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

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