Flight Simulator Reviews

Before I got my wings I wondered whether using an inexpensive PC-based flight simulator (i.e., Microsoft’s) could be useful for learning to fly. I read conflicting reports ranging from “simulators are just games” to accounts of people who saved considerable time and money by using sims. I eventually came to the conclusion that a PC sim is useful for learning concepts and procedures, but not so much for actual aircraft control skills.

When I was a presolo student, I started playing with Microsoft Flight Simulator version 5 (MSFS 5). I found it useless for what I was trying to learn, mainly landing, for two big reasons. I had only the keyboard, mouse, and joystick for controls, none of which are in the real plane. (MSFS has nice scenery and sound, but no software-only sim can reproduce the feeling of the air flowing around the plane or the sensation of rising, falling, turning, acceleration, or G forces.) I found it too hard to land in MSFS; I couldn’t judge my height above the ground and either flew (crashed) right into the runway, or pulled back too soon and slammed down hard. I bought a control yoke, which only made the crashes a little more realistic. I decided my repeated crashing was too much negative reinforcement, as a shrink would say, and gave up on FS.

A few months later, I was getting frustrated trying to do instrument approaches and realized my main problem was understanding the procedures, not flying the plane. I thought a sim might help, since I could work on the procedures at home, then practice them in the air. I looked at ads for several “serious” IFR sims in the $500 price range, and figured that if I could really save a few hours of training time, the software would pay for itself. Most of these sims include all the U.S. IFR airports, so I would be able to practice the same approaches I do for real. I found a package designed for the beginning IFR pilot, with built-in lessons and CFII. It also had a money-back guarantee, so I decided to order it. It was out of stock.

I hadn’t thought of MSFS for IFR training since most of the emphasis seems to be on flying around detailed scenery. I realized that the Cessna 182 had all the IFR equipment I needed, so it must have some use. If I could find an airport in MSFS for which I had plates, I could practice approaches with it. By then MSFS 6 had been released, and one of the new features was built-in lessons. I thought I’d give it a shot while waiting for the other sim to become available.

I played around with the basics of MSFS at first. After a couple of hours I was able to do something I never could before- land the plane safely. I found the sim to be fairly realistic, after 150 hours of flying real planes.

MSFS includes challenges, which are predefined situations with a task to be completed. I tried one called “Basic IFR Cessna”, and found it lacking. The task was to do an ILS approach, but the pamphlet Microsoft calls a pilot’s handbook doesn’t have a plate for the airport in that challenge. How was I supposed to do the approach without knowing the procedures? This one was anything but basic.

We do most of our practice approaches in Lakeland. Since Sun ‘n Fun is held there, I thought somebody might have created MSFS scenery for it. I started at Microsoft’s web site and followed links to scenery pages. Eventually, I struck gold. I found a Tampa-area scenery set that covered a huge area, over sixty miles on each side. It not only included Lakeland, but many other familiar airports in the area. Some of them are small airports for which I wouldn’t have expected to find scenery. (My home airport is in the middle of the scenery area but for some reason isn’t included. It gets no respect from GPS makers, either.) I tried the scenery and was impressed with it. It was cool to fly into airports I’ve really been to; the experience was pretty realistic.

After a while I turned off the display except for the panel and tried a VOR approach into Lakeland, the same approach I had done for real a few days earlier. I flew around enough so I didn’t know where I was, then set the instruments for the approach, tracked the VOR to the airport, and followed my approach plate. It went OK, considering that I didn’t have anyone to coach me through it. My altitude and heading control was not very good, but I got through the procedures in an almost acceptable manner. When I got to the point where my CFII would have me remove the hood if we were going to land, I turned the display back on. I had strayed too far from the airport to be able to see it yet, so I followed the VOR until I got close, then finished the approach and landing visually.

A big advantage of the sim is the ability to pause the action. Another is the video feature; I watched a playback of my flight (which includes the panel) to see all the mistakes I made. When the video plays, the instruments change like they did during the flight, but there’s apparently a bug there. When the ADF is displayed, it takes the place of the second VOR, but when I play back a video of a flight that used the ADF, I get the VOR instead, so I can’t watch the ADF needle move.

Next I started playing with the weather instead of turning off the cockpit view. I set a broken ceiling at 500 feet, not too far above the ILS minimum, with the tops at 4000, so the whole approach would be in IMC. I broke out of the clouds, and the runway was close to where it should have been. MSFS lets you set a deviation range for the cloud base, say 500 feet plus or minus 200 feet, so you won’t know if the approach can be completed legally until you fly it. (That will be useful eventually; so far in every approach I’ve done, I knew at the start whether it would end with a landing or missed approach.) Soon I’ll gradually start adding more things like wind.

I’m sure the expensive sims have features this one lacks, but I’m not sure how I could justify spending ten times as much. For what I want to do with it, MSFS is hard to beat. If it saves me an hour of instruction, it will pay for itself. In some ways it does a lot more than its pricier cousins. The scenery is better, and there’s a world of it free for the downloading. It doesn’t provide all the U.S. IFR airports like the other sims, but I’ve already found the ones I need most, and it looks like just about any airport I’d want could be found somewhere in cyberspace.

Some uses for an inexpensive sim:

  • For novices: learning how the primary instruments work, flying terminology, and basic concepts. The MSFS documentation and books written about it do a better job of explaining flight than the real pilot textbooks do. (Are you listening, Jeppesen?)
  • For student pilots: VOR navigation, cross country flight, wind correction, controlled airport procedures. Practice your cross countries before doing them, if you can find scenery for the airports.
  • For instrument students: VOR and NDB navigation, approaches, partial panel, IMC.
  • For commercial and CFI students: advanced maneuvers, complex aircraft and systems.
  • For all pilots: transitioning to different planes, aerobatics, flying to unfamiliar airports, emergency situations (instrument failures, icing, low fuel, etc.).
  • For those who want to keep their licenses: landing on aircraft carriers or buildings, flying under bridges, flying too close to buildings or terrain, doing aerobatics in airliners, etc.

August 2003 Update: Since the above review was written in 1996, Microsoft has dramatically improved its flight simulators. They’ve added features such as interactive Air Traffic Control and other traffic. FS2002 had two versions, which are being phased out. FS2004 was recently released.

March 2018 Update: The last version of Microsoft Flight Simulator was Flight Simulator X: Steam Edition in 2014. It was a repackaged edition of the 2006 version. So in other words, Microsoft has essentially neglected the software for over a decade. I haven’t seen the latest version, since it’s PC-only, and I’m on a Mac. If you have a PC and the appropriate version of Windows, it’s probably still good. It’s a shame they haven’t updated it more recently considering how much computer graphics have improved in recent years.

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