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Before you think this is some kind of long diatribe on the benefits of flight sim, it’s not. I’m confident that you already accept the fact that “simming” is an extremely valuable training tool for staying proficient. But did you know it can also revolutionize the way you preflight your real flights too? I’m serious. Let me explain.

Microsoft Flight Simulator

The visuals on modern desktop simulators are almost indistinguishable from the real world.


The approach to KMVL.

A few years ago, for my birthday, I decided to fly up to Stowe, VT (KMVL). The mission: Heady Topper. A day before my scheduled departure, I anxiously awaited the TAF, looked at the MOS, and soon came to the startling conclusion that my wife had clearly paid Mother Nature off since three high-pressure systems were hovering over New England and it was severe clear all the way up.

However, when I looked at the Sectional, things started to get interesting: KMVL is nestled right between two mountain ranges, one of them topping at a little over 4,000 feet while the other was just a little below that. Now, I’m sure my flying colleagues from the West are laughing at me right about now, but keep in mind that being a pilot based out of New Jersey meant that I had never flown near anything even remotely considered mountainous and I was genuinely intimidated.

rnav a kmvl

The approach contained several step downs and multiple turns.

Alright, no problem, this airport has got to have a few approaches that can help me get down without smashing into the side of a mountain. The winds were clearly out of the north so I expected I would be landing on Runway 1. And sure enough, there is indeed the RNAV-A approach that looked promising. But after pulling my neck just looking at it, that approach only exacerbated my anxiety as it contained several step downs and multiple turns to avoid, you guessed it, those pesky mountains. Yeah, I’m sure I could have flown it just fine, but the whole route was less than ideal. Another option would be to fly past the airport, do a 180 degree turn, and then enter the traffic pattern from the north.

In these kinds of situations, I’ve found that having even a basic home flight sim can prove to be invaluable. Here’s what I mean: I loaded up the last leg of my trip into the sim and then proceeded to not only fly that leg but decided to survey the entire area, virtually, to familiarize myself with both the terrain and any notable landmarks as well. For instance, the Sectional shows the Waterbury Towers as a visual checkpoint, and while flying in the sim, these towers proved to be an excellent reference point to get in and out of Stowe. So, I added those towers to my real flight plan!

This kind of prep work in the sim made the actual flight an order of magnitude less stressful. When I saw those towers during the flight, I knew exactly where to turn my head to have the field insight. And there it was. Easy peasy.

approach to groton, CT

By the time the tower told me to enter the right downwind for Runway 23, it almost felt like deja-vu.

Here is another example: I was taking the family to Mystic, CT, which meant landing at the Groton-New London Airport (KGON), an airport I’ve never been to before. Again, as part of my preflight, I flew the last two legs in both simulated VFR and IFR conditions to get a sense of how I would mostly likely enter the pattern or get vectored for an approach. By the time the tower told me to enter the right downwind for Runway 23, it almost felt like deja-vu.

The astute reader might point out that a home flight sim may not generate scenery accurately, which could lead to expectation bias during the actual flight. No argument from me. But I would counter that using a flight simulator to familiarize yourself with unfamiliar or challenging territory, or a new airport is analogous to getting a weather briefing.  It’s never going to be completely accurate, but it can give you a synoptic view of the overall landscape and help you devise alternative plans when the unexpected arises – all from the comfort of your home.

Alexander Sack
Latest posts by Alexander Sack (see all)
18 replies
  1. Alan Edwards
    Alan Edwards says:

    Alex, great article! Your use of the sim to create “expectations” is to be commended. I think the importance of the notion of developing “expectations” for flight is often overlooked.

    • Alexander Sack
      Alexander Sack says:

      I’m a heavy X-Plane user. However, I think for VFR flight planning, at least out of the box, MSFS overs procedurally generated scenery that is hyper realistic and a great tool for the type of scenario I described above (I mean Microsoft does own a mapping company!). But either one will do the trick nicely to incorporate in your preflight planning and/or training (with XP, you might have to download some ortho if you are really looking to do some pilotage in the sim).

