If you are ready to make an investment in purchasing or building a home simulator, there is a lot of information out there. This guide attempts to bring that information together in a single place to help make the process easier. As you read, you’ll find our recommendations, created by polling the community, alongside thoughts from popular flight simulation content creators.
Brand New to Flight Simulation?This guide is an expanded version of our Setting Up a Home Simulator Guide and is intended for simmers who are looking to upgrade their system, who want to make a larger upfront investment, or who are real-world pilots planning to use their simulator for training and proficiency. If you’re brand new and are still deciding whether or not flight simulation is right for you, start instead with our Setting Up a Home Simulator Guide.
Before We Begin...
People get into flight simulation for a variety of different reasons, so it’s not surprising that no two setups look the same! If you’re an enthusiast looking to set up a realistic home airliner cockpit, your setup will look very different than that of a student pilot hoping to use the simulator for proficiency and training. For example:
Similarly, the monetary investment to set up a home simulator varies widely based on your requirements. Some simmers choose to purchase fully-configured setups to save time, while others start small and build over many years of searching, tweaking, and tinkering. Of course, that’s not to say you have to spend any money at all! If you just need something basic, there are free simulators you can download for your phone, and even desktop simulators you can run on a web browser.
For these reasons, you’ll find that this guide emphasizes knowing your goals and budget prior to making a significant investment. You don’t want to spend time and money building a home simulator that replicates airliner style operations, only to find out that you really prefer casually flying general aviation aircraft with friends!
Start With Your Goals
As you’re thinking about how to get started, ask yourself the following questions. The answers will help inform the choices you make as you plan your build. Remember, the questions aren’t mutually exclusive, and your preferences and interests can change over time.
Are you planning to use your home simulator for fun, real-world pilot training, or a mix of both?
- For Fun: Many simmers are not, and never plan to be, “real-world” pilots. They fly simulators to explore their passion for aviation.
- For Real-World Training: Some people build a home flight simulator to help with real pilot training, or to remain proficient between flights.
- For a mix of both: Often, folks get into flight simulation and then become inspired to start flight training. What may begin as a casual interest and “game” has progressed to a flying career for many of us! Actual pilots may also use the simulator to learn new aircraft, or to fly something other than what they operate in “real life”.
Are you building the base for a long-term investment, or have you just recently discovered the passion for aviation?
- If you’re ready to make an investment, you probably have a good idea of what you’re looking for and want to understand the different ways of getting there.
- If you have a specific purpose in mind, you can tailor your hardware and software purchases for that goal. But remember that preferences can change over time.
Are you trying to build a flexible setup to simulate multiple aircraft, or is this build for a specific purpose?
- If you like to fly different aircraft, you’ll want to build a relatively generic setup that works well for airliners, helicopters, and general aviation aircraft.
- If you have a specific purpose in mind, you can tailor your hardware and software purchases for that goal. But remember that preferences can change over time.
Are you planning a desktop/table setup, or a more complicated build?
- Most people start with a desktop-based setup, with a computer, monitors or TVs, and control hardware that sits on, or mounts to, a desk.
- More advanced setups can include projectors, full-size cockpit parts, mounted panels, customized desks, and more!
How much money, if any, do you plan to spend to get started?
- You can start with almost no investment by using the PC and hardware you already have. As you discover your preferences, it will be easier to know how you’d like to expand.
- If you’re planning to buy a PC and flight simulation hardware, a good starting budget is US$1,500 - $2,000. Create a setup you can use to start with, and plan to expand in the future.
For Real World Pilots: Will it Feel Like the Real Thing?
Flight simulators are not about replicating the exact feeling of flight. Even airline pilots often comment that the full-motion professional simulators used for training don’t exactly feel like the real thing. If you’re a real-world pilot, the value of the simulator is procedural training. It’s about building and reinforcing the habits that will make you a better pilot, such as practicing checklist discipline, learning how do an instrument scan, or coping with the real-world pressures of a busy ATC frequency. More than ever, home simulators are also assisting real pilots in becoming familiar with complex glass cockpit setups, GPS units, and FMS technology…all from the comfort of home!
