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Richard Robarts

pilot-software Which Sim for Learning to fly

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Richard Robarts

I would like to practice navigation and ATC for both VFR and IFR with a view to possibly transitioning into real life general aviation flying in the south of England. I am wondering whether I should invest in some payware or possibly a new sim (xplane11).

I prefer light aircraft both single and twins, but also am interested in flying SIDS and STARS using heavier aircraft to increase my knowledge.

I already have FSX, Xplane 10, DCS world and Aerofly FS2

  • FSX is probably the easiest to practice instrument flying with, I love that it can simulate any part of the world, and download real weather conditions with no problem, the issue is that it is quite bland looking and i am hesitant to spend money on scenery or aircraft because it is a long way behind the others in looks. I don't have a lot of time to spend downloading and configuring free scenery either, although I might be able to add a couple of items.
  • Aerofly FS2 is fantastic in VR, but the flight models are limited and Vatsim is not supported.

What would you recommend?





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Andrew Horeckyj

Hello Richard,

An interesting question and one for which there is no direct one-size-fits-all answer. Why- because you are asking for a simulator that will properly represent the world for both instrument flying and visual flying- and that is not the same question as asking which is the simulator with the best graphics?

For starters- it's great that you want to learn to fly in a real world sense- accurately, both visually and on instruments and are seeking to do so in the VATSIM environment- stick with it, there is a learning curve...it's not so steep, but can be quite daunting if you as a pilot are trying to keep-up with your aircraft at the same time as you are trying to respond to a rapidly-changing set of commands from ATC..who themsleves are sometimes so overloaded that they are not as timely in their intsructions to you as might be hoped.

For instrument flying and airways navigaion of airliner types, creating flightplans with SIDs- enroute sections- STARs, having up to date AIRAC data and charts is a significant asset- I'd like to say essential...but there is a cost associated, and it shouldn't all be about money, but the flighsim game is a business. You can download charts for free from real world Air Traffic Control suppliers- but if resources permit a subscription to something like Navigraph, will bring you all the charts you could need as well as up to date AIRAC NAV data for your Flight Managment Computers...for add-on aircraft as well. There are some free to use online sources as well. Your FSX can cater for all your instrument flying and radio-navigation learning requirements here, because the list of radio-navaids and so-on is up to date.

There are some great pilot resources here on VATSIM- if you haven't already- use them as a way to understand how best to make use of the great online flying environment.

But VFR and visual flying...hmm....now we are into different territory slightly.

As a private pilot with PPL/A- night and IMC, the most significant question you can ask is: how well does the scenery out of the window of my simulated aeroplane represent the layout of the actual world as represented by the 1:500 000 (half-mil) chart from the CAA, that I am using to navigate? The answer may well be...hmm...not very much.

This is NOT the same thing as asking about the graphics quality...many of the latest sims have lovely graphics and auto-gen textures and 3D representations when low-down. But if the settlements are not the right shape, the rivers, canals, lakes, hills, roads, railway lines (current AND disused) are not in the correct place..then the landmarks you use for visual flying will not be in place and you will be restricted to massive structures- which is not really how it is done. Users of half-mil charts with these latest sims can advise you as to their effectiveness- I don't have experience of them.

I actually still fly FS2004/FS9. Why- well, it accommodates all my flying needs for airliner flying- radio aids, AIRAC data, online charts with Navigraph, real world weather with Active Sky, and my preferred aircraft types, including the lovely SST-SIM Concorde, which is (I believe) the best desktop-sim rendition of that particular type. The graphics are not fancy- they look ok, and my watecooled tower gives my 35 fps in any situation, so fluid graphics make for enjoyable stick and rudder time. Visual flying- if I want to-  I enable a set of graphics that were made from aerial photographs of the UK, like the Millennium atlas from the air. It means that from about 3000ft, the world really does look like the view out of the Piper- with roads, settlements, trees, although all flat and 2D, rather than as boxes. But half-mil map navigation is most certainly do-able, and flying low in some upland areas like the Peaks, Wales and Lake District is actually quite stunning in terms of the way the view matches the real world. It's not perfect though....the texture is daytime only- so no visual flying at night with it. [visual flying at night is perfectly correct- it's just that you apply IFR level rules to the way you do it]

That's not a suggestion to 'downgrade' to FS9....but an indication that latest and fanciest is not always precisely what the pilot requires....even if it does make for lovely screenshots on online forums. Another factor is that those lovely complex add-on aircraft simulations are not written for the older platforms, and even FSX is getting left-behind in that respect.

