The flight simulation community is more popular than ever. From simply socializing online with friends to real-world proficiency training, flight simulation has something for every avgeek out there!
It may seem like there’s lots to cover when you’re first joining our community—and there is! But remember, we all started somewhere. In most cases, the complex setups you see in experienced simmer’s homes were built over years of searching, tweaking, and tinkering. The best way to get started is the same way many of us did: dive in! Grab an inexpensive joystick online or at your local electronics store, download a flight simulator on the computer you already have, and see what you think.
If you’re looking to get into flight simulation for the first time, especially as an enthusiast, this guide will provide some simple getting started recommendations to get you flying.
Want Even More?If you’re planning to upgrade your existing simulator setup, are thinking of starting with a larger upfront investment, or if you’re planning to use your home simulator for training and proficiency, consider our Expanded Setup Guide. The expanded version follows the same format as the information below but provides more details on computer systems, hardware, and add-on recommendations.
Home Simulator GalleryShare Your Setup
To give you an idea of what’s possible, check out some of the home setups submitted by FSA members. These images will hopefully provide inspiration as you read through the remainder of this guide and think about your own setup:
We’ve broken out the process of getting started with home simulation into five steps:
Determine which simulation software you plan to use. This will depend primarily on what you plan to use the simulator for.
Most simmers use a Windows desktop PC, although some simulators support other operating systems. It's likely that you can get started with the equipment you already have!
To start, select a yoke or joystick. Long term, consider other add-on options like pedals, throttles, headsets, and more.
The simulator gets you the “world”. Add-ons populate that world with better-looking airports, more functional airplanes, or utilities to make the experience that much more realistic.
Once you’ve gotten to know the simulator, you’ll find the best experiences happen when you’re sharing them with others. Whether you want to fly online with human ATC or go island hopping with friends, you’ll find options for everyone in the simulation community.
At the bottom of the article, you’ll also find some additional resources to help you continue on your journey.
Introduction to Flight Simulation Video Series
If you’re a visual learner, consider the following video series, which offers a more engaging version of what you’re about to read on this page. These seminars were presented by experienced simmers at FlightSimExpo 2019 and pre-date the release of Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020. Thus, they focus on Prepar3D and X-Plane.
Step 1: Simulator
The three primary desktop simulators used by the majority of the civilian flight simulation community are Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS), Prepar3D (P3D), and X-Plane.
Patrick from The Flight Sim Deck introduces you to the "big three" desktop flight simulators and offers a quick comparison between each.
Released in August 2020, MSFS brings a new definition to the words “visual flight rules”. The simulator represents the cutting edge of game development, and seems to produce the best screenshots of any. Although the default aircraft included in MSFS may not yet offer the same level of realism and fidelity as other simulators, there are several study-level aircraft add-ons in development. If you love VFR flying and don’t mind a few hiccups as the product continues active development, MSFS may be a good choice.
58% of simmers report that they use MSFS to fly VFR or "casually without rules". At 40%, MSFS has the highest percentage of users who fly General Aviation (compared to 36% for X-Plane and 28% for Prepar3D).
Prepar3D (pronounced “prepared”) from Lockheed Martin is based on the original code from Microsoft Flight Simulator X (FSX), released back in 2006. Because of this long-standing development legacy, P3D supports a large ecosystem of high-fidelity, detailed simulation products, including airliners, weather add-ons, ground handling utilities, and more. P3D is known in the community for being a stable simulation platform with a wide variety of realistic, study-level add-ons available for it.
Across the major civilian flight simulators, Prepar3D’s users tend to fly IFR airliners more than other simulators.
$60 • $54 for FSA Captains
X-Plane brands itself as the most “realistic feeling” flight simulator, especially for General Aviation flying. The default aircraft and avionics suite are fairly high in fidelity and scenery enhancements are crowd-sourced, thanks to a large and active freeware development community. Between MSFS, P3D, and X-Plane, our opinion is that X-Plane offers the best "out of the box" experience for serious flight simmers, as of 2021. In addition to our 10% off discount for FSA Captains, you’ll often find great X-Plane 11 discounts in regular sales on Steam, the popular video game digital distribution service.
X-Plane has the highest percentage of licensed pilot users (31%), followed by P3D (29%) and then MSFS (24%).
Even though a simulator like X-Plane happens to be recognized for general aviation flying, that doesn’t mean that’s all it can do. In fact, a free add-on for the default Boeing 737 in X-Plane is one of the community’s favorite add-ons. Plenty of simmers are quite happy doing all their flying on one platform, while others purchase multiple simulators and pick which one to fly based on the day’s mission.
When you first purchase a simulator, it’s easy to move back and forth between platforms. As a result, you may wish to purchase more than one to see which you enjoy most. As you start to purchase add-ons (that may only be compatible with a specific simulator) and customize your experience further, it becomes more difficult to switch platforms.