Many home simulator pilots who fly in real life choose to sim using different aircraft. This adds some variety and avoids concerns about getting the feel exactly right, while still engaging the “flying brain” for a lot less than it costs to get airborne. That said, because the simulator is a great procedural trainer, you should consider choosing an aircraft with a similar avionics setup (e.g, Garmin G1000 vs. traditional steam gauges) as what you fly in real life, to maximize the potential training benefit.
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 examples of some flight simulation setups to help jumpstart your search.
Step 1: Simulator
The three primary desktop simulators used by most of the civilian desktop flight simulation community are Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS), Prepar3D (P3D), and X-Plane. Beyond these three, DCS World is extremely popular within the military flight simulation community, and there are even sims that work entirely on mobile devices.
Patrick from The Flight Sim Deck introduces you to the "big three" desktop flight simulators and offers a quick comparison between each.
As most simulators are available for less than US$60, it’s easy to try a few and determine which one you like best. It’s also fine to use more than one simulator—and many simmers do! For example, you might find you do general aviation simulation on one platform, and fly airliners in another. However, as you start gain experience—and start to purchase add-ons that are often simulator-specific—you’ll likely gravitate to one platform more than another.
Based on community survey data, we’ve categorized the most popular simulators based on how they’re used by the majority of the community:
X-Plane 11 brands itself as the most realistic simulator, especially for General Aviation flying. The in-game GPS and stock aircraft are fairly high in fidelity and scenery is crowd-sourced, meaning there is less of a need to seek out add-on aircraft or scenery updates than in Prepar3D. Between MSFS, P3D, and X-Plane, our opinion is that X-Plane offers the best "out of the box" experience.
X-Plane has the highest percentage of licensed pilot users (31%), followed by P3D (29%) and then MSFS (24%).
There are a wide variety of realistic, study-level airliners available as add-ons to Prepar3D v5. Given Prepar3D's long-standing development legacy, the simulator acts as an "ecosystem" for some of the most high-fidelity, detailed simulation products available, including airliners, weather, ground handling utilities, and more.
Across the major civilian flight simulators, Prepar3D’s users tend to fly IFR airliners more than other simulators.
Released in August 2020, the default version of MSFS brings a new definition to the words “visual flight rules”. This simulator seems to produce the best screenshots of any. Although the default in-game aircraft may not offer the same level of realism and fidelity as some of the other simulators, there are several study-level aircraft “add-ons” in development. If you love VFR flying, enjoy being on the leading edge of development, 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).
Also consider: X-Plane 11
DCS world is a free-to-play digital battlefield game with a large following in the desktop community. Although MSFS, P3D, and X-Plane all offer some level of military simulation, advanced military simmers find the capabilities of DCS World exceed the other simulators.
According to simmers who reported flying combat missions, DCS World is the most popular flight simulator for combat missions.
Also consider: IL2-Sturmovik
Infinite Flight offers a comprehensive flight simulation experience for mobile devices. With features ranging from global airports, navigation data, and procedures furnished by NavBlue (An Airbus Company) to multiplayer with human ATC, Infinite Flight gives users a way to practice from anywhere. At a fraction of the cost of desktop simulators, you can download Infinite Flight from your app store for $1, and unlock all features for a monthly or annual subscription.
Although mobile simulators represent only about 6% of the community, Infinite Flight accounts for 67% of mobile flight simulation use. (Other mobile flight sim users turn to X-Plane, which is the only desktop sim that is also compatible with mobile devices.)
Also consider: GeoFS
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.
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.
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 you’re planning to build a flight sim PC, aim for an AMD or Intel processor, Nvidia graphics, a large NVMe drive (for both the OS and primary games), and then the latest 3200 or 3600 speed RAM. If you find the need for more storage, a high capacity HDD works well for pictures, music, videos, documents—plus scenery areas and other flight simulator add-ons that can include large files.
93% of simmers use a PC with Windows 10. Nvidia is the preferred graphics platform of simmers, with 86% using Nvidia graphics. Of those, 18% use the GTX 1080 while the RTX 2080 is used by 16%.
Ryzen 3 3200G
Ryzen 5 3600
Ryzen 9 3900 X
Radeon RX 570
NVIDIA RTX 2060
Radeon 5600 XT
Nvidia RTX 2070
Nvidia RTX 2080Ti
|Hard Drive||1TB||1TB SSD or NVMe||1TB NVMe|
Caution!The popularity of Microsoft Flight Simulator coupled with global impacts of the pandemic have made gaming hardware and even flight simulation controls popular items! Good prices for new graphics cards have increased and flight simulation controls can be harder to find than usual.
