What simulation software do airlines use for training purposes? Do they use software like P3D, FSX, X-Plane, or FlightGear? Or is it a custom? What about aircraft? Do they source them from groups like PMDG or is this also custom?

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    $\begingroup$ Flight schools do not use computer games for training, they use professional software $\endgroup$ – expeditedescent Oct 26 '17 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ @J.Hougaard Most of the "computer games" are professional software... the only difference being license terms and any customizations put on top and usually full-motion systems and/or complete cockpit mockups. If every training simulator company completely re-invented the wheel, they'd never be profitable. So much development goes into flight modeling, physics, etc... Flight sim software sold to "regular people" increases the userbase of the software, which helps shake out bugs (and fund improvements) a lot faster than if it were only companies using the software. $\endgroup$ – SnakeDoc Oct 26 '17 at 18:25
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    $\begingroup$ Folks, the OP is asking about the software - of course the hardware for a full-motion flight sim is very expensive, but these companies that are being cited are unlikely writing their own in-house simulation software - it's more likely a modified commercially available FAA approved flight simulation. $\endgroup$ – SnakeDoc Oct 26 '17 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ @user71659 Since an IBM RS/6000 is a RISC CPU architecture based UNIX server, it can run just about any normal software, X-Plane included (which is designed to run on UNIX environments). Yes, they make custom models, but the core software is going to be something another company developed... such as X-Plane or P3D. Wasting time and money developing a core simulator again would be a massive misappropriation of resources, and it's unlikely you're going to convince Boeing et al to spend a lot of their time re-developing the same aircraft model for some random home-brewed simulator. $\endgroup$ – SnakeDoc Oct 26 '17 at 22:58
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    $\begingroup$ @user71659 Look, I know you folks like to think you're using some real special gear when using these big commercial flight simulations -- and you are, the hardware and customizations are certainly special... but the core simulator is a commercially licensed version of an FAA certified simulator like X-Plane or Prepar3d. They start with a good quality base, and build on top of it. It's literally the entire reason Prepar3d (and before it ESP) and Commercial X-Plane exist. $\endgroup$ – SnakeDoc Oct 26 '17 at 23:03

X-Plane offers a "Professional Level" which is mostly about licensing. However X-Plane also has an FAA certified version that if paired with proper controls is legal for certain training/instructional hours. You can find more info on the FAA's approved simulators here and here. The flight school I trained at had a certified sim from the 80's that was pretty miserable by todays standards. It was certified and had no screen, I would say it was "custom built" FWIW.

Many airlines may turn back to the manufacturer for recurrent training. Both Boeing and Airbus run facilities with full motion simulators. I would think they built the software in-house but I don't have any hard evidence on that. As the OEM builder they have access to genuine interior parts to build the sims.

For smaller aircraft places like SIMCOM offer training in full motion sims but do not list their software of choice. SIMCOM uses actual aircraft interiors (most likely from defunct airframes) for their sims.

If your really adventurous you can build a full cockpit sim yourself.

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    $\begingroup$ Boeing makes military aircraft, I'd bet they've got an in-house simulator. $\endgroup$ – Carl Oct 27 '17 at 3:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Carl Lockheed Martin bought ESP from Microsoft (the commercial version of FSX), and it's released as Prepar3d (P3D) to the public and for commercial applications. Lockheed did this so that they had a solid simulator platform, and didn't have to spend all the time and money building one from scratch - they specialize in building aircraft after all, not simulators. I doubt Boeing homebrewed their own simulator, it would be a huge waste of time and money. $\endgroup$ – SnakeDoc Oct 27 '17 at 14:54
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    $\begingroup$ @SnakeDoc The first flight simulator was funded by the military and it's the reason we store data on magnets. The pilots who first flew the F-35 knew how to fly it before it was built. Yeah, LM makes planes, but the reason they are good planes is because the simulation behind them. I highly doubt that Microsoft had anything to offer LM other than a code-base that was not 100% ultra-top-secret. $\endgroup$ – Carl Oct 27 '17 at 17:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Dave worth adding to compliment your answer: aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/12634/… $\endgroup$ – SnakeDoc Oct 27 '17 at 21:12

Computer games try to model the aircraft based on generalized aerodynamic and physical principles and at best "feel". FAA and EASA certified full flight simulators are built with a data package purchased from the airframer, which uses their developmental models coupled with actual flight test data.

On top of that, full flight simulators do not simulate much of the hardware. Things like FMS, display computers, autopilot, and even fly-by-wire computers, are traditionally done with actual flight hardware that are fed with data from the simulator. This ensures the highest levels of fidelity. In newer systems, if they don't run the hardware, they obtain the original code from the vendors and run it in a software simulator (a process called re-hosting).

Obviously none of the enthusiast programs can do this. A single full flight simulator can cost up to $20 Million, so their resources are far better than what enthusiast software program can do. For full-size jets, there are essentially two companies in the world who do this, CAE and L-3 CTS (formerly Thales).

