Fly a better approach using a flight simulator

Hi! It’s Randy with the X-Plane team again. This is the first in the series of emails you signed up for on how to become a better pilot by practicing in a flight simulator.

Today, I’d like to help you fly a final approach to an airport. Doing so will allow you to keep your stick-and-rudder skills sharp, and also practice landing in rough weather. Moreover, we know of CFIs who recommend that their pilots practice just like this before coming in for a flight review—it saves the pilot money, and it saves the instructor time that they can be using with other students.

The beauty of practicing in a flight simulator is that we can have the sim instantly transport us to the airport we want to land at, and we can instantly set up an approach to a particular runway there. This means you can spend more time practicing the approach itself and less time setting it up.

Note: If you haven’t already, you’ll want to get X-Plane set up, with your yoke or joystick working properly. This means installing the free X-Plane 10 demo (if you don’t have X-Plane already) and setting up the controls by following the instructions in the section “Configuring Essential Yoke/Joystick Functions” of the user manual. You’ll also want to choose an airplane, per the instructions in the section “Setting Up a Flight.”

Choosing an airport

First things first—we need to choose the airport that we’ll fly in to, and get ourselves a few nautical miles away, lined up with the runway.

If you’re new to X-Plane, you have probably used the Quick Flight Setup feature to choose your airport. However, this isn’t the only way to do it. In fact, using the following method, you can select not just which airport you go to, but also where in that airport you start.

So, move your mouse to the top of the screen (causing the menu to appear). Click on Location, then Select Global Airport. Just like in the Quick Flight Setup window, you can search for an airport either by name or by ICAO identifier. Unlike in the Quick Flight Setup window, though, the bottom half of this window displays rows of “quick start” buttons. The buttons in the “Takeoff” column (on the far left) will transport your aircraft to the specified runway—we don’t want to use these right now. Instead, to the right of the Takeoff buttons are the “Final Approach” buttons. Clicking one of these will transport your aircraft to the specified distance away from the runway indicated on the button’s left.

So, let’s fly a full final approach. Search for KSEA (the default airport, included with the demo), and click one of the buttons labeled 10 nm. X-Plane will put your airplane 10 nautical miles from that runway, at a decent altitude.

Note: If your aircraft is moved to an area that does not have any scenery installed, you will see nothing but water and maybe a small runway. Since the demo doesn’t include the global scenery (which is only available by buying X-Plane 10), you probably want to stick to the default airport in Seattle (whose identifier is KSEA), where you do have scenery installed.

Changing the weather

For your first approach in the simulator, you probably want to stick with nice weather without much turbulence. In the future, though, you can set a crosswind or even bring up a storm! For a detailed breakdown of how the weather in X-Plane can be controlled, check out the section “Setting the Weather” in the X-Plane 10 manual.

Flying the approach visually

At this point, you should be 10 nautical miles out from the airport, in line with whichever runway you chose. Your goal is to slowly descend down to ground level, while keeping your airplane lined up with the runway. If you’re in a small, general aviation airplane (like the Cessna 172SP), you want to keep your speed a bit above stalling speed. (For the 172, stalling speed is about 65 knots, so aim for 90 knots or so, lowering your speed as you get closer.) By the time you get to the runway, you want to be right at stalling speed, with your power at zero and flaps at full. Follow a shallow glide path in to the runway—that is, point the nose down between 3 and 5 degrees. Right before the craft reaches the ground, raise the nose up to about 7 degrees for a gentle touchdown.

Did you make it?! If not, just reload your approach (using the Select Global Airport dialog just like before) and try again!

Flying on instruments

If you’ve gotten the hang of the visual approach, you might be interested to try an instrument approach. You can find all the details in the portion of the X-Plane 10 manual titled “Flying an Instrument Approach in X-Plane.”

Until next time…

I hope you enjoyed this flight. In a couple days, I’ll send you a guide to practicing using the autopilot in the simulator. This is one of the most commonly misunderstood areas of flight, in the real world as well as in the simulator, so I think you’ll enjoy reading about it.

Until next time,

– Randy

P.S. If you had any trouble with the guide, drop me a line at and I can help find a solution.