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

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