Have you done much flying on VATSIM?

That's enough of a ramble for here 🙂





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Richard Robarts

Thank you that was a perfect answer. I realise the question of what sim is a very common one but there is a reason I dug out my vatsim password to ask here. I have only done a couple of flights in uncontrolled areas and that was many years ago.

I for learning I really only need to fly VFR but when i was logged in no-one else was flying VFR and in order to join in I felt like I ought to fly a jet. That led to me trying out a freeware FMC and testing out routes offline until I got distracted by other things. I had the good fun flying SIDS and stars using VOR and dme equipment and I find that fascinating but did struggle programming the fmc. 

Now that I am interested in flying in vatsim again I wondered whether to stick with default fsx or default xplane 10 in which case to freshen up the experience i would quite like a new aircrafr or scenery, or I should upgrade or start with xplane 11. I prefer more fluid graphics and I think fsx and x10 are good enough but investing money in them might be a waste when I have much better eye candy in dcs and aerofly.

One key thing i would like to know...would the best way to start out be to fly light aircraft VFR. Would I cause problems turning up at busy commercial airports in a c172 to try and get my fix of landing or taking off at a controlled airport? I am pretty sure I could fly a Learjet and navigate using fmc if required and would learn some important lessons from it.

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Andrew Horeckyj


Much of what you say above- and the questions you derive from it really do come down to preference - what you want, rather than having a definitive answer. Apart from the last one- will your C172 get in the way, of faster jet traffic at a busy VATSIM airport? Answer- probably yes...but that does not mean that you cannot or should not fly there. Providing the airport is controlled, the controllers can often accommodate slower general aviation traffic with the bigger stuff, and at airports like Manchester - with a pair of runways, they may have slower circuit traffic on one and commercial arrivals and departures on the other. However, at a busy time and a single runway airport like Gatwick, a slow piston single can make for a very stressful time for controllers and pilots alike. So I would say- by all means visit these places when actively controlled, but perhaps choose times when the sky (and the ATC frequencies) are not crazy.

Some airports on VATSIM do cater more for light aircraft operations and have active groups of regular fliers.

Again- I would strongly advise reading through the available material here online, to help you get familiar with how the pilot- controller interaction works- both in its similiarities to real world aviation, but also in certain important differences. The more familiar you are, the more enjoyable for you and everyone else.  Real world aviation documents like CAP413  and the Standard Route Document are very useful.

There are a number of different online resources for helping a pilot get a working flightplan that is acceptable to both their aircraft's flight management system AND the VATSIM ATC community. In many cases the online 'aviator' has little or no idea what the string of characters really relates to in the airspace- but it does manage to create a continuous magenta line on one of the flat-panel displays...and that's all that is required for them...(slight cynicism). Alternatively, at the other end of the spectrum, you could use an archaic system like FSNavigator, to piece-together a route yourself, from departure to arrival- which I tend to use on FS9....and the AIRAC cycle is up to date from Navigraph. Via a third party planner I get the output from this printed as a flight log with Lat. and Long. coordinates, that I can hand-enter into the Delco Carousel Intertial Nav units in my classic jets...very old school.

It is possible to fly within the UK's airways system using traditional VOR-navigation skills and techniques, but you will be somewhat restricted for routes and increasingly limited as more airports move to RNAV only operations. I find the challenge rewarding however, and still do this in a number of classic jet types, as well as occasional turboprops.

As for freshening-up the experience of the sim you have- well, assuming you only have a default FSX- there is a massive amount of material you can use to enhance the experience. Aircraft and sceneries. You do not ever have to fly one of the default aircraft in FSX...I cannot remember the last time I loaded a default aircraft in FS9- I may have been fault-finding on something in the default Cessna.


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Bill Casey

Certainly for GA flying the two biggest changes you can make would to be acquire a better GA aircraft than the default and install some photographic scenery. I find the A2A Simulations planes most excellent but everyone's mileage is different. I particularly use their Accusim Cessna 182 but they have quite a variety available and they fly correctly. Photographic scenery makes it possible to do VFR properly i.e. Looking out of the window to work out where you are by identifying real things! Oh, and to aid your intention to do this for real, acquire a CAA Half Mil chart, 1:500,000 scale.

For GA flying it's best to avoid the Manchesters, Gatwicks and Heathrows. The small regional airports make more sense Vatsim-wise for people who fly by using the windows.