Here's a (somewhat older) article detailing the custom software architecture these simulators use.

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    $\begingroup$ 18 years ago? That is ancient $\endgroup$ – Koyovis Oct 27 '17 at 0:19
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    $\begingroup$ This is not entirely correct, enthusiast programs like X-Plane (and to an extent FSX) have GPS, Autopilot, and FMS systems modeled in and fully functional. While not pure hardware implementations like the real thing the simulated outcome is for all practical purposes the same. $\endgroup$ – Dave Oct 27 '17 at 4:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Dave No it isn't. First, show me a FMS simulator in X-Plane that can do FLS (FMS Landing System, Boeing IAN). How about a RNP AR approach? The second critical part is failures. 75% of sim flying is failures and modeling cascading failures accurately is critical. What happens if you're on an autoland and AC BUS 2 fails. Or a FMGC1 major reset, what are the cockpit effects? How do you use backup nav mode? Remember, the first time pilots who are trained on a FAA Level D Simulator touch a plane, it has passengers on it. Even the cockpit lights on a FFS are modeled into the correct buses. $\endgroup$ – user71659 Oct 27 '17 at 4:47
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    $\begingroup$ This is an example of a standard FFS failure drill. Note the depth of failures that are modeled, displays fail, lights fail, standby instruments go off, flight controls degrade, autopilot fails... The realism down to how long it takes for the displays to reconfigure... because they're using real display computers. $\endgroup$ – user71659 Oct 27 '17 at 5:08
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    $\begingroup$ @user71659 You're missing the point. They start with something like X-Plane, and then build on top of it - in both custom modules (software), custom models (software), and custom hardware such as cockpits, full motion, etc. Just because joe-shmo can't buy a 100% accurate 747 model in X-Plane for $34.99 doesn't mean a big professional simulator company with direct collaboration with Boeing cannot build such a thing on top of the platform. This is what they do... they spend countless hours building the models... but not the core sim. That would be a fools errand and a waste of resources. $\endgroup$ – SnakeDoc Oct 27 '17 at 14:58

Yes the PC software that OP mentions can be used for professional flight training - if it demonstrates to the authorities that it matches aircraft data, and that is where the distinction lies. It has to be FAA/EASA qualified, where EASA has stricter rules on low level devices.

The distinction between computer games and flight simulators has been blurring in the last decade. What's the difference anyway, on a PC we see an out-the-window view, a 6-DoF model of an aeroplane react to our inputs, hear sounds, can see indicators move...walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, must be a duck, right?

Not necessarily. The main difference is the verification. A computer program sold to the general public does not have to prove to anybody that the model behaves like the real aeroplane, just manage feedback from users. A simulation device used for professional training, does have to demonstrate fidelity: the FAA and EASA want you to objectively prove how realistic the device is. So whatever software you use (and it can be X-plane or FlightGear) must demonstrate that it matches objective aircraft measurements.

Building flight simulators used to be akin to black magic. 30 years ago, building a Level D simulator was an almost impossible feat of engineering, a brilliant effort to reproduce all failures modes that pilots are trained for handling, running on multiple Super Fast processors in a Unix environment. Super Fast meaning about 286-type performance, with zero MB memory. The Level D fully justified a high price.

Own photo

Not anymore. Yes the hardware is not cheap, but with today's sales prices less than half the price of a Level D simulator. Robotics and fast processors have made the hardware cost pretty reasonable nowadays, and there have been market disruptors (disclaimer: I used to sell their devices). Nowadays the main cost of a Level D simulator is in the license price that needs to be paid to the aircraft manufacturers for use of their data.

Whose software is running on the devices?

  • Airbus and now Boeing have started to deliver black boxes with the flight model running on it, together with the license.
  • All major manufacturers have developed their own flight model software in the past. A major effort (> 100 man years) because there are so many aircraft response plots to match, and only six degrees of freedom. CAE, TRU, FlightSafety, Indra, Axis, L-3 have delivered Level D simulators with in house developed software models and verified flight model responses.
  • Some research institutes have delivered simulator flight models. NLR of The Netherlands has delivered a Level-C helicopter flight model for KARi for instance.
  • Some manufacturers who pioneered low cost, low level Flight Training Devices such as Frasca have delivered full motion simulators.


There are new kids on the block as well, a company like RedBird is taking a blank slate approach. A GA type cockpit inside. This type of simulator is FAA approved, for a lower standard than the Letter Devices, of which mostly Level D is now delivered.

The PC software that OP mentions can be used for flight training, and make very good practising tools for standard operations: power up the aircraft, start all systems, start the engines, learn how to trim, how to operate the radio, how to communicate etc. FLightSim, X-Plane, FlightGear etc are all very useful tools, much more so than the old fashioned way.

