Building a home flight simulator for 2015

flight simulator x-plane

I’ve been thinking about a flight simulator setup for over a year now and yesterday I started ordering the needed components to get it rolling.  It wasn’t completely obvious what route to go when starting to build your own sim, I had to do a fair amount of research and flip flopped a bit before settling on what I was going to purchase.

What I want my simulator for:

  • Improving my IFR skills: VOR navigation, GPS, LOC/ILS approaches, reading and interpreting plates
  • Preparing for my instrument check-ride
  • Keeping my IFR skills sharp
  • Having some fun and flying some different planes

The biggest decision that I had to make was what simulator software to purchase.  Microsoft Flight Simulator has been around for a long time but is no longer in active development by Microsoft.  However, there are tons of free and 3rd party modifications that have been released that keep this product alive and well in the simulator community.  Watching some YouTube videos Microsoft Flight Simulator X (FSX) looked really good.  The graphics, scenery, airplanes and airport packs that you could download looked great and seemed like they would be a great fit.  I also read and heard first hand that the IFR elements that I would need all existed and it would definitely fit the above mission items for my simulator.

FSX Pros / Cons:

  • Pro: Looks great
  • Pro: Community seems active enough
  • Pro: YouTube demos that I saw had everything I needed
  • Cons: Not officially supported by a company anymore
  • Cons: Only for Windows

The other option in the home simulator world is X-Plane, I downloaded the demo of this 6 months ago and played with it a couple times.  X-Plane is still actively in development and is actually used in a lot of the commercial flight simulators.  The flight simulator at Great Lakes Air Ventures, my flight school, actually runs X-Plane and it is an FAA approved simulator. So that gives it some credit.  However, the demo I downloaded didn’t give me a warm and fuzzy feeling.  The built in GPS unit was pretty terrible and didn’t have the ability to load an approach.  It was a struggle to figure out what to do, just a couple days ago I was convinced I was going to start with FSX.  However, X-Plane released some updates a month or two ago and I decided to download the latest version to check it out.  Hell yes! They improved the built in GPS simulator to feel like a Garmin 430 or 530 with the ability to design an entire flight plan and you can also load approaches!

This was pretty huge in pushing me over at the last minute to go with X-Plane as my flight simulator software. I think you can download different navigation components and systems and install them into both FSX and X-Plane which is great, but i wanted the out-of-the-box experience to at least be the bare minimum I require. Which X-Plane now delivers.

X-Plane Pros / Cons:

  • Pro: Windows or Mac
  • Pro: Still in active development
  • Pro: I’ve never met the developer / owner of the company but he seems like a cool guy. It appears that he leads up most of the development still, he makes other awesome products like Xavion.
  • Pro: It’s used in commercial simulators
  • Con: Stock GPS unit sucks
  • Pro: Stock GPS unit has everything I need

Now that the software choice has been settled, what else do I need to get my simulator going.

Computer Hardware
I haven’t decided 100% on this yet, but it appears to run great on my MacBook Pro so there is a good chance I’ll continue to use it on my everyday computer.  However, I also have a Windows laptop that hasn’t been used in about a year that still has great specifications. I might clean that up, and get it ready to be a dedicated computer for running my simulator.  X-Plane will run on both Windows and OS X.

I’ll also be connecting this to an external monitor, probably something reasonably sized initially < 30 inches.
Then if I continue to use it regularly I’ll probably get a larger display.

X-Plane Software
I was going to buy the software direct from X-Plane but it was almost $10 shipping. Buying through them on Amazon was $10 more but free shipping.  I ended up buying it from them through Amazon to get the faster shipping so all of my components would get here at the same time.

DVD hardware: X-Plane requires that you keep the CD in the drive and checks your drive each time you load it up for licensing. That or you can pay $30 to get a USB key from them and use that.  I ended up buying this $27 external DVD drive instead of a $30 USB key from X-Plane.  My MacBook doesn’t have a DVD drive, now with this I have a DVD drive and also a DVD writer.

 Simulator Hardware
For now I just purchased the Saitek yoke and throttle. I’ve read that you can configure some of the buttons on the yoke or just use the keyboard for taxiing on the ground.  I thought $150 was a bit steep for some rudder pedals which I assume in the simulator are only really necessary when moving around on the pavement.  The simulator starts you on the runway.  However, if all the airports are accurate I could see myself landing at a future destination like Nashville, KBNA and then taxi off the runway and practice moving around the airport.

What I like about this throttle is that you can buy another one and then change the knobs around and use it to flying a multi-engine plane.  I think this will come in handy sometime next year if I decide to work on my multi-engine rating. It would be nice to purchase another throttle unit for $50 and be able to practice all of the engine out maneuvers in the simulator.

Future Purchases or Add-ons
My plan is to fly with the above for awhile. It’s all I need continue working on improving my instrument skills.  Actually while I’m practicing my instrument skills the graphic quality doesn’t even matter. When practicing I’ll be flying in complete overcast to simulate IFR conditions, doesn’t matter how pretty the scenery is.

Pilotedge Air Traffic Control
This is a pretty amazing service that brings real life air traffic controls into your game.  It’s a subscription service and you talk to them like you would talk to any ATC. They know where you are, they can give you clearances, vectors to final on an approach.  I might try this for a few weeks before my IFR check-ride.

This is some cool hardware that will track if your head is looking left or right and will change what you are looking at on your screen.  If you move your head left to look out the window your display will shift to look out your window. Pretty neat stuff.

ForeFlight Integration
I started using ForeFlight when working on my PPL, but switched to Garmin Pilot for my IFR. I can’t recall exactly why, I think the biggest reason was that what my IFR instructor was using.  I contemplate switching from Garmin Pilot back to ForeFlight pretty regularly.  The features and continued improvements to their product is impressive. I doubt I’ll do this until after my IFR check-ride though.  Probably better practice for me not to see the moving dot on my iPad. If I do you can use X-Plane to show your simulated position on your iPad in ForeFlight.