Using the autopilot in the simulator

Using your plane’s autopilot in X-Plane

Hi! It’s Randy with X-Plane again. A couple days ago, we talked about flying an approach in the flight simulator to keep your skills sharp. (If you missed that email, you can read it online.) This is the second of 8 emails in the course you signed up for on using a flight simulator to become a better pilot.

Everyone wants to know how to use their aircraft’s autopilot. This is as much a concern in the real world as it is in X-Plane—the fact is, many pilots don’t take the time to learn to use their autopilot properly.

Using the autopilot is as simple as turning it on, deciding which of its features you need (Do you need it to take you to a specific altitude? Keep the wings level? Change your heading?) and then turning that feature on.

Turning the autopilot on

To turn the autopilot on, locate the switch labeled “Flight Director Mode” in the cockpit (it may instead simply be labeled “FLIGHT DIR”). It has 3 modes: off, on, and “auto.” When it is set to “on,” the autopilot will give you a set of wings on your HSI which you can fly by hand in order to track the suggested path. However, the mode you probably want to use is “auto.” With the switch set to “auto,” the autopilot will physically move the aircraft’s controls for you, so you can sit back while your plane flies itself.

Which autopilot feature do you need?

Now, which autopilot feature do you need? The most common features simulated in X-Plane are as follows:

  • The WLV button is the wing leveler. This will simply hold the wings level while the pilot figures out what to do next.
  • The HDG button controls the heading hold function. This will simply follow the heading bug on the HSI or direction gyro.
  • The LOC button controls the localizer flight function. This will fly a VOR or ILS radial, or to a GPS destination. Note that the GPS may be programmed by the FMS.
  • The HOLD button controls the altitude hold function. This will hold the current or pre-selected altitude by pitching the nose up or down.
  • The V/S button controls the vertical speed function. This will hold a constant vertical speed by pitching the aircraft’s nose up or down.
  • The SPD button controls the airspeed function. This will hold the pre-selected airspeed by pitching the nose up or down, leaving the throttle alone.
  • The FLCH button controls the flight-level change function. This will hold the pre-selected airspeed by pitching the nose up or down, adding or taking away power automatically. This is commonly used to change altitude in airliners, as it allows the pilot add or take away power while the airplane pitches the nose to hold the most efficient airspeed. If the pilot adds power, the plane climbs. If they take it away, the plane descends. SPD and FLCH are almost identical functions in X-Plane—they both pitch the nose up or down to maintain a desired aircraft speed, so adding or taking away power results in climbs and descents, respectively. The difference is that if you have auto-throttle on the airplane, FLCH will automatically add or take away power for you to start the climb or descent, whereas SPD will not.
  • The PTCH button controls the pitch sync function. Use this to hold the plane’s nose at a constant pitch attitude. This is commonly used to just hold the nose somewhere until the pilot decides what to do next.
  • The G/S button controls the glide slope flight function. This will fly the glide slope portion of an ILS.

Note that, by default, not all aircraft will have all these features.


So, once again, to use the autopilot:

  1. Turn it on by moving the Flight Director Mode switch to “auto.”
  2. Decide which autopilot mode you need. (E.g., if you just want the autopilot to keep the same altitude and heading, you want wing-leveler mode. If you want the aircraft to fly a particular glideslope down to a runway, you want the glideslope mode.)
  3. Press the button corresponding to that mode, located somewhere on your instrument panel (probably near the Flight Director Mode switch).

If you’d like more details on any of these modes, check out my full writeup in the user manual.

Until next time…

I hope you enjoyed this flight. In a couple days, I’ll send you a guide to finding a virtual version of your favorite aircraft for you to fly in X-Plane.

If you had trouble with your approach, send me an email at [email protected] and tell me where I can improve this guide. I’d also love to hear about any topics you want to see in future emails!

Until next time,

– Randy

P.S. At this point, you might be getting tired of the 15 minute time limit on the demo. If you want to remove that limit (and get the whole world worth of scenery, too), you can buy X-Plane 10 Global from our web site.

Never miss an update.

More X-Plane news comes every month. Sign up below to never miss an announcement.