Can I learn on an RC simulator?

Radio controlled plane simulators are a valuable tool while you’re learning to fly, but they are not a substitute for real stick time. They are very useful at developing some of the skills you need, in a lower-pressure environment (since it doesn’t matter if you crash the plane in the simulator).

In particular, two things that are hard to learn when starting out are training your reactions to steer the plane in the correct direction (especially when you are sometimes flying away from and sometimes towards yourself), and understanding the current orientation of the plane at a distance (the silhouette can look very similar whether it is turning left or right – see the picture on page 27 of the BMFA Up and Away book). The only way to learn these things is with practice, and simulator practice will definitely help (and means you can get in much more practice time each week since you can do it by yourself at home).

When you get a bit more advanced, a simulator can help you to learn the coordination required for some of the more advanced manouvres you might do (maybe some aerobatic manouvre, or just practising the “flare” for landing).

However, there are some things for which a simulator does not help much. For example, take-offs are generally much easier on a simulator than in real life on a real slightly bumpy runway. A simulator won’t teach you about safety, or how to check your real plane before taking off – simulator planes are always balanced perfectly, the controls always move in the right direction, they don’t fall apart in the air, and no-one forgets to refuel them or charge the battery!

If you do get a simulator, there are a few things you should do to make your practice time more valuable. It’s important that you don’t practise bad habits – any sports coach will tell you that practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent, so you want to be practising the right things! Firstly, make sure your simulator keeps the ground in the view at all times, rather than just following the plane. This is much more like the view that you get at the field, and it makes your practice much more valuable. This can often be turned on in a menu somewhere. Secondly, practise proper field discipline even when flying on the simulator. When flying for real, you always fly out in front of yourself, never behind (where you’ll be flying over the pits or the car park), and you should keep to this on the simulator too. Finally, give yourself a plan of what you want to do, and practise that, just like you do with your instructor. Don’t just fly around randomly and call it “practice”!