Home Flight Simulator Setup – 5. Hardware Instruments

This post is the fifth of a short series on how to develop your own home flight simulator. It’s for the complete beginner, keeping things simple, not meant to be a comprehensive guide.

If you have done what I discussed in the previous posts in this series, then I assume you have your simulator up and running, and you might have some hardware flight controls (yoke or stick, throttle quadrant, rudder pedals). You know how to take off, fly around, and land. But you are still using the keyboard and mouse for some things, certainly if you want to tweak any of the cockpit panel instruments on your computer screen, and you’ve discovered how cumbersome that is. So, you are ready to explore the world of hardware instruments, which have physical switches to flip, buttons to push, and knobs to turn, and which make your flying more realistic and fun. These physical products connect to your computer, usually by USB, and control the flight simulator software, so that what you do on the hardware instrument alters what you see on the screen and changes what the plane is doing.

As an example, I’ll show you what I decided for my own setup, which I fashioned to closely match the experience of flying my dream airplane: the Diamond DA40 NG.

This is an image of a real-life Diamond DA40 NG cockpit.
This is the cockpit panel of a simulated Diamond DA40 NG that you can buy for your simulator.

As you can see, the simulated panel on your computer screen is very realistic, almost identical to the real thing. But you’d have to be very precise with your mouse to hit the tiny switches, buttons, and knobs, and it’s even more difficult to do it quickly as you are flying. It’s much easier and much more realistic to have physical hardware. Fortunately, there are companies that can match some or all of the panel components with fantastic precision.

I chose to purchase part of the panel, the main part, which emulates the Garmin G1000 suite and its associated audio panel. This is the exact product I own:

G1000 hardware instruments for flight simulators.

And here’s what it looks like in my actual home setup:

The current version of my flight simulator.

You can see that the physical hardware G1000 suite is at easy reach right in front of my face, in front of the computer monitor. Using it reproduces the flying experience very accurately. The G1000 hardware product gives me two navigation radios, two communication radios, digital flight instruments (airspeed indicator, attitude indicator with artificial horizon, a barometrically sensitive altimeter, vertical speed indicator, horizontal situation indicator, and turn coordinator). I also have knobs to set barometric pressure, heading, course, and altitude, a GPS with moving map and ability to load flight plans, charts to go along with the moving map (airport, departure, arrival, and approach charts), autopilot, an audio panel, and those are just the basics. This simulator hardware has a myriad of other functions that closely mimic a real life G1000 system.

There are other parts of the real-life cockpit panel that I chose NOT to reproduce in physical hardware. For example, I didn’t need to have buttons for lights, fuel pump, pitot heat, the backlup instruments, the electric circuit breaker panel, the starter, the fuel exhange button, and others. Though I do have buttons on the throttle quadrant that I use to program things like flaps, landing gear, brakes, etc. This way, once I set up the flight and start the simulation, I never have to touch the mouse or keyboard commands to fly the airplane. It makes my simulated flight experience MUCH more realistic.

This was just one example of physical hardware instruments. There are many others available, from many companies, for a multitude of other airplanes, each reproducing the real thing. You pick and choose what fits your wants/needs and budget.

And this is a good time to mention that there are complete systems that reproduce every part of a particualr airplane cockpit. These are available from several companies, including RealSimGear and Flight Velocity to name just two. And I’m talking about systems that are within a “reasonable” price range for the regular person, not the commercial systems for flight school simulators. Though, of course, these complete home systems are indeed quite pricey, in the $7,000 to $20,000 range. To a rank beginner, these prices sound astronomical. But if you have paid $200 to $300 per hour for flight instruction, you can see how quickly it would “pay” for itself. I have about 250 hours on my simulator. If I had paid $200/hr on a real plane, that would total to $50,000. See? And some of these complete systems qualify as an official, FAA-approved BATD (Basic Aviation Training Device) which can be used to log time and experience that goes toward certificate and currency requirements.

Here is an example of a complete system from RealSimGear:

A complete “turnkey” system that qualifies as an offical, FAA-approved BATD.

Whether you buy the few instruments that make sense for your situation or are able to invest in a complete system, hardware instruments make simulator flying much more realistic and enjoyable.

Your next assignment: Explore the vast world of hardware instruments and see what you might like—> Want—> NEED!!! LOL 

Next post: Enhancements and Add-ons

Home Flight Simulator Setup – 4. Flying by the Rules, or Not

This post is the fourth of a short series on how to develop your own home flight simulator. It’s for the complete beginner, keeping things simple, not meant to be a comprehensive guide.

