Reader Mark Richards asked me recently about the flight simulator game that I use to practice my instrument procedures with, and I know Sir Lukenwolf is following hopping around the north in a flight simulator, too. Mine is Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002. I know any real sim enthusiast probably has much newer software, but I expect that sim hobbyists hold in fairly high priority the realism of the simulated scenery and audio. I surmise this because I've owned several versions of MSFS and each update has much more detailed scenery than the last. The amount of required processor power also increases with the version, which is why I don't own a more recent version.
Almost every airport I've ever used is in the database. That's improved over the years, too. Unfortunately a lot of Canadian nav aids are missing from my version, but you can download patches (thank you, fanatical Canadian simmers) to add them in. You can also download aircraft to fly, and customized panels, but I just find an airplane that will fly at the normal approach speed I use, and use it, even though the power settings might be different. I don't really need to practice the manipulation of the controls so much as I need to practice the focus and pacing and remembering of all the details of the procedures.
Probably eighty percent of what I use MSFS for could be accomplished with pencil, paper and a FlightSafety poster of the aircraft layout, if I'd just sit down and spend the time concentrating. The simplest advantage of the game is that it's a video game, so holds a person's attention better, because there's the payoff of 'really' intercepting the glideslope. It also has the advantage of showing you your track, so if you got confused in strong winds and ended up outside of protected airspace, you can look at the log afterward and see the point at which you turned at the wrong time and your hockey stick procedure turn became a tennis racket.
Mouse on screen is such an awkward interface for tuning instruments that I just use the keyboard, often pausing the game in order to do so, and at the same time reaching my actual arm to where the real control is in the cockpit. Usually that doesn't really matter, because the instrument adjustment details vary from airplane to airplane anyway. I often trim by turning on the autopilot and then turning it off again, or just fly by telling the autopilot where to go, as I would on a single-pilot IFR ride. I have the throttle and flaps and brakes all programmed into the game controller, which is labelled all over with DYMO tape, but I go for the keyboard if it's not working out. The biggest interface peeve I have is when the same keyboard command does an action and reverses that action, whereas in the airplane the commands are different. The biggest example is the gear. The G-key, or whichever joystick button I map to it, both raises and lowers the gear. That means that if I hit the G, or touch the G-mapped yoke control, a second time, in what to me is a simulation of placing my hand on the gear lever to confirm it is selected down, or if I accidentally double touch the G at first extension, I have the gear up instead of down. I don't know why they did it that way. Why not have a separate command for gear up and gear down?
Another drawback is that because it's not real, you're free to do stupid things, self-vectoring yourself through IMC for an ILS approach instead of doing a procedure turn, continuing a botched approach if the VOR is at full deflection instead of doing the missed, or flying an approach you made up yourself. There's the risk that practicing these things and having them work out will transfer psychologically to the real airplane, making me think I can be an idiot in the air, too. The game is hilariously forgiving about things like landing crooked and runway excursions, and no effort has gone into placing dread in your soul when you crash.
A typical session for me is to start up at or near an airport I'm expecting to work at soon. I set the weather to the lowest minima for the approaches, brief and fly an instrument departure, intercept an airway, fly a hold, then return to the airport for an NDB approach. The weather will be too low, so I'll miss, and then come back for the approach that uses the minima that should get me in if I fly it right. If it's a tricky approach with a dogleg at the beacon, or a circling, I will probably do it first with the scenery turned on, just to see how it works, but then I'll close the scenery window and just do it by the instruments. It's fun to have the weather turned on and watch the raindrops on the windshield. That's fun in real life, too. Some of the scenery is actually good enough to be fun to watch, even though it's only a game. Unfortunately, of an hour I spend with the simulator, ten or fifteen minutes always ends up spent mucking about with the software, just because there are so many options to play with and cool things to look at.
I once paid money for a Twin Otter add on but I found it frustratingly unusable. The designer had tried to make the controls look as much as possible like the actual airplane, which required me to load different pages and wait in order to do something simple like toggle bleed air, which in real life you can do without looking, just by raising your hand. Overdoing the reality detracts from the experience. But you've got to love the "squeak squeak!" tire sound when you touch down on the water in a float plane. I'm sure they've fixed that by now, but it was funny in the first version with float planes.
Once I was flying a simulated winter flight way up north between something like Alert and Cambridge Bay, and I was really startled to see the northern lights. They were done well, not overdone, and it might have taken an hour of night arctic flying for them to appear. I'm still not entirely sure I wasn't making it up. Perhaps someone will confirm that there really are northern lights in the game.
As for the question Mark asked about Microsoft ending support for the product, I don't see it really relevant to me. My CD-ROMs of the product won't stop working. If it doesn't run on future versions of the Microsoft OS, I can probably find some clever hack to work around that, like I use for Commander Keen. I don't know its value for money because it was given to me by a friend who is a Microsoft employee. He would give me a more current one, but this one is good enough for what I do.