While looking into getting into flying I've seen in several sources that using flight simulator software typically creates and reinforces bad habits. Most articles say that it reinforces "instrument" flying which is not practical.

Is there some other action I should incorporate into learning to fly that would maybe help me avoid focusing too much on the instruments? Or would the simple introduction of things like pedals, flight sticks, etc be enough help to avoid this issue?

  • 8
    $\begingroup$ Assuming that you're asking about typical 'desktop' simulator software, this question has a lot of good information on pros and cons, limitations etc. although it doesn't directly address the bad habits issue. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 15:38
  • $\begingroup$ Yes I had read through that question actually. I didn't see it addressing the idea of bad habits so thats where I thought I might ask my question. I guess my concern is this is something I really want to do is learn to fly. The idea of using a simulator seems like it would be more beneficial then nothing at all other then lessons but if it enforces bad habits I'd rather avoid that. $\endgroup$
    – Zissouu
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 15:46
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I reworded your question a bit, please just edit again or roll it back completely if I changed it too much. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 16:07
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I'd add that any training has the potential for bad habits and even unsafe practices. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 17:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I remember watching a commercial pilot try MS flightsim (days of the 486) and it took him 20 minutes to get the hang of it. He said it would be like flying a real plane while looking through a "hand-telescope" because of the lack of view and depth. $\endgroup$
    – Criggie
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 6:23

7 Answers 7


I posted this answer on FB a while back:

I’m a commercial pilot as well as a flight sim fan with somewhere in the neighborhood of 7000 hours logged on Flight Simulator and Falcon 4.0 games. I disagree with the assertion that the sims are so different from the real thing. While it is true that the kinesthetics of being in a real airplane are different from the sim, the handling and behavior of the sim is so close to the real thing that the same mistakes I make in the sim I make in the real thing. They are also very effective platforms for practicing instrument flying and approaches. It’s not surprising that Redbird makes use of a proprietary version of FSX for its flight simulators.

That being said there are several notable areas where the entertainment sims can be off from the real thing:

  • Avionics may be simulated poorly or unrealistically. Alabeo payware is a major offender here.

  • Games do not adequately simulate weather hazards. Flying into a thunderstorm in FSX is a benign experience. This can kill you in real life.

  • ATC interaction is appallingly unrealistic, akin to having an adult conversation with a talking Barbie doll. Probably the worst offender is XPlane’s default “ATC” which is absolutely nothing like the real thing.

  • Airport and navigation databases are terribly out of date and cannot be updated. This appears to be changing with the advent of Flight Simulator 2020 which periodically updates its airport and nav databases, but FSX and XPlane are horrible. This dramatically affects realism when flight planning IFR flight and shooting practice approaches, as, at least in the case of FSX, the default approaches are now 14 years out of date!

  • Terminal departure and arrival procedures are often not modeled properly or absent altogether, making operations from major airports unrealistic, especially for jet flying.

  • Considerable errors exist in the default terrain as well as airports. Some of the worst instances I’ve found were in FSX and include an airport in the middle of a 1000ft deep pit. Ft Worth Meecham Intl. has the peculiar obstacle hazard of floating houses along the glidepath to runway 35. Gustaf III / St Bart’s and Courchevel are wretched as well.

  • Some sims (FSX) suffer from control lag ie a delay time between control input and movement of the control surfaces, creating an unrealistic control response which makes it difficult to fly demanding maneuvers eg aerobatics accurately.

  • Some sims are developed around certain types of aircraft and do not replicate other aircraft or systems well. FSX turbine and jet engine simulation is a great example of this.

  • Edge of the envelop flight characteristics such as spins and aerobatics are often modeled poorly or completely absent in these games.

  • Ground handling and and takeoff and landing characteristics are unrealistic compared to the real thing. This is really apparent when flying tailwheel airplanes, particularly in XPlane.

There are fixes to some of these problems. Some payware aircraft are extremely realistic - VRS’s F-18E and RealAir’s BE60 Duke and Lancair Legacy quickly come to mind as does PDMG’s 737NG and 777 aircraft. Additional addons for weather as well as cockpit avionics like Flight1’s GNS430/530 and GTN650/750 GNSS heads are great examples as they use the Garmin trainers as their core. ATC add-ons and Live ATC in multiplayer games alleviate the controller flaws in the default software.