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Darren Hill

Hello Richard,

As a flight simmer since very young and having a dad as a PPL pilot, I can safely say XP11 feels WAY better than FSX for GA especially. In FSX all flight models stall the same in my experience, which indicates they are redered the same. XP11 renders each surface individually, which is much more responsive. FSX has outdated and rather poor scenery, while XP11 has the fantastic ortho4XP. The only drawback and the reason I'm still on FSX is cost. XP11 is not cheap, but it is a better sim.


Hope this helps.



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Richard Robarts

I do prefer the default xplane 10 feel compared to fsx but i suspect some payware fsx aircraft are just as good and I have actually decided to go with fsx for now purely because it's the easiest to operate radios and navigate with. I have upgraded the scenery a little to help with vfr and to make it more interesting. 

Are there any ga airfields regularly controlled in vatsim? if so I might focus on them for learning but If there are usually none I would probably learn to fly ifr using an fmc

If I could find a link to ortho xp I might test that out in xplane 10 to see how it goes though.

Edited by Richard Robarts

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Simon Kelsey

Hi Richard,

7 hours ago, Richard Robarts said:

I do prefer the default xplane 10 feel compared to fsx but i suspect some payware fsx aircraft are just as good

This is exactly right. However Austin might try to sell X-Plane on the basis of its supposed aerodynamic simulation, the reality is that it is quite possible to program an accurate flight model in FSX/P3D (and it is worth noting that the 'big' Level-D simulators used by the airlines use exactly the same method in terms of how the flight model is defined as FSX).

That said, I will reproduce a post I made over on another forum in response to someone with a very similar query in relation to using the simulator as a RW training tool:


Things the sim is good at:

  • Procedures (e.g. practicing cockpit flows, learning checklists, non-normal drills etc).
  • Demonstrating the basic principles of flight and allowing you to experiment with them (e.g. the relationship between pitch attitude, power setting and airspeed/performance, the effect of induced drag in a turn, etc). Turn on the G display and watch the effect of different bank angles, try flying straight and level at different airspeeds and note the position of the nose cowling in relation to the horizon and the power setting required (note: don't expect the numbers to translate to the real aircraft, it's the principle), and so on.
  • Practicing navigation techniques - if you have reasonable scenery you should be able to at least pick out towns and other large features. Distance/speed/time, the relationship between IAS, TAS and GS, and drift are all modelled accurately. You can take your whizz wheel, chart and the real weather, plan a route and fly it. See what effect wind has on your track and heading and how the techniques you learn from your instructor can be applied to make corrections. Practice doing this stuff (e.g. filling out a plog, diversion planning and calculations etc) whilst 'flying'. (Edit to add: also it is worth playing around with the weather. Change the wind speed/direction and see the effect on drift and ground speed. Change the visibility to legal VFR minimums and see how you feel about navigating and keeping the right way up in that and what you think about the relationship between 'legal' and 'safe', etc).

Things the sim (any sim) is not good at:

  • Feel
  • 100% accurately replicating the performance characteristics of a particular aeroplane (pitch and power settings, handling etc)
  • Depth perception (read: landing)
  • Fine detail on visuals (albeit with modern scenery some excellent general results can be obtained)
  • Fear!

My overarching advice would be to broadly use the sim retrospectively (I.e. let your instructor demonstrate the correct technique/procedure first and understand how it is applied in the real aircraft and practice those techniques and explore those principles in the sim rather than 'teaching yourself' in the sim in a hope to 'get ahead' and potentially learning the wrong technique which may to some extent have to be undone (and thus take longer).

Whilst photographic sceneries etc are increasingly great these days, it is worth keeping the bigger picture in mind which is that being able to pick out a specific blade of grass at your local airfield is not particularly going to help you in your real-world training. What is going to help you is if you understand the basic principles of dead-reckoning navigation and are able to apply them whilst your hands are full of aeroplane, for which you require a 1:500,000 chart, plog, whizz wheel (more for planning than in-cockpit use) and reasonably accurate scenery (in my experience, the Orbx FTX EU England(/Wales/Scotland/NI etc) scenery is relatively frame-rate friendly in a GA aircraft, reasonably-priced, doesn't take up a million gigabytes of disk space and matches up quite adequately to a half-mil chart without being totally photographic).

Likewise, flying a real aeroplane is never going to feel like flying any FS aircraft, whichever simulator you choose so to some extent the 'feel' of the flight model is relatively moot. However, as mentioned above, what the simulator is very good at is allowing you to play around with and understand the general principles which will 1) help you get ahead on the theory side and 2) give you a good idea of what you are trying to achieve in maneouvres in the real aircraft, though as I say the exact numbers etc are very unlikely to match.

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