How to Use a Flight Simulator for Private Pilot License
Can you learn to fly a real airplane with a home flight simulator? Two aviation schools say yes, and they provide training to help armchair pilots become real pilots. Interestingly, both schools use X-plane as their chosen flight simulator for private pilot license. I’ll discuss both schools below.
First, an initial caveat: don’t record home flight sim training in your FAA logbook. The FAA will not recognize it. On the other hand, you can certainly learn material at home that will make your training time in the real airplane more efficient.
PilotWorkshops is a distance learning company that provides ongoing proficiency training with videos and manuals. Some online courses are one time fees, others like the IFR Mastery Course, is a subscription. They use X-plane 11 as the flight simulator for Private Pilot license training. The material provides impressive details about installing and setting up the X-plane software, controls, views, monitors, weather, replays, debrief tools. PilotWorkshops also introduces online, live human ATC with PilotEdge.
Interestingly, they try to do all this with a simple Phase 1 home flight sim setup (what is a Phase 1 flight sim? Read more). They use a single monitor, a joystick (not a yoke), and a TrackIR for the most part. You could have a much better training experience with a setup like the DIY Deluxe Desktop Flight Sim which features, multiple monitors, yoke, rudder pedals, throttle quadrant and more.
Gliem is a decades old legacy company that sells study guides, text books, videos and other materials for pilot ground schools. Anyone who has trained in North America has seen a Gliem book at one time or another.
The videos and content uses a traditional Private Pilot syllabus with a flight sim focus. However, note that Gliem is still using X-plane 10 (not 11) as their flight simulator for private pilot license training. The promo video shows a real Direct Fly Alto light sport airplane, instead of the Cessna 172 used in X-plane, which is a bit odd.
Gliem also sells a triple-screen cockpit frame for $549.95. That’s the price for the frame only! You will spend a lot less and get much more when you build your own DIY Deluxe Desktop Flight Sim.
Flight Simulator for Private Pilot License
In conclusion, home flight simulator software keeps getting better and is an excellent addition to your Private Pilot training if used correctly.
Developers struggle to create software that displays a legible flight simulator instrument panel, and also present a realistic outside world with scenery that stretches to the horizon. Today I’ll focus on viewing the flight instruments. You have a few options to choose from and each has its own benefit trade offs. It’s up to you to decide which flight simulator instrument panel works best with your particular needs.
I’ve used TrackIR from Naturalpoint for a long time. It is a view tracking device that allows you to look around the virtual cockpit by moving your head. TrackIR “sees” your head move in 6 axes, also called 6 degrees of freedom. Instead of explaining all 6, I’ll just say your real life head also moves in 6 degrees of freedom, and leave it at that. As a result, you can lean into the flight simulator instrument panel if you want to see something closer. You can also look out the windows, look over your shoulder, look around struts and other parts of the airplane. The picture above shows TrackIR with the DIY Deluxe Desktop Flight Sim.
TrackIR works with a single screen, or multiple screens. It works with a very wide variety of titles: Prepar3D, X-Plane, FSX, Flight Sim World, DTG Flight School, DCS World, even Elite Dangerous, War Thunder, IL2, and many others. In conclusion, TrackIR is very useful but it’s still difficult to use with a GPS or other instruments that require fine tuning.
Moving/resizing windows (free)
You can move and resize the 2D windows in old FSX and FSX Steam. When you type Shift+1, or Shift +2, Shift+3, etc. then FSX will display different windows that you can move around your screen. You see how this appears in the picture above with the DIY Flight Sim Pod. This trick also works with multiple screens. For example, you could show the outside view on all three monitors, and then in the bottom of your middle screen, show smaller windows with the flight instruments. You can also re-size the windows. That’s all great, except FSX does not save these settings on exit, and you have to set up all your views again the next time you turn on your computer.
Air Manger works with Prepar3D, X-Plane 9, 10, and 11, FSX and FSX Steam. I’ve personally used Air Manager for displaying the flight simulator instrument panel on a separate screen. What I mean is, a totally separate monitor that is set aside for just the flight instruments. Flat panel computer monitors are so cheap that I literally have 3 in my house just waiting for a project. Air Manager can also work on an iPad or other tablet computer.
