A Flight Simulator Primer.
We had the same question asked again and again, through emails, at our Expos booths and directly to us: “I want to fly a simulator: Where should I start? What’s next?” This primer should answer some of the most common questions.
In this post we’ll break it down by levels and we aim to make it easier to progress to different grades of sophistication in flight simulation. Our viewpoint is that some basic information can go a long way. In flight simulation, a significant body of knowledge already exists and you may want to take advantage of it. We encourage you to check out the many forums and sites available online and our own directory here.
First let’s identify several levels in building a computer-based simulator (prices are in US dollars, as based in the US. European prices in Euro are usually equivalent or slightly lower for commonly available products)[i]. The level rating system is our own, we believe that it is helpful to determine the level of involvement of simulator builders.
|Lvl||Level Description||Skill level||Time to build||Cost|
|Desktop only, assumes you already have a computer or laptop capable of running simulation software.||Entry level, requires just the ability to install a program on your desktop or laptop.||1-2 hours if a download. Less if from DVD.||Starting at USD 9.99 for a basic license.|
|2||Desktop with controls.||Skills above plus the capacity to plug in a few USB devices.||Additional 20-30 minutes. Requires a desk.||Yoke and throttle controls start at about USD 165.|
|3a||Instrument panel.||Competent builder. Using either a digital screen to display instruments and controls separately from external view or actual individual instruments mounted on a rigid panel and a monitor for external view. Actual instrument controls.||About a day.||Above cost plus additional monitor and instrument controls starting at approx. USD 200.|
|3b||Instrument panel and multiple external monitors.||Competent builder and a common arrival point. Double or triple monitors are common with realistic setups. Requires configuration of monitors.||As above plus 1-2 additional hours.||Cost of the number of monitors added. Some setups add two curved monitors for a wrap-around feeling. These monitors start at about USD 160 each.|
|4||Full single cockpit.||Competent builder and mechanical, computer skills. Requires a cockpit enclosure, or cabin, which can be built or bought. It adds substantial realism especially when paired with physical controls, wrap-around visuals, sound and shaker add-ons.||A few days.||USD 200+ for a wood/plywood cabin. USD500+ for an extruded aluminum-based cabin. USD 1,000+ from a ready-made cabin or one salvaged from a wreck. Add the cost of additional systems such as sound, shakers, visuals, and the software to go with them.|
|5||Full airline or GA cockpit, dual controls. All operations as in real aircraft.||Requires advanced software and hardware experience. Electronic, soldering and mechanical engineering skills required. Typical aircrafts reproduced are B737 and A320, but many more ACs have been built. Some builders buy real cockpits salvaged from retired aircrafts.||From several months to few years.||USD 10,000+|
You will need, of course, a desktop or laptop computer. Gaming computers are preferable to office computers because of their ability to display higher resolution and faster-changing graphics. Here at AFSBI, our main objective is supporting simulation to learn about aviation, so we will assume that a computer-based simulator is the direction you are taking. If gaming is your interest, there are many more options on software that may be good and fun to use, rather than the ones we will describe in this post. Simulator gaming on tablets is also becoming very popular. Check the apps out on Google Play or Apple Store (we played with X-Plane for IoS and we were impressed).
- FSX Steam Edition. The entry-level grandfather of all simulators is now available on Steam for less than $10. You can also find FSX Gold on DVD from several online vendors. Essentially, FSX has been the first, and often only, choice for many. It comes with several commercial and general aviation aircrafts and has a huge support community behind it. Add-ons allow adding aircrafts, sceneries, etc.
- X-Plane. Now at version 11, X-Plane is developed by Austin Myer’s Laminar Research, a pioneer of flight simulation. XP for short, it’s used in simulators ranging from basic to extremely complex, airline-level machines. Allows a very high level of customization and control, while having great out of the box visuals. The actual flight model’s algorithms are extremely realistic. As for all other packages, there is a very large community of users supporting it at x-plane.org. Many add-ons are free and extremely well made. The cost is USD 59.99 in the USA and the same price in Euros in most of Europe, slightly more in the UK.
- Prepar3D. Originally a military training package developed by Lockheed-Martin, it is advertised as professional-grade simulation software. At USD 199 for the entry-level Professional license and 59.95 for an Academic license (requires proof of enrollment to an education institution and has some limitations) it’s the most expensive. P3D, as it is commonly called, is an offspring of Microsoft Flight Simulator ESP, which was acquired by L-M. It is presently at version 4, which was released in 2017. P3D also offers great flight modeling, graphics and has a substantial community using it and supporting it.
At Level 1 you essentially install the software on your computer, and fly it using the keyboard and mouse to control the aircraft control surfaces and throttle levers (which make it turn, climb and descent, accelerate and slow down). You will be able to control radios, GPS navigation, lights and many more aspects of your flight using the mouse to click and turn controls on the screen. It’s an initial step but one that will deliver a lot of enjoyment and a great learning path for beginners with a rather modest investment.
You’ll likely tire (or your hands and wrists will for you) of twisting knobs on the screen using your mouse. Keyboard shortcuts and arrow keys (which control the up and down and left and right movements) may be adequate at the beginning but soon prove to be imprecise for that “greaser” landing you like to show your friends. On Level 2 you add controls. There are essentially three groups, some containing additional features:
Control yoke. This is the basic system to control your airplane direction, rotating on two axis, namely elevator (up and down) and ailerons (left and right). In an actual plane the ailerons control the lateral direction only when flying. Steering on the ground is controlled by the rudder pedals or, in larger aircrafts, by a separate control wheel. Some control yokes come with customizable buttons to control flaps (used to slow down), gear extension (the wheels) and other systems. Some even come with a throttle, which is the airplane’s gas pedal. More often however, throttles are provided separately in a throttle quadrant, e.g. several levers that adjust the engine/s, the pitch of the propeller (the equivalent of your car gears) and the mixture, a control used to decrease the amount of fuel to compensate for the decrease of air density at higher altitudes. To complement these two basic control components some add rudder pedals, which serve two functions: control the steering on the ground and brake the two main wheels. On an aircraft you press on the left pedal to go left and on the right to steer right. The brakes are located on the top part of each pedal. If you don’t have pedals, most software packages allow you to “link” the steering with the ailerons instead. Essentially you use the yoke as a steering wheel. Not as realistic, but still very functional.
