What to Look For in a Flight Simulator

What do you need to look for in a flight simulator to get the most value for your money

Table of Contents

Suitability for Intended Use

You can buy simulators that can do anything which can be done in an aircraft, in-fact this is effectively the operating requirement of a Level D Full Flight Simulator. However simulators like that can run into the tens of millions of dollars. The most important thing when evaluating flight simulators is to determine how suitable they are for your particular use, and to make a judgement of what level of sophistication you need and how that meshes with your budget.

Completeness of Features

Most simulators these days are pretty complete as far as the basics, particularly with regards to fixed wing flight dynamics, reasonably good visual systems, and so on. Here are some sticky points you consider spending special time evaluating:

  • Is the software polished and friendly, or is there extensive use of complex menus to do simple tasks?
  • Pay special attention to the Instructor Operating Station: Can it set up scenarios you need to run easily and quickly?
  • Is the level of logging and analysis suitable for your needs and easy to use?
  • Does the physical cockpit represent the aircraft well, or is it the bare minimum to get regulatory approval? Do all of the controls, and indicators actually work as they would in the real aircraft?
  • Does it have sufficient visual detail as to not only be useful, but does the user lose themselves in the virtual environment allowing them to focus on flying?
  • Can it simulate all of the equipment failures you want to simulate in the way you want to simulate them? There's a difference between not being able to move an elevator, and it being stuck in an unwanted position.

Accuracy of Simulation

This typically isn't an as much of an issue for buyers of advanced simulators, however buyers of basic simulators, especially helicopter simulators need to watch out for this.

Physical Accuracy

Software Accuracy

Most basic and advanced simulators run on one of a few simulation engines, those engines are all very capable. However just as a great airplane can be flown badly, the simulation engines can be told to simulate things badly, or not at all.

The number one accuracy limitation you'll come across is simply not simulating certain things. You'll find certain sub systems which can't be failed, or if they can be failed its only in one way. There's a big difference between landing gear that's stuck down, and landing gear that's not there. Both constitute a landing gear failure, but how accurate is each for a particular scenario?

Another common inaccuracy, which usually isn't is a problem for most users is an inaccurate flight model. It's not uncommon for simulators to be built to resemble one aircraft while using the flight model from a similar aircraft. For example if you wanted a Cessna 182 simulator, someone might build you one using a Cessna 172 flight model which they've massaged to have more power, and a higher weight. It wouldn't be perfectly accurate, but it would be very close. The cost of developing a new flight model can be higher than most people are willing to pay for the added accuracy.

Physical Build Quality

This is a big problem, even with relatively expensive advanced simulators. A flight simulator generally represents a sizable investment, and in the case of flight schools and training centers they receive an incredible amount of use. Even if the simulator doesn't move, it's occupants do, and that can induce considerable motion. If the designers hadn't planned for that motion it rapidly leads to excessive wear. Chassis and cabs begin to wobble and squeak, markings rub off, switches wiggle loose, indicator lights burn out, seats rip, carpets wear through, exterior panels warp, and windows turn yellow and crack or sag.

This is largely a result of limited manufacturing expertise, and lack of manufacturing capabilities at many simulator companies. There's a lot of little things that you have to get right to build durable machines which maintain their tolerances and last over years of use. NexGen Simulation's parent company (AMFM) is a contract manufacturing firm with over thirty years of experience building commercial and industrial equipment, and automotive products.

NexGen Simulation also offer complete repair, refurbishment, and recertification services for other manufacturer's simulators. We can correct many problems, and provide new longevity to your existing simulators.

You may be interested in our page on common flight simulator failures.

Electronics Quality

Failed electronics, or buggy electronics are probably one of the most common causes of complaints, a fairly common reasons why simulators are decommissioned1. Electronics failures come from many sources, often it's from simple design flaws. Insufficient cooling, failure to consider sources of electrical noise, lack of vibration isolation, and simply choosing the wrong components.

Many simulators contain proprietary circuit boards which cannot be replaced except via the original manufacturer. Sadly many manufacturers only make a certain number of replacement boards.

More and more simulators are being built with regular gaming computers as their primary computers. Although this has created a massive reduction in costs, it's also created some reliability issues. Most home PC components are only designed to operate a couple of hours a day for three to five years, and stability is not the primary design consideration. The components in most desktop computers are also not designed to be fault tolerant. With certain regulatory approvals components can only be replaced with the identical components for which the approval was written unless the regulator grants an exception or new approval. In the case of PC components, many are only manufactured for six months to a year. When a simulator is seven years old and needs a new motherboard, the original board may not be available.

It's always a good idea to ask about purchasing a "parts kit" of replacement parts when you buy your simulator to ensure you have spares for those hard to replace parts. This will also help protect the resale value of their simulator as the next buyer will know it's not new and having spare parts for harder to find components readily available will improve the situation.

You may be interested in our page on common flight simulator failures.

Serviceability

NexGen Simulation also offer repair, refurbishment, and recertification services for other manufacturers simulators, and as such we know that not all simulators are designed to be fixed. A lot of them are designed to be cheap to build, and no consideration is given to long term service. Or if it is considered, the fact that the original manufacture may make a sizable portion of their profits on maintenance and service will not escape them.

It's a good idea to explore how serviceable a simulator is before you purchase it. Are parts accessible and available? What parts are custom and which are produced by another company? Are any unusual manufacturing techniques or components involved? Will the tooling, designs, and especially cabin panel molds be warehoused to produce replacement parts, if so, for how long?

It's also important to discuss software support. Will support be available, is it sub contracted, is anything locked down and not possible to service? Does the manufacturer offer on-site support? Is there a service contract required and what does it cost?

Affordability

It almost goes without saying, but you need to be able to afford the simulator. FAA approved Basic Aviation Training Devises start around $7,0002, and Full Flight Simulators climb into the million3.


  1. The most common reason is they simply become out of date, and due to the cost of moving them the market for buyers for such aged simulators is fairly small. Also regulatory approvals may have expiration dates, and an fifteen year old simulator which doesn't meet any regulatory standard may not be worth upgrading if there isn't a market for it. 

  2. The $7,000 model we're talking about is in our opinion of very limited use exec. 

  3. Tens of millions of dollars might sound like a lot, but when you're absolutely replicating the an aircraft that costs hundreds of millions of dollars, to buy and several thousand of dollars per hour to operate it's a bargain compaired to doing training the actual aircraft, particularly when you factor in the lost revenue associated with training in a real aircraft.