Tips for Using a Flight Sim During IFR Training

Five critical areas to focus on as you practice IFR flying on your sim.
Alan Edwards
Alan Edwards

FAA CFI, CFII, MEI, CFIG, ATP, AGI/IGI, Commercial (Glider)

Train with Me

Using flight simulator software at home (such as X-Plane or Microsoft Flight Simulator) can be incredibly beneficial during your IFR training. In this article, I’ll highlight five critical areas to concentrate on during your simulator sessions. These areas frequently emerge as challenges among the IFR students I train.

Autopilot Awareness

It’s critically important to practice awareness of your autopilot’s status. By that, I mean understanding its functionality, knowing if it’s engaged, and when it’s engaged, what modes it’s in.

One common mistake I see is thinking that the autopilot is engaged when actually only the flight director is on. In this case, you think the autopilot is flying the aircraft, but actually, nobody is!

It’s also essential to understand the difference between various modes, such as heading vs. roll and pitch vs. altitude hold.

For this reason, I emphasize the importance of paying attention to the autopilot status bar and being deliberate when you’re pushing buttons to verify the corresponding autopilot status change. In the simulator, you can practice this by pushing buttons and observing the effects.

Train yourself to look at the autopilot mode annunciator (typically either on your PFD autopilot status bar or the command module) while you’re pushing the button on the autopilot. This visual verification is key—don’t simply trust that the correct action will occur simply by pushing the button.

Finally, during missed approaches, understanding the interface between the GPS and the autopilot is crucial. Some students don’t fully grasp the sequencing that occurs during a missed approach, especially the interaction between the GPS and the autopilot.

Mastery of your CDI

A ILS instrument in a C172 in Microsoft Flight Simulator.

Then, there’s the command of your CDI—being able to switch fluidly between NAV 1, NAV 2, and GPS, while understanding where and why you need to make those transitions. This includes OBS-mode operations and sequencing for missed approaches.

In addition, it’s essential to understand how the autopilot reacts when a change in CDI occurs. This varies depending on the specific avionics. 

You need to understand when and how the CDI mode functions during approaches and missed approach operations, and whether changes will occur automatically or not.

For instance, students often get radar vectored onto a course and then prior to the FAF (Final Approach Fix) they manually switch over to a VOR mode and find that the course did not auto-set. Knowing how to check and set this in advance is vital.

Holding

Another area to focus on is holding, including published/unpublished holds, full missed approach holds, etc.

One of the challenges is to determine if the hold is in your GPS database and accessible to retrieve and fly. If not, how are you going to set your navigational resources based on your aircraft’s avionics? For instance, you might be en route somewhere and be issued an unpublished hold along an airway. These scenarios are easily practiced on a simulator.

I encourage my students to visualize the holding pattern. They can either draw it on a piece of paper, using their kneeboard as pilots have traditionally done, or develop one on their iPad. If their GPS allows, they can also incorporate it into their flight plan.

I then ask them to point out their current position, their direction of flight, and the entry they plan to make. I don’t focus a lot on the traditional methods involving the specific sectors for direct, teardrop, or parallel entries. While they can read about these in textbooks, I believe that simply tracing the route with their finger is an intuitive way to figure out a logical entry.

The important thing is that all entries should be made with turns on the safe (holding) side of the holding pattern, in the protected area. Most examiners nowadays just want to see one of the three entry methods executed correctly instead of being concerned with the exact entry sector. Practice all three hold entry types in your simulator at different locations.

I also recommend alternating between hand-flying and using the autopilot, ensuring you’re well-prepared for both scenarios.

How do you know if you’re practicing correctly? Aside from having an instructor with you, I encourage you to make use of the ACS (Airmen Certification Standards).

The ACS is structured to help you understand the various components of holding: what to do before arriving at the holding fix, actions upon arrival, and procedures when preparing to depart. It provides a clear framework for practicing holds—from receiving the clearance, slowing down appropriately, determining the correct entry procedure, adjusting for wind correction, and managing timing or leg length.