Be cautious and ensure you don’t over-pay for hardware. Always purchase from known and reputable sources!
When building your setup, also consider internet connectivity and speed. Most desktop simulators come as digital downloads, so it can take several hours just to get to the installation process on slower connections. In addition, new simulators like MSFS are taking advantage of cloud computing power to “stream” data into your simulator in real-time. Finally, flying online—connecting your simulator to a network and flying with others—really completes the experience. You’ll want a solid connection to be able to get connected with other simulators.
For Real World Pilots: Certified Flight Trainers
If you fly real aircraft, you might be wondering whether you can log the time you spend in your home simulator toward training hours. The answer is “it depends”. The real value of a home simulator isn’t necessarily just hours. Home simming is about proficiency and recency: being able to feel more confident and comfortable when you do get flying. Even if you don’t log the hours you fly at home, you’ll find home simming to be the ultimate “chair flying” and chances are it will save you plenty of instructor and flight training time.
That said, there are FAA-approved home training devices, including the Gleim Virtual Cockpit. Comprised of the same hardware that’s recommended for home use across this website, Gleim’s Virtual Cockpit can be used for private pilot and instrument training on the Cessna 172 using X-Plane 11. There are are also certified options available from ELITE and Redbird.
When exploring certified sims for home use, it’s important to ensure they are compatible with online networks like PilotEdge and VATSIM. When you aren’t flying with an instructor, you’ll want the ability to get connected with real ATC as a component of your training.
Step 3: Hardware
Once you have a PC, the next step to consider is hardware. This includes:
- Flight control hardware: yokes, joysticks, rudder pedals, etc.
- Advanced flight control hardware such as gauges, autopilot controls, and GPS units.
- More significant elements that can replicate the aircraft, such as instrument panels, throttle pedestals, mounts, and more.
At a minimum, FSA recommends purchasing a yoke or joystick to control aircraft pitch and roll, and consider rudder pedals if accurate yaw control is desired.
98% of flight simmers use a joystick or yoke. 86% have a separate throttle control. 56% use rudder pedals.
Beyond those initial controls, adding hardware to your setup will be highly dependent on the type of flying you plan to do:
- For desktop setups involving airline or fixed-wing general aviation flying, consider throttle controls, additional monitors, head tracking, and headsets.
- For more comprehensive “cockpit” builds, consider panels and gauges that compliment flight control hardware.
- If appropriate, consider specialized simulation gear, like helicopter or military control hardware.
Hardware is a vast subject, so we’ve dedicated an entire guide to it! Rather than duplicating the material here, we encourage you to 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.
Some of the questions you may wish to consider as you review the Hardware Guide include:
- Consider a yoke if the aircraft you fly are mostly controlled by a yoke, and if it fits well in the space you have available on your desk.
- Consider a joystick for a more flexible setup. Joysticks often have built-in throttle and/or rudder controls, thus reducing the need to for additional hardware, and generally fit in a smaller space.
- If yaw control is important in your setup, rudder pedals are a great enhancement for improving the overall experience.
Type of Material
- Plastic controls tend to be cheaper and more widely available but may not last as long and tend to offer a less realistic feel.
- Metal and other controls have a heavier and more durable feel
- Where will your controls go? If you plan to mount a yoke to your desk, where will your keyboard go? Do you have space for a joystick beside your mouse?
- Can you place a piece of carpet under your chair or desk to prevent movement while operating rudder pedals?
Example Flight Simulator Setup
Ronnie, an FSElite Content Leader, has shared his home setup as an example of the types of hardware a desktop simmer might be looking for. Ronnie is a streamer and flies online on VATSIM. For flight controls, he uses high-end Virtual Fly equipment.
A yoke allows for control of the aircraft in the simulator. This one, the YOKO, the Yoke, PLUS (from Virtual Fly) includes a hat switch (for looking around), trim switches, and buttons Ronnie has set to the autopilot disconnect and the “push to talk” on VATSIM.
Ronnie’s Ruddo PLUS pedals are an all-metal set of rudder controls with hall effect sensors and load cells. While rudder pedals aren’t strictly necessary—joysticks sometimes have rudder control, and you can also set up automatic rudder in simulators—the physical controls add to the experience.
