Flight simulators are amazing tools that allow you to learn, refine, and practice your skills as a pilot. However they are far from perfect. Knowing what to practice and having the right expectations is vital to making the most out of your time with a simulator.
So, how should you use a sim and what should you practice?
If you are just starting out, simulators are a wonderful way to become more familiar with the layout of the instrument panel, use of your checklists and some of the procedures you will use frequently. Later on, as you begin working on cross country flying you can practice your navigation skills and reliance on VOR’s, GPS systems, or even pilotage.
Simulators are invaluable during your instrument training. After a flight lesson, you can repeat the same lesson and refine the procedures you just learned. You can practice instrument approaches of every variety and pause the simulator if the approach isn’t going perfectly, allowing you the chance to examine the situation and how to fix it. The instrument license even allows for up to 10 hours of your training time to be logged in a PCATD like the one at Horizon. The time you spend with your simulator at home is not loggable, but it will make the time you spend with your instructor more efficient and effective.
Currently there are three different consumer grade flight simulators available for download.
Prepar3D: Owned by Lockheed Martin (yes, THAT Lockheed Martin) Prepar3D is the easiest, most consumer friendly flight sim currently available. You can load the program, hit a button, and instantly be placed in an airplane on a runway with the engine running ready to takeoff.
XPlane: a bit more complicated than Prepar3D, XPlane takes a little more time to figure out though it does create a more realistic flight experience. You can create challenging weather situations and even replicate equipment failures.
Digital Combat Simulator: this sim is really all about FUN. Featuring mostly military aircraft, DCS allows you to explore with surprising detail and realism, the cockpits and flight characteristics that most of only dream of every flying. New aircraft are added frequently and civilian aircraft are starting to appear.
All of these simulators provide the option to fly in a single user mode or in an online flight environment complete with air traffic control (provided by real people simulating being controllers!) and other users flying their aircraft.
Simulators are a cost effective, fun way to keep yourself engaged with the world of flying in the hours when you can’t make it to the airport. With the right approach it will help your flight training be a richer, more efficient process. Keep in mind that practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent. If you spend time in the simulator practicing flawed processes and procedures it will take time to correct those errors in the actual airplane. Be sure that what you are practicing in the sim is the correct procedure or method. Not sure if you have it right? Bring it to the attention of your CFI on your next lesson and clear up any confusion.