Flight simulators are a hell of a drug. It was a lesson I learned the hard way during the early days of the global pandemic when I sought out a new hobby to fill my endless days stuck at home. Rather than take up a more conventional covid hobby like baking bread, I decided to dive into the world of flight simming, inspired by the gorgeous, hyperrealistic screenshots from the recently released 2020 Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS) that I kept seeing online. When even a simple trip to the grocery store felt like a major health risk, it seemed like a great way to explore the world — virtually, at least.
Over the course of the next two years, I would end up assembling a basic flight simulator cockpit in my living room and earning a pilot’s license for single-engine aircraft IRL. And I blame it all on the sophisticated realism of modern flight simulator interfaces.
The first thing I learned about flight simming is that peripheral controls matter — a lot. It’s totally possible to sim with only a keyboard and a mouse (or an Xbox controller), but it’s a significantly impoverished experience. You miss out on a lot of what makes the simulator so great: the realistic physics, the perfectly replicated flight control panels, and perhaps most importantly, the feeling that you are actually flying a plane. For this, you at least need a solid yoke, a throttle module, and some rudder pedals connected to your PC.
The second thing I learned about flight simming is that good peripherals are expensive. Within weeks of downloading MSFS for the first time, I had spent hundreds of dollars building a basic sim setup — yoke, pedals, throttle — and this gear wasn’t even close to being top of the line.
Within weeks of downloading MSFS for the first time, I had spent hundreds of dollars building a basic sim setup — yoke, pedals, throttle — and this gear wasn’t even close to being top of the line
Like any hobby, there is a broad spectrum in terms of the quality of accessories. If you’re a casual simmer, you might opt for a sub-$100 plastic joystick and call it a day. If you take simming more seriously, you might get on the waitlist for precisely engineered rudder pedals individually assembled by a boutique company in Europe that sell for more than $500. There are companies that specialize in creating realistic flight gauges, avionics, and ready-made full cockpits. There are even services that provide real-time air traffic control to simulators that are staffed by actual air traffic controllers. The physical interface of modern flight simulators is open to effectively limitless expansion and customization.
Each hardware addition to the flight simulator interface adds to the realism of the experience and is why avid flight simmers will spend thousands of dollars building hyperrealistic home simulators. Taken to the extreme, it’s possible to build an almost perfect replica of a cockpit that allows you to take off, fly, and land just as you would in an actual airplane, all while remaining inside your own home.
But the third thing I learned about flight simming is that even the most expensive and sophisticated interface can only take you so far. The degree of realism in all flight simulators is necessarily asymptotic. The simulation can only bring you to the brink of a true flight experience. There is always something missing, and it was the pursuit of that missing something that ultimately led me to learn how to fly.
Getting a feel for the plane is arguably the most important skill in learning to fly. It also happens to be the one thing that simulators can’t replicate. For new pilots, “flying by the seat of their pants” refers to something palpable, rather than metaphorical — it’s the ability to detect changes in the flight path of a plane based on how the plane transfers those movements to the pilot sitting in the seat. To fly safely, pilots need to learn how it feels to get pushed back in their seat during a steep turn and the slight buffeting sensation that indicates they’re approaching a stall. They need to know how it feels to “balloon” on a landing and what it feels like to lose control of your vestibular system when you fly into a cloud.
One of the first things my instructor told me when I started flight school was that I shouldn’t expect my experience with flight simulators to provide a meaningful advantage in learning how to fly a real plane. In order to get your pilot’s license, you need to spend dozens of hours learning federal regulations, airspace map symbols, air traffic control communications, meteorology, and basic aerodynamics. Some of these things you can become proficient in by spending a lot of time in a home flight simulator. But what you really need to learn in flight school is how it feels to fly a plane safely and competently.
Unlike home sims, training simulators are subject to strict regulations by the Federal Aviation Administration
This doesn’t mean that simulators are useless in flight training, of course. Since World War II, professional and hobbyist pilots have relied on simulators to train in a forgiving setting where they won’t risk death or injury due to inexperience, mechanical failures, or bad weather. While a new generation of sophisticated interfaces has made home flight simulators incredibly realistic over the past decade or so, the types of flight simulators used in in-person training are on an entirely different level. Simulators for military and commercial pilots, for example, are typically fully immersive and tailored to the exact specifications of certain aircraft. The simulator sits on a moving platform that can change in response to the pilot’s flight control inputs or mimic the sensation of turbulence. Unlike home sims, training simulators are subject to strict regulations by the Federal Aviation Administration that dictate how they should be built and used in training. They can teach a pilot a lot, but in the eyes of the FAA, they’re still no substitute for the real thing.
In my experience, I found that building a home flight sim and investing in a semirealistic interface was helpful in terms of mastering the basics of a real plane’s control surface. Still, I was still surprised at how foreign it felt to take off in a real single-engine Cessna for the first time. The resistance of the yoke, the spring of the rudder pedals, and the dappled surface of the trim wheel all felt so familiar. But the thing that was missing — the thing that can never be simulated — is the feeling of the wheels leaving the ground into an endless expanse of blue sky.