Because Ronnie flies online with VATSIM, a Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO headset is 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. He also has a separate boom microphone that he normally uses for content creation. (Having a good quality microphone, generally one that’s built into your headset, is a must-have for online flying.)
The V3RNIO Plus TPM, with throttle, prop, and mixture controls, is ideal for general aviation flying. As with other hardware, the physical control axes can be mapped to anything in the simulator, so this throttle unit could also be used to support airline flying.
Flight simmers are often looking for more physical buttons that can be mapped to various simulator functions. One option is the Elgato Stream Deck, which has programmable buttons that can be set to handle different functions based on the type of aircraft in use.
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.
Many simmers employ a multi-monitor setup. Some like to have the simulator full screened on one of the monitors and use the others for charts, weather, and other apps. Others prefer to have the sim stretch across the monitors, providing a “wrap around” visual.
Head Tracking and Virtual Reality
In addition to physical hardware, more simmers are embracing various forms of Virtual Reality (VR) in their setups. Instead of purchasing physical control hardware, you might elect to have a very simple physical setup and spend more time looking through VR goggles.
Head Tracking software allows you to “look around” in the sim naturally. As you turn your head, the camera view in the simulator follows that motion. The next step is Virtual Reality, which allows you to see a three-dimensional picture of the environment, including the cockpit and surrounding scenery. Most major desktop simulators support both Head Tracking and Virtual Reality. Check out our Virtual Reality Guide for more information on getting started with this new technology!
Step 4: Software
When you buy a desktop flight simulator, you’re generally purchasing the “world” (landscapes and airports) and several “default” or “stock” aircraft. Each simulator has its own strengths and weaknesses in these default offerings. Luckily, it’s easy to modify or enhance your simulation experience through freeware and payware add-ons. The flight simulation industry is regularly recognized as having one of the most prolific third-party add-on markets available, and the passion and creativity shown through this market is one of the coolest things about the flight simulation community.
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 start searching for add-ons to access new visual experiences, higher-fidelity aircraft, and more.
Just like with hardware, the add-ons that will make the most sense for you depend on the type of flying you enjoy.
If you like flying airliners:
- You may be more interested in the following add-ons: aircraft/airliners, navigation data, airport charts, weather utilities, airport and large city scenery updates
- These add-ons may be less important for you: general aviation add-ons, landclass/landscape scenery
If you plan to fly general aviation, especially for VFR and low-level flying:
- You may be more interested in general aviation add-on aircraft, landclass and landscape scenery, moving maps, flight planning tools, and weather utilities
- These add-ons may be less important for you: aircraft/airliners, navigation data, airport charts, airport and large city scenery updates
The world of add-on software is extensive! There are add-on airports, scenery, aircraft, and utilities that can enhance the simulation world. Some are offered as paid enhancements, while many are free. Our Software Guide and Freeware Guide provide more information add-on software and the community’s most popular add-ons by simulator.
Step 5: Flying Online
The power of a home simulator is multiplied when you’re not using it alone. Whether you’re earning certifications with a virtual airline or flying combat missions with real veterans, the online world opens an entirely new simulation experience. Start by reading our Online World Guide, which also includes a list of online communities that have reached out to us.
Almost all online communities are free, meaning you can try the various experiences out there and decide which you most enjoy. 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.
If you like flying airliners:
- Consider ATC-based communities to enhance the experience when you’re looking for like ATC.
- Virtual Airlines offer an airline-like experience, and they come in all shapes and sizes.
- Some simulators, like Infinite Flight, offer ATC-based communities right inside the simulator.
If you prefer flying general aviation:
- ATC-based communities are great for you too!
- Also consider Casual Aviation Communities that focus on unique flights, specific operations (like combat or search and rescue), and more.
For Real World Pilots: Fly With ATCFlying with real, human ATC makes a complete difference in the training experience. It’s not just doing the hold entry: it’s doing the hold entry you weren’t expecting while responding to traffic information from the controller. ATC-Based Communities like IVAO and VATSIM (free) or PilotEdge (subscription) are great for this.