By now, you’ve downloaded and installed your flight simulator software, and hopefully, you’ve purchased some peripheral hardware like a yoke or stick and a throttle quadrant to make flying more realistic. And if you’ve done all that, surely you’ve taken your first few flights. What fun!

Simple setup

If you are totally new to it, you experienced the thrill of flying a simulated plane, making it turn right and left, up and down, experiencing your world from an awesome new perspective. If you start a flight from your hometown, you will probably recognize roads and landmarks, but sooner or later, you’ll wonder where you are, where you want to go, and how to get there. You’ll also wonder how you’ll land the plane. You’ll surely try it a few times, maybe crashing the plane over and over again. That’s normal for a brand-new beginner, playing with the simulator like a child with a new toy. Again, what fun!

It’s right about then that many people want to know more. Both X-Plane and Microsoft Flight Simulator have built-in tutorials to get you up and flying, and landing. After that, it’s simply a matter of doing it and practicing. You’ll develop some skills and habits, some good and some maybe not so good.

For some sim pilots, that’s all the instruction and learning they’re interested in. They’ll fly a small single-engine piston airplane, a military jet, or maybe an airliner, a seaplane, an ultralight, or even a spaceship, learning by trial and error and loving it just fine. There’s nothing wrong with that in the sim world. #NoRulesNoProblem

But for the serious budding sim pilot, the kind of person who wants to know how it’s really done IRL, you will want answers to the thousands of questions that will present themselves as you dive into it more and more–like how an airplane is made and how the parts work, how it flies through the air, how to navigate from here to there, how to use the myriad of instruments in the cockpit, how to interact with air traffic control, about the weather, etc, etc, etc. That sort of person will be looking things up on the internet and will start looking for reliable resources. They’ll want to know how real pilots do it, and that means they want to follow the flying rules.

So, speaking of resources, here’s a book I DO NOT recommend for the beginner, but is the basis for all flying rules in the USA. It is a part of the larger set of government rules called the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), which is a gigantic compendium of all the federal rules and regulations that govern everything in the USA. It is divided into 50 main sections called “Titles,” and the one that governs everything about flying is “Title 14: Aeronautics and Space.” This is more commonly known as the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR), and these rules are overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAR is a misery to read because it’s written in a dry and technical sort of way and without images. But every real-life pilot absolutely needs to know all the pertinent parts that will govern their flying. In addition to that, the FAA publishes another important book, the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), which contains the basic knowledge and information required to fly in US airspace. The book I DO NOT want you to read (at least not at the start) is the FAA’s huge official annual publication, which includes both products, called the FAR/AIM. Fortunately, there are better ways to learn the important and essential information contained in it.

Many companies and individuals have produced books that cover the same information that is in the FAR/AIM in a more readable format. These are used in flight schools all over the country. You would start using such a resource at your first flight lesson, and you would eventually have to pass tests to confirm that you know all the required information before earning your Private Pilot Certificate in the real world. So why not learn about it even in the sim world?

If there is one book I DO RECOMMEND to learn all this information for the Private Pilot level of flying, there’s no question it would be Rod Machado’s Private Pilot Handbook. It is a truly great resource for learning the essence of aviation, written in a fun, engaging manner, with numerous helpful images. It has everything you would need to pass the official Private Pilot tests IRL and is completely appropriate for the serious sim pilot of any age.

In addition to a textbook reference, there are numerous online courses that will teach much of the same material. Just do a search for “private pilot ground school online.”

Another necessity for flying beyond your home turf is a good map, which in the world of aviation is called a “chart.” In the old paper chart days, the large area of the United States was necessarily divided into smaller sections, to more easily open and fold in the cockpit during flight. These came to be known as “sectional charts.” You can find these from various vendors or for free. Just do a search for “sectional charts” and go from there. Learning how to read them is an entirely different matter. But if you want to fly far, with specific destinations in mind, you’ll definitely want to use a chart.

And this is a good time to introduce the idea of “electronic flight bags.” In the past, before the digital revolution that came to the aviation world in the 1990’s, pilots carried with them a flight bag with all their important stuff: charts of various sorts (loose maps and large notebooks), airport information, E6B flight calculator, ruler, pens/pencils, notepad, kneeboard, logbook, checklists, weight and balance forms, and more. I still have an image of airline pilots of old boarding a plane with a small suitcase of flight-related stuff. These days, the vast majority of it fits in your iPad! There are several “electronic flight bags” in popular use today, by far the most popular being ForeFlight. Click on the link to get an idea of the immense power of this must-have application. I use it for every single flight, be it IRL or on my simulator, at the very least for flight planning, weather information, airport information (runways, taxiways, elevation, frequencies, etc), and charts (multi-layered moving map, departure/arrival procedures, approach charts, airport layout, etc). I also keep my logbook on ForeFlight. I wirelessly connect ForeFlight with my X-Plane flight simulator, giving me a moving map and all the information I need for every flight, to use it with my simulator just like I use it IRL.

