Home Flight Simulator Setup – 1. The Big Picture

This post is the first 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.

I think most people would agree that aviation is fascinating. The idea of flying like a bird or a superhero is the stuff of dreams and childhood fantasies. A fortunate few of us have actually learned to fly an airplane, and now there is a way for anyone to learn to fly–perhaps not in real life, but remarkably close to it in a simulator.

Not too long ago, simulators themselves were also the stuff of dreams and fantasies, but technology has advanced at a great pace, and we now have the ability to develop an advanced flight simulator for home use. It doesn’t have to be an ultra-expensive room-sized setup on hydraulics like they use for pilot training. All you really need is a little tabletop space, a few bucks, and the desire.

This is an early rendition of my home flight simulator.

I really don’t think I need to answer the question of why you would want to fly, IRL or in a simulator–you either do or you don’t. With a simulator, you can learn how to fly many different kinds of aircraft past and present, in the comfort of your own home and with your feet safely on the ground. You can experience the pride of accomplishment as your knowledge and skills improve. You can travel to all corners of the earth and see the world from a different perspective.

Like so many things, building a home flight simulator might seem complicated at first, but you can break it down into parts that are easier to manage, and gradually chip away at the project. A good place to start is to look at the big picture.

Assuming that you already know that these simulators are like computer video games that simulate the act of flying airplanes remarkably well, the first question is: What products are available to me? If you do an internet search for a list of flight simulators, you will get a list of about 10 that are readily available. But let me tell you right now, IMHO, that it really boils down to only two products worth considering: Microsoft Flight Simulator and X-Plane. They are both excellent flight simulators in wide use.

So the next question is: Which one is right for me?

In my experience, since the 1980s, people have fallen into one of two groups: Microsoft PC/Windows users, and Apple Mac users, though many of us are both. And this is perhaps the first thing to consider. Windows PC users have the option of using either Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS) or X-Plane (XP) as native applications, while Macs can only use XP as a native app.

Macs can run MSFS, but not easily–you must use Parallels to run a Windows operating system, stream the game using cloud gaming services, or install Windows using Bootcamp. I don’t recommend any of those options because of the huge computer processing demands and the general hassle of trying to adapt a Microsoft-only product to the Apple world. If you prefer to work on Macs, like I do, X-Plane is by far your best option.

Next question: What else distinguishes these products? What sets them apart from each other?

The thing that sets MSFS apart is the quality of the scenery graphics. MSFS uses actual worldwide photography, so the sim is literally photorealistic, which results in a beautiful in-game experience. But you can imagine the amount of data that this kind of imagery requires. Or maybe you can’t. The bottom line is–it won’t fit on your computer. MSFS scenery is housed on remote servers. During a flight, your computer is fed with the scenery that it needs for that flight. So you need a fast computer and a fast internet connection.

X-Plane may not have the photorealistic degree of imagery that MSFS has, but it’s not bad. It’s actually quite good, and with each version, the scenery improves. And there are add-ons for XP, like SimHeaven‘s X-World, that make the scenery even better. (I’ll have more on that in a later post.) X-Plane’s advantage here is that the entire scenery can be downloaded to your computer’s hard drive, so XP doesn’t need to connect with outside servers for scenery. That cuts down on processor use significantly.

What sets XP apart from MSFS is the flight characteristics of the aircraft themselves. This has to do with how these things are programmed. The airplanes in XP behave more like real airplanes than the ones in MSFS. This is a widely held opinion, not just mine. And if you’re after a realistic flight experience, this may well be more important than the quality of the imagery.

Despite the differences, these two programs are so good that you can’t go wrong with either. They have been around for quite a while–MSFS since 1982 and XP since 1995–so they have seen countless refinements over the years and are in active, continuous development.

So the other “big picture” concern is: How powerful of a computer do I need to run a flight simulator? My gut response is, “Get the biggest, fastest, baddest one you can afford!” How fast? Of course, do an internet search for the recommended specifications to run MSFS and XP. Then get one at least that powerful, hopefully more. In general, you’ll need a more powerful computer to run MSFS than to run XP. Why is that? The real question is: What is all that computer power for?

Both MSFS and XP:

Process large amounts of data to “aviate” the airplane (think about all the airplane’s moving parts and their control instruments, engine instruments, flight instruments)

Process large amounts of data to “navigate” the plane (think about moving maps, navigation instruments, autopilot, instrument procedures)

Process large amounts of data to “communicate” (think radios, ATC)

Process large amounts of data for live weather (sky/visibility, clouds, precipitation, wind/gusts, barometric pressure). Both MSFS and XP read real-time weather from the internet

Process large amounts of data for the scenery you are flying over. XP reads it from the hard drive, while MSFS reads it from the internet and therefore requires much more processing power.

And that’s why you need a kick-ass computer. Imagine all that data refreshing a screen 20-50 times per second. You can try running MSFS or XP on a basic computer, but you will quickly discover how that limits the performance of the simulator, as measured in fps (frames per second), and influences the smoothness and enjoyment of the experience.

Having said all that, and with all due respect to the fabulous Microsoft Flight Simulator, I’ll mention that I’m a card-carrying Apple Mac zombie. I run X-Plane on a Mac Studio M1 Max (32 GB RAM, 512 GB memory, 24-core integrated GPU).

So for the following posts on setting up a home flight simulator, I’ll focus on X-Plane on a Mac, though much of it will also apply to MSFS on Windows.

Your assignment: Investigate Microsoft Flight Simulator and X-Plane.

Next post: Downloading and Installing X-Plane

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