If you do intend to use a desktop flight simulator software to train on, I suggest that it be used as a means to augment actual training in an aircraft following the instructions of a CFI. This allows you to accomplish a lot of training on basic airmanship and a fraction of the total cost compared to actually going out flying in the real airplane. While it diminishes the principle of effect during learning, It can accomplish a great deal of goals in terms of rote procedures and psychomotor practice. Again a good flight training syllabus should be followed under the direct supervision of a certified flight instructor combined with actual flight training in an airplane. When that’s done desktop flight simulators can be extremely useful to a budding airman. I learned how to do crosswind landings using FSX and have always been very good at them ever since. If training is done solely by means of a desktop simulator and self-didiaction, this can lead to negative outcomes, such as incorrect use of the flight controls. I remember one point early on in my flight training, there was another student working with a flight instructor who had logged in a lot of hours in desktop flight simulators by himself prior to beginning flight training. He had developed the undesirable habit of using elevator trim in order to maintain altitude during cruise flight wile playing sims and it took a great deal of work from his flight instructors to break him of this habit and install the correct use of trim in order to neutralize control pressures when in cruise.

  • 15
    $\begingroup$ also, when you crash, you don't die. $\endgroup$
    – Strawberry
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 18:22
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Hey man. I like your answer. In my experience the avionics are simulated perfectly (which is exactly what you don't want). Landing survivability on the other hand is simulated terribly. You don't land tricycle gear with your nose down, but it doesn't check. $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 18:26
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Yes I agree this is an excellent answer. I figured that no mater what that avionics can only be simulated so well. I also figured that a storm was never going to be simulated as accurately but the other bullet points you brought up were things I guess I never really considered. Thank you for the answer @Carlo Felicione $\endgroup$
    – Zissouu
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 18:35
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ On the ATC problem, have you ever used VATSIM for atc? It won't be exactly the same because they usually don't have all the positions staffed, but they work pretty hard at teaching their controllers to be as realistic as possible. $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 18:46
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Yeah I know that the multiplayer (when done right!) ATC like VATSIM can provides a much more realistic experience over the conventional ATC included in the game. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 19:08

The best recommendation I can give you is to get a VR headset. Yes, they're a bit pricey, but not bad at all compared to actual flight hours in a real airplane. Practicing for visual flight just isn't very good with normal monitors.

Personally, I had been playing around with flight sim games for years before I ever flew a real airplane. I do agree that, if done only with normal monitors, it can train you to rely too much on the instruments. For the first maybe 2 flights that I performed in a real airplane, my CFI complained that I was spending too much time looking down at the artificial horizon on the attitude indicator, rather than looking at the actual horizon out the window. That said, after a couple of flights in the real thing, that problem was solved, so it really wasn't that big of a deal. Already being familiar with how the flight controls and instruments work vastly outweighed the need to 'unlearn' that habit.

Unfortunately, my primary training in the real airplane had some large gaps in it. Not long after my first solo, I had a gap of about 2 years between flights, due primarily to grad school, for example. Before I started flying again, I tried using the flight sim to get back in practice. However, even with yoke, pedals, throttle, trim wheel, etc., it was difficult to practice the sorts of visual flying that you do in primary flight training. I had a 3-monitor setup, but it still wasn't enough to be able to, for example, look over my left shoulder at the runway when flying a pattern. Yes, you can pan the view around, but it's not really the same.

Fortunately, shortly after that time, VR headsets came on the market. I purchased one along with an FSX add-on that integrates the headset with FSX. For visual flying, the difference is enormous. Aside from the lack of actually feeling the forces, things like flying a traffic pattern and just general visual flying are very near the real thing, especially if you can get a good model of the airplane that you're actually going to be flying. Just being able to turn your head to the left and see the runway out the window while flying a pattern is incredibly helpful, for example. The same is true for practicing other visual maneuvers, such as turns around a point. And, of course, if you have a good model, the inside of the airplane looks almost exactly like it does in real life. It's much, much more realistic than trying to pan the view around on static monitors.

Additionally, I'd recommend downloading a good terrain scenery pack for the area where you'll be flying. Rather than having the stock FSX terrain that just uses generic textures to represent forested land, small cities, fields, etc., a good, high-resolution scenery pack looks very much like the real thing, especially when combined with a VR headset. I was able to download one for my entire U.S. state (which, for comparison, is about 3 times the size of Switzerland) for a pretty small price. When they say this is high-resolution, they're not joking. Not only can I see my house, I can see individual trees in my yard. It's that good. This is very helpful for practicing visual flight, since you can see the actual landmarks that you'd using for visual navigation in real life.

