If you just want to pick up Microsoft Flight Simulator, it’s incredibly easy to do so. But there’s a ton of useful things worth knowing to efficiently soar through the air, so here’s some helpful tips to get you started.
Out on PC and Xbox Series X/S consoles, Microsoft Flight Simulator‘s greatest asset is its accessibility and scalability. You could spend hundreds of dollars on a flight yoke, separate throttle and all-aluminium rudder pedals. Alternatively, you could just grab a gamepad and go on a nice bush flight.
But however you choose to play, there’s a few things you should know about that will make the experience a little bit better. Having had access to the game for about a month, with some experience across both control methods, here’s some tips to help you get the most out of the game.
Turn the default sensitivity down for Xbox controllers.
The game doesn’t tell you this during the tutorials, but the default stick sensitivity for gamepads is really high. High enough that it’s useful when you’re starting out, but not great for landing challenges or flying through windy or stormy scenarios.
Don’t forget to download all of the major updates.
Flight Simulator has released a ton of great “World” updates since launch, each of which improves the local maps data for their respective areas. Those updates also add more bush flights and challenges, so they’re something you absolutely want to have.
Only thing is: Flight Simulator won’t download these updates automatically. To get them, you need to navigate to the Marketplace tab (either by clicking or using the right bumper on a controller). From there, select the World Update tab at the top.
This will bring up a selection of five updates that you can download for free. All you have to do is add each of them to your account. To make sure they’re actually downloading, however, press X to load up the Content Manager — here you’ll be able to see the download status of each update, as well as every add-on package you have installed for Flight Simulator.
Don’t like your pilot avatar? Change it in the settings.
Microsoft Flight Simulator doesn’t tell you this, but you can actually customise the pilot and co-pilot that you see when flying around in third-person. If you want a different combo for your pilot, co-pilot and the instructor who flies around with you in the tutorial, head to the Options -> General -> Misc tab.
There, you’ll see a set of Pilot Avatar Settings where you can pick from 24 different models. I don’t know why this is buried so deep, but it’s handy to know about.
Disable your firewall if you’re getting an ‘Insert Disc’ error.
This is a tip from Kotaku Australia reader camm, who ran into the frustrating annoyance above when trying to install Flight Simulator on PC. In general, you should disable any AV or firewall software if you run into installation or crashing issues.
Don’t be afraid to start easy with Microsoft Flight Simulator’s assists.
When you finally boot up the game — after the mammoth 100GB download — you’ll be asked to customise your Flight Simulator experience. Whatever you choose, it won’t affect the in-game tutorial’s level of assists, and you can always hit ESC (or Start on a gamepad) to change the assists at any time.
Flying a mammoth Airbus A320 with a gamepad is definitely going to require a bit of AI help, but you can jump into the smaller propeller aircraft with your Xbox controller and a bit of keyboard/mouse help. Whatever level you start at, I recommend turning Assisted Yoke OFF. It’s the Microsoft Flight Simulator‘s equivalent of Mario Kart‘s auto-steering, and while it’s nice if you’re ultra paranoid about flying, you’ll have a much better time nudging the plane up and down yourself.
Assisted landing and takeoff both help control your pitch (that’s aiming up or down), landing gear and flaps. Flaps are basically designed to help a plane take off and land in a shorter distance, and if you want you can have that auto-adjusted. You’ll have more fun if these are turned off, but if you help understanding what they do, then make sure Flying Tips is enabled in the notification section. This is turned off by default on the Medium or True to Life assist presets, but it’s super handy if you want to learn more about the principles of flight — and navigation — as you play.
To make life easy, you can select presets for each individual setting. For everyone starting out, I recommend setting Piloting to Medium and then disabling everything except Take-off Auto Rudder and Delegate ATC to AI. Going through the flight checklist is simple and a great bit of immersion, and once you’ve done it once in the tutorial, you won’t have any problems doing it in future flights.
