Flight Simulator BATD for PPL and IR training

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There is quite a difference between gaming, so-called “Simtertainement” and training. The former might want the widest screens, fantastic visual graphics and simple but easy control. The latter may only require a limited panel, but may benefit from more switches, buttons and knobs resembling the aircraft you will fly. A full physical mock-up of the cockpit, with full instrument panel layout, rudder pedals and yoke all would all seem to be ideal and possible in a club environment but may be impractical for home use.

So rather than using the term Flight Simulator (which implies gaming use), I’m adopting the term BATD (Basic Aviation Training Device) as used by the FAA.

There are a wide range of options:

  • Single computer, screen with joystick. Simplest, cheapest and can often make use of whatever you already have at home. Download a free trial sim and try it out, but do invest in a good quality joystick rather than the cheaper models.
  • Large screens. Either an array of 3 large monitors or a single super-wide screen complemented with an instrument panel to provide some immersion.
  • Track IR. You wear a baseball cap with special reflector pads or a clip and position an infrared camera above your main screen. These gadgets are mostly used in real-time gaming, but can be very immersive. The view on your screen moves as you turn your head, reducing the need to have so many or such large screens. Good for VFR practice but perhaps less so for IFR.
  • Virtual Reality. Using a strap-on headset, you get a totally immersive gaming experience. I can believe this is amazing to replay WW2 dogfights but feel it less useful for instruction purposes.
  • Physical cockpit. This can start with a few dedicated buttons/knobs and switches, and then expand into a fully realistic cockpit with seats.

The chart below summarises these two main factors and the software packages available.

Which flight simulator BATD software platform?

There are several popular flight sim programs in use today. For the home user, the main choice is between P3D and X-Plane.

  • Microsoft Flight Simulator 10 (FSX). One of the first, originally launched in 1977, but not supported by Microsoft since 2008. Microsoft are planning to restart development with a completely new product in 2020, but they do have a lot of ground to catch up. There were many third-party plug-ins and add-ons developed during its almost 20 year lifespan, making it into quite an eco-system, but more serious use has dropped off.
  • Prepar3d (Prepared), which evolved from Microsoft Flight Simulator and is built on it. Lockheed Martin bought the rights from Microsoft and continued to develop it using much of the same team. There are a myriad of add-ons, plug-ins and scenery. It’s now very much positioned as a flight trainer rather than a game and priced as such.
  • X-Plane. A strong contender for many years, it’s become more user friendly and comprehensive over recent years. Many more third parties have joined in.
  • FlightGear. An open-source program that achieves a remarkable amount given the price (free) and volunteer effort contributed to it. It doesn’t seem to require hugely powerful computer to run on. However, I think it’s fair to say that commercial products tend to be a few steps ahead and have more third party options.
  • Elite. A professional IFR trainer with a lower cost home use option.

Pricing

Home Use Commercial
FlightGear $0 $0
Prepar3d $199 $199
X-Plane $60 $750
Elite $199 $995

There will be strong views about using any one of these or other professional flight training products, but I’ve taken the decision to go with X-Plane for now to save time and effort. I’m using this at home only at the moment, so can benefit from the Home Use licence. Commercial use requires the more expensive licence above.

Pre-built or custom build

XForce PC specialise in standard flight simulator builds and have a range of standard builds to suit every budget, and come with detailed instructions on how to set them up. Alternatively, make your own selection and build your own but do expect to spend quite a bit of time configuring and changing things.

Michael Brown from XForcePC has recorded a number of excellent YouTube videos on various topics related to equipment selection and I’ve included links below where relevant.

Choosing a computer

While any recent Windows or Mac PC/Laptop can be used for basic IFR work, a Windows 10 based PCs with a dedicated graphics card will work best. You’ll benefit from a powerful CPU chip with sufficient RAM memory and an SSD disk drive to create the accurate modelling data and generate a large number of scenery objects. For best results, complement that with a powerful graphics card to render that into high quality smooth graphics with shadows and reflections. If there’ s a mismatch, then you’ll be wasting your money on one or the other.

Don’t get too carried away with the best specifications. No matter what you buy, there will always be one model newer or faster. Choosing the next model down (i.e. last year’s top performing chip or card) often provides the best price/performance trade-off.

At the time of writing, I’d suggest something like the Intel i5 7900KF and NVIDIA GTX 2070 Super with 16GB RAM and 256GB SSD. I’d also strongly recommend choosing a QuietPC case to reduce ambient noise. You don’t need the flashing light show or the sound of an extractor fan to distract you.

