulator, you can practice setting up the autopilot, managing heading or altitude hold, and working with more advanced features like vertical navigation or flight director systems.

Additionally, you can set up scenarios that challenge your understanding of these systems, such as system failures.

How do you handle a failed autopilot or a malfunctioning avionics system? Simulators provide a risk-free way to learn these procedures.

Home Flight Simulators Can’t Provide The Same Feel

While flight simulators offer a vivid simulation, the physical feedback that comes with controlling a real-life aircraft is something they can’t fully emulate.

When you’re behind the controls of an actual aircraft, you experience a variety of physical sensations. 

The trembling as you throttle up for takeoff, the shift of weight under different flight maneuvers, or the slight shudder as you touch down on the runway – these are experiences that a simulator simply cannot replicate.

Unless you have tens of thousands of dollars to spare for a full-motion flight simulator, the movement that you experience in the real aircraft isn’t replicated in a home flight simulator.

So, what about the flight controls?

Depending on the aircraft, home flight simulators can mimic the layout and functions of real-world aircraft controls. This includes everything from the yoke, throttle, and pedals, to intricate cockpit switch panels.

But you’ll never get that one-to-one feel of the controls compared to the real aircraft.

Don’t get me wrong; the feel is close enough for you to build valuable muscle memory. But the yoke you have at home won’t feel exactly like the one in your Cessna, even if it looks the same.

You will fly many aircraft during your career as a pilot, and your ability to adapt is critical. Think of your “simulator Cessna” as yet another one of those aircraft, with its own unique feel and performance.

Home Flight Simulator Time Can’t Count Towards Your Training

While they’re an incredibly useful tool for learning and practicing, the hours you log on a non-certified home flight simulator don’t count towards your flight time for real-world pilot certification.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and its counterparts worldwide set strict regulations regarding what counts as flight time in the journey to earning a pilot’s license. 

Unfortunately, time spent on a non-certified home flight simulator, no matter how sophisticated, does not qualify.

Certified simulators can be purchased for home use. However, for most student pilots, the benefit is not worth the much higher cost.

If you want to use a sim to reduce the number of training hours, ask a local flight school. They may have FAA-approved Aviation Training Devices (ATD), which can be credited toward training time.

While your home sim likely won’t count officially towards your training time, it will likely still help reduce the number of hours you need in the actual aircraft — and use those hours more effectively.

Flight Simulator vs. Real Life

All in all, how close does a flight simulator come to the real thing?

Honestly, pretty close!

Full-motion flight simulators used by the airlines are so realistic, in fact, that the airlines rarely need their pilots to fly the real thing for training purposes.

Home flight simulators have more limitations, of course, but the skills they build translate directly into the real cockpit.

In fact, even basic home flight simulators (think a simple joystick and computer monitor) are valuable during flight training.

Add the fact that home flight simulators don’t need to be expensive, and the investment becomes a no-brainer.

Can a home flight simulator replace the real experience? 

Nope.

Can it help you become the best pilot you can be (and save you time and money)?

Most definitely!

Ready to Fly?

Interested, but don’t know where to start? Check out our Home Flight Simulator Setup Guide for an overview of what you’ll need (and what it’ll cost).

If you’re interested in exploring how a flight simulator could supercharge your training, book a session with one of our coaches here (they’re real flight instructors!).

If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch to see how we can help.

Happy flying!

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