I have been using flight simulators since I purchased the SubLogic Flight Simulator for my TRS-80. I have learned a great deal about both civilian and military aircraft and systems through the programs I have purchased. I have purchased nearly every flight simulator that has been made over the years. I think my all time favorites are:
More recently I found Orbiter, a space flight simulator. It has been one of the most entertaining and educational programs I have ever found. It has given me a real appreciation for what the people at NASA do to send people and spacecraft in orbit and to the planets.
This page is my take on MS Flight Simulator, Orbiter and the add-on's that I have purchased and downloaded. I also talk about VATSIM and a bit about Virtual Airlines. I hope you will find some of the information helpful.
MS FS2004 & FSX are great programs, for a relatively modest investment you can learn one heck of a lot about flying from these programs. Even more amazing is the fact that you can fly nearly anyplace on the planet with some pretty good scenery to look at. They even have well known real world flight instructors that help you learn to fly. While you will not become an FAA certified pilot using Flight Simulator you will learn about the basics of flying. The realism of Flight Simulator can be enhanced greatly with add-on programs. There are add-ons for Aircraft, Scenery and Tools. While it is not really an add-on, the Virtual Air Traffic SIMulation (VATSIM) network is the one site that really adds the most realism to flight simulation. I describe more information about it below.
NOTE: It is important to mention that most add-on aircraft and utilities make use of navigation information such as Airports, Jet Routes, VOR Airways, Intersections and SID/STAR information. This information is updated with monthly changes called AIRAC cycles. For those of us in the flight sim world that want up to date information we purchase updates through the Navigraph website. Navigraph provides us with updated AIRAC cycles based on real world updates.
The developers provide for more realistic modeling of the aircraft flight characteristics and systems. They provide more detailed views of the various instrument panels so that you can see how pilots really use these systems. The big drawback to add-ons is that in many cases it takes some time for them to get updated when a new version of Flight Simulator is released. There were, and continue to be, some serious waits for updates due to FSX. You can also download aircraft, livery and panels from AVSIM for free. Currently I own the following add-on aircraft:
PMDG and LEVEL-D are very highly thought of and I think are probably the class of the add-on aircraft business. WILCO and FLIGHT1 are also quite good and have been great add-ons. Unfortunately PSS went out of business in January 2008 and they were probably the most popular Airbus add-on company. ALPHASIM is kind of niche company. I wanted the B47 & B52 since my father flew them and I grew up on Air Force bases that had these. The main reason I got these add-ons were recommendations from others and the fact that there are textures for them provided by my virtual airline.
I would be remiss if I did not mention AI (Artificial Intelligence) Aircraft. While flying online is the best way to fly there are times you don't want to fly online but you would like to see aircraft. Microsoft does provide some basic AI aircraft but there are alternatives. ProjectAI is one of the best known and will allow you to add AI aircraft to Flight Simulator. There are quite a number of different airlines and aircraft that can be added along with schedules. My Virtual Airline even has an AI package so that you can share the skies with aircraft sharing the Atlantic Sun Airways livery.
FSUIPC.DLL, by Peter Dowson, is one of the most important utilities in the flight sim world. It is usually distributed free by the programs that make use of it. However, you can purchase it and unlock some additional features. I like to support developers so I have purchased this utility. Since the new SDK for FSX was supposed to handle all the things that FSUIPC did many thought it would go away. However, that has not happened and it appears the FSUIPC will be around for awhile since many developers had problems with the FSX SDK. NOTE: There are 2 versions. Version 4 is for FSX and Version 3 is for FS2004.
FSPassengers, by Daniel Polli (DanSteph), is my favorite utility. This adds the economic dimension of running an airline to Flight Simulator. You must purchase your aircraft and set your pricing for your airline. It also requires the pilot to handle the aircraft properly as it grades your flight performance. And your performance dictates how well your airline does financially along with your pricing. I purchased this program for 3 reasons:
Radar Contact is a great add-on program if you spend time flying offline. It provides much better ATC than the default ATC in Flight Simulator. It also will grade your performance. This will help you improve your flying. I like using this when flying offline since it adds a bit of realism and helps you learn the basics of ATC.