CTRL + ALT + 1 / LB + B saves a custom camera — and ALT + 1 / LB + A will recall to that position.
This one’s covered in the first tutorial, but it’s very easy to quickly forget. If you have a particular view that you want to save — whether that’s within the cockpit, or externally — you can do so by hitting CTRL + ALT + 1 on the keyboard or LB + B for Xbox users. Pressing ALT+1 on keyboard or LB + A on Xbox will then instantly switch to that camera view, and you can push in the right stick to go back to the standard view.
Give the landing challenges a go if you want to learn how to fly/land with fewer assists.
The game’s tutorial has been expanded since launch, and it’s pretty comprehensive for smaller aeroplanes. If you really want to get going quickly, the first 8 tutorials will get you going — and there’s also the in-game Discovery Flights with easy assists that make it almost impossible to crash.
Once you’ve had enough experience with the tutorials, you can get a better feel for the controls by trying out some of the landing challenges. These will force you to navigate a little more accurately, weather will be more forceful, and you’ll have less guidance keeping the plane on track. This is a good option if you still want to play the game with a controller, but you don’t want the game to do all of the flying for you. It’s also just a great way to quickly experience a whole range of different aircraft too, so you’ll get a quick feel for what you actually want to fly.
If you can, play with a full-size keyboard — even on Xbox.
While you can rebind controls to whatever you want on PC and Xbox, there’s still a lot of controls. The tutorial will do a great job of explaining just the ones you need to know — or at least the ones you need to know for the aircraft you’re flying. Jumping into a Dreamliner is a totally different kettle of fish to a basic Cessna, for instance.
But what Flight Simulator isn’t great about is letting you know what controls you can’t immediately access. The basic throttle controls on PC are all set to the numpad — like classic flight sims and MicroProse games — but if you have a tenkeyless or 60% keyboard, you’re not going to have any shortcuts for your throttle control.
For Xbox users, Asobo has implemented a “virtual mouse” which is activated by pressing in the left thumb stick. This is handy if you want to bring up, say, your flight log or VFR map on-screen so you can see where you’re going. (Some planes don’t have a VFR tracker in the cockpit, so you will need this from time to time.) The problem is that the game will activate auto-pilot when this happens, and you might not want to veer back on course — you might want to just cruise off somewhere.
If possible, I’ve found the best experience outside of a full flight yoke/rudder/pedals is with a combination of a gamepad, mouse and/or keyboard. Xbox users can plug in a mouse and keyboard via the console’s front and back USB ports, although you may need to use a wired mouse instead of a wireless one. On Xbox, I’d recommend at least having the mouse: it makes getting nice camera angles a little bit better, and the mouse makes it much easier for doing things like setting flight plans, tuning individual dials in a cockpit, and moving around navigation menus.
Make sure you bind “Toggle Active Pause”.
The game mentions Active Pause in the tooltips, but it never actually mentions what active pause is. Hitting the PAUSE button on the keyboard will basically lock your plane in place, allowing you to take beautiful screenshots like the one above. On Xbox, the “Toggle Active Pause” function isn’t bound by default, because the Start button brings up the menu instead. But you can bind active pause to whatever you want: just head to the Controls Options, expand the Menu tab, and scroll down until you see “Toggle Active Pause” in the menu.
Toggle Active Pause is great, especially on bush flights: it freezes your plane in place, so you can quickly assess where you are without having the auto-pilot kick in. It’s also, as you can see above, perfect for taking killer screenshots.
When landing, target for the middle of the runway. Point the nose of the aircraft down, and just as you get near the runway, pull the nose of the aircraft up slightly, and eventually the plane will calmly drop onto the runway.
Landing is probably the most challenging thing you can do in Microsoft Flight Simulator, and there’s a lot of different ways it could go wrong. You could be coming in at the wrong angle. Maybe you came in too fast. Or maybe you don’t have enough speed coming in.