Air Manager is very versatile, see it above with the DIY Deluxe Desktop Flight Sim. I run the software on an old, obsolete computer (running Windows Vista) which is connected via network to my flight sim computer. A separate computer means there is zero impact on my frame rates. Download full flight simulator instrument panels, mix and match gauges (free), even create your own (also free).
Saitek Pro Flight Instruments $169.99 each
The most expensive option is the Saitek Pro Flight Instrument gauges. I listed the price, but that is only for one single, physical USB gauge. Consequently, if you want a panel consisting of 6 flight instruments and an RPM gauge, that is 6 x $169.99 = $1019.94. I haven’t personally tried these gauges because they are so incredibly expensive. In addition, you are limited primarily to round-gauge type displays.
Flight Simulator Instrument Panel
In conclusion, there are several ways to display a flight simulator instrument panel and the method you choose will depend on your needs and your budget. Have you tried anything I haven’t listed here? If so, let me know in the comments (you don’t have to log in to comment).
“The Golden Age of Flight Simulators” I started using that phrase in 2016 as I noticed fresh inspiration from software developers, and a renewed optimism in the flight simulator community. See in the picture, that’s what my old website looked like in Spring of 2016. Now, over a year later, the evidence is undeniable. We are entering a new renaissance of home flight simulation. Watch the Frooglesim News each week and it’s obvious. The future we’ve waited for is here now, and it’s time to go flying!
1. Flight Sim Software
One of the most significant signals that things have changed is this: we have real choices now. Not just choices, but difficult choices. How are you going to decide between X-plane 11 and Prepar3D v4? Both are outstanding flight sim platforms and you have many things to consider when you choose. What will Dovetail’s new Flight Sim World bring to the table? Time will tell.
One subject you won’t see much of on Frooglesim News is hardware. Today’s flight sim pilot has many choices in flight controls, switch panels, displays, touch screens, graphics cards, and more. Take displays, for example. You can buy an excellent 32” HDTV for less than $200. Most quality graphics cards can now power three displays, so why not buy three 32” TVs and stretch out the view to over 6 feet wide! Add some PVC pipes, lumber, and elbow-grease and you have an impressive, affordable, home cockpit.
Let’s not forget the advances made by non-ESP based flight sim platforms like DSC World and Aerofly FS2. These are considered by some to be “FS lite” because they don’t have native global scenery and all the weather and ATC options we’re used to. Nonetheless, these sims sport smooth frame rates (much higher than even P3D and X-Plane) and excellent detail for the limited geography they offer. DCS World and Aerofly FS2 also have beautifully rendered aircraft. You’ll find the higher fidelity aircraft in DCS World as compared to FS2.
3. Virtual Reality?
What will Virtual Reality bring to the table? As of yet, no one knows. VR headsets demand performance that is difficult to achieve with flight simulator programs. For successful VR, you must have high frame rates, over 90 frames per second. Furthermore, flight sim software has exponentially more scenery rendering than any game software. Plus, once you put on a VR headset, you can no longer see your controls, checklists, switch panels, or anything that is not in the virtual world. For now, nobody knows how much VR will impact the flight sim genre.
4. Watch Frooglesim News
In conclusion, why is it the Golden Age of Flight Sims? Well, Froogle says so too! Take a look at this episode of Frooglesim News at 27:11.
Dove Tail Games (DTG) announced the release of Flight Sim World days before I wrote this article. Therefore, I haven’t tried it yet, and actually nobody has. FSW will be released for early access in May 2017. DTG really wants FSW to be the replacement for FSX that we’ve all been waiting for.
And yet, FSW is built upon the foundations of FSX. DTG purchased the rights from Microsoft to extend FSX and is building upon that. I think DTG is trying to develop what FSX could have become if Microsoft hadn’t killed the Flight Simulator franchise in 2007. They have an uphill battle today because DTG’s Flight School was not well received in 2016. However, DTG offering a huge olive branch to purchasers of Flight School… they get FSW for free! Consequently, FSW the best cheap flight simulator.