FS2Crew is like a copilot for your aircraft but it is actually much more. Most of the aircraft I fly normally would have 2 pilots. This product simulates the procedures that are used by the crew in flying such as reading off and performing the checklists. This corresponds closely to the real world procedures. This add-on is very detailed and has a steep learning curve. It makes a number of modifications to the Flight Simulator so be aware. I had some issues with it but they are likely my fault for not reading more about the installation and de-installation procedures. I don't use it at this time but hope to get back into it at some point later. It is available for a number of add-on aircraft such as PMD 747-400 and Level-D 767 as well as the default aircraft for Flight Simulator.
Flight planning software is a popular add-on. The programs will allow you to select your airports and then build a flight plan that can be exported in many different formats. I have purchased the following flight planners:
There are also a number of websites that provide flight planning services. SimRoutes is quite popular. Many of the VATSIM ARTCC's and FIR's provide links and ask that you use this site. Some have loaded the preferred routes for people to use. You can download routes in some formats and even file your flight plan with VATSIM. Routefinder is another website that provides flight planning services. The planning is free but it also has a subscription service that will let you download your flight plans in a large number of formats. One cool feature is the ability to generate a chart of your flight plan. I am a subscriber and I highly recommend this site. One final site you can use to get flight plans is FlightAware. You can check for flights in a number of ways. Once you have the flight or flights listed you just click on the flight and part of the information displayed about the flight is the routing that the actual aircraft used in its flight plan. This is free and is very useful.
Another set of utility programs provide logbooks for logging your flight information. The two I have used are both popular and have interfaces for some popular virtual airlines to help automate your flight reporting.
ACTIVSKY is probably the most important add-on item in the scenery category. It provides a more realistic depiction of weather and clouds than the default flight simulator. It also provides weather data from its own server. I highly recommend this add-on and it is available for FS2004 and FSX.
You could easily go broke buying scenery for flight simulator. I have tailored my scenery to match the majority of major airports that my virtual airline flies to. This helps when using VATSIM since the controllers are generally going to expect you to know the layout of the airport. In some cases changes have been made to the airport since flight simulator was released. The add-on scenery will normally update it so it reflects the current layout. You can also download free scenery from AVSIM.
VATSIM is the Virtual Air Traffic SIMulation Network. This is a free service that you must be 13 years of age or older to join. This allows you to fly online, around the world, with other people who both fly aircraft and provide Air Traffic Control (ATC) services. VATSIM is divided into several Regions and Division that are geographically based. I found VATSIM a number of years ago and decided to join and become a controller. While I have a Private Pilot License (PPL) I am not current. That means I do not have a current FAA III Class Medical Certificate and I have not done a biannual flight review with a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI). Since I have not flown in quite sometime and having heard that the airspace designations had changed I thought this would be a good way to ease back in and pick up the new information. I worked as a VATSIM controller in the VATUSA Division at he Honolulu ARTCC handling ATC for that area. There are quite a number of real world (RW) pilots and controllers on the VATSIM network. That speak great volumes about the type of environment this is.
To be a pilot you will need a legal copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator or X-Plane. You will also need software that lets you communicate with the other members and you can find out more information about the software needed at the Pilot Resource Center (PRC) at VATSIM. You should read User's Agreement, Code of Conduct and the Code of Regulation so that you fully understand what you are getting into. VATSIM is not just any multi-player environment and it is certainly not a chat room. Communications between pilots and controllers is handled just as you would see it done in the real world. It can be very rewarding to fly here and I highly recommend it. To get started just click on the "New Pilots START HERE" text at the VATSIM website. Be sure to review the information at the PRC since it has nearly everything you need to know about flying in the VATSIM environment.