If you do become more serious about the flying rules, you will soon discover that they are divided into two main categories: Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). In the real world, your initial Private Pilot Certificate would allow you to fly VFR. It would take further training to learn how to fly without looking out the window, purely by reference to the cockpit instruments. Passing those tests would earn you an Instrument Rating, and allow you to fly in more demanding conditions than a basic VFR pilot could fly in. A sim pilot would want to have some of these IFR skills and knowledge to take full advantage of the simulator.

In fact, many people who are learning to be pilots IRL, or working on a more advanced rating, use a home simulator as part of their training. It is a great way to complement your actual flight training, reinforcing skills and procedures on your own time and without the great expense of additional actual flying hours.

Whether you fly your simulator by playful trial-and-error or more seriously by gradually increasing your skills and knowledge, simulated flying can be richly rewarding and entertaining.

Your next assignment: Fly your simulator often, and start making a list of what you want to learn more about. 

Next post: Hardware Instruments

Home Flight Simulator Setup – 3. Essential Hardware and Peripherals

This post is the third of a short series on how to develop your own home flight simulator. It’s for the complete beginner, keeping things simple, not meant to be a comprehensive guide.

In the previous post, I discussed how to “download and install” the X-Plane12 flight simulator (XP, XP12, sim), and that downloading and installing the Microsoft Flight Simulator is very similar.

Even though it’s possible to use keyboard commands to operate a home flight simulator, flying that way is completely unnatural and no fun. So, in this post, I’ll concentrate on the essential hardware and peripherals you will use to fly the sim and make it really fun.

Let’s take a moment to talk about computer screens.

You’ll want a good sized screen, and it has to have a fast refresh rate, 60 Hz being the bare minimum, 144 Hz better, and 240 Hz even better. The bigger the screen, the more you’ll enjoy the experience, and wider is more important than taller. A three-screen setup, like in the image above, gives you a wide-angle view which is really helpful and makes the experience more enjoyable, because a pilot often has to look far left and far right. But three screens are definitely not required to enjoy your sim. Do a search for images of flight sim screens and see the great variety of setups that people use. There’s no one best way. You’ll use what’s best for your physical space and budget.

And speaking of multiple screens, you should make sure your computer is able to handle at least 3 screens, preferably 5, to accommodate possible instrument screens in the future.

So now let’s talk about flight simulator controls. They are sold by many companies including but certainly not limited to Logitech, Thrustmaster, Honeycomb Aeronautical, CH Products, VirtualFly, Turtle Beach VelocityOne, etc, etc. On top of that, each company might have several options for the same controller, with varying quality and cost. The good news is that there are perfectly good controllers that will do the job at an affordable price. Of course, in general, the more you pay, the more you get. You might want to start economically, then gradually upgrade your setup over time. I find it enjoyable to do internet comparisons of various options from various companies at various price points.

So, where to start? How about with the main controller, the one you’ll use to climb and descend (pitch control), and to roll the plane to the left and right to help it turn (bank control.) This controller comes in two basic types–yoke and stick.

(The following images are just examples from random companies, not necessarily what I use or my recommendation.)

Yoke or Stick

Example of a yoke type of controller
Example of a stick type of controller

Depending on what type of airplane(s) you plan to fly in your simulator, you’ll choose to own a yoke, a stick, or both. Besides the primary function of contolling pitch and bank, these products tend to have numerous buttons that are easily programmable through XP settings–things like raising or lowering flaps or landing gear. In addition, some sticks also twist to control yaw and to steer the airplane while it’s on the ground, which is normally something you do with rudder pedals.

Throttle Quadrant

The simplest throttle quadrants have 3 levers to control throttle, propeller, and mixture. They are often bundled along with a yoke or stick as shown in the picture above, but they can be bought separately as well. For multi-engine airplanes, throttle quadrants are available that have more levers.

Rudder Pedals

As mentioned above, rudder pedals control yaw while in the air, and are used to steer the airplane while on the ground.

Multi-function Controllers

CH Products makes this interesting controller that has a yoke, a built-in throttle quadrant, and built-in rudder “pedals” that are really paddles you operate with your thumbs. This is actually a great way to get started in the world of flight simming, as the cost of this one product is much less than three components if you buy them separately. An additional benefit is that this unit takes up very little space, and is easy to attach to a table and detach.

