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?
@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 aiport..." 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.
Because of these limitations, I would NOT use a flight simulator to try to learn Take Offs, 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:
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 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:
Training Areas simulators are very bad at:
For much more information on the topic, I recommend these books:
And here's a picture of my old simulator rig.
It can definitely help: when I did my instrument rating my instructor used MS FS to walk through (fly through?) various procedures before doing them for real. He also used it for NDB training because the aircraft we used didn't have ADF. I found it very useful, and if I had bought it myself it would probably have saved me a lot of time and money. The main benefit for me was that it lets you run through procedures to practice getting all the steps right and in the right order; I've never used any scenarios like the ones you mentioned so I don't know how useful they are.
Another very useful simulator I've used is the Garmin G1000 PC trainer. The G1000 has so many features that trying to identify them all while sitting in an actual aircraft is difficult, even if you have the aircraft available and can pay for it. It also lets you practice various failure modes, which is often difficult to do in the real aircraft. Garmin provides simulators for their 'basic' aviation GPS units too, and they're great for the same reason: you can play around as much as you like. There's no doubt in my mind that they help very significantly.
I think that as glass cockpits become more and more common, simulation will become more and more important. They're great tools, but they also bring a lot of complexity and learning how to handle that complexity safely is a lot easier using a simulator. Of course you eventually need to go up, fly, and try out what you've learned for real, but it's no fun trying to flip through a G1000 user guide in flight.
I believe that there's an element to this question which has not been covered. This is very much a personal response.
Your question specifically asks whether it can help you to learn how to fly or become better pilot. This is actually two questions in one.
Physical and mental limitations not withstanding, I would say that just about anyone can learn how to fly. But I don't believe that everyone who can learn how to fly could be a good pilot. Flying and pilotage are very much more than successfully operating a flying machine in order to fly. It's even a lot more than doing that and following the procedures (ATC, operating in controlled airspace etc) which accompany it.
Being a good pilot requires a certain aptitude and attitude (and I'm not talking about what you see on the AH). It needs, let's not beat about the bush, a reasonably good IQ and education.
A pilot becomes good when the operation of the machine or the following of the procedures is not enough to to produce a safe, successful conclusion. A good pilot avoids the traps and pitfalls that catch the unwary and have proved the rule, all to often, that in the ongoing contest between the earth and flimsy machines arriving in other than controlled circumstances, the earth has yet to lose. A good pilot takes care of the machine and it's passengers. A good pilot can deal with the unexpected and make sound decisions to continue a flight or not or perhaps even to not commit aviation at all. A good pilot has situational awareness which tells them, via sixth sense, that the bizjet calling left base is a potential threat and is already looking by the time the tower calls.
But much more than this, there are some very important elements to flying which a sim can never provide.
There is the emotional response; that thrill, that feeling of privilege, that unquantifiable human response to flying that is so much more than operating the machine. There is also a set of skills and mental and physical responses without which, it is not possible to be a "good pilot" (IMHO).
Let me give a brief background of where I'm coming from and a concrete example of what I mean.
I have only a couple of hundred hours. A handful on fixed wing, the rest on helicopters. I also have about 3500 hours "flying" big tin on VATSIM (if you are serious about PC simming and don't know about VATSIM, Google for it right now!).
In VATSIM, I can operate a 777 (my favourite) very successfully including all of the related procedures which VATSIM does a remarkably good job of simulating. I can fly a SID, follow my planned route, follow a STAR and do a visual onto 26R at Heathrow without breaking sweat, talking to and complying with ATC all the way. I can deal with an unexpected hold or a last minute change of arrival without fluster. I know this all works because I have also been lucky enough to do this in a "real" sim (737) and I had no problems at all using the automatics and hand flying the machine for the first 500 and last 1000 feet to depart and arrive safely back at Heathrow.