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  • $\begingroup$ Regarding realism, try this: Take your favorite computer-software flight simulator (Microsoft Flight Simulator, Flightgear, X-Plane, ..., whichever), take off normally, and then do something really, really stupid. I took (admittedly a somewhat old) Flightgear's Piper PA-28 for a ride a few days ago, took it to something like 1000-1500 feet, and then pointed the nose essentially straight down and pushed the throttle to maximum. The aircraft actually bounced off the ground! That's how good the flight dynamics model is. I'm pretty sure that would cause a FAA/EASA/etc certification fail. $\endgroup$ – user Oct 27 '17 at 13:03
  • $\begingroup$ Yes. I've tried a couple of helicopters and found them to be flying like fixed wing aircraft. You cannot feel accelerations, have no force feedback and usually have no peripheral vision on the PC games, so cannot really tell how realistically it is behaving anyway. $\endgroup$ – Koyovis Oct 27 '17 at 13:08
  • $\begingroup$ I figure plain computer flight simulators running on commodity hardware have their place, but that place is not serious training for actual flight, especially outside of mostly stable and level flight (as, I think, is so aptly illustrated by that CFIT PA-28 example above). $\endgroup$ – user Oct 27 '17 at 13:16
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling That's actually an issue with FFS that has lead to fatal accidents. Certification requires the model be backed up by real data and subjective experience from flight tests. The major issue was with stalls and stall recovery. There were explicit instructions not to train past a stall warning because the models were not validated and in many cases invalid for effects like vibration. The lack of training was a causal factors in accidents like AF447, so you can see a lot of simulators are being retrofit due to new FAA requirements to train to a full stall (AC 120-109). $\endgroup$ – user71659 Oct 27 '17 at 16:49
  • $\begingroup$ MPS is a relative new company that offers fixed base simulators, I visited their production site a couple of times. IIRCuse a datapack from the aircraft manufacturer, but implement most of the software themselves. I think their visualisation is 3rd party, but the rest is developed in-house. Also note that whilst the flight dynamics is essential for a good flight simulator, a large part of the simulator software deals with the aircraft systems and all possible failures and effects that are associated with that. $\endgroup$ – DeltaLima Oct 27 '17 at 17:09

Airliners train their pilots using flight training devices (simulators) to keep them current with their licenses.

"Simulators" range from single PC applications for procedural training to Full Flight Simulators, those that have a realistic cockpit, and that even moves, vibrates and generates the required realistic ambiance (sounds, visuals) to make you feel you are really flying.

The full flight simulators, if certified to Level D, meet strict criteria for simulating a flight condition. From taxi to emergencies and landing in various weather and aircraft conditions. Because of this realism and high fidelity, a flight hour in the simulator is logged into the pilots logbook just like a real flight.

Therefore the simulators that are used for pilot training have complex hardware and software that are developed especially for the particular aircraft they represent.

Here are two links to companies that work in this field:




I worked on D class simulators in Australia and all the software we used was built in house specifically for the task.

For lower fidelity simulations we used a mix of X-plane for aerodynamics and visuals, VBS for the simulation environment and other in house software for instrumentation and other components.

The reason we couldn't use game software like X-plane for D class simulations is because their physics and visual simulations were not up to FAA standard, for example, reflections off of waves in water, flight model oddities in wind conditions and various other environmental shortcuts that are 'good enough' for games but not for simulation purposes.

For the D level simulations, our calculation software had to run at 1000Hz to be as responsive as possible to pilot and environment actions, which (as far as i know) game engines do not support.

If you want some more information here's the public documentation for a couple which use custom software for simulation and display. The documents are a bit basic but they get the general idea across.

Wedgetail simulation

787 simulator

Helicopter trainer

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    $\begingroup$ Thales sold its civil simulator business to L3 Link in 2012 $\endgroup$ – Koyovis Oct 28 '17 at 2:55
  • $\begingroup$ Indeed they did. I was around when it happened. Though that just means they use the same technology now. $\endgroup$ – Serdalis Oct 28 '17 at 3:13

Commercial carriers use hardware simulators, not software. Each carrier has one or more training facilities. For example, American Airlines has one in Fort Worth and one in Charlotte. Pilots have to learn a wide range of different skills which are not only how to fly particular planes but how to deal with specific types of dangerous situations and ancillary needs such as learning how to perform CPR.

Simulators are generally provided by the aircraft manufacturer and come in two basic types: systems simulators and full-motion simulators. A systems simulator has no visuals, just controls. The pilot learns how to push buttons and perform procedures in the right sequence. The full-motion simulator is a large box on hydraulic mounts that has a visual screens and can tilt in any direction. It is used for training maneuvers.

  • $\begingroup$ Hardware simulators still have to run some kind of software though, right? $\endgroup$ – Zach Lipton Oct 29 '17 at 8:51
  • $\begingroup$ @ZachLipton Yes, but they run custom software designed specially for the simulator to model the intended aircraft, not retail shrink wrap simulators like X9. $\endgroup$ – Tyler Durden Oct 29 '17 at 15:04

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