Example Flight Simulation Setups to Get you Started
Remember, you don’t need to spend money to get started in this hobby! “Freeware” has always been a huge part of the flight simulation community. In fact, you can download any of several flight simulators right now, some of them for free, and get started. There are many amazing free resources available for first-timers that don’t require any investment (you’ll find several on our Resources Guide). Especially if you already have a gaming computer and a joystick, you have everything you need to get started right now.
However, if you’re looking to jump into an investment in a moderate setup to get you started, we’ve provided some options below, designed for a US$2,500 – US$4,000 budget. Each of these options will give you plenty of room to grow in the future too! These setups represent our opinion of a representative mid-level flights simulation setup, using information FSA as a reference.
For simmers who just want to get flying, Gleim Aviation has created an all-in-one sim station that makes getting set up easy. The setup features many of the products mentioned on this page, including the Honeycomb Alpha yoke and X-Plane 11, as well as a chair and mounting system. Although it’s priced a little higher than $3,000, purchasing this simulator takes the individual system and hardware decisions out of the picture.
Depending on your simulator of choice, you may also want to consider using some of the “Software” and “Online” recommendations listed in the “Do It Yourself” setups described below.
We’ve provided two example setups below that reflect what’s discussed on this page as an example of how you might apply our suggestions above to a new setup. We recommend using this information, in conjunction with your own research from this page and other sources, when making your purchasing decisions.
Each of the products below is linked to the original developer’s website. Purchases can often be made through developers directly or through central marketplaces. You’ll find simulation hardware at retailers like Amazon and Walmart too.
These recommendations are based on our April 2021 poll of 100 experienced simmers.
Why isn’t Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS) included?At this point, we feel MSFS is a developing simulator that needs a little more time to mature. Simmers looking for an “out of the box” simulator for airline or general aviation operations will find a more complete experience with Prepar3D or X-Plane. However, as the add-on community and aircraft developers create new products for MSFS, we expect it will become a simulator of choice for many users in the future. (Despite what we feel are some shortcomings for serious simmers, MSFS is the most popular flight simulator based on an independent survey of the community conducted in 2020.)
Why are you recommending Prepar3D and X-Plane?For the past several years, these were the two most popular simulators in the community. Both P3D and X-Plane released new simulator versions in 2020, and the two platforms continue to support the most serious simmers in our community.
|Setup||The Airline Pilot||The Student, Real-World, or GA Pilot|
|Description||A setup optimized for realistic airliner simulation.||A setup designed primarily for general aviation and student pilots.|
|Simulator||Prepar3D Version 5 (Academic License: $60, Professional License: $200)||X-Plane 11 ($60)|
|Although Prepar3D (P3D) tends to offer better airline experiences and X-Plane has more of a GA focus, the two simulators each offer their own complete experiences. X-Plane has some well-simulated airliners—even free options—while Prepar3D has great GA support too. Budget-permitting, we recommend simmers purchase both sims and work toward building a library on each. Many experienced simulators tend to fly on more than one sim.|
|Computer||Jetline Systems’ Gravity GT1 ($2089) or a custom-built gaming desktop||X-Force RTX Flight Sim System ($1995) or a custom-built gaming desktop|
|Hardware||A yoke or joystick ($50-250, see our Hardware Guide for ideas)|
To improve weather: ActiveSky ($50)
To improve scenery: Orbx Global Base and Vector, plus either of Buildings HD or TerraFlora v2 ($170)
Add-on aircraft as desired from A2A or PMDG ($150-200)
FMS Data: Navigraph ($30/year)
To improve weather: ActiveSky ($50)
Add-on aircraft as desired from Hot Start or AirFoil Labs ($150-200)
|For Orbx products, also consider "True Earth" or "openLC" packages for areas you fly in.
For more add-on suggestions, view flight simulation’s "top 5 aircraft in 2020" on our Software Guide.
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.
While researching this article, we spoke with experienced simmers and polled the community. We also looked at some of the other free reference information available on the internet. We found some great Example Simulator Builds from RealSimGear, a how-to guide on Make Tech Easier, recommendations from Redbird, and a great How to Build a Home Flight Simulator guide from an experienced pilot and flight simmer.
In addition to the guides and resources right here at FSA to help take you to the “next step”, we also offer one-on-one coaching. A free 30-minute intro session is available to all FSA Captains. In the session, we can talk through what you’re planning and help point you in the right direction. Upgrade to Captain for just $3 per month.