FSW features utilization of DirectX 11 and its a 64 bit application. Of course, the release video looks beautiful.
Flight Simulator X Steam Edition by Dovetail Games
Well, there’s always FSX. It was the all-around best flight simulator for years, but it is slowly fading. DTG successfully dusted-off and re-released Flight Simulator X on the Steam platform in 2014. Microsoft fired the entire FSX development staff in 2009, but dozens of 3rd party developers continued to produce hundreds of add-ons, utilities, and enhancements to FSX. I installed FSX on the DIY Flight Sim Pod and the DIY Roll-Away Flight Sim.
Sometimes there is a sale on Steam and you can buy FSX for about $15. You have little to lose by trying FSX. Therefore, FSX is probably your best cheap flight simulator option. Download some free scenery add-ons or airplanes. Fly some of the old missions. If you have problems, there is lots of information available just a Google away.
Prepar3D is the Best Flight Simulator
P3D is my pick right now, but that could change in the future. The flight sim community is in a time of flux right now. On the other hand, you may have noticed something about these choices. Out of the four titles I listed, three are based on the old FSX foundation. So after two decades, it’s still really just Flight Simulator vs. X-Plane.
The flight simulator community is experiencing something it hasn’t seen in a long time: real choices. After a decade of Flight Simulator X (FSX) dominance, there are now serious software alternatives. So how you do you choose the best flight simulator application? I’ll take a look at four options: Lockheed Martin Prepar3D, X-Plane 11, Dovetail Games’ Flight Sim World, and Flight Simulator X Steam Edition. Also keep in mind, I’m the DIY Flight Sim guy. I do my best work with a drill and a miter saw and I spend more time editing video than I do flying a simulator. But still, people ask my opinion, so here it is…
Lockheed Martin Prepar3D (P3D)
Lockheed Martin is a $46 Billion dollar defense contractor. They build ballistic missiles, armored fighting vehicles, combat ships, rockets, satellites, robots, and a lot more… and real airplanes too. LM purchased certain licensing rights from Microsoft to further develop its ESP simulation platform, which is now Lockheed’s Prepar3D. The P3D development team is a tiny segment of this giant mega-corporation. P3D markets its capabilities as training simulation for commercial, academic, professional, or military interests. They do not make products for armchair flightsimmers like you and me. This is why P3D issues the odd warning against using its product for entertainment.
P3D works so well. I remember when I first installed it on the DIY Deluxe Desktop Flight Sim. The software automatically detected and properly assigned my flight controls. First time in my life I’ve ever experienced that. P3D is an improvement over FSX and retains familiarity in the menus and options. The frame rates are better, the scenery is better, and many FSX add-ons also work in P3D. Multiple monitors and Saitek switch panels work well in P3D. So P3D is my choice for the best flight simulator software right now, but that comes with a caveat (read on).
Lockheed builds a great product and if you happen like it, that’s fine, but if you don’t then remember that Lockheed is not very concerned about us or the flight sim consumer market. Out of Lockheed’s 126,000 employees, only a few of them work on the Prepar3D program, and P3D is a tiny part of Lockheed’s revenue stream. I’m saying that Lockheed’s priorities could change in the future and we may not have access to P3D any more. And yet, Lockheed offers a great product for retail customers right now and it is my choice for the best flight simulator.
X-Plane 11 by Laminar Research
The X-plane franchise has been the #2 choice for flight sim pilots for years. Will it become the #1 best flight simulator now with X-plane 11? I installed the X-Plane 11 demo on the DIY Deluxe Desktop Flight Sim. Unfortunately, I haven’t had much time to really experience X-plane 11 on my rig yet, but you guys want my opinion, so here it is. I think X-plane could become the new standard for home flight simulators in the next 10 years. Austin Meyer is the lead developer for X-plane, and this is his baby. X-plane is an essential part of Austin’s identity, so I think the X-plane team has a passion that is perhaps not present at Prepar3D. Plus, X-plane is here for us… the flight sim community.
As of right now, the X-plane community is smaller than the FSX community so there is less choice in 3rd party add-ons. X-plane is 64 bit and that doesn’t necessarily mean your frame rates will be higher than P3D, but X-plane is able to fully utilize the RAM you already have in your computer. This could help in the future. Multiple monitors and Saitek switch panels work well in X-plane 11, but some of the menu options are difficult to read. Austin is seems really interested in bringing built-in VR capability to X-plane, so if that’s your thing, you might want to sign up for Austin’s blog. VR brings several new challenges to flight sims like frame rates, eyeglasses, ergonomics, etc.
What about Flight Simulator X and the new Flight Sim World from Dovetail? Read Part 2 here.
I made four simple, yet significant changes to the D250 Deluxe Desktop home built flight simulators. Consequently, these changes bring me back into the beloved world of general aviation. See me in the video flying a Beechcraft Baron once agian.
1. Added a Yoke and Throttle Quadrant
I removed the side-mounted HOTAS joystick and throttle and added a Saitek flight yoke and throttle quadrant. I attached the trim wheel underneath the throttle quadrants, and that is the perfect location. Once again, I can fly multi-engine airplanes like the Beech Baron, or light general aviation airplanes like the Cessna 172.
2. Raised the Instrument Panel Display
I use an inexpensive 19″ monitor to display the flight instruments on the D250. The yoke housing did not fit under the 19″ monitor, so I raised the monitor mount a few inches. I simply replaced the board for the Center Instrument Panel and attached an adapter board for the monitor mount.
3. Moved all Saitek Switch Panels
When you fly an airplane with a yoke, your left hand is typically on the yoke and your right hand is free to adjust the radio frequencies, dial in nav headings, and more. The D250 wasn’t set up like this because I used it to fly helicopters. As a result, the radios were on the left side of the cockpit, because a helicopter pilot typically keeps his right hand on the cyclic (joystick) and the left hand is free. I cut new 1×8 boards for the Left and Right Side Instrument Panels and re-arranged, and re-mounted the Saitek switch panels.
4. I Moved the Drink Holder
Don’t fly thirsty! I moved the drink holder to the right side of the cockpit so I could easily reach it with my right hand. The drink holder is the right size for a travel mug or a bottle with a drink coozie.
Plans for Home Built Flight Simulators
Do you want to build this same flight simulator for your home? If I get enough interest from my DIY community then I will create an additional Instruction Manual and include it with the original plans. In addition, customers who have already purchased this project will get the new plans for free.
System Specs and Peripherals
Notice these computers are not especially strong or new. You don’t have to spend $2000 on a computer to have great home built flight simulators.
DIY Deluxe Desktop Flight Sim, item #D250 Primary computer: Powerspec B634 with Intel i5-3450 Nvidia GeForce GTX 950 SSC Windows 7, 64 bit Flight yoke: Saitek Pro Flight Saitek throttle quadrant Saitek Pro Flight trim wheel Pro Flight Cessna rudder pedals from Saitek
Switch panels: Saitek PZ55, PZ69, PZ70
Marcin Strzyzewski invited me to do an interview for Onet online in Poland. Onet posts articles on a wide range of topics so I was happy to provide info about building flight simulator cockpit. Below are Marcin’s questions and my answers. Please let me know what you think of my responses.
1. What is the biggest fun in flight simulation?
Flight simulators can do many different things so that depends on what interests you. Think of the flight sim pilot population as three parts: Part 1 are the people that enjoy flying airliners with their flight simulator. Many of these users join Virtual Airlines and fly the same routes in the simulator as they would in real life. They fly online with other users that serve as air traffic control. Part 2 are all the pilots that used to fly in real life, or plan to fly later in real life, or they are active pilots now. You see these people using their simulator for civil airplanes and helicopters like the ones you would find at a flight school. Active pilots can fly a lesson in real life, then practice the same lesson at home with their simulator. Part 3 are the gamers and casual users. They fly space simulators or air combat simulators or maybe they just play around and fly for fun. This also a large and important population.
For me personally, I enjoy all the above. But most of all, I enjoy designing and building cockpit enclosures for home flight sims. I call these Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Flight Sims.
2. If some of our readers want to start making their own simulator, what is your advice?
First of all, know what type of aircraft you simulate the most. For example, a helicopter simulator project will look a lot different than an airliner simulator project.
Second, know your budget. If you live in a country where PVC pipe or lumber is really expensive, you should know that before you start. If you will buy new displays or new controls, start looking for sales. Retailers usually run a sale every month or two.
Third, and perhaps most important: negotiate with your spouse. A flight simulator will take up space in your home that can’t be used for other things. I designed both large and small DIY Flight Sims, but they all take up some measure of space. I recommend you talk this over with your spouse prior to construction. Note: if you can make the case that your children or grandchildren will somehow benefit from your flight simulator, this can help.
3. What is a most common mistake of the beginners?
The most common mistake is never starting the project. Actually, just getting started can be the most difficult part. No matter how large or small the project, you finish them all the same way: one step at a time, over and over, until you are done. I think my DIY videos help because you can see the building process before you personally start construction on your project. Just. Get. Started.
4. Building flight simulator cockpit sounds pricey is it in fact?
The most expensive components are the ones that keep going down in price: computers, graphics cards, touch-screens, and large HD displays. Therefore, these items get better and cheaper every year for building flight simulator cockpit. Other components are the flight controls and switch panels which can be good retail models, or more expensive premium models to fit your budget. My videos show how to build cockpit enclosures with materials from a home improvement store. Those materials are inexpensive in the USA, UK and Canada, but maybe not in other countries. For example, PVC pipe is expensive in New Zealand. I produce videos because they are the best way to teach building flight simulator cockpit.
5. What software is the best for simulators?
The flight simulator community (including third party developers) is unique because it mainly built up around Microsoft Flight Simulator X (FSX) for over a decade. Dovetail Games gave FSX new life by developing a version for Steam, however it’s still old software. As a result, we have wondered for years what will replace FSX, and today we have some newer options. Prepar3D Lockheed Martin’s Prepar3D (P3D) was developed by fixing and modernizing the old FSX code. P3D is an excellent flight sim platform, but some activities are prohibited because of Lockheed’s odd licensing agreement with Microsoft. X-Plane Laminar Research’s X-Plane 10 is also a solid flight sim platform with all the options of FSX, but with a smaller user base and somewhat fewer options from third party developers. X-Plane 11 was just released this month so it will be interesting to see how it performs in the market. Will X-Plane 11 be the ultimate replacement for FSX? We shall see.
6. Since now the best option was multiple monitors setting. Is this better now to use VR headset?
That is an excellent question, and the answer really depends on what type of flying you want to do. If you want to fly combat missions or spaceships, VR is a great option if you can afford it and if you don’t wear glasses. For example, Elite Dangerous and War Thunder are awesome in VR. The depth of field and the immersion are astonishing. Keep in mind, when you wear a VR headset, you can no longer see your actual controls, or a keyboard, or mouse. So your best option is HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) flying. Basically, if you can do everything you need to do in the sim without removing your hands from the joystick and throttle, and if you can memorize all the button assignments, then that sim could be a good option for VR.
If you fly airliners, civil training airplanes, or helicopters you will be performing a lot of tasks where you need to reach out with your hand and touch the control panel. You will tune radios, adjust the GPS, set the navigation headings, set the autopilot, and more. As of right now, it’s really difficult to do these tasks in VR so traditional flight simulators are best for this type of flying. In traditional flight simulators we use actual retail switch panels, modified keyboards, a touch screen, a real checklist, a real aviation map, or all of these things. I think it will stay that way for a long time and more people will be building flight simulator cockpit.
7. How looks your simulator, can you share some pictures with us?
Sure, here are pictures from four very different DIY flight simulators (see the slideshow gallery on this page).
People around the world are building home flight simulators this winter. These guys find inexpensive materials at home improvement stores and build their own airplane cockpit at home.
January is BUILD MONTH
Why is January a great time to build a DIY (Do It Yourself) flight sim project? First of all, many people get new flight simulator software and computer equipment for Christmas and are ready to upgrade their home cockpit. Also, the holidays are over and now people are returning to their hobbies. Flight simulation is a great way to learn about aviation during the cold winter months. Consequently, I typically see an increase in DIY Flight Sim business and website traffic starting in January.
You don’t necessarily need a workshop for building home flight simulators, so many people build their project in an apartment or even a dorm room. You don’t need outside ventilation because no harsh chemicals, paints, or adhesives are used with these projects so you can build indoors. Let it snow!
Inexpensive Components and Materials
Is your home flight simulator nothing more than a desk with a few monitors and a joystick? You can make a more realistic airplane cockpit with inexpensive materials from a home improvement store. These guys build home flight sims with PVC pipes, lumber, and Styrofoam insulation panels. Notice they also painted their projects because painting is also inexpensive, easy, and gives the project a truly finished appearance.
We are fortunate to live in a time when we have so many affordable choices for computer equipment and flight controls. For example, it is now possible to use multiple high-definition HDTVs as displays for a flight simulator. In addition, computers and graphics cards are more powerful than ever. We have more choices than ever for flight sim control yokes, rudder pedals, throttle quadrants, switch panels, and more. Finally, the flight sim software of today is better than ever. Lockheed Prepar3D, X-Plane 11, FSX Steam, and Aerofly FS2 all boast improved performance and functionality.
Combine inexpensive building materials with affordable computer equipment and you can have a powerful and realistic flight simulator for your home.
The most difficult part of any building project is just getting started, so get going now. You may make some mistakes along the way, but they will be inconsequential because you’re using inexpensive materials. Get building and get done, so you can get flying!
You can download the X-plane 11 beta right now. Configuring the X-Plane 11 Beta on triple screens with a full flight simulator cockpit is a challenge. I’m using the DIY D250 Deluxe Desktop Flight Sim for this evaluation. The D250 uses three 32″ HDTVs running from a single Nvidia GeForce GTX 950 SSC.
The download and installation was straightforward, and furthermore X-plane automatically spanned all three screens when it booted. The software detected my Saitek Cessna rudder pedals and provided a quick calibration. Unfortunately, it assigned the pitch and roll axis to the toe brake functions. Also, I was unfamiliar with the user interface so it wasn’t apparent how I would properly assign the functions to my flight yoke.
The demo gets you into the air immediately. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to assign the controls properly so I stopped after a few minutes. Also, I wasn’t able to zoom out the view, so the virtual cockpit was unseen, except for the wet compass.
I found my way to the control settings menu to set up the yoke, throttle quadrant, and trim wheel. In addition I wanted to correct the rudder pedal assignments. On my triple-screen setup, some of the menu options are obscured behind the bezel. You don’t have the option to move the menu window around like you do in P3D. The only way to see these menu options would be to exit out of X-plane, turn off bezel correction in Nvidia Controls Panel, restart X-plane to run the menu, and then turn bezel correction back on afterwards. Or you can just guess what’s behind the bezel. I had some troubles with identifying which axis is which on the Saitek throttle quadrant.
X-plane allows you to manually set the screen resolution, which is a very nice option. I set it to the same screen resolution as my desktop with no trouble at all.
I’m using Air Manager to display the flight instruments in FSX and P3D. I think it requires additional configuration to use it with X-Plane 11. Air Manager has an excellent set of Beechcraft Baron flight instruments and I’m looking forward to using them with the Baron X-Plane 11.
Stuck on the Runway
I couldn’t get all my controls properly assigned and as a result, I spent a lot of time on the runway. I didn’t even attempt to set up the three Saitek control panels because they probably need an updated driver to work with X-plane. I’ll look into that.
And that was it. I ran out of time in the demo, in addition, I didn’t have any more time in my day to wrestle with the simulator settings. The message said that my “flight controls will no longer function.” To be clear, my controls never functioned properly because I couldn’t get them assigned. I will try X-Plane again and I hope to actually fly it next time.