To be a controller is a bit more complex. There are a number of free Radar Client programs that you can download. You should probably download a few and figure out which one you like best. Again, you should read User's Agreement, Code of Conduct and the Code of Regulation so that you fully understand what you are getting into. To get started just click on the "New ATC START HERE" text at the VATSIM website. You are going to select a Region/Division then ARTCC or FIR to be a member of. The difference between controllers and pilots is the training they must undergo. You must be trained, pass tests and learn the specific procedures for your ARTCC/FIR. To move up you must now also control for a specific number of hours at a certain level before you can be promoted. There are far fewer controllers than pilots at VATSIM. The process of training and testing tends to keep these numbers down. It was a real challenge and great fun to be a controller and I encourage anyone who has the interest to take the plunge. I am no longer a controller but anticipate that I will rejoin their ranks at some point in the future.
One important thing to remember about VATSIM is that while it is free you do not a have a vote in how it is run. The Founders of VATSIM own the rights to VATSIM and make the rules. If you want to be a member make sure that you understand that. I have no problem with that since the Founders solicited the hardware and network resources that we can use for free. We are very lucky to have this network. All of the software used to connect to VATSIM is freeware and network interface is proprietary. Since all the software is freeware it often takes some time for the authors to get their software updated. They do not do this for money so I find it offensive to hear some members bashing the authors and pressing them for dates and information.
VATSIM has a number of Virtual Airlines (VA) and you can find out about them at VATSIM using the Community text link and selecting Virtual Airlines. There are even Virtual Military organizations if you are so inclined. They all make some use of VATSIM. Virtual Airlines provide pilots with a list of scheduled flights, livery for various MSFS aircraft and add-on aircraft. Many provided training on how to fly and some even emulate some of the more esoteric aspects of airlines such as dispatching. All of them will require that you fly some number of flights per month and report flight information with some type of software or by entering the necessary data on a form at their website. I suggest visiting a number of them and checking their forums out. The well run popular VA's have good websites with dedicated management and pilots. Running a VA requires a good knowledge of website admin/design/management as well as the ability to motivate and promote the VA. It is certainly not for the feint of heart and my hat is off to the guys who have been successful at this. Please note that new VA's are always popping up. Many are started by very young members with a desire to have some important title. While I understand that anyone who wants to start a VA must start somewhere I would tend to avoid those.
I have been a member of couple of vir5utal airlines. I have found it a bit difficult to stay active since my interests are varied. My choices of virtutal airlines are based on those that support FS Passengers. I highly recommend Atlantic Sun Airways even though I am no longer active with it.
Martin Schweiger's ORBITER is a free program that simulates space flight. This is not a program for someone who is not ready to spend some serious time learning about what real space flight is all about. While it tries to simplify things by providing fictional spacecraft with capabilities that we do not have today it does not change the mechanisms need to go from place to place in our solar system; that is Newtonian physics. It is by far one of the most interesting and educational programs I have ever gotten. The program is free but you can donate some money if you would like to. I certainly feel the program is as good as any game I have bought so I happily contributed.
add-ons are again the real key to using this program. There are add-ons for historic, current, futuristic and science fiction spacecraft. From Mercury to the Space Shuttle; you can fly them all. You can find links to related sites that in the Related Sites section at the Orbiter website.
Daniel Polli (DanSteph), as I mentioned earlier, has written some of the best add-ons for Orbiter. DeltaGlider IV, Orbiter Sound 3.5 and Universal MMU 1.5 are really outstanding and in many cases required by other add-on packages.
The Orbiter Hanger Mods website is where you will find the majority of your add-ons. Additional ships planets, moon and most importantly additional Multi-Function Displays (MFD). Most space ships have at least 2 MFD panels and you can load any one of a dozen or more MFDs into them. The MFD add-ons are really critical to help you do things like navigate, takeoff or land. You will definitely want to visit and pick up the items you think are most important.