During the long winter months, a flight simulator is an excellent tool for proficiency and one that can go a long way toward make you a better pilot or a better student. When nights are long and the opportunity to fly, because of weather, are less, a flight simulator can come to the rescue in ensuring that you keep it fresh. Moreover, now that digital, often complex cockpit avionics are replacing old analog dials, your simulator may in fact be a better way to “learn the box” than a real airplane. Still, you should exercise care to take all the steps necessary to make a flight safe and simulate all elements of flying.
Although there is much more to flying proficiently, the following tips are offered to make the simulation experience as close to reality and extract as much value from it as you would get from a real aircraft training session. Safe flying comes from good, consistent habits, and flight simulator flying, when executed properly and especially paired with flying lessons, will add “muscle memory” to your actions and help you become a better pilot.
Not a game
The premises of a learning experience on a simulator are that all that is done within the simulation time is considered as real as real flying is. Habits on a flight simulator tend to become habits on the airplane. In fact, actions performed on a simulator usually reflect the same actions performed on a real aircraft and vice versa. For those pursuing proficiency then, a desktop or enclosed flight simulator built on good software and hardware should be considered an excellent skill-building platform. While using it to learn piloting skills, you will be following the same procedures as in the real world of flying. So don’t think of it as a game, think of it as a very sophisticated learning tool.
It may sound redundant, but before you embark in any longer simulated adventures, fly the pattern a few times first. Get used to the entire procedure. See below for your ground operations and run up checks, then takeoff speed, rotation, upwind, turn at a safe altitude crosswind and then downwind. Fly at traffic patter altitude (check what it is) to abeam the numbers. Then continue as needed until time to turn base, call the traffic (even if you are talking to yourself), flaps, continue to turn to final, more flaps, get the VASI red/white indication, check your speed and land. Repeat. It’s a great exercise in your virtual flight school and will start getting your juices flowing for a more interesting flight. We recommend using a service such as PilotEdge (paid) or Vatsim (volunteer-based) to make it much more realistic.
1) Know where you are going. Check your weather and flight plan
Scenario-based training’s only limit is your imagination. If you need some inspiration, get this great book and pick a scenario. Pre-plan your flight and get familiar with your destination. In fact, familiarization is a requirement of real flying that will put you in the right frame of mind for a successful experience. If you are simulating real weather conditions which, likely, your sim will be able to download from real time reports, check with online outlets what you can expect around your route of flight. Departure, en-route, and terminal weather can change considerably. The beauty of the sim is that you can really dial in any weather you like and fly your scenario in, say, deteriorating conditions.
If you are embarking on a long IFR flight consider an alternate if the 1-2-3 rule checks true (IFR flight plans must include an alternate airport unless the weather is at least 2000 ft. ceiling and 3 miles visibility, from one hour before to one hour afterwards). On weather, we learned a lot from Bob Buck’s book Weather Flying, a must have for the serious pilot. The FAA publishes “Aviation Weather” as a free pdf, which is also very good.
File a flight plan if you intend to go under any type of ATC flight following, either VFR or IFR. If IFR, be ready to check in with clearance delivery – copy and read your clearance back. If you are using an ATC service like PilotEdge or Vatsim you will find that their procedures are very similar to real ATC either in the US or internationally. Be familiar with such procedures before embarking on an ATC-managed flight. On initial contact, just mention your tail number and your destination and type of flight. If you haven’t filed previously you can request a tower en route clearance (TEC), for airports in your local area for which routes are preset. In the US, all TECs are published by the FAA. For a great communication aid also check our post on what NATCA controllers expect from you, Say Again please!
2) Run the checklists as you normally would
Once set to go, all paperwork done, take your checklist (which is usually included with any add-on aircraft, but also available online for pretty much any aircraft) and run it item by item. Don’t skip any item or, as they say, it will come back to bite you. Keep the checklist handy, as you will need it for all phases of flight. The checklist is your most used reference throughout the flight and it should be considered as cheap insurance, ensuring that everything that needs to be checked, verified or adjusted actually was.
