Just in case anyone doesn’t know what an RC Flight Simulator is. It's a program that is loaded onto a personal computer that replicates the flight of RC helicopters, airplanes, and quadcopters/multirotors.
It may come with a simple RC radio (controller) or come with a USB adapter so you can plug your existing RC radio into the computer by way of the trainer port on the radio (if your radio has a trainer port), or some sort of wireless USB device.
RC simulators are generally used as a learning tool to practice flying RC aircraft, or they can just be an immensely fun and relaxing program to play with on your computer. My first simulator was RealFlight (first version) way back when - things sure have improved over the past decade.
Here's RealFlight In Action
If you are undecided between airplanes, helicopters, or even quad/multi rotors, a simulator might help you out. The good ones have a large number of planes, helis, and quads, so you can fly dozens of different aircraft to get a better "feel" for each flying discipline.
If I had dollar for every time I get asked this, I could bank roll my entire RC helicopter obsession! I'm pretty polarized to the rest of the thinking on this question with my short answer being NO, you don't need an RC Flight sim to learn how to fly!
Now before you start thinking to yourself, "this guys is even more nuts than he sounds" (which could very well be true), let me quantify that statement.
Remember that is my short answer, the long one is a little more in line to what you may be thinking.
You see, thousands of us learned to fly RC without an RC flight simulator - including me. When I was learning to first fly RC planes and then later on, RC helicopters; personal computers of they day (the Apple 2+ for example), simply didn’t have enough power to create realistic physics of flight or realistic environments to fly in.
Affordable RC flight simulators were still years away! So for anyone to say you must have one to learn to fly is simply not true - again short answer!
Moreover, so many RC aircraft these days are coming with pretty sophisticated stabilization systems making them easy to fly in "easy" or "safe" mode; further making a simulator not quite as useful of a learning tool (for basic flying anyways).
I personally find RC flight simulators more beneficial for more advanced flying and aerobatic practice than basic learning how to hover exercises.
An RC flight simulator will of course help you learn what the sticks control & how to hover and move the heli around.
In my opinion however, and that of many other folks who contact me; an RC sim's biggest strengths start shinning through when learning new orientations other than tail in, and then while progressing to circuit flight, all the way up to the craziest 3D flying you can conjure up in your imagination.
You know, the kind of stuff you wouldn't even consider attempting on your real bird until you can do it without thinking about it on your RC flight simulator first.
That is an easy one – realism - the more realistic the better. That’s not just flight physics or graphics - the method of controlling your RC helicopter is just as if not more important.
Please look at my RC Helicopter Flight Simulator "Tips & Recommendations" page for what to look for in a helicopter simulator, how to set up your simulator for realistic performance, and my own recommendations on several good RC helicopter simulators.
It's really important that you follow some kind of lesson plan on a simulator. I have seen too many people who "incorrectly" learn on a sim and pick up some very bad habits. This actually sets them back and can take them longer to "un-learn" these bad habits on the real thing than someone with no sim time at all.
As I said, RC flight sims are nothing more than tools, a destructive tool if used incorrectly. Check out my Flight School section and the lesson plans so you have an idea of how to learn to fly a real RC helicopter and then you can safely apply those same lessons or another recognized flight training program to your sim time.
This next point is very important and I cringe when see or hear this. Thankfully it is the exception and not the rule, but it is worth mentioning.
I have seen some advertisements and even heard some people in the RC hobby industry claiming that if you can fly an RC plane or helicopter on a simulator, you will have no problem flying real RC models.
WRONG! A simulator as the name suggests is nothing more than a simulation.
I won't come close to replicating all aspects of RC helicopter or RC airplane operation/ownership.
RC flight simulators don’t teach you how to build a helicopter or set it up, nor do they teach you about basic flight principles/physics.
No matter how good simulators get – they will never replace hands on experience. As I touched on, the "real" feel of hovering and all the little nuances of actively piloting a real collective pitch RC helicopter are not duplicated with a simulator but they do keep getting better.
There is also the "Fear Factor" to take into consideration. This is BIG!
Even with a hundred hours of simulator time under your belt, things have a way of becoming much more scary in the real world when you see hundreds or thousands of dollars hanging in the air.
This "fear" generally causes you to panic, lose your nerve, and make mistakes. Yes - the fear of a lighter wallet usually wins out over the skills learned on the sim at such a moment.
I hear a lot of questions right now... something like “if you and thousands of other RC pilots learned to fly RC planes and helicopters without a simulator, they have some limitations, and new stabilization systems make it easier to fly, why should I even bother? I could put that money toward a better helicopter, more flight batteries, or better RC equipment.”
That is absolutely true. If it boils down to getting an RC helicopter simulator or spending that extra money to get a better quality RC helicopter with a computerized radio, and extra flight batteries/good computerized charger – I maintain spending your money on the heli gear prevails.
However, I know for a fact if I had a simulator program when I was learning, it would have paid for itself and cut my learning curve time frame substantially!
Bottom line is you don't need a sim to learn to fly; but let me tell you - simulators save time and money if used correctly and you understand the limitations.
Try to budget for a good RC Flight simulator if at all possible. In the grand scheme of things with all the costs associated with getting into the hobby, they are a small piece of the pie.
You don't necessarily need one when first learning to hover (as I said, all the little hovering nuances and "real hovering feel" are not duplicated), but once you know how to hover and are getting into forward flight and introduced to changing orientations, sims really start to shine and payoff. For learning aerobatics, they are in my opinion an absolute must have!
One last point to consider when deciding if you should get a flight simulator when you are first starting out... Do you plan to take lessons from an experienced RC helicopter or plane instructor?
Learning from an instructor is the best way to go because they can help you with your helicopter or plane setup as well as learning how to fly them.
Unfortunately, there are many more people wanting to learn to fly RC helicopters and planes than there are qualified instructors. Most of us have to learn on our own (yes I learned on my own to) and the RC flight simulator (if used correctly) makes that process quicker and more enjoyable.