  • $\begingroup$ those are some interesting points I actually do have/use an htc vive and was considering it as part of a setup for this adventure I had read some into the fsx addon for vr. $\endgroup$
    – Zissouu
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ For me with simulators of various kinds, the primary driver behind focusing on instrument panels is that they are both easier to parse and 100% accurate. If your simulator allows introducing a realistic level of error into the instrument readouts that encourages looking at the visual elements. $\endgroup$
    – Perkins
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 20:51
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Wait, he was upset you were developing habits for instrument flying? Some would say windows aren't very reliable. The windows attitude indicator only works in clear weather. The windows altimeter is pretty sloppy and won't work over ocean or desert. You get the black screen of death about half the time, though at predictable times. Windows leave a lot to be desired. Not to pick on Microsoft or anything. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 22:43
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Harper When you are not in controlled airspace and are operating under visual flight rules, it's a pretty good idea to look out the window. IFR flight is an entirely different matter. It's still good to check the instruments in VFR flying, of course, just not to continuously stare at them. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 23:23
  • $\begingroup$ my CFI complained that I was spending too much time looking down at the artificial horizon on the attitude indicator. That happened to me too. I'm glad I'm not the only person to do that! $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 20:50

One way to avoid reinforcing poor techniques would be to periodically review your flight simulator self-training with a flight or ground instructor.

That way methods which might be disadvantageous to your aircraft flying could be identified, and ways to reduce or eliminate their adverse effect could be discussed.

Over the years several students who have used flight simulators frequently have discussed their use of flight simulators. Those who discuss it and are good at self-evaluation, tend to learn faster, and retain fewer poor techniques.

  • $\begingroup$ Yes I thought about using that approach also to the use of a sim. $\endgroup$
    – Zissouu
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 17:20

Tl;Dr It's difficult if not impossible at the start of your training. Use it to reinforce your instrument-related lessons

Take flying circuits; I usually start my turn from downwind to base when the end of the runway is at 8-o-clock. A PC simulator would need a number of large monitors to allow you look back over your left shoulder to see the threshold. If you can't set that up, don't try to fly circuits with your simulator, however circuits are a basic skill that is taught fairly early on. Trouble is anything that requires a feel for the aircraft and heads-up/eyes-out is not well simulated. Using pedals, a stick and simulated controls won't help much either

Imagine you had never ridden a pedal bike and decided to learn on an gym exercise bike and a PC bike simulator. The exercise bike may help you learn about cadence and gear changing, the simulator may help you learn about the rules of the road and how other road users behave, but you will never learn about things like balance and countersteering

Now, how do you avoid bad habits? Well first you would need someone to tell you exactly what bad habits you might be picking up, because you won't have the experience yet to know what they are, then you would have to set up your equipment and severely restrict your activities to procedures that don't include those opportunities to pick up those bad habits

When I was learning to fly I considered setting up a dedicated simulator with lots of Saitek kit, but it would have cost money that was better spent on more lessons. In the end I used MS Flight Sim 95 to learn checklists, procedures and how to use the instruments

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer! I like the idea of using a sim as a learning tool but I also realized that there would be more benefit from actual lessons. It certainly gives me something to think about. $\endgroup$
    – Zissouu
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 17:20
  • $\begingroup$ You don't need a bunch of monitors just to see your 8-o-clock, sims let you "look around", sometimes even in a 3D cockpit. You don't get the same physical cues, of course... unless you can use VR. $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 18:13
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "A PC simulator would need a number of large monitors to allow you look back over your left shoulder to see the threshold." A VR headset combined with software to integrate it with the flight sim solves this problem quite well. Compared to actual flight hours, you can pick up one relatively cheaply. During my primary flight training, I had multiple long gaps (a couple of years at one point, due to grad school, for example.) I was able to pick back up in the real airplane pretty quickly by practicing in the sim first. But, of course, I already knew what to do. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 19:07

The more hardware is added, the more it helps in learning how to fly. On a PC-simulation program, you only have your central vision to detect the reaction of the aircraft on your inputs, given via a rattly plastic joystick on your desk. That is the only feedback you have, of the response to yourself being the pilot-in-the-loop. Central vision is accurate but slow, that is why we have peripheral vision: to rapidly detect movements. In fact there were claims in the simulation industry some time ago, that peripheral vision is enough to detect motion and that we don't need motion systems. That proved to be false.