Also, try to diversify the types of holds you practice. This includes published holds from missed approaches, non-published holds along airways, and holds that might not be in your database. Many alternate missed approach procedures presented on approach plates aren’t in the database, so you might need to manually input them. Can you integrate it into your flight plan on your GPS? If not, how will you manage it? 

Simulators are perfect for this kind of practice. For instance, you can select an unfamiliar airport and simulate a scenario where you’re directed to an alternate missed approach and asked to hold as published. It’s not just about following a script, but about internalizing the procedures through consistent practice. Use the ACS as a self-evaluation tool, ensuring you meet the required standards.

Partial Panel

Next is partial panel practice. This is crucial, as it enhances your scanning abilities and your capability to adapt to failed instruments.

Partial panel training also challenges the student’s expectations. Many students have a basic understanding of their systems but aren’t prepared for the intricacies of instrument failures. Adjusting their scan and understanding how to react to different failures is crucial.

The simulator is beneficial for practicing different failure scenarios, but it’s essential to ensure the simulator accurately reflects the real aircraft’s systems. Use caution to ensure you’re flying a high-quality aircraft model that reflects the behavior of the actual avionics system.

If you’re flying a G1000-equipped aircraft, you can set your X-Plane failure options so that pressing Control+F on your keyboard results in the loss of your AHRS (attitude and heading reference system). This simulates an attitude and heading failure, among other issues.

This kind of practice not only strengthens your understanding of your systems but also refines your scanning abilities. You will have to adjust your scan to accommodate where your backup instruments are positioned. For example, if your standby attitude indicator is towards the bottom of your instrument panel, it will require practice getting used to glancing in that direction.

In my view, simulators are invaluable for practicing partial panel scenarios. Just remember that they might not accurately reflect the exact behavior that would occur in the actual aircraft avionics.

Experience a variety of approaches

A home sim truly shines when it comes to practicing approaches. In the modern aviation world, there are many places where pilots can’t even practice a VOR approach unless they fly to faraway airports. Some areas only offer GPS, ILS, or localizer approaches.

The simulator allows you to practice approaches that might not be available in your local area. It lets you experience more challenging situations, like approaches in mountainous areas with complex transitions and missed approach procedures. With a simulator, you can instantly be anywhere in the country, practicing any approach.

I frequently use approaches on the Pacific coast, especially around the San Diego area, due to its mountainous terrain. The Colorado area also offers some challenging terrain-related approaches. In the central United States, there’s a wider variety of approach options beyond just GPS and ILS.

The types of approaches that students find the most challenging can vary from student to student. However, non-precision approaches combined with partial panel tend to be the trickiest. This is due to the inherent demands of the approach and the added challenges posed by the partial panel.

For this reason, when you practice approaches in your sim, it should be under both normal conditions as well as partial-panel conditions.

Conclusion

Harnessing the capabilities of your home sim can significantly enhance your IFR training, allowing you to practice important skills at minimal cost, ranging from autopilot awareness to executing complex approaches. 

That having been said, please be aware that some things in the sim may not perfectly reflect reality. You need to be cautious and understand that the sim might not exactly reflect the operation of the aircraft you’re flying. This is where working with a CFII who is familiar with the specifics of your real-world systems can be helpful, as they can point out these subtle differences.

Would you like to work with your own online fight instructor? Feel free to book a free consultation. We would love to help assist you in mastering your IFR skills from home.

Share this article:
Get Help
Free Guides
Get expert help from real-life flight instructors and sim experts.
Join our mailing list to immediately receive:
  • Printable keyboard shortcuts for MSFS & X-Plane
  • The world's easiest G1000 tutorial (full flight)
  • Our MSFS and X-Plane Quick Reference Guides
Later we will also send our landing tips guide, realism tips, and more.