by John Salt - Updated November 2020
An RC helicopter simulator is a powerful tool to help you learn to fly your RC helicopter.
"The purpose of an RC heli Simulator is to replicate in as much detail as possible, real aerodynamic physics and real RC helicopter control to help us fly the real thing."
I personally don’t care if the graphics are to die for and the models look 100% real – if they don’t behave almost 100% real and are controlled real, they won't teach you the necessary skills (stick movements in relation to aircraft response).
If you don’t get real physics and real control, you have nothing more than a video game. Sure it may still be entertaining, but it won’t teach you how to fly.
So if you want to be entertained, any free RC helicopter simulator will do, if you want to learn to fly – keep reading.
Let’s look at control first because it is cut and dry. If you are trying to learn to fly an RC helicopter or airplane with a game-pad, joystick, or on your keyboard – you are wasting your time.
The only way to learn to fly with an RC helicopter simulator is by using a real (or at least gutted out) RC transmitter/radio.
The main reason for this is anytime we are learning a new task, we need to build new pathways in our brains to control our motor functions.
This is known as subconscious memory, or muscle memory. You know, learning something to the point you don't even have to think about what you are doing in order to do it, like walking or riding a bicycle.
In the case of learning to fly an RC helicopter, this relates to the ultra fine control of our thumbs &/or forefingers, and thus we need to use the exact same controls we would in real life if we want to learn these necessary "subconscious" skills.
The good RC helicopter simulator programs come with either a gutted out USB adapted RC transmitter that plugs into a USB port on your computer, or comes with a USB/DIN converter cable to plug directly into your own quality RC transmitter via the trainer input port.
My prediction with more and more radio's using "wireless" training connectivity & Bluetooth programming, there will also be a growing number of wireless RC simulator connectivity options as well in the near future, so keep an eye out for that.
Last up is how you get the RC helicopter simulator software. All brands listed here have downloads direct from their sites or distributor sites, which is by far the most popular method. Most also have the option to purchase an optical disc (DVD) with the software.
Steam... For those in the video gaming community, you are likely very familiar with Steam's distribution/downloading service. For those of you who are not familiar with Steam, its the largest video game streaming/distribution service going.
You basically create an account with them and then have access to purchase or stream tens of thousands of video games by way of secure software license that are attached to your account after you make your game purchase. As far as I know, only Accurc and Realflight are available through Steam currently, but I'm sure more will jump in as the popularity in this service grows.
Flight physics are of course subjective, and I'm primarily focusing only on RC helicopter flight. After reading many reviews, and trying several simulators, the same three (if you want the most realistic RC helicopter flight simulation going) are always head and shoulders above the rest.
There is one simulator however that is truly flying higher than all the rest when it comes to the best heli simulation going... The AccuRC RC Flight Simulator.
It not only simulates flight physics better then the rest; it also simulates true RC helicopter ownership with component swap-outs, color changes, and seeing the actual functions of the components right down to using a virtual digital pitch gauge to set your collective & cyclic pitch angles while on the "virtual workbench".
Plus you can tune the virtual flybarless
systems & gyros just like in real life. In fact you can tune just about anything
and change the setups just like in real life on both the radio and FBL
systems. This is the only simulator I have used to date that realistically replicates real heli setup values.
In short, it's super intuitive for people who have RC heli experience or for any of my Setup & Tips eBook customers who want to use the same tame settings I show in the eBook on a sim bird first.
At around $100.00 USD with free updates to both software and models (downloaded from Accurc's site), it's also a great value. Out of the box it supports FrSky, Spektrum, & JR radios with the 3.5mm training ports. Different cable adapters for different radios are also available at very reasonable costs (all are under $15 bucks).
It's also the only RC flight simulator here in the entire list that has a couple RC truck/buggies for track racing simulation as well as RC aircraft simulation. I really have no idea why, but it's a fun little bonus.
Here's a good basics of Accurc transmitter setup video (for OpenTX) to give you a primer on simulator radio configuration.
Best Of the Rest...
Horizon Hobby's RealFlight (formerly Great Planes RealFlight) is certainly highly regarded as one of best simulators on the market for all aspects of RC flying. Realflight has been around for over two decades now, with their G2 version being my very first RC helicopter flight simulator back in the early 2000's.
The current RF 9.5 full box version with USB interlink controller, provides some of the best flight simulation for, helicopters, airplanes, and quadrotors/FPV.
Have a look...
Change the weather conditions, simulate radio or engine troubles, and fly with other on-line pilots just like at the real field but this time with the added entertainment of combat flying & racing.
Don’t have an instructor to help you fly? No problem, yes there are virtual flight instructors to walk you through the basics up to intermediate level aerobatics.
Unfortunately these "virtual instructors" don't come anywhere near to what a real instructor can teach you. They only show what to do, not how or why the aircraft behaves as it does and what to watch out for and what mistakes or situations can manifest resulting in a crash and that's a big missing element. Still, it's better than having no instructor at all.
This just scratches the surface. There is just so much this RC helicopter simulator will do. With so many flying environments and different aircraft from electric park fliers to turbine models, this is one simulator you will never out grow.
Three versions of RealFlight 9.5 are offered:
For all you Mac or Linux users, the neXt RC helicopter flight simulator pretty much tops the list. It's also Windows compatible, so this is truly the "multi OS" flight sim of the bunch.
The neXt RC flight simulator contains 26 flight sceneries, 86 helicopters, 12 multi-rotors and 11 airplanes, so its true focus is most certainly on helis. More scenes, helicopters and functions will be added in free updates. All v 1.x updates are free of charge.
I have never personally used the neXt simulator, but many visitors to my site have contacted me giving it their enthusiastic thumbs up. All said it's pretty decent, and most certainly the best option out there right now for Mac users.
Training simulation has something for every skill level.
The neXt sim costs around $90.00 USD and is available for download directed from their site & a DVD version. They offer a "free version" as well to test out, however it limits usage time with your RC radio interface to 2 minutes.
Heli-X has rich environments, an awesome list of models (including lots of scale & multi rotors), many flying environments, a good tool box of training aids, easy setup parameters, and of course the most important thing - decent good real feel physics.
This is a true no nonsense "meat & potatoes" RC helicopter simulator - period!
The other great thing with Heli-X is it comes in various versions to work on all systems (Windows, Mac OS-X, and Linux); so it's the other good option here in the heli sim list if you're a Mac user.
Like neXt, Heli-X is
downloaded right off their site so the only "hard goods" purchase you
need to make is the USB/Radio cable or gutted USB radio. Heli-X has
links to several types on their site if you don't already have one (I
just use my old RealFlight USB Interlink controller for example).
You can first download a "DEMO" version with a limited heli & environment list. This is a nice feature so you can not only try it out to make sure you like it; but also make sure the version you download works with your computer and USB/radio cable/controller. If you decide you like it, you can unlock the full version by purchasing a registration licence Heli-X's site using PayPal; you also get free updates.
At 50 euros it's right in line with the others. Here's the link to Heli-X web site for more info on this RC heli simulator.
Heli-X in action below.
Parting with $100 to $200 hard earned dollars for an RC helicopter/plane simulator may seem a bit excessive, but in the long run will pay for itself, usually many times over.
This holds especially true once you start practicing more risky aerobatic maneuvers when crashes are more violent and much more costly in the "real world".
I can’t possibly go over all the different set up features on these RC helicopter flight simulators, but I can give you a few important tips that will make the best use of your RC helicopter flight simulation time.