The tutorial does a good job of taking you through a basic landing, where you have a direct line of approach to the runway. Generally, the easiest approach is to maintain about 65 knots and target the number at the front of the runway (the bit closest to you) in your dashboard.
You want to descend on a path where that number stays fairly level in your sights. If it’s rising up in your dashboard, then you’re falling too quickly, so you’ll need to get a bit more throttle. If it’s falling below your dashboard, you’re flying too quickly, so you’ll want to reduce your speed, maybe add some flaps (LB / RB to extend/retract on the gamepad).
I’d recommend running through the fourth tutorial level a couple of times, just to get comfortable with landing. If you want more advice on touching down, there’s a great video below from YouTuber Squirrel, outlining all the basics you need to know.
Microsoft Flight Simulator will let you put all the pop-up windows — navigation, air traffic control, weather status — on a second monitor.
So here’s something cool if you’re playing on PC. When you start planning your own flights, there’s a ton of extra stuff you might want to do. You might want to chat to air traffic control yourself — maybe you’ve set off on a joy flight, and didn’t really decide where you wanted to land, so you’ll need to radio in before touching down.
Maybe you want to keep a list of objectives up. Or you’ve got a navlog up for a bush flight so you know where you need to head after each checkpoint. Problem is, this stuff takes up a ton of real estate on the screen, and it all gets in way of the game.
Now while you can minimise or close these windows as needed, you can also leave them up permanently — on a second monitor. In the image above, you’ll see three blue buttons in the top-right of the Navlog window. If you press the second button, it’ll pop-out the Navlog to a separate window process which you can then drag around your desktop.
You can do this for everything else, so for instance. Here’s my second monitor, just before taking off for a joyflight from Queenstown.
It’s not necessary if you’re just doing a short flight — from, say, Hobart to Melbourne’s Tullamarine. But if you want to plan a longer trip, tackle the game’s initial bush flight challenges, or do a longer route from Australia to the United States, Japan or somewhere equally far away, then this can help a ton.
No, you can’t crash into other pilots.
In case you were wondering — or you were worried about pissing off people trying to fly “properly”. Don’t worry! There’s no in-game chat, and Flight Simulator will let you customise whether you want to fly solo, fly with other live players, or NPC-powered AI pilots which are based on real-world traffic patterns.
Don’t try to run the game at highest settings on the highest resolution.
Microsoft Flight Simulator is basically the modern day version of Crysis. In the video above, you can see what it’s like running the game on a fairly high-end rig: An Intel i7-7700k with an RTX 2080 Ti. At 4K with max settings, the game barely hovers above 30fps, with plenty of drops underneath that. Even for users with 3000-series or RX 6000-series GPUs, Flight Simulator is a notorious beast.
The latest performance upgrade will improve the game’s optimisations for a lot of users, but even then you’ll still get the most mileage if you can live with a tweaked medium preset (or high-end with a reduced render scale).
If you’re on a low-end card — like a RX 500 series or a GTX 1060 series — then you’ll need to play the game at 1080p on medium settings, with some further options turned down or off entirely.
The fun of Microsoft Flight Simulator is similar to Euro Truck Simulator or other “sims”. It’s not a competitive experience per se, even though there are solo flying challenges you can take part in.
Instead, it’s all about just soaring into the sky and enjoying the journey. If you want to do that with friends, you can. If you want to take it “seriously” and invest in better setup to better experience the difficulty of flying an Airbus A320 through a thunderstorm, you can do that as well.
But you don’t have to.
The fun of the game is really just letting go and enjoying the journey. It doesn’t matter how closely that journey replicates the real-life experience; it’s about customising the experience to the point where you find it the most enjoyable. There will be a career mode of sorts patched into the game post-launch, and there are a set of achievements and challenges that you can experience in the meantime.
But all the while, the best part of the game remains the same. It’s the freedom of flight. Nothing does it better than Microsoft Flight Simulator. And in a world where we’re in isolation, forced or out of anxiety or concern for others, that is a truly a gift.