Flying is really about learning. First, others teach you some basics, then you begin teaching yourself. Others help, but you’re the real teacher as well as the student. It’s the continual learning that keeps people fascinated with flying for decades.
One of the major advantages of flying at home is that you can make real-time mistakes and walk away from them. If stuck in a flight predicament, for example, you can press the “pause” button, think over or research what you should do, then unpause and apply what you’ve learned. You also can save and replay flights to continue learning from good ones and bad ones. Remember, we usually learn more (hopefully) from our mistakes than our successes.
Yes, you will crash your home plane. Maybe you gave your taildragger too much right rudder on the takeoff roll and it spun out (called a ground loop). Simply start over and learn from the error. You can change the software settings to make it crashproof (the plane will bounce, for example, instead of crash on a bad landing), but I advise that you don’t let it. To learn from mistakes you must make them.
In addition, most flight simulation programs allow you to view your aircraft from various angles. Microsoft Flight Simulator, for example, lets you see the full control panel, part of the control panel, watch your plane fly from about 20 feet away (in front of, behind, or the side), or watch from a spotter plane nearby. The learning event here is that you can move various controls and see what actually happens to the aircraft. A left movement of the yoke or joystick, for example, moves the left aileron up and the right one down.
One of the many benefits of flight simulation software is you develop the skills to make coordinated turns, climbs, and descents, all without risk of personal injury. You’re coordinating numerous controllers rather than one and you can visually verify how those skills are being developed. Sure, it won’t be exactly the same as you actually fly your trainer plane, but it will give you an approximation. It’s much easier to learn to fly your second airplane (your trainer) after you’ve practiced on your first one (your home plane).
Another feature of newer flight-sim packages is the inclusion of virtual GPS systems. You can see how they work and actually use one in your virtual flying in packages such as Microsoft Flight Simulator.
Remember, virtual flying can save you time and money on reality flying. It can’t replace the real thing, but it can make the real thing much easier to understand and do. When going for a private-pilot license, for example, one pilot calculated that he saved 10 to 15 hours of flying time by using flight simulation software. Even at solo prices, that’s about $1,000 in savings. And it’s a blast!
"Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore."
-- Andre Gide