Not every plane in Microsoft Flight Simulator comes with autopilot installed so learning to manually fly planes is a must. However, there are a decent number that do and understanding this system and how it all works is arguably more difficult to understand than keeping a plane off of the ground. In this guide we’ll describe what each of the autopilot buttons does and how to successfully use them.
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How to Engage Autopilot (AP Key)
The most basic form of autopilot is super easy to engage! Just look for the “AP” button on your dashboard. For the Cessna 172, which we’ll be using for this entire tutorial, that’s located just to the left of both screens.
Special thanks to the Garmin handbook for explaining these in depth.
Another Note: Not all autopilots can control the throttle of your plane. In the Cessna 172, it cannot control your throttle.
Heading Select Mode (HDG Key)
Heading Select does exactly what it says, instructing the plane to follow your specified heading. This is the blue ticker on your navigation NOT the purple line. You can move the ticker’s location using the knob above the buttons with the letters “HDG” just above it.
As an example, if you have heading mode on and pointed at 52 degrees and you change it to 89, the plane will alter course and rotate to the new heading. This is particularly helpful when it comes to staying on track as being a few degrees off and cause you to drastically miss your destination over a long enough flight.
Some users get confused by this nob because the scroll wheel only changes the nob in increments of ten. For single digits, use a mouse click. You can also click and hold to have it keep increasing by one.
Navigation Mode (NAV Key)
If you’re in a smart enough plane with a proper GPS and your destinations programmed in, Navigation Mode will automatically fly you where you need to go. It can also be used with VOR and LOC directions which we’ll attempt to explain in an update some point in the future.
For most advanced planes with direct routes, assuming you’ve set your course before taking off (or programmed it into the navigation manually) you’ll simply want to press this button alongside autopilot.
Approach Mode (APR Key)
Approach Mode tells the plane to keep an eye out for the airport’s localizer, assuming it has one. In short, there’s an ideal glide slope for your plane to make a steady descent into a landing. If you’ve programmed in an instrument landing system (ILS) approach, the autopilot will switch to approach mode once the system is able to lock on. You can also manually turn on approach mode and the plane will attempt to intercept the localizer.
Keep in mind that each airport has a different altitude you must be at for the system to properly intercept the localizer. You can discover these on the aircraft charts through services like Navigraph, or just attempt to be close enough. Flight Simulator is a bit more forgiving when it comes to this.
You can tell the system has a localizer in range because a new bar will appear on your Garmin screen next to your altitude indicator. The ticker should be locked towards the top near the “G” and as you approach the airport it will lower down the bar. Once it reaches the middle, the plane should lock on and the system will glide you down.
The ticker will track your vertical progress even if you switch off the autopilot and attempt to land manually.
Vertical Speed Mode (VS Key)
Say you want to have the plane descend from 5,000 to 2,000 altitude. What you want to do is set the desired altitude before hitting the Vertical Speed Mode button. Similar to the Heading Mode nob, you’ll find this one just below the buttons with “ALT” above it. After you do that, hit the button, and then use the nose down keys to set your desired feet per minute. For example, hit the down key five times to have the plane descent by 500 feet per minute until it reaches the desired 2,000 altitude approximately six minutes later.
You can also use this to gain altitude if you know the plane well enough. Otherwise you risk setting this too high and risking a stall.
Flight Level Change Mode (FLC Key)
While descent speed matters very little, the optimal climbing speed is usually pretty low. For the Cessna 172, the optimal climbing speed is 75 knots. Using the flight level change mode you can have the plane do this.
Again, simply set the desired altitude before hitting the Flight Level Change button. Then hit the button and increase or decrease the desired speed using the Nose Up / Nose Down keys.
The plane will then attempt to climb while to the specified altitude while maintaining that speed.
You can also do the reverse and have it help you descend. Upon setting the lower altitude target, you may notice the plane doing nothing, however. That’s because it’s expecting you to manage the rate of descent via the throttle while it controls the speed of the plane. You’re essentially controlling the descent via the throttle using this mode. It’s a bit complicated which is why we normally use Vertical Speed Mode for descent and Flight Level Change for climbing.
Altitude Mode (ALT Key)
If you’ve reached a desired height and don’t want to worry about adjusting the pitch of the plane via trim and speed, you can let the plane do that for you! Just hit the ALT key on the autopilot and the aircraft will hold the current altitude.
Vertical Path Tracking Mode (VNV Key)
This will likely be your least used key. The Vertical Path Tracking Mode (VNAV) is a complicated system of controlling descent. Sadly it doesn’t really work in Flight Simulator 2020 at the moment. The idea is to program in the descent angle and let the autopilot do the work. All you’d need to do is activate VNAV about five minutes before your top of descent and it would adjust your speed as required to keep three degree flight path angle.
This is one feature that has long been asked for by the community.
Backcourse Mode (BC Key)
Another key you won’t really use all that much, Backcourse Mode is meant to help if you’re landing in the “wrong” direction of a runway. While most of the time you don’t want to use autopilot to land, you technically can, especially in a simulator. However, the navigation uses a localizer antenna to line up with the runway. It sends out a signal in front of it to help your plane align with where it needs to go. It also sends out a back course signal the opposite way. If you’re coming in from that direction, you’d want Backcourse Mode engaged, otherwise your plane will want to fly all the way around and land in the other direction.
Nose Up / Nose Down Keys
As we’ve explained, the functionality of these buttons changes based on which mode you’re in. Sometimes they’ll control your altitude change target and other times they’ll help you set a target airspeed.
And that’s it! Those are the basics of a G1000 autopilot system! If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments below and we’ll help if we can!
Still confused? Here’s a video explainer that will run down the most basic autopilot functions.