I bought my computer from Ginger6 in Wolverhampton and found them to be very fast, efficient and knowledgable about gaming PCs in general (perhaps slightly less so on Flight Simulators specifically). The time from order to delivery was very fast (2 days even with their standard service), and tech support for a minor issue was prompt and competent. A knowledgable techie answered the phone immediately and emailed me a YouTube video link on how to resolve my problem within minutes.

Monitors

Flat screen monitor technology continues to evolve rapidly. You can find very large, curved and ultra-wide screens.

Many graphics card can treat an array of two or three monitors as though it were a single very wide screen, which reduces the load on the computer dramatically but at the expense of some distortion at the edges. Russ Barlow showed how to set this up and compares the differences in this YouTube video.

Michael from XForcePC has another excellent tutorial on the latest monitor choices, recommending the newer IPS screen technology rather than older and somewhat garish VA. There’s no need for a super fast 144Hz refresh rate since you’ll be using something nearer 30-40 frames per second. Synchronisation between monitor and graphics cards shouldn’t be a problem but some users do report noticeable improvements when this is turned on. It needs a capable monitor and compatible graphics card.

I initially tried a low cost 32 inch VA model from a little known Taiwanese brand but returned that in favour of a higher quality 27″ IPS product from Dell which I am very happy with.

It would be great if I had the space for three screens side-by-side or just a single ultra-wide as shown below.
However I do have the touchscreen instrument panel which doesn’t move or show any outside scenery.

This tutorial doesn’t cover the use of Track IR 5, which is supported by X-Plane. It allows you to make the most of just a single monitor yet can provide quite an immersive experience.

Also not covered is the use of a VR headset. These really do need another level or two up of computer and graphic power in order to render the images really quickly and without flicker. While it does again save space, I feel these are much more suited for gaming and prevent any interaction with others in the room, like an instructor. Some users have reported difficulty in reading the instruments when using VR headsets, because the resolution detail simply isn’t good enough. Others have reported that it can make them feel dizzy – maybe that depends partly on how good your equipment setup is.

Air Manager

Air Manager is a software add-on that drives a separate monitor showing your instrument panel only. This can be a touch-screen panel or an iPad, allowing you to turn on/off switches, turn dials etc, by touching the knob or switch on the screen. It comes with a panel and instrument editor, allowing you to configure your own panel and instrument layout. Although this does provide complete flexibility, there is a fairly limited range of standard panels and instruments so it’s not yet completely out of the box.

Siminnovations market manager Russ Barlow has published some great videos demonstrating the capability and flexibility of the product.

The program is very efficient and doesn’t impose any significant load on your computer. Where adding a second monitor to Xplane can divide the frame refresh rate by two, Air Manager typically sees only a few percent drop.

I’ve also found it very useful to have the main screen moving and updating as I look out the window, while the instrument panel stays fixed and available in the same place. However the range of instruments available is patchy, and although it is quite possible to develop your own using the built-in tools, I think this is a step too far for most amateur pilots.

One drawback is that the focus for Windows mouse and keyboard inputs toggles to the Air Manager screen whenever you press a button. This blocks the keyboard commands for X-plane on the main screen, requiring a mouseclick on the X-plane window to re-enable. This is quite distracting when you just want to pause briefly and prevents easy access to other views. One way around that is to drive the touchscreen from another computer, which could be a cheap Raspberry Pi running Air Player. This provides all the functions of Air Manager but does not support XPReality GNS430 or GTN650 panels. A third option is to use Air Manager on an iPad which has a good foundation of possible instruments to display, but is not quite as flexible.

Peripherals

DON’T BUY A LOW COST YOKE. Just don’t. The reason is that they don’t generate a stable signal, so instead of flying that nicely controlled gentle final approach (visual or IFR), you find you have to constantly tweak and adjust your inputs. Instead, spend less money on a high quality joystick such as the Thrustmaster T.16000M at half the price. If you really, really do want a yoke, you can pay anything up to £1,000 or more. A compromise might be the Honeycomb Alpha for around £250 which has a lot of precision and getting good reviews at the moment. The most expensive I’ve seen is from Brunner, a Swiss company, but even then it seems it isn’t yet very well integrated into the flight sim program and needs a lot of configuration and tweaking to set it up properly for your aircraft.

If you can spare an hour, Michael (XForcePC) and Austin (Xplane) conduct a thorough review and assessment for a range of yokes, plus a later one specifically for the Honeycomb.

