IFR Desktop Simulators: Buy On Top or X-Plane

For round gauges and plug-and-play simplicity, ASAs On Top is still a good value. But X-plane is the budget king, and the only choice for realistic glass panels.

Theres no question that logging some time flying pixels on your desktop computer can help keep you sharp flying real instruments through real clouds. How much it helps depends on how sophisticated the simulation is and how you go about using it. So lets be crystal-clear that were talking about the bottom rung here: Whats the best choice for a simulator you can install at home to practice your procedures and scan in the half hour between cleaning up after dinner and the next


episode of House?

We should also set a few ground rules. You wont be able to log time for approaches flown without an instructor by your side, so we see no point in forking over big bucks for an FAA-approved system. You will want at least the basic flight controls, so expect to spend about $110 for something like CH Products Flight Sim Yoke. Helicopter controls might cost a bit more. We wouldnt bother with rudder pedals for airplanes. Plan on using your keyboard and mouse to control on-screen switches, knobs and buttons.

ASAs On Top 9.5

ASAs On Top is not a game. Its purpose is IFR training and proficiency, and therein lies one of its strengths: Its simple. Big buttons and super-clear instructions lead you through setup and use. The program also ships with a chart-viewing program provided by FlightPrep. This has two advantages: Charts are easy to display and you have charts that match the navaids and GPS database youre using on the sim. Just like updating your charts in the real plane, flying a simulator with old navaids can be a problem as approaches change. On Top does have an airspace editor that lets you update the database manually.

Theres nothing fancy about the graphics. The instruments and avionics are not photo-realistic. The visuals for airports and weather out the forward windscreen are the barest required. But this made On Top the best performer on older computer systems.

Some additional niceties are that double-clicking any instrument will cover it (the program can simulate failures, too). The manual includes performance profiles for the nine aircraft to choose from. Included as well are 10 instrument scenarios based on real accidents. Loading one will put you in the hot seat. If you can resist the temptation to read ahead and find out what the failure will be and just fly it, it can be truly enlightening.

The avionics are generic except for the Garmin GNS 430 and the G1000. The 430 uses a module built by Reality XP that leverages Garmins own 430 simulator so its almost a fully-functional 430 and is definitely up to the task of GPS proficiency training. Its the non-WAAS 430 and the database is several years old, however. ASA is planning on releasing a WAAS version but has no timeline yet. We hope they will keep the non-WAAS as an option but with a newer database for all the pilots who have not upgraded.

The G1000, on the other hand, is a facsimile of the PFD in reversionary mode (with power instruments on the PFD) and theres no MFD. GPS control is actually done through an inset window running the 430 but using G1000-like buttons. While this may be useful for your G1000 instrument scan, we think its inadequate for real G1000 proficiency. Its also only available in the Cessna 182.

On Top had the least realistic flight model of any of the simulators. Thats good for your scan, but can be frustrating when trying to nail an ILS approach. Its not bad, its just that the other sims we tried were better. Adjusting the control sensitivity is easy to do but the options are limited.

On Top sells for $149.95. ASA also offers IP Trainer, which is a quite thorough training program for IFR wannabes, and Instrument Refresher, which is designed specifically to help pilots brush up for an IPC. Both of those programs include lessons and an On-Top-like simulator, but only for a basic Cessna 172. They sell for $169.95 and $79.95, respectively.

Elite 8.5

Elite is a major player in the certified flight simulator market along with companies like Frasca and Precision Flight Systems. But they are unique in that they sell the same core software


the pro systems use for use on a home machine.

The software is robust and impressive, as you expect for something capable of driving a $200,000 simulation. The visuals are sharp in the areas they need to be, such as poor visibility in mist or airport lighting. Its easy to reposition aircraft or set up instrument failures. Flights can be recorded and played back. The aircraft fly accurately and cockpits are quite realistic. The program runs surprisingly well on older computers.

But for the home user, this capability comes at a serious price. The core system is $199 for just two aircraft models, the Cessna 172 and Piper Archer III. Upgrading to the Premium version with more aircraft and better visuals punches that to $499. But Premium might not give you all you want. Several of the Elite aircraft have an option for a GNS 430W. This is actually a more modern version of the same Reality XP module ASA uses. But there are no on-screen buttons in the Elite version. To use 430 with Elite, you must buy a physical control box-for an additional $549. Approaches outside the U.S. and Canada are an additional charge

Elite does some neat tricks. For $169 you can get a set of dozens of instrument scenarios you can fly with realistic ATC communications directed to your aircraft and background chatter. For an $89 unlock code from Elite and about $50 worth of cables from Garmin, you can connect a real Garmin handheld GPS and use it as if it were in a real airplane.

As capable as the software may be, we dont see the value being worth the cost to a home user.