      I wrote a multi-part series for IFR Magazine that goes into a lot of details on how to get started with flight sim in general (and there are tons of other free resources practically every where on the Internet – you just have to triage a lot).

  2. Steve
    Steve says:

    Great article, and one I can relate to. As an IFR student and an X-Plane user, the benefits of a SIM can not be overstated. It was by far the best investment for IFR training. And as you mentioned, the SIM is an added benefit to ‘test fly’ my upcoming cross country flights.

  3. Dan
    Dan says:

    Good article. I just started down the sim path right before starting my VFR XC flights. The sim helps with confidence, coupled with PilotEdge you can skill build your communications and navigation training. Coupled with google earth, it’s been a good addition to my flight planning homework.

    • Alexander Sack
      Alexander Sack says:

      Thanks Dan! You bring up a very good point: Tools like Google Earth and Google Maps or anything that can provide you fairly recent satellite imagery can be a great resource for your pre-flight planning, i.e., even without the sim, those Waterbury Towers are clearly visible on Google Maps between the reservoir and downtown.

  4. Dan too
    Dan too says:

    The icing on the cake of simulator use for real world flight planning is to use virtual reality goggles that put you in the cockpit looking at the scenery all around you. I did this last summer for flying the Fisk arrival into Oshkosh, where the FAA has conveniently provided a set of VFR fixes along the route that extend all the way out to the most western entry point, 47 miles from the airport. Loading these fixes up in Microsoft 2020 and using an HP Reverb G2 head mounted display, I was able on a flight from the west coast to KOSH to instantly recognize all of the lakes, the famous railroad starting at Ripon, and the ATC location at Fisk where they send flights to 09/27 or 18/36 runways. Practicing doing it at exactly 1800ft and 90kts several times really took the pucker factor out of joining the most famous Conga line in aviation. It takes a reasonably powerful gaming computer to support the VR headset’s photorealistic display, but definitely worth the price of admission.

  5. Bruce S
    Bruce S says:

    Good article.
    I found it from the weekend email the Journal sends out. It was previewed with picture of an Alberta mountain that I recognized straight off. :)

    I do almost the same thing using my Foreflight app. I can survey the airport environment and get an idea of what to expect and what a quick trip around the area looks like. The amount of information we can call up is incredible. Even using Google Maps or Earth is a benefit to finding information out for an unfamiliar airfield. Thanks for posting up your processes.

  6. Franklin Porath
    Franklin Porath says:

    Good thoughts, which reminded me of some 20 years ago, when we lived in Switzerland. I followed the same routine, and found myself much much more at ease going to the wee airfields tacked onto the terrain And then we came back to the US… and New Jersey!

  7. Karrpilot
    Karrpilot says:

    When flying around mountains, I prefer the 182 as opposed to a lesser aircraft. I noticed a drop in manifold pressure, as well as a performance dip in the 182.

    Most 172’s don’t have manifold Guage meters, and the power loss won’t be as obvious. This is aggravated if the 172 flown has extended range fuel tanks and you filled them….

  8. Mike N
    Mike N says:

    Thanks for your article Alexander. I just recently purchased and have used X-Plane for IFR proficiency and that has helped. The unexpected positive outcome is just what you described.

    I saw your reference to a series of articles you wrote for IFR Magazine. Do we have to be a subscriber to access them?

  9. Ed Rickett
    Ed Rickett says:

    Got my PPL in 1974 and my IFR in 1985… Used the (pre-Microsoft) SubLogic Flight Simulator on a Commodore 128 PC to prep for the IFR… All graphics were “wire frame” but the gauges were pretty accurate… No GPS back then, so I flew a ton of simulated ILS, VOR and NDB approaches getting ready… The checkride felt more like a formality than a test due to the hours of practice beforehand… Cannot say enough about the benefits of simulator flight!

  10. Dr Vini Khurana
    Dr Vini Khurana says:

    Hi Alex,
    This is a great article, and spot on! I share your joy and appreciation of the value of sims in pre-flight planning, helping with skill upkeep, and particularly threat management/problem avoidance!
    Blue skies, mate.


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