You may want to buy a few physical controls to make things more realistic. A throttle quadrant is quite popular, plus toggle switches for landing gear and flap controls. Some products come with both integrated.

Air Manager combined with a touch screen does reduce the need for those, and also allows completely flexibility when reconfiguring between different aircraft. Using an iPad is a cheaper and more straightforward alternative.

I would suggest that a throttle quadrant and perhaps a couple of toggle switches might be sufficient. Honeycomb has a nice looking product available from September 2020, although more pricey at £250.

Garmin GNS 430 and GTN 650 Navigators

One of the areas where I see BATDs making a big difference is for training in the use of Garmin 430 and 650 navigators (and other models). They can dramatically reduce the amount of time spent in the aircraft trying to figure out which buttons to press.

While X-Plane has their own emulation of the 430 and 530 included free within the product, it is far from complete and up to date. I strongly recommend the Reality-XP products, which wrap the free Garmin training programs into a plug-in download. This means it’s running the actual Garmin software from their real products in the sim, so the user interface and functionality matches exactly what happens in the air.

Running on a touch screen works really well for the GTN650, whereas I could see the 430 would benefit from using a physical panel with a matching button layout. You can also buy that from RealSimGear should you wish.

Some, but not all, aircraft models support the Reality XP plugin but beware of limitations such as which models are compatible. This is where I found Air Manager to be more flexible.

It’s even possible to incorporate the RealityXP touchscreen into an Air Manager panel as described in this video by their marketing manager Russ Barlow.

Aircraft Models

X-plane comes with a selection of aircraft but don’t include either of the types I commonly fly. While their default Cessna 172 is very realistic, I was quite surprised not to see a PA28 – both are still equally common on the flight training scene.

There are at least a couple of commercial PA28 models available to buy. I tried both the JustFlight and vFlyte products and found the graphic imagery to be really quite amazing. They’ve even modelled the typical tatty, worn out look and feel down to a tee.

Between the two, I though that the vFlyte product matched the flight characteristics much more closely. Even though this is a 140hp Cherokee, it felt much more realistic given standard power settings and flaps. Flying at 75 knots with 2 stages of flaps should give 500fpm descent rate and that’s what I got.

Additionally, the vFlyte supports both the 430 and 650 plugins from RealityXP, whereas the JustFlight only supports the 750 – something that is actually very unusual to find in this aircraft. I asked JustFlight if support was possible now or in a future release and was quickly told no. Equally, RealityXP have no plans to make their 650 adapt to fit into an aircraft model designed only for the 750.

Summary

The equipment and setup you’ll need will vary a lot depending on what you want to achieve, your budget and physical space available. I’d suggest starting with something simple, figure out how useful it is, how much you make use of it, and work up from there. I’m fairly early in the learning curve to determine what is both possible and most relevant when learning and remaining current in real aircraft rather than for gaming and entertainment purposes, so take the suggestions below with caution. They’ll almost certainly be out of date by this time next year, as technology continues to progress quickly.

Starting point

  • Existing fairly recent computer/laptop (can be Windows 10 or Mac)
  • X-Plane 11 (download their free demo to try first)
  • Thrustmaster Joystick

Basic Home System for IFR

  • Windows 10 PC, i5 7900KF and NVIDIA GTX 2070 Super, 16GB RAM, 256GB SSD, 2TB Hard Drive
  • X-Plane 11
  • Thrustmaster Joystick
  • 27 inch main monitor for scenery (ideally IPS, HMDI)
  • iPad with Air Manager App for instruments

Good Home System for IFR and VFR

  • Windows 10 PC, i5 7900KF and NVIDIA GTX 2070 Super, 16GB RAM, 256GB SSD, 2TB Hard Drive
  • X-Plane 11
  • Honeycomb Yoke
  • Rudder Pedals
  • Logitech Throttle Quadrant
  • 27 inch main monitor for scenery (ideally IPS, HMDI or DP) with stand
  • 22inch touchscreen monitor or iPad with Air Manager App for instruments with mount

Nice optional extras

  • Reality-XP 650 (or G1000/GNS430) software emulation
  • RealSimGear GNS430 or GTN650 hardware emulation or separate G1000 App on tablet
  • Three scenery monitors or ultrawide screen or TrackIR5 (better for VFR use)
  • Professional third party aircraft models and scenery addons (e.g. Orbx True Earth)
  • xOrganiser (easy configuration for different scenery and aircraft settings)

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