X-Planes users run the gamut from non-pilot sim enthusiasts to the product development departments of companies like Garmin. What simulates flight connected to real G1000 screens as that product is developed and refined? X-Plane does.

As youd expect, the flight model is the most realistic of all the simulators-put the flaps to 10 degrees in a single-engine Cessna and the nose will immediately pitch up. The visuals are outstanding. Settings for weather are simple but flexible, with quick buttons for things like marginal VFR or Cat-I minimums. Theres also a quick placement on 10-mile final for any runway. The database is worldwide, but you only install what you want. Theres even an automated ATC that does a passable job on vectors to an ILS (if a bit overzealous in issuing heading changes).

The program comes with a variety of aircraft, but most are for gaming, not proficiency. You can download almost any aircraft you want if you search online. Many are free, but even the for-pay ones are usually under $40 and often contain several similar types. X-Plane is the only option that will run natively on a Mac (or Linux). It will also do that trick of driving your real, portable GPS.

Using X-Plane for IFR proficiency has some limitations. Its not the most intuitive program to use, although the forums and customer support is excellent. Since it was developed as a game, the instruments and avionics look great, but are smaller and harder to see and control than On Top or Elite.

The avionics also arent necessarily accurate representations of any given radio. Common conveniences like flip-flop frequencies arent always available. This may cramp your style if youre trying to practice procedures just as you would in your real aircraft.

Its worse if youre trying to simulate more modern cockpits. We flew a Cirrus SR20/22 model provided by C74 Enterprises (air.c74.net) that flew great (itll even porpoise on landing if you botch it) but it must use the simulation of the Avidyne system and GNS 430 thats part of X-Plane. X-Planes Avidyne is quite limited and the 430 isnt capable of much more than direct-to. Theres no G1000 simulation within X-Plane.


Add-ons can come to the rescue here. You can drop that same Reality XP 430W, or even a 530W, that ASA and Elite use into an X-Plane cockpit for $49.95. The module only works on a Windows version of X-Plane. They also have a similar plug-in for Microsoft FSX.

You can fly a full G1000 cockpit for several piston singles using SimAvio from FlyThisSim. This isnt a plug-in for X-Plane. Its a separate program that provides just the glass cockpit and runs at the same time as X-Plane. The two work together so you can fly with X-Plane handling the flight controls and visuals and SimAvio doing the cockpit. They can run on the same machine or on two networked computers. FlyThisSim also has an Avidyne Entegra cockpit with GNS 430s that it will offer soon

SimAvio requires a fairly powerful Windows machine to run and we werent able to test it on our hardware. We saw it operating live through a screen-sharing demo and it looks impressive. Well try to look at it closer in a future issue. Pricing for the SimAvio is $39.95, and it comes with two round-gauge cockpits. G1000 or Avidyne add-ons are packaged by the manufacturer (so you get all the Cessna singles as a package, for instance) at $98.95. FlyThisSim will also offer just the 430 and 430W at some point in the future. Database updates for any of these systems will be $8 a cycle. And you thought you only had to pay for current data in your real airplane.

Microsoft FSX

Many pilots use Microsofts Flight Simulator X (FSX) for instrument proficiency. The program is the last in a venerable line and has a devoted following even though Microsoft has discontinued it. Its still available for as little as $19 online and does a fine job with basic instruments. The flight model is acceptably good if you adjust all the realism sliders from “easy” to “realistic.”

FSX visuals are good, although low visibility isnt always rendered well on slower machines. The cockpits provided are more realistic than the default X-Plane equivalents. There is a reasonably good G1000 cockpit for the Cessna, Mooney and Baron. Its not quite up to par for practicing IFR procedures as you would do them for real, but it has some value for a G1000 scan and actually flying the approach. There is a simulation of something like a Garmin 500 GPS, but its also different enough from the real thing to make using it for practice of limited usefulness, as we see it.

Compared to X-Plane, FSX is easier to set up and use. There are also at least as many FSX aircraft for download or purchase as there are for X-Plane. FSX is more resource-intensive than X-Plane. On a given machine, X-Plane is usually the better performer. FSXs navigation database is locked in time and getting steadily older. We suspect some third party will step up here, however, and offer updates given how many FSX users are out there.

Squeezing that IFR Dollar

We think a copy of X-Plane and a basic control yoke are the best value for someone looking to keep up home proficiency. Adding the Reality XP module makes practicing with a GNS 430W or 530W a real option. Even the SimAvio plus X-Plane route is a reasonable cost if the company can deliver a real facsimile of a glass cockpit. Pilots of these aircraft need double proficiency-IFR scan and avionics-and theres no other home solution that allows you to do both at once that we know of.

For those wanting simplicity and full functionality right out of the box, wed steer them to On Top. While more expensive, the inclusion of the Garmin GNS 430, scenarios and U.S. approach plates matching the practice database makes it worthwhile.