32% of simmers use more than one simulator at least "sometimes".
Beyond the three simulators listed above, DCS World is extremely popular within the military flight simulation community, and there are even sims that work entirely on mobile. Each of these simulators has a slightly different focus and many simmers will use more than one, depending on what they like to fly.
To see a full list of the desktop and mobile flight simulators we’re aware of, expand the option below.
To be included in this list, the simulator must be under active development, have a sufficient following, and include worldwide map/graphics support, or be an FSA Partner that offers product discounts to our members.
Step 2: System
After choosing a simulator, newcomers tend to ask the question:
Do I need a dedicated gaming computer for flight simulation?
The answer is no, especially if you’re just getting started. Long-term, most simmers agree that a dedicated gaming computer will result in a better experience, but you can absolutely get started with what you have. We recommend learning what type of flying you like to do and what you’d ultimately like to get out of your setup, before investing in a new computer.
You may also wish to compare the computer you have now against the minimum performance requirements published for the simulator you plan to fly. If your computer meets or is close to the requirements, it makes sense to use what you have before considering an upgrade.
If at some point you do choose to upgrade your computer, simmers recommend building a custom gaming PC, You can do this on your own by purchasing individual components or you can buy a pre-configured, dedicated flight simulation computer from companies like Jetline Systems and X-Force. The advantage of the latter option is that you’ll be buying from companies that know flight simulation well, and in some cases have even installed or tested specific add-ons based on the configuration you want.
Although you can get good results from pre-built gaming PCs made by large manufacturers like Dell or HP, these can be difficult to customize and upgrade later, and won’t be specifically optimized for flight simulation. By building or buying a custom flight simulation computer, you’ll be able to upgrade or change specific parts over time rather than needing to buy a whole new computer in the future.
Step 3: Hardware
Once you have a PC, the next step to consider is control hardware: what will you use to fly the aircraft? An inexpensive yoke or joystick is generally considered a must-have for anyone getting started in home flight simulation.
98% of flight simmers use a joystick or yoke. 86% have a separate throttle control. 56% use rudder pedals.
In April 2021, we polled 100 experienced simmers to ask which yoke or joystick they would recommend for first-time simmers in our community. The results: start with an entry-level hardware controller that matches the type of flying you’d like to do, and then consider expanding from there.
Before making a purchase, consider which makes sense for the type of simulator flying you think you’ll get into. For example, if you plan to fly military jets, helicopters, or Cirrus or Airbus aircraft, a joystick is normally used to control those aircraft. If you’re a Boeing or Cessna pilot, a yoke is more common.
Also consider your broader setup. For example, a joystick might fit easier beside the keyboard on your desktop, whereas a yoke would need to be mounted to your desk. Additionally, some yokes and joysticks have buttons and switches that are customizable for various aircraft functions. Depending on your use case, such a unit may be more desirable.
The top-recommended beginner flight control products are listed below. All of these products are available for purchase online, and some may also be found in local electronics stores.
Caution!The popularity of Microsoft Flight Simulator coupled with global impacts of the pandemic have made gaming hardware and flight simulation controls popular items! For the next several months, you may commonly find "out of stock" scenarios for many popular flight simulation controls.
Be cautious and ensure you don’t over-pay for hardware. Always purchase from known and reputable sources!
Long term, there are plenty of other hardware options to consider, including rudder pedals, panels, and more. When you think you're ready to expand, consult our Hardware Guide. It provides a more in-depth look at add-on hardware, including member-recommended hardware devices and a full list of our Hardware Partners.
An Example Flight Simulator Setup
Rob, an FSA Contributor, has shared his home setup as an example of the types of hardware a desktop simmer might be looking for. Rob creates video content as Slant Alpha Adventures and is a frequent flier on VATSIM.
A yoke controls aircraft pitch and roll. This CH Products Flight Sim Yoke was extremely popular in the early 2000s because of its versatility and availability. Rob has configured some of the buttons and switches available on the yoke to control aircraft systems, including “push-to-talk” for ATC communications on VATSIM.
The rudder pedals help control the aircraft in the air and on the ground. While rudder pedals aren’t strictly necessary, the physical controls add to the experience. Note that joysticks sometimes have rudder control built-in, so if you purchase a joystick, rudder pedals may be redundant.
Most home simmers have a custom-built, high-end gaming PC. The advantage of a custom build (over purchasing a pre-built PC from a manufacturer like Dell or HP) is that you can easily swap or upgrade individual components as you want to update your setup.
Although not required for beginners, many simmers eventually use a multi-monitor setup. Some like to have the simulator in full screen mode on one of the monitors and use a secondary one for charts, weather, and other apps. Others prefer to have the simulator stretch across the monitors, providing a “wrap around” visual.
