What is a Flight Simulator?

Josie Myers

A flight simulator is a realistic recreation of the operation of an aircraft in flight. Simulators can be for entertainment purposes, pilot training, or a combination of both. They can be as simple as a basic joystick connected to a computer system loaded with special software, or as complicated as a full size airliner flightdeck, mounted on hydraulic lifts to produce the sensation of movement for those inside. Flight simulators were originally used for military training applications, but are now commonly used in civilian training, and even as an entertaining pastime for gaming enthusiasts.

Flight simulators allow pilots to perfect their takeoff and landing techniques before attempting it in a plane.
Flight simulators allow pilots to perfect their takeoff and landing techniques before attempting it in a plane.

A basic simulator can be found for almost every computer or video game system on the market. Most systems have a specialized flight simulator controller that looks similar to the control sticks and yokes found in many aircraft. Pedals are also available to simulate rudder control. The joysticks come with a number of features, like buttons to control specific aircraft functions, or levers for controlling multi-engine craft. Various types are available, and many flight simulator enthusiasts choose to have several types of controlers for use with different airplane types.

Flight simulators allow astronaut pilots to sit in replicas  a spacecraft's cockpit.
Flight simulators allow astronaut pilots to sit in replicas a spacecraft's cockpit.

Any good flight simulator game will display accurate instruments for the aircraft of choice, and depict the process of flight as realistically as possible. Most games have several aircraft to choose from, and mimic the entire process from takeoff to landing. Many student pilots, use quality flight simulation games as part of their practice training to familiarize themselves with the controls and instrumentation. Using a flight simulator does not contribute to the hours required for licensing, but nevertheless can be an invaluable training tool.

Some flight training facilities offer a full dimensional experience with an enclosed, full-motion flight simulator. These devices simulate not only the controls of flight, but also the motion. Users sit inside a realistic cockpit that has computer screens instead of windows, on which appear animated computerized images of the outside world. This cockpit is mounted on a hydraulic device that moves the box in conjunction with the movements of the controls. These simulators are particularly helpful in training for emergency situations which, as they can realistically reproduces sensations and stress for situations, that could not be safely reproduced in the air.

Spacecraft training is run almost entirely through flight simulation. Real life aircraft training is absolutely necessary to become an astronaut, but cannot fully demonstrate the spacecraft flight process. The closest that astronauts trainees can come to flying in space before actually launching the shuttle is with a high tech 3D flight simulation combined with real aircraft training.

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Discussion Comments


@Melonlity -- of course, you'll never get as "realistic" as you would by actually flying something. Still, they nailed the physics pretty well early on, but the scenery was lacking due to the restrictions of hardware.

The scenery has improved as computer hardware has gotten more powerful and so have the physics.

If the question is whether one can actually learn to fly a plane by mastering a simulator meant for entertainment purposes, that is debatable.


One thing I've wondered is how realistic computer-based flight simulators actually are. Back when those things started to gain popularity in the 1980s, a lot of hype was over how realistic they were. How much of that was true then and have things improved since?

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