Installing and Programming

You’ll be shocked at how easy it is to install these items. They almost always simply just plug into a USB port, and that’s it. They are powered through the same USB csonnection. They usually don’t require drivers or any additional software. After you first install them, you’ll go to X-Plane settings and X-Plane will walk you through a quick, intuitive calibration. While you’re in settings, you can explore a little and see how easy it is to program the buttons if you wish. Each button has a letter or number, and it can be assigned to a function from a drop-down list. Easy!

I will point out that as you add components, you can quickly run out USB ports on your computer, so you might have to use a hub to accomodate all your components and connections.

And that’s it for the essential hardware. You are ready to fly!

In a subsequent post, I’ll talk about more advanced hardware peripherals.

Your next assignment: Search the internet for flight simulator controllers, and check prices on the company websites or on Amazon. Then check your wallet. 😀

Next post: Flying by the Rules, or Not

Home Flight Simulator Setup – 2. Download and Install

This post is the second of a short series on how to develop your own home flight simulator. It’s for the complete beginner, keeping things simple, not meant to be a comprehensive guide.

In the previous post, I discussed “big picture” items such as what simulator software I recommend, and the fact that you should have a powerful enough computer to run the simulator.

As I mentioned at the end of the last post, I will now concentrate on the X-Plane12 flight simulator (XP, XP12, sim), though much of this will apply to Microsoft Flight Simulator as well.

By now, you have probably investigated X-Plane and have an idea of what it is all about. Even before you make a final decision on buying it, you can download and install the Free Demo. You might want to download it to your normal laptop or desktop computer, even if it is not as powerful as recommended, as this will still give you a good-enough glimpse at the sim.

The Free Demo gives you all you need–airplanes and scenery. If you are asked to choose what scenery you want, keep it to a minimum. For example, if you live in the US, just download the US scenery. That will limit the size of the download (which is quite large) and the computer processors’ workload. After it’s downloaded, explore the menus and the settings, just to get an idea of what they include. You will gradually get to know these very well.

Then start a new flight. Here’s how you do it. After clicking “New Flight”, pick a simple “General Aviation” single-engine piston airplane, like a Cessna Skyhawk, though it doesn’t have to be that. Then pick an airport close to home. After you pick the airport, look at the upper right-hand corner of that window and click on “Customize”. Find the Ramp/Runway toggle and choose “Runway”. Don’t worry about the wind direction for this one, just pick any long runway. Then start the simulation. For most small single-engine piston airplanes, you can take off when the speed is about 55-60 knots, so keep it on the ground until you reach that speed. (BTW, the letter “B” on your keyboard is the brake toggle. You’ll want to take off the brakes. LOL) It might take you a few times to figure out how to maintain the centerline and how to raise the nose of the airplane to take off, but you’ll get it eventually. Keep trying, and you’ll be flying in no time. If you’re a newbie to all of this, look for the included tutorials.

If you do download the demo version to your normal laptop, you will quickly encounter some serious limitations. The first is the size of your laptop screen. Yes, you can run flight simulators this way, but your view is greatly restricted by the small size of a laptop screen. You’ll realize that you’ll want a bigger one. I’ll discuss this further in the next post.

The second is that flying an airplane with mouse, trackpad, and keyboard commands is awkward, to say the least. Yes, you can fly it that way, but it makes flying much more cumbersome, less enjoyable, and less realistic. You’ll realize that you’ll want some airplane-like controllers. I’ll also discuss this further in the next post.

The third is possibly poor visual output on the screen. If what you see on screen is pixilated or otherwise glitchy, you may not have a strong enough internet connection or (more likely) a powerful enough computer.

This is a good time to mention fps, or frames per second. Fps is a number that we use to keep an eye on the net result of the computer’s processing and final output to the screen. Any fps below 20 is not good enough. 20-30 is okay, Over 30 is best. To keep a constant eye on this, go to Settings>Data Output and click the box that corresponds to Frame Rate/Show in Cockpit. This will give you a tiny, unobtrusive green display in the upper left-hand corner of the screen showing moment-by-moment changes in fps.

If the fps is too low, you can make changes in Settings>Graphics to help your processor out. Start sliding things one notch to the left to increase your fps.

After a few demo flights, you will have a very good idea if this is something you want to keep doing. If you like it enough, you won’t mind spending money on the full version. If you do buy it, you’ll get a product key/number that you will use to activate the sim to its full version. Then follow the prompts to update the files. X-Plane makes it very simple and intuitive to do updates.

Your next assignment: make a priority list of what you want/need to make your sim experience more enjoyable.

Next post: Essential Hardware Peripherals