With so much to do and learn, just enjoy yourself flying in some exotic country or to a busy metropolitan airport. Flight simulation opens the doors to knowledge and an appreciation for the world. For some good tips on how to fly your sim see our post here.
Up to this point you see on your computer or laptop monitor both the outside visuals and the internal cockpit instruments and controls. You may have to pan or zoom to see ALL the controls, as some may be hidden on a lower or side part of the monitor. You may grow tired of this setup and here comes Level 3. In this initial phase you simply add an additional monitor just for the cockpit panel. Some laptop users use the laptop monitor for the panel and add another monitor for the external visuals. There you have a much larger view of both the inside and outside of the airplane. Also at level 3, users add controls for radios, autopilot and other flight instruments or components which require adjusting.
This is a multi-monitor setup for the external views. Usually two-three monitors give you a much wider sense of space and aircraft attitude, besides, of course being visually more convincing. When your field of vision becomes entirely filled with an image (in this case the airplane in flight or on the ground) your senses become accustomed to that reality, including the dizziness that sometime ensues. This makes, of course, simulation even more realistic. Add some speakers and you have a really good representation of an aircraft and surrounding views and sounds. On level 3, some users add a “mask” to overlay over their panel’s instruments. This makes the cockpit look almost like a real airplane. The monitor behind shows the instruments and the mask in front separates them from each other. Some pilots make them; some others buy them ready-made. See our product directory for some vendors in this market niche.
Although you could do this at any level, by now you may also want to personally get more involved with aviation if you aren’t yet or use the simulator to complement your actual flight training, especially instrument-based if you already fly. Simulators are fantastic for flying currency especially in areas where the long winters make it difficult to fly. If you don’t yet fly, take some flight lessons from a reputable instructor or online course to get good habits going, learn how to monitor speeds, how to cross-scan your instruments, how to land and how to deal with emergencies. Join a group or virtual airline for that additional thrill.
To avoid external distractions and to maximize the “cockpit” effect, many enclose their setup in a cabin. A real general aviation (GA), light aircraft like the ubiquitous Cessna 172 are about 42” wide as measured at the front seat. The widest GA cockpit is about 48”. Many people start with buying a sheet of plywood and build a basic structure over it. The Internet is abound with designs of home built simulators, “simpits” as they are called. Here at AFSBI Labs, we built one with plywood and one with square extruded flanged aluminum. We also built our own yoke assembly and rudder pedals. From this level on, you are probably already looking at substituting some of the controls with something more personal. Some builders buy real aircraft instruments and controls and fit new electronics in them to bring them back to life in their simulators.You’ve already heard of how to use some interfaces to “talk” to the simulator. Arduino, Raspberry, Bodnar USB boards and other hardware, assist in monitoring and controlling the simulated aircraft. Some are relatively simple solutions; some are complex and require some programming experience. However, the industry is moving forward rapidly and more and more customizable software/hardware combinations are available that require less programming knowledge. FSPUIC, XPUIPC, ArdsimX and SimInnovations‘ Air Manager are among the ready-to-configure software packages to help you control your hardware and instruments. They both access and leverage reference data (sometimes called “dataref”) that the simulator software provides, indicating the status of every, however small flight parameter, control position, failures and all other conditions. “Gear Door open”, “Seat Belt sign on”, fuel level, oil temperature, geographic position, air speed: everything is reported, to be either indicated by an instrument, controlled by a switch, adjusted by an encoder or to satisfy any other data in/out requirements. Simulators at this level are often complemented with near-180 degrees visuals, and a better sound system. Seat-mounted shakers (see our post “Good Vibrations“) vibrate in synch with engines and turbulence. It is not uncommon today to see a motion platform under the cabin giving an added degree of realism.
At level 4 you have a superb tool for flight training. You are ready to execute your checklist (a series of checks that must be executed before during and after a flight, every pilot uses them dutifully) and start flipping real switches to get the sim going and off the ground. Within a few minutes you will really believe you are flying.
Not enough space here to write how people are taking simulation to its full extent. From complex jet fighters to wide-body airliners, many aircrafts types and models have been replicated, either from scratch or starting from actual cockpits. Aiding in this is a segment of the simulation industry producing airliner parts and faithful replicas of panels, instruments, controls, etc. Some “heavy” simulators need several computers to operate, because of the load created by visual displays, flight data processing and pilot inputs and systems monitoring is so high. Video boards with, now, upwards of 10GB of video RAM, CPUs with extremely fast processing speeds are often used in parallel to keep up with the simulator’s demands. At this level there is no price tag. $ 50,000 or more are not uncommon figures in this realm, but the realism equals that of very sophisticated airline-grade simulators.
Hopefully this brief primer will be of help to those readers starting on the path of flight simulation and will clarify, to some degree, what to expect. For more info, please contact us directly at
[i] A price comparison was conducted on common products from Thrustmaster, Saitek and other vendors on eBay and Amazon in the US and several European countries. Prices were shown to be, on average, within 5% of each other. Prices in other countries may vary.