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Microsoft Flight Simulator: How to Use the Autopilot

Microsoft Flight Simulator Autopilot
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Microsoft Flight Simulator: How to Use the Autopilot

Using the Autopilot in Microsoft Flight Simulator is quite challenging. This guide will teach you the basics to direct your aircraft to fly itself.

Using the Autopilot in Microsoft Flight Simulator is more challenging than most expect. Many newcomers to the genre have felt the frustration of pressing the “engage autopilot” button and seeing that absolutely nothing happens, wondering if they’re missing something or the bloody thing is just broken. Luckily, it’s not broken, it’s just a fairly complex system that Asobo and Microsoft did not think to make a tutorial for.

Using the Autopilot in Microsoft Flight Simulator

First of all, there are several different models of autopilot, with slight differences in their features or where each control is located. That being said, most basic principles remain the same.

The most common in Microsoft Flight Simulator is the Garmin model you see below. We’ll use it as a baseline reference for this guide.

Once you mastered this model, you’ll be equipped to understand the rest quite easily.

First of all, most autopilots in the game have a main GPS guidance that will follow your pre-created flight plan with great precision. One of the most commonly confusing elements is that many general aviation aircraft don’t boot up in GPS mode.

If you see that the arrow in the middle of the compass is not pink as in the picture above (usually it’ll be green) you need to activate the GPS mode by pressing the soft key under the CDI indication at the bottom of the left Multi-Function Display (from now on, we’ll call it simply MFD) until the arrow turns pink. When it is, you’re ready for GPS guidance. 

Do keep in mind that when you hover over a button with your mouse, it will tell you what it does, but it won’t explain anything else.

Your first control to learn is the “AP” button, which engages the autopilot. That being said, you need to keep in mind that it won’t do anything else than keeping your aircraft in level flight. This won’t be enough to follow your route as the autopilot is simply waiting for your instructions using the following controls.

Alternatively, if you’re a little more adventurous, you can press “FD” which turns on your Flight Director. If your autopilot is off and your flight director is on, and you use the controls described below, a pink indicator on the MFD will give you a visual guide to follow if you want to fly the plane manually instead of the autopilot. It’s a good compromise if you don’t want the plane to fly itself, but you still would like not to get lost.

Incidentally, you can see which autopilot modes are engaged at the top of the MFD. For instance, in the screenshot above the autopilot is set to follow the GPS flight plan and to climb with a vertical speed of 500 feet per minute. Continue reading to understand what that means.

The HDG button orders the autopilot to hold a selected heading, which you can set with the HDG knob. It’ll be shown in your MFD with a teal marking on the compass and a numeric “HDG” indication of the same color. Do keep in mind that this won’t follow your flight plan, but will instead just fly in the direction you want.

The ALT button holds your altitude. An important detail here is that it won’t actually climb or descend to that altitude. It will simply hold the altitude you have when the mode is selected (indicated at the top of your altimeter in the left MFD). Do keep in mind that you need to correctly set your atmospheric pressure in order for your altimeter to be precise.

The NAV button is where things really start getting interesting. It’ll follow your GPS flight plan, do all the turns for you, and keep you on course.

The APR button sets you up to capture an approach localizer and glideslope, which will basically guide you on the approach path to a runway. You should turn it on when you’re getting close to the last straight leg toward the airport and simply leave it to do its work. When it captures the signal of the localizer and glideslope it will take over your other autopilot modes (NAV, ALT, or HDG) and the “GS” indication at the top of the MFD will turn green as you can see below.

Do keep in mind that the glideslope can be captured only at a certain angle from the runway, which is usually 3° of elevation. If you’re too high or too low, it won’t work at all. If you follow the altitude instructions from air traffic control (flight level), you should intercept it at some point during your approach. 

It’s also important to note that, while some aircraft are capable of autolanding, most pilots don’t take advantage of that feature excluding extreme conditions, because automated landings tend to be a bit on the hard side. Also, the autopilot won’t use the flaps, landing gear, or brakes for you. You still need to remember those.

The BC button is similar to APR, but it hooks to a runway localizer’s Back Course, allowing you a degree of guidance even when approaching from a direction in which there are no landing aids. That being said, not all airports have it, and there will be no glideslope. It will guide only your heading to the runway center line, but not your descent.

The VS button will set a positive or negative Vertical Speed (in feet-per-second) toward the altitude you indicate with the ALT knob. You also have to select the vertical speed itself with the Nose UP and Nose DN buttons (pressed repeatedly). In some autopilot systems, the Nose UP and Nose DN buttons are replaced by a dial or knob. The vertical speed you set will be indicated to the right of your vertical speed indicator on the MFD.

When you reach your set altitude, the autopilot will switch to ALT mode and hold that flight level until further input.

The FLC (Flight Level Change) button is similar to VS, but instead of asking you to set a vertical speed, it’ll let your climb or descent be governed by your throttle (or autothrottle if your autopilot has it, the Garmin does not).

Now let’s talk about airliners. They don’t come with the Garmin, but of course their operation is heavily influenced by the autopilot, and they have their own peculiarities.

The 747 and the 787 have very similar autopilots, as you can see below.

Both feature an autothrottle activated by the SPD button on the 747 and by the A/T button on the 787. You can select your desired airspeed with the dedicated knob linked to the button.

The autothrottle is independent of the autopilot. You can have the autothrottle engaged when the autopilot is disengaged. 

The HDG and ALT buttons you found in the Garmin are replaced by “HLD” (Hold) buttons under the related knob.

There are two kinds of NAV buttons. The LNAV button is basically identical to the NAV button of the Garmin. It will follow your flight plan’s route precisely as long as it’s engaged.

The VNAV button will control your altitude following the values set in your flight plan. Personally, I prefer to use LNAV on its own and just follow the instructions of ATC via the VS and ALT modes.

To disengage all the autopilot systems there is a dedicated lever at the bottom of the control panel.

The Airbus A320 Neo really loves to do everything for you and it’s definitely its own animal compared to the other two airliners included in the game. 

The basic concepts are the same as the other autopilots, but there are relevant differences.

The autothrottle (engage with “A/T” button) is independent of the autopilot like in the other airliners. You can have the autothrottle engaged when the autopilot is disengaged. 

In order to let the autopilot control your throttle, you need to set it in the climb position indicated with a “CL” by the throttle’s side and by “THR CLB” on your MFDs when you’re at the right settings. 

Most knobs you’d use to select values in other aircraft also have a “Managed” and “selected” input. 

“Selected” works exactly as it the control did in other aircraft, you select a value (heading, speed, or altitude) and the aircraft will do what you want.

“Managed” will instead pretty much do everything itself in according what it thinks is the best way to follow your flight plan. Do keep in mind that to reach a selected altitude you’ll also need to use the vertical speed knob to set an actual vertical speed value, or the autopilot will simply ignore you. 

When speed is on “managed” and the throttle is in CL position, you can pretty much ignore it even  while landing in most conditions, the autopilot will simply set you at the right 

When the HDG is on “managed” it will simply work like the NAV button on the Garmin and follow your flight plan. When it’s on “Selected” it will work like the HDG button and direct you toward the heading you set manually.

If you want to learn more about Microsoft Flight Simulator, you can check out our review that will tell you everything you need to know about Asobo Studio’s new and awesome game.

Microsoft Flight Simulator is already available for Windows 10 and Steam. An Xbox version is also planned for the future but has no release date for the moment.

This is all you need to know about  using the autopilot in Microsoft Flight Simulator. You can also check out our growing guide wiki that includes more information that can help you get started.

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