However, when I was learning to fly a helicopter, the reality of it all was very different. Hovering is like learning to ride a bike. I would say anyone with reasonable co-ordination can learn to do it. I can hover all helicopters I've flown with ease. Without even thinking about it. Thing is, I can't really tell you how to do it and I have never been able to keep a PC sim helicopter in the air for more than a few minutes without getting into horrible shape. Try explaining to a child how to ride a bike. I reckon it's impossible.
When you switch from lurching around the sky with your instructor calling "I have control" every 20 seconds to that magical moment when you are suddenly in a steady hover, there are some things which simply cannot be simulated which your brain needs.
The beginners mistake is to focus on the ground, I think most people are looking about 15 metres ahead. You cannot succeed like that. What you want to do is focus your eyes well into the distance and let your peripheral vision do the work. It's almost subconscious and I can't even tell you how it all works but you do realise that you are moving over the ground with subtle cues coming in from your periphery.
The second, and more important set of cues, are those that come through the "seat of your pants". With a little experience, you just "know" when the helicopter moves, even before your peripheral vision has picked up the movement and you've already put that pressure on the cyclic (and it generally is pressure, not movement) to arrest the movement before the machine has deviated from it's position. There are always small movements but to an external observer, you are sitting there, in the air, without so much as a ripple.
Subtle sounds are also important. I can tell you pretty much where the rotor RPM is without looking at the tach and can certainly tell instantly when it's going down. The second cue is from the tach but by that time, I'm already on the collective to adjust. The tach just qualifies what I know and shows me that I'm doing the right thing to correct.
I'm sure that the fixed wing guys could provide good parallels.
My experience on sims tells me that you can indeed learn how to operate the machine and prosecute the procedures around it but it cannot help you to fly, nor to be a good (or better) pilot. Where a sim can help is in teaching you the operation and procedures to the point where your brain is free to concentrate on flying and pilotage and your heart free to enjoy the sensations, because the mechanical stuff has moved into your subconscious and has become muscle memory.
Flying is emotional; it's passionate; it's determination; it's personal conquest; it runs in your veins. It's many things more than a sim can ever provide.
If you don't get "Oh I have slipped the surly bonds", then you are an operator, not a flyer.
[EDIT] Am I a good pilot? I'd say I'm average, and striving to be better, but that, in reality, probably describes most pilots, since it is impossible for most to be better than average. I do recognise that I'm in that statistically dangerous zone where I have enough hours to think I'm good but not enough hours to prove it. In my experience, ego and cahonas tells many pilots that they are good pilots ;)
Sorry, I know that's not nice to read but all in all I like to answer your question with a no.
Flight simulators on your computer doesn't offer the possibility to learn how to actually fly an airplane, they even teach you to act in a different way and in my eyes this might be even very dangerous especially if you only have a little flying experience yet.
But there are exceptions: I now don't like to talk about flying but operating an airplane. A flight simulator for sure offers a good possibility to train procedures. To learn instrument approaches you maybe better go into a FNPT but other procedures and flows like organising approaches, work on a propper timing and workflow, practice briefings and even get used to some instruments. Tracking VORs and NDBs outbound from different positions, deciding for the right holding entry and all this stuff.
But once again, a PC flight simulator does not teach you flying the actual airplane and can even be a disadvantage for your initial flight training. If you get used to flying and handle your aircraft well, then it probably is a great way to learn more complex operations.
Another problem I've often observed is that people who 'trained' a lot on their computer become far to confident on what they are doing and very used to procedures which maybe in the actual plane doesn't work. You should always remember that you are a pilot who likes to learn and use the computer only as a helpful device to get a impression how things basically work. If then questions occur, ask your flight instructor.
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I spent a lot of time (years) flying MSFS before getting into a cockpit for real. Turns out I had developed a bad habit of using the instruments rather than my eyes. When simming I probably spent 80% of my time looking at instruments and the moving map and only 20% looking outside. The biggest surprise for me about IRL flying was that these ratios were reversed, at least in VFR.
Now being a pilot it is very helpful for practicing procedures, test-flying cross countries, and, with the ground detail in FSX, practicing navigating by reference to ground features (e.g. "IFR&R": I Follow Roads and Railroads).
