Welcome to the exciting
hobby of flight simulation
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Start Here - Flight Simulator for Beginners
by Matt Thomas

When a person becomes interested in a flight simulator for his home computer, he is confronted
with a wide variety of software, hardware and flight controls.  All these choices can be confusing.  
This article provides an overall context of the choices facing the flight simulator consumer.  The
comments will be divided into two broad fields of interest: casual and inspired.

Casual Interest
If you're just curious about flight simulators in general and would like to explore the genre without
spending much money, you have several options.

Free or Cheap Flight Simulator Software
You can download a free demo of Microsoft Flight Simulator X (FSX).  This is a stripped-down
version of FSX, and gives you two different aircraft and missions to try.  You can try a landing
approach in an airliner, or fly in an ultra-light trike.  
Download the FSX demo here.

FlightGear is a free open-source flight sim software project written and updated by volunteers.  In
addition to the base software package, there are many add-on aircraft and scenery software you
can install to enhance the flying experience.  You can
download the full version of FlightGear on
this page.

Google Earth includes a flight simulator component.  Google has mapped the entire Earth with
satellite photos, terrain data, and even the 3D likenesses of individual buildings.  The flight under
the water to explore Google's underwater terrain mapping.  After you finish exploring the Earth,
you can also fly the Moon and Mars.  Download the free Google Earth software here.

X-plane provides a demo of the new X-Plane 10 for Windows, Mac or Linux.  
You can download
the X-Plane 10 Free Demo here.  X-plane also offers an inexpensive version of its flight simulator
called X-plane mobile.  This software is for iPad, iPhone or Andriod mobile devices.

Flight Sim Controls
Your first experience with flight simulator software will show how difficult it is to control an airplane
with only a keyboard and mouse.  You can enhance your enjoyment significantly with a simple
joystick.  Some joysticks can be purchased for as little as $20.

Assemble a Keyboard Modification
Another thing you will notice when you first start flying simulators is that many keyboard keys
correspond to cockpit functions in the simulated airplane.  It can be difficult to remember what
each key does.  Here is where you may be inspired to start your first DIY flight simulator project,
a keyboard modification!  You create a keyboard modification by attaching labeled cardboard
buttons to the associated keyboard keys, and re-assigning those keys in the simulator software.  
The finished keyboard looks similar to an aircraft control panel and all the materials, including the
standard USB keyboard, are inexpensive.  There are several keyboard mods to choose from
depending on the aircraft you fly the most.

Additional Help
Learning how to fly can be both exciting and overwhelming.  Here are a few sources of
information that can help you.

Sporty's Pilot Shop is the best known source for real-world pilot supplies.  They also have an
excellent DVD training library.  The full set of DVDs is designed for real pilots and is a little
expensive, but you can request a free sample Sporty's
Pilot Training DVD from this page.

Angle of Attack provides a 90 day online video training course specifically designed for flight sim
Sign up for it here.
A large computer monitor is a must.  There's nothing bigger than the sky and if you're trying to
see it all with a little 15" monitor, you're missing the big picture.  

Pilots do not fly by staring straight ahead.  They are continously looking inside and outside the
cockpit and on left and right sides of the aircraft.  You can look around the virtual cockpit with
keyboard keys or a hat switch, but those are clunky and unnatural.  I highly recommend the
TrackIR view-tracking system.  It allows you to look all around the virtual cockpit by moving your
head a little.

At some point, you may even try a triple monitor setup for your flight simulator.  The Matrox
TripleHead2go makes this possible.
Helicopter Combat:  DCS: Black Shark
Orbiter is a freeware deep space simulator available on this page.  
Yoke or joystick?
You might make this choice dependant on the types of airplanes you fly the most.  If airplanes
you like to fly have yokes in real life, you will probably choose a yoke.

If you choose a yoke, the throttle will most likely be a throttle quadrant that can be used in
several ways: multiple engines, mixture controls, propellar pitch controls, flaps or spoilers.  If you
chose a joystick, the throttle will more likely be a single or split control for the left hand.

Rudder pedals
If you're unfamiliar with airplanes, you might not know rudder pedals are for.  Rudder pedals are
crucial for properly coordinating turns, making crosswind landings, steering the airplane wile on
the ground and more.  The pedals control the movable vertical part of the tail...kinda like a fish
Microsoft Flight Simulator X (FSX) is the most popular general interest aviation software on the
market.  Within this one program you can fly different aircraft spanning a wide spectrum of
aviation: jets, helicopters, ultralights, amphibians, turboprops, and general aviation trainers.  You
can also download additional free aircraft and scenery from websites like avsim.com,
simviaiton.com and simouthouse.com.  You can purchase excellent add-on aircraft from Just
Flight, Abacus, Aerosoft, Captain Sim, Carenado, Flight1, Wilco Publishing and others.

X-plane is the rival to FSX.  X-plane is also a general interest flight sim but it can claim that its
software is more realistic than FSX because it is like a digital wind tunnel.  The X-plane physics
engine calculates airflow around three dimensional objects like wings.  This same software can
be scaled up to power high-end flight simulators for actual real-world pilot training.  Even with
those advanced capabilities, X-plane doesn't have the massive third-party developer community
that FSX has, so there are fewer options for enhanced aircraft and scenery.  X-plane also does
not have the online mulitiplayer options or missions that FSX has

Flight Pro Sim (or Pro Flight Simulator) is a re-branding of the free, open-source
software mentioned above.  Let the buyer beware: Flight Pro Sim costs $50.00, FlightGear is free
and it's the same product.  There's not much the FlightGear developers can do to prevent the
Flight Pro Sim people from selling a free product.  
More info here.

You might need software to cater to a more specific interest like jet fighter combat or space.  
For modern jet combat, Lock On Platinum, Wings Over Israel or Falcon 4.0 Allied Force are good
For World War II Combat, IL-2 Sturmovik 1946 is the industry standard.  
Aces High is the choice
for Massively Multiplayer Online combat.
Inspired Interest
With a home flight simulator you can participate in online multiplayer flying.  You might choose to
join a Virtual Airline and fly the same routes as real airliners.  There are online flying events on
the VATSIM network.  Or for some real white-knuckle flying you might try online combat either
alone or with an online squadron.  When you are ready to take your hobby to the next level,
there are a variety of things you can do to build your computer into a home flight simulator you
can be proud of.

Dedicated Computer
Flight simulation software is very demanding on the graphics card and processing capabilities of
most computers so we recommend you have a dedicated computer for your flight simulator.  If
you try to use the family computer for your flight sim, chances are the graphics performance will
be disappointing because of all the little programs, videos, music and other stuff that slows down
a computer over time.  A good guide for computer specifications is here
Switch Panels
We've already talked about simple keyboard modifications that make inexpensive USB keyboards
look like airplane switch panels.  We have keyboard mods for airliners, general aviation
airplanes, jet fighters and WWII fighters.

When you're ready to upgrade, Saitek/MadCatz has a wide selection of high-quality switch panels
to replace or augment the keyboard mods.  
Home Cockpit
After adding the controls, additional keyboards and switch panels, you're probably running out of
room on your desk.  Actually, you probably don't want your home cockpit to look like a desk
anyway.  Our DIY desktop frames elevate the monitor, provide places to mount the keyboards
and panels and make the whole setup look more like an airplane cockpit.
The DIY floor units hold the rudder pedals, joystick and throttle in place.  All of our DIY projects
can be built from readily available materials from your local home improvement store.

No two home cockpits are the same.  Everybody adapts their setup to what is important to them
and to their available resources.
Frequently Asked
Click Here
New to DIY
Flight Sims?
Click Here to see
how to build one