So add peripheral vision to the feedback stimuli, and more of your human sensory organs receive stimuli and you will react quicker and more accurately. And the more feedback your body receives, the better it can act:

  • Motion cues. Yes peripheral vision can detect motion, but at a higher phase lag than the sensors in our inner ear, they are way faster.
  • Feel cues. That joystick always feels like a weak sloppy plastic toy. Provide proper force feedback, to the feet as well, and the incredibly accurate force sensors in our hands can help the body do their job.
  • Sound cues. Yes the PC has a speaker and dribbles sound out of it, but a multi-speaker environment where all sounds come from the right spot and have very high frequency bandwidth is really something else.

All of these feedback paths are part of the experience of flying a real aircraft, or of flying a Level D simulator for that matter. The value of focusing on the instruments comes when you go for IFR training, when you are actually thought to focus only on what the instruments are doing. So you would be ahead there.


I have several hundred hours as PIC in real aircraft, and I have used X-Plane and Microsoft FSX. A few others as well (Janes simulators, etc). X-Plane's physical modeling is more realistic than anything else I've tried, so I would recommend starting right there: Get the most realistic simulator you can, and that's X-Plane.

Get a proper yoke and set of rudder/brake pedals. (Not just brakes, like for a driving simulator. It has to be set up for aviation, and include rudder and toe brake functionality.) This will set you back well over a hundred bucks, but if you're serious about learning to fly, don't waste time on joystick/keyboard/mouse nonsense. As a pilot, you need to "step on the ball" (constantly modulate the rudder to point the nose into the wind). Hitting keys on the keyboard to do this is stupid and will not give you any useful muscle memory. A proper aviation yoke will have things like throttle and prop levers, switches you can map to flap and gear, etc. It's really easy to ignore the rudder in a sim, whereas the airplane will feel weird if you ignore that necessity in real life. You ESPECIALLY need rudder discipline when taking off and landing.

Don't use the flying camera/3rd-person view/etc. Keep the camera in the cockpit at all times.

There is an old saying that practice makes perfect. This is dangerously wrong. The saying should actually be, Perfect practice makes perfect. For this reason, you should stop using your flight simulator until after you start taking lessons. There is no point in learning (or reinforcing) a bunch of wrong stuff, and then having to pay that much more money for your instructor to fix all the stuff you thought was right, at $100+/hour.

This will give you more motivation to actually start your lessons.

I also agree that flight simulators are terrible at simulating talking to ATC. In the real world, you will feel pressure to "do it right" that doesn't exist in a simulator. You will practice this a lot with your instructor. A simulator will never approach all the nuances of actual radio talk. You can only learn that by doing it in reality.

When you start training, you should get a copy of the pilot's operating handbook (POH) for the aircraft you rent. It will have V-speeds. It will tell you how fast you should be going when you rotate, how fast you should be flying on approach, and what your flap settings should be. Whenever you fly in the sim, adhere to these. When doing pattern work, your instructor will tell you what altitude and speed you should be flying on downwind. Do your best to nail this in the sim. Watching your altitude and vertical speed are one of the primary tasks you will undertake as a pilot, so get good at that. (No, your instructor won't let you use autopilot - assuming your aircraft even has one.) In a sim, you can just wander around at whatever altitude. In the real world, you are expected to follow the ONE rule (look it up) while flying VFR, or at an assigned altitude if ATC has given you one. They will be pinging you constantly with radar, and they will expect you to keep it flying level, at a single altitude. You should also be doing this on your own, in areas without radar, simply for the safety of yourself and other pilots.

Practice trimming the aircraft. Whenever you increase or decrease speed, you will have to adjust the trim to keep the altitude from wandering up or down.

You have to keep your head on a swivel to watch out for other aircraft. It has happened numerous times that I had to perform maneuvers to get away from other pilots who were flying at the wrong altitude for their direction (ignoring the ONE rule), happening to cross my path at an appropriate altitude, hot-dogging, bumbling around because they didn't read an airport's approach procedure, not talking on the radio (because the pilot is extremely stupid), etc. If you're lucky, and you're on flight following/talking to a tower/flying IFR in a radar-controlled area, the controller might see that someone's going to crash into you and give you a heads-up. You can't expect this to happen all the time. Someone's transponder might be off, the controller might be busy with something else or have a brain fart, etc. If your airplane has a TCAS, or your flight school will let you rent one, definitely go for that. It's worth it!