I'm not a pilot so I can't answer the second part of the question, but a flight sim can definitely help with learning.
I've been "playing with" MS Flight Simulator ever since the first version came out for the original Mac's nine-inch black-and-white monitor. (It only had the Cessna 172, a Learjet, and a Sopwith Camel.) Many years later, while working at Microsoft, I was practically the only person in the office (not USA) able to do the product press demo at the launch of MS Flight Sim 97. The Cessna is still in there. After the press conference (at an airport!), people were invited to try it for real; we had hired a couple of flight instructors and their ... Cessna's!
I was lucky to get the final slot, and I swear that the only thing the flight instructor ever touched was the radio, and the prop angle at take-off! I had never touched an airplane before (except as an airline passenger, duh) but with my MSFS practice -- even without yoke and pedals -- I just felt right at home and every detail of the 10-minute flight was just as I expected it to be. My own impression is that my flight and landing was considerably smoother than the other "student" that I flew with.
Since I was a young kid I was addicted to flight sims. In all honesty, I think that is what really developed my passion for flying - I'm now 18 with a PPL.
What I found with MS:FS is that it really helped me in terms of understanding things. For example, how control input = output, how VOR works, and good airmanship. This led me to be 8 lessons ahead of where I should be, when I was 8 lessons in. - What would happen is that I'd go up with my instructor, and the planned lesson would be completed [well] within a few minutes, so they started the next lesson in the air.. 8 times in a row. I give this credit to flight simulator.
After what I like to call the "practical part" of flying, IE learning how to make the aircraft do as you want, MS:FS stops having a real effect.
You cannot properly learn to navigate, talk to ATC, taxi, do checks etc with a flight simulator. And, if you do it properly, you won't find any downsides with learning with one.
A common issue is that people may become obsessed with the instruments in a cockpit, and not look outside. Try and stay conscious of how much you use instruments, and I strongly suggest getting a peripheral such as TrackIR, which simulates head movement (best £100 I've ever spent). There are also online groups such as VATSIM which provide advanced tutoring to fly like a professional, with copilots and talking to voluntary certified ATCOs.
For a more realistic flight dynamics experience, I recommend Xplane 10, if your computer can handle it. I have some videos on my YouTube channel that show how sims can be useful for some things.
Happy flying :)
I spend a bit of time using a flight sim (Lockheed-Martin's Prepar3D). I have discussed this very question with CFI's and there is some disagreement. A flight sim cannot "teach you to fly." It can help you practice what you have learned in your flight lessons. there are some caveats: 1) you have to have rudder pedals and a stick or yoke. 2) More monitors is better. 3) Using photorealistic scenery will get you more familiar with area.
A home rig with the minimum "bells and whistles" can run up to $1,000 or more. That's about 5 hours of real world flight lessons plus ground school (If you shop around). You can learn A LOT in 5 hours of flight training.
Though in the presence of other great answers, my two cents are just worth two cents.
I read at several places that chair flying at home is very beneficial during flight training. However it appears to be very boring. A better alternative is always a flight simulator. As everyone has mentioned, it is not a replacement to actual flying, but at least it makes you prepare for the steps to do in a certain situation.
I had Flight Simulator X for years, and I just got back into it.
I like it for a hobby and I like to plan flights, I don't expect to be a real pilot and I don't expect to jump into a plane and fly it I'm not that crazy, but I notice that began to know the instruments and what they are used for, I love FSX and I'm proud of being a FSX Pilot. I know one thing for sure is that I have great respect for the pilots who do fly real airplanes.
Another I like about FSX is that I can fly whatever aircraft I want to and don't have to pay or rent an airplane. I can't afford flight lessons so flying on the simulator is fun and can be very challenging especially when it comes to landing. For me I don't take it as a game but I take it as a learning tool, just in case I do decide to go to flight training, like I said earlier, I would not jump in a real airplane and try to fly it I would take flight lessons first, and hope that what I learn from the Flight Simulator would help me advance quicker.