3) Ground handle as if you were at an airport
After turning your beacon on, look around before starting your engine/s, say ‘clear’ if you are on a small aircraft, as you would normally do. Carry out a short passenger briefing before moving, such as location of doors, seat belts, etc. Then taxi slowly over the yellow taxi centerline and observe all the hold-short rules and communication requirements, if any, at your departure airport. Taxi gives a good feeling of ground handling of the aircraft.
Follow run-up procedures and add some simulator-only checks
Even if on a flight simulator, perform your run up (before takeoff) procedures. Your checklist will guide you through that. Mags, carb heat, propeller governor, temperatures, instruments checks, electrical and all other systems pertinent to your piston or jet aircraft. The run up is your last chance for an undisturbed, thorough verification that all is good. Include in your run up weather conditions for the airport and set your communication equipment accordingly, also in the eventuality to have to land back where you depart from.
On the sim, you may want to add a few additional checks: are your plugins working? Can ATC hear you correctly? (radio check is better if you use an ATC service) Is all that needs to be loaded clearly operational? Is your hardware calibrated? Interrupted simulations to fix your software or re-calibrate your hardware completely break the magic of flight simulation, so avoid them with careful pre-flight checks.
4) Take-off, handling
Flight simulators are notoriously finicky on take off. It is not unusual to swerve off centerline and sometimes even off the runway. Avoid over-correction at all costs. A couple of tips for take off runs, if you have a hard time keeping the takeoff roll centered: make sure your trim is set correctly. Keep downward pressure on your nose wheel, if too lightly loaded it contributes to swerving. If you use pedals, keep pressure on both lower pedal edges equally and lightly release pressure on the pedal away from the direction you want to take. This seems to be unnatural at first but, in a simulator, it gives you better control over any small movements that the sensors pick up. Once you get to your Vr speed smoothly increase back pressure on your yoke and let the aircraft fly off. You will get more dependable takeoffs, especially on a light aircraft.
5) Cruise flow-checks
Once airborne and on your cruising altitude, flow-checks are a great way to keep checking that all is good. Start from the fuel selector, and then work your way through cowl flaps, gear handle, mixture and prop, engine health, then off to electrical items including switches, visually inspected, and to the upper panel radio and nav instruments. DG to be set against your compass and test button/s rechecked, if you have any.
6) Preparing for the approach
Here comes the fun! Judging from how many videos are posted daily on YouTube asking to “judge my landing”’ this may be, for many, the most important phase of flight. And it is. Transitioning from being airborne to touching the ground, is definitely a delicate part of flying requiring preparation and configuration.
Prepare for the landing by running your pre-landing checklist. It contains all you need to do to setup properly, including checking your gears’ extension, fuel pump, correct tanks setting, etc. Run a GUMPS check just before entering final, (gas, undercarriage, mixture, prop/s, safety).
Configure the aircraft for rate of descent and speed by setting the power and trim as recommended. If IFR, you want to be on the correct descent profile with all surfaces and gear selection in the right positions for the final, from the final approach fix inbound. Your radio should be already configured as per ATC, last calls made and clearance obtained.
Of course, if you are tracking on an instrument approach, you should brief all that is required and be familiar with the procedure you are using, minimum descent altitude, visibility minimums, missed approach procedure, frequencies and so on.
Carry out the landing flare and touch down at the right speed as per your aircraft specifications. On a flight simulator you should normally have good control authority to maintain runway centerline until exiting on a taxiway. Be light on the brakes, especially if you have independent braking for left and right gears. Unless in high winds or flying a tail wheel, it is best to leave your controls neutral until you exit the runway and have made the “clear” call. Then proceeding to retract flaps and clean up the aircraft.
Once you are parked or at the gate, shut down the aircraft as per checklist instructions. Most single engine will require avionics off and mixture all the way back to shutdown the engine/s.
There are, of course many variants to these 8 tips and it all depends on the type of flying you do, the type of aircraft you are flying, etc. Nevertheless, these are basic, foundational items you should consider. Add the workload of, say, learning new avionics, like the popular G1000 series integrated GPS, communication, navigation, autopilot and engine monitoring and you will sweat as in any real airplane in no time!
Keeping proficient doesn’t come without some effort, but doing it on your flight simulator is fun and it keeps you sharp.