Because Rob flies online, he uses a headset as part of his setup. He routes the ATC audio through the headset while keeping the aircraft/simulator sounds on the speakers, allowing him to clearly hear ATC transmissions. Plus, the headset is great for side conversations in TeamSpeak and Discord.
Head tracking allows for the simulator view to track head movements. There are dedicated head tracking clips and mounts as well as head tracking apps that work with webcams, like the one in this setup.
For those late nights in front of the computer, snacks and hydration are key components of any flight simulation setup!
Step 4: Software
When you buy a desktop flight simulator, you’re generally purchasing the “world” it presents and the way it simulates flight. A wide variety of aftermarket or add-on software is available for most simulators, which can completely change the experience. New aircraft, updates to airports or landscapes, and flight planning utilities greatly enhance what’s available by default. Even better…many of these add-ons are available for free!
A good rule of thumb in flight simulation is to start with the basics and build over time. Before diving into the world of add-ons, we recommend getting comfortable with the “default” experience in the simulator you’re flying in. Then, decide what’s important to you: beautifully-textured airports or a high-fidelity airplane? Precise weather or nice landscapes? As you start to get a sense for what (if anything) you want to improve, you can begin searching for add-ons.
Once you're at that stage, consult our Software Guide. It provides an in-depth look at add-on software and lists the community’s most popular add-ons by simulator. Remember, there are frequent sales on top products in our community. If you’re finding the price of payware add-ons overwhelming, just wait a few months. Chances are you’ll find a good sale. There are also lots of Freeware add-ons to consider.
Step 5: Flying Online
When you get started with a home simulator, you’ll need a few flights to get familiar with the virtual world. If you’re a real pilot, the feel and design of flying a simulator will take some getting used to. If you haven’t flown before, the in-sim missions and tutorials, along with a wealth of “how to” videos on YouTube and other platforms, can give you a good sense of how to get started. However, if you’re passionate about flying, you’ll probably find yourself looking for more, very quickly.
There is a huge community around flight simulation and flying online in a multiplayer environment is a great way to discover it. Options for getting connected with other community members exist within many simulators. For example, Microsoft Flight Simulator includes an in-game “multiplayer” option that allows you to explore flying with others without needing any other software. Other online communities support multiple simulators and thus provide dedicated software you need to connect your simulator with their infrastructure. You’ll find many communities using forums, websites, Discord, TeamSpeak, and other online tools to stay connected. There are even “virtual airlines” that allow you to simulate the day-to-day lives of airline pilots.
To get a sense of what's possible in the online world, check out this promotional video for VATSIM, a online community built around realistic, human-provided air traffic control.
An ATC-Based Community, the VATSIM network is a free online platform allowing virtual pilots from around the world to connect with virtual air traffic controllers. Pilots using FSX, MSFS, Prepar3D, or X-Plane connected to the network will see other pilots and be able to communicate with air traffic control. Other ATC-Based Communities for desktop sims include IVAO and PilotEdge.
Source: Microsoft Flight Simulator YouTube Channel.
In general, there are two types of online communities:
Casual Aviation Communities
- Simulated air combat and military operations.
- Group flights in scenic areas (island hopping, mountain flying, etc.).
- Opportunities to hang out and "talk shop" with other simmers.
- Radio procedures practice and "pre-flying" real-world training routes.
- Simulation of airline operations at busy airports.
- Flying with human-provided ATC.
You’ll also find that communities within these two categories offer a variety of realism. Some Casual Aviation Communities are extremely realistic, with rules, training, and procedures that must be followed, while others are entirely open-minded. There are ATC-based communities designed for beginners and other, stricter networks that require pilots to operate aircraft as they would in real life.
In addition to the communities, many pilots find that Virtual Airlines offer purpose to their flying. You can learn more about Virtual Airlines and online aviation in our free Online World Guide, which also includes a list of online communities that have reached out to us.
Once you have your simulator setup, there are lots of great resources out there for starting to fly. In some simulators, you’ll find this content right inside the sim. You’ll find hundreds of hours of “how-to” videos across YouTube and lots of helpful people on social media and in Discords across our community. Some of the most popular websites and content creator channels are cataloged in our Flight Simulation Resources Guide.
For getting started in MSFS, check out the Community-Created Guides on the MSFS forums. For Prepar3D, the developer’s Learning Center provides plenty of instructional material for your first flights. And with X-Plane, the X-Plane Beginners Guide on Threshold provides a nice overview of the software and other great resources to consider.
Of course, there are a variety of guides and resources right here at FSA that can help you take the "next step"! Consider browsing our full library of guides, and start reading more about whichever topics interest you. And if you aren't able to find what you're looking for, just Contact Us! We are happy to connect new simmers with the resources that will help them succeed.