For me, flight simulators were my first step into aviation. I grew up with the very first simulators. In those times it was even possible to land your jet on top of a submarine. Eh ...not very realistic. Flight simulators grew into more and more realistic flight behavior. They became so realistic i no longer succeeded in playing the last jet fighter sims. Too complicated.
Luckily there are a few very good flight simulators that give you the challenge of flight and even guide you through the first steps of aviation. Microsoft Flight Simulator X is a good example. It gives you very docile airplanes to start with and easy to achieve goals. Step by step you learn to master your airplane in this sim. And it is a really good help for real aviation. But ...beware ...some things can be done wrongly and you will end up with very bad habits. If you enter a real airplane, you might find it tricky to unlearn those mistakes. A nice example is the use of rudder. I totally learned it wrong by just using the sim. In the early days, we didn't have those wonderful lessons like now in FS X. I now need to unlearn that mistake during my motorized flight lessons.
Yes, you read it right. There are a lot of disadvantages. But ...if you know them and you don't cheat, you might have a great tool to begin your adventure in aviation.
Word of explanation about some disadvantages. I learned from experience that pulling flaps can be a very hard to do task. If the airflow onto the flaps is high, you might lack the arm power to pull them down. You need to slow down before pulling the flaps. In a sim, you can just push a button and flaps go down. If you pull your flaps down, when too much airflow goes over them, you might damage the flaps. You can even break the flap system. In the real world you feel those forces in your controls. And you realize you are doing something wrong. In a sim, you break or loose your flap in flight, when you lower the flaps at too high speed.
In flight simulators, the sky is the limit. You can use models that fly very slow and you can even fly the fastest airplane in the world.
If you already have a laptop or PC, you only need to buy the software. If you want to go more into sims, you can buy a lot of other stuff, like a flight stick, pedals, extra instruments, a special seat. Yep, been there, done that.
When i sim, i do it here. All the extras are cool, but ...increase the cost of the hobby.
Now it all depends on using internet or not. You can fly on your own. But i heard that it is possible to join groups where the tower control is a real guy. And several airplanes around you too. You can fly in group towards your destination. You can even fly in formation. But ...remember ...the tricks you try here are best avoided in real flights. In real life you cannot respawn.
True! Between flights they use sims to keep their skills at highest position possible. And they don't do it with those very costly sims where the whole cockpit moves, no ...they do it also at home on their normal PC or laptop.
I did some model making in a sim called FMS. That was big fun. Flying your own creations. You can make things that really are very unrealistic and just fly them in some sims. Other sims, like X-plane, calculate the performance and stability of your design. So ...you can test your skill in airplane design in those programs.
This is a example of one of my creations in FMS. Not very realistic, but ...was fun to play with. You can find more of my FMS play things at http://gunnerson.homestead.com/files/nestofdragons/fms_models.htm
I have playing several flight games on my Playstation. I need to warn you that those games are NOT realistic. You maybe be able to select a higher realistic flight, but in standard they are set to forgive you the most of beginners mistakes as pilots. If you want to train for real flight, don't use these games. They make you learn bad pilot skills, which might be tough to unlearn.