Flight sims generally won't punish you for not keeping your head on a swivel. Be aware that in the real world, you have to worry about these situations. I guess you could get an Oculus Rift or something like that, and just get into the habit of looking around all the time.

In a flight sim, you can just fly to any old airport, line up with the runway, and land "straight in." In the real world, it will be one of these three things:

  1. Landing at uncontrolled airport (VFR): Get on the unicom frequency while still miles away, and follow the approach procedure published in the AFD. This will usually involve joining a traffic pattern. Some airports (like Big Bear in California) will expect inbound and outbound traffic to fly at SPECIFIC altitudes. Don't be a chump and ignore the AFD. Read the approach procedures BEFORE you plan on landing anywhere. It could literally save your life.
  2. Landing at towered airport (IFR or VFR): Tune into the AWOS or ASOS (published in the AFD) to get the weather and runway condition stuff. It will be announced with a letter (A=Alpha, H=Hotel, etc). Switch to the tower frequency, and say "(airport) Tower, (aircraft name) (tail number) inbound for landing on runway (x) with information Hotel." They will tell you precisely how to land, and on what runway.
  3. Landing IFR at an uncontrolled airport: Mix of the above 2. An approach plate will tell you how the approach works. You will generally land straight in if under IMC. Otherwise, it's common for pilots to cancel IFR and land as they would VFR.

X-Plane will let you do all that stuff, although the part where you talk to them is automated. It's not bad to practice, so you can get a rough idea of how it's done, but the real world is more subtle and complex. Practice is how you get good at that.

If you're serious about this, get an account at the AOPA forums. You have to be an AOPA member, of course, but it's really worth it. Great resource for student and regular pilots.

EDIT: Commenter below recommends VATSIM for practicing ATC. This is a VERY good piece of advice! Definitely go for that if you want to practice talking on the radio.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Great points. I would add that services like VATSIM can provide great practice on the radio bits. As with the rest, still can't beat real world practice. $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 2:48
  • $\begingroup$ That is a very good point! I forgot all about VATSIM. There are plugins for most flight simulators AFAIK. X-Plane for sure. $\endgroup$
    – Huns
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 18:01
  • $\begingroup$ "If your airplane has a TCAS, or your flight school will let you rent one" - I've never heard of a light training aircraft with TCAS, are you talking about a portable ADS-B receiver? $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 18:10
  • $\begingroup$ I've seen flight schools offer a portable TCAS unit. They are also commonly built into LSAs. $\endgroup$
    – Huns
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 1:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Pondlife My local flight club have FLARM mounted in their light aircraft. Not quite TCAS (I don't know to what extent FLARM and TCAS can interoperate, and I doubt it's much of a consideration in practice in this case), but they do accomplish much the same task. This includes two light motor aircraft; one single-engine Ikarus C42B ultralight and one single-engine Cessna 172, both available for use as trainers. I'm not sure whether the gliders feature FLARM, but I think that they do. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 13:51

First of all my advice,

Start using X-Plane it ACTUALLY simulates aerodynamics. Instead of using same set of weather download weather from the internet. If you wont do that simply use random weather generation.

Don't fly the same route. Did I ever tell you the definition of insanity is? Insanity is flying the exact same route over and over again exact same way and expecting this time it will be a different flight that will improve you. Over and over again with exact same techniques.

Do winter flights it will give you habit of turning pitot heat on. Don't underestimate what night flights can do to you

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This would be much more readable if you actually marked the end of your sentences somehow. Best with a full stop. BTW the aerodynamics simulation in X-Plane is very simplified although still can be easily better than just a parametrized model. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 17:35
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Zissouu It's pitot heat, as in pitot tube, not pilot heat. Admittedly the pilot might appreciate a little heat too, but pitot heat is often more important during flight at times when it is needed at all. For an example of what can happen if the pitot tube heat is insufficient, consider Air France flight 447. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 13:54
  • $\begingroup$ I dunno,I Wrote and zero advanced editing post and somebody failed to rewrite that part $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 19:05
  • $\begingroup$ @aCVn Honestly, the iced pitot tube was the least of AF447's problems. Its biggest problem was sitting in the right seat of the flight deck. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented Jul 22, 2020 at 0:01

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .