Can Microsoft Flight Simulator help me learn to fly (or make me a better pilot)?
Microsoft Flight Simulator has "flight lessons" with a virtual flight instructor, some of which teach concepts that are taught during actual flight training. These simulators are becoming very realistic, and I can see them being helpful as an introduction to a subject prior to running the Hobbs meter and paying for actual flight time. Will this experience help or hurt someone who decides to become a real pilot? Is it a tool which can help students/instructors in an actual training environment?
From my experience as a Flight Instructor, IMO the flight simulator is great tool for practice of things like instruments, navigation, even working on communications where I pretend to be the Air Traffic Controller in less stressful environment. Like Abelenky's great answer though, they may never really feel like what it does to have real airflow over the controls [or bounce off the runway]. Long story short it's great for everything (especially emergency procedures) except the real stick and rudder stuff. For that there is nothing like the real thing.
I have plenty of experience playing with Microsoft Flight Simulator. It is a very good flight simulator. I would prefer X Plane 10 or 11 as some buttons in the cockpit are restricted in Microsoft Flight Simulator and can be used in X Plane. Further more, X Plane uses calculations to calculate the response of the aircraft. Microsoft Flight Simulator simply uses code simulation
@Pondlife gave a very good answer, and I'll add a few bits to that.
Even after having gotten my license, I still use flight sims (mainly Microsoft FSX and X-Plane 10) for some practice.
Before flying into an unfamiliar airport, or over an unfamiliar area, I'll often load it up in a simulator, and fly it.
Especially when I was a student, I found this incredibly helpful for my long cross country flights. You can look at a map all you want, but its still not the same as sitting in the simulator, and looking around ("I see the mountain on my left.... and the lake below me. I can follow this valley all the way to the airport..." etc). And I've generally found the simulator, with good terrain and textures loaded, can be pretty close to reality.
The night before I did a student flight from KBFI to KVUO, I flew the entire thing in FSX. The next day, it really felt pretty much like making the same flight all over again. Based on the landmarks, timing, views, etc, I knew exactly where I was, and I was confident that everything was going right.
That said, in my opinion there are some things simulators do very poorly.
Some of these are:
The application of power and left-turning tendency on the ground just doesn't feel realistic at all. The climb out doesn't feel right.
Ground effect is difficult to observe in a simulator. The flare doesn't feel like reality, and touching down (or bouncing) is not realistic at all.
Cross Control, Slip, Spin & Unusual Attitudes
Anything beyond basic maneuvers up to 30 degrees bank or 20 degrees climb doesn't match reality.
This is dependent on your simulator, some perform certain things more realistically than others.
Because of these limitations, I would NOT use a flight simulator to try to learn takeoffs, landings, or certain maneuvers. (You can learn the "procedure" in a simulator... when to reduce power, when to add flaps. But the "feel" will be all wrong).
If you're going to try to incorporate flight sim into your training, there are some basic things you should do:
- Spend LOTS of time configuring it
Unlike a video-game, this is not "plug-n-play". Spend time learning all the controls.
- Turn on Realism
When adjusting your controls, set all "null-zones" to zero, set "Sensitivity" to maximum, turn off helpers like "auto-mixture" and "auto-rudder", etc. (However, I do keep "Gyro-Drift" turned off in my sim. Its annoying, and adds little practical value)
- Turn on Weather
The flight simulators typically come pre-setup with zero wind, good weather, standard temperature, etc. Configure yours to pull from real-world weather sources, or add some clouds, a variety of winds, and don't always fly at noon. Set the timing for early morning flights, twilight flights, night flights, etc.
Another "fun" area where flight simulators can be slightly helpful is in emergency procedures.
Typically in real-world training, my instructor told me: "We're going to practice engine-out emergencies" and my mind immediately starts preparing for that... And naturally, we have to do them at a safe altitude in a safe area.
In a flight simulator, you can set up the computer to give you a random emergency at a random time. You might get the problem on short-final, or over a metro-downtown area. Something that you just can't do in reality.
I haven't had any real-life emergencies, so I don't know how accurate a flight simulator is. But I believe that some practice is better than no practice at all, and flight sim lets me fly into storms, icing, get lost in fog, fly approaches below minimums, have an engine seize up on me, etc, all without risking my butt or a $200,000 airframe.
Since @Lnafziger suggested more specifically addressing flight training:
I do believe that flight sim can help with certain aspects of training, but in other areas, it is no help at all, or actually harmful.
Training Areas simulators can help with:
Reviewing steps and procedures before going in the air. For example, for a student, steep turns or stall recovery can be a little nerve wracking at first. It may be much easier (and cheaper) to do it in a sim with an instructor, discussing all the steps and reasons for actions. Then when the student gets in the air, they won't have the "feel" for it, but at least the general process is already familiar.
Tuning and identifying VORs, and interpreting the needles can be done just as well be done on the ground as in the air. If the sim has good, realistic terrain (I prefer MegaSceneryEarth), it can also be used for some visual reference lessons.
Scanning and cross-checking the 6-pack of instruments can be done in a simulator just fine, and a student can practice doing it for long periods of time for a fraction of the cost of flight time.
Training Areas simulators are very bad at:
On the ground & Outside the plane
Anything on the ground, such as taxiing and parking, or anything outside the airplane, such as pre-flight inspection, or weather interpretation, just doesn't work in a sim.
I haven't seen any flight sims that really work for the practice of talking on or listening to the radios. (I haven't used VATSIM, which might help). I don't think there's any good substitute for actually flying in a real airspace while simultaneously engaging in real radio conversations.
Even the best full-motion sim isn't a substitute for the forces a student feels in a real airplane. This is especially true on ground-reference maneuvers, takeoffs, and landings, where I feel sims fall far short of reality. No one will ever get a "feel" for the plane from a simulator.
For much more information on the topic, I recommend these books:
And here's a picture of my old simulator rig.
(Its been improved a bit since this picture)
Wow, that is a nice sim rig... obviously a lot of time and effort (and dare I say dollars) invested there. Good job!
Thanks. I estimate its around \$800 in Saitek equiment (not all of it is visible in the picture), and probably another $200 in software add-ons (scenery, airplanes, add-ons). I guess that's more than I realized until now. :)
You might consider editing you comments on radios considering that recent rise of PilotEdge, that's pretty darned good for practicing radios: http://www.pilotedge.net/
@MaxHodges I say XPlane if you have neither. FSX is OK, and because it's Microsoft it's on every shelf in every electronics store that sells PC games. XPlane, however, has a much more sophisticated physics/fluid dynamics engine and overall a lot more love went into coding it than any MSFS version I've seen or used. For $60 plus shipping to use on a home setup like abelenky's it's a great buy. Biggest downside is that only the major world airports are included, so if you want to hop around an entire metro area you'll need some scenery packs which are spotty.
@Jay Carr: You suggested that I comment on radios over a year ago, and I declined. I don't appreciate you editing my answer to put words in my mouth that I never wrote. You are welcome to post your own answer, but such a significant revision to my answer is not welcome.
@abelenky Your answer is *incorrect* but because of historical momentum, there's little we can do to change the fact that it's marked as the correct answer. I really wish you would update the answer in your own words. I've asked on meta and chat about how to approach this and both times was told to edit your answer. So I've done, though it is, of course, your prerogative to role it back.
I've very curious if any of the physics-related cons will go away with FS 2020. super excited for this game