By – Stephen Todd
What is a Flight Simulator?
The term ‘flight simulator’ is defined as, “a ground-training device that reproduces exactly the conditions experienced on the flight deck of an aircraft.” Are there simulators that do that? No. It is impossible to perfectly replicate the act of flying, and all the forces that act on the aircraft. If you want that experience, you have to fly a real airplane. I’m of the opinion that it should be defined as, “any device, game, or software and hardware combination that replicates or simulates the act of flying.” This is the perspective from which I write this article.
There are hundreds of choices of software. You can find simulators for every genre, type of aircraft (fighter, helicopter, airliners, etc), and time period. Games such as: Blazing Angels and IL2 simulate WWII, Falcon 4 simulated just an F-16. Bringing it more modern, DCS has created successful stand alone games based on the A-10 Thunderbolt and the Russian Ka-50 Black Shark.
By far the most successful flight simulation software has been Microsoft’s Flight Simulator X or “FSX”, as it’s commonly referred. The secret to their success, in my opinion, has been the ability to modify the game into anything the user wants, so long as the mod exists. You can even simulate air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, thus eliminating the need to purchase any other simulator. It’s all inclusive. Stupidly, Microsoft’s latest offering, Flight , took that away. They made it less realistic, more game-like, and only available on Microsoft Live. They were trying to appeal to the mainstream gaming community and get those cursed micro-transactions. It backfired on them. The flight simulator community revolted and the game was cancelled. Microsoft has since decided to not continue with the flight simulator market and even sold the source code for FSX to Lockheed-Martin. Brilliantly, the geniuses over at Laminar Research saw their chance to take over where Microsoft left off. They upgraded their product, X-Plane, and marketed it as the replacement to FSX.
X-plane blends stunning visuals, developer and user ability to create or ‘repaint’ aircraft, unmatched world realism and flight dynamics for a stunning simulator that has many in the community asking, “Where has this been my whole life?” Now, just as important as what to buy is what not to buy. You may or may not know this, but there are bad people in the world. Some of these people have taken a free, open source flight simulator called Flight Gear, packaged it up and are selling it under titles such as Virtual Flight 3D and Pro Flight. I recommend you not pay for something you can get for free.
Here are the basic rules of thumb when selecting which software:
- First, decide what you want. If you want to stay with one airplane, genre, or location, look for it. If you want to fly multiple types and all over the world, you will probably be better off with FSX or X-Plane.
- Second, research! There is a huge flight simulator community that is a wealth of information. They’ll tell you if its good, bad, or a scam. Check out FlightSim, Avsim and Simviation for starters.
- Third, stick to reputable developers. Like I said, there are bad people in the world. Don’t get swindled.
There are several control options that are built into most flight simulators. The most basic (and least realistic) is just keyboard control. Depending on the simulator, all or most of the functions of an aircraft have possible key combination for flight control surfaces, avionics, aircraft systems, weapons, etc. A barely noticeable improvement from using a keyboard would be using a gamepad. Some simulators let you, others don’t. The experience is far greater, in my not so humble opinion, if you use purpose built controls that closer replicate the experience of simulating flight.
Let’s start with the basic purpose-built controller.
You can visit your local game store or an online retailer to purchase a simple USB joystick with a throttle built in and possibly a twist feature. This gives you yaw, pitch and roll control for between $10-$40. That is a more affordable option if you’re on a tight budget. Companies such as Saitek (Mad Catz), Logitech and CH Products offer middle grade flight sticks, throttle quadrants, yokes, and pedals. These drastically improve the experience of the flight simulator since you can now control yaw, pitch, and roll in the simulated aircraft you are piloting in a more realistic manner. A typical setup of a yoke, throttle quadrant and pedals is about $350 on average. From there, the options get better, and more expensive.
If you really want to have some quality controls, look into the Hotas Warthog or Hotas Cougar by Thrustmaster. These controls are near perfect replicas of the A-10 Thunderbolt (a.k.a. Warthog) and F-16 Fighting Falcon, respectively. If that’s not your style, Cockpit Sonic offers some higher end airliner style controls and overhead panels. Even GoFlight offers some higher end controls including panels, avionics, and an awesome 737 throttle quadrant. You’ll pay more for these controls, but you know what they say about getting what you pay for.
If you have an unquenchable thirst for making your experience as real as possible, look into the products at Precision Flight Controls. They offer an exact replica 737 yoke for $1,320. Spendy, but worth it. They offer total flight deck systems for thousands of dollars, which can also incorporate motion. The only thing that beats these systems are actual airline owned simulators that cost millions of dollars and have 60+ degrees of motion on yaw, pitch and roll.
As you can see, the more you spend, the more realistic it gets. Your choice will probably be dictated by your personal budget and what level of realism you desire. Last year, there was quite the war between Logitech G940 and the Saitek X-65F, with regards to fighter style controls (that Saitek handily won) that brought us far better controls for between $300 and $400. Controls are getting cheaper, so save your pennies. It’s worth it to improve your experience.
Computers and Visuals
Like every other game, flight simulators can be very graphically intense, take up a lot of room on a hard drive and require lots and lots of ram to run. Also like every other game, developers have minimum and suggested hardware combinations. In most cases, they’re bunk and far less than what you’ll actually need. Their specs might work for default, but I don’t know a single flight sim enthusiast who hasn’t modified at least one thing. My general rule of thumb is to look at the minimum requirements listed on the game and double it. That should put you right in a smooth operating range. In general, visuals will be half the experience with your flight simulator. The better view you have, the better situational awareness you’ll have, the better experience you’ll get. As a base, have a high definition monitor. High definition projectors at 1080p are better. Several high definition projectors, at 1080p, while using hardware, such as a Matrox Triple Head to Go is best.
Track IR is a great hardware/software combination if you only have a monitor. It allows you the ability to look around naturally instead of using a mouse, keystroke or using a button on a controller.
Yes, I did say virtual airlines. Consider this the scenario part for flight simulators. If blindly tooling around or just practicing open flying is your thing, then go ahead and skip this part. There are thousands of virtual airlines and virtual military units in existence. A simple internet search will overwhelm you with choices. Many of them simulate real world airlines, some are just stand alone carriers. Depending on the individual requirements of each entity, you may be required to operate under full FAA style requirements and flying on VATSIM (the online, real time, air traffic controlled network) or, as easy as the honor system and a simple fight reporting system with one flight per month required. If you like to be part of a community and participate in scenarios, this would be a great way to go. I personally belong to American Flight Airways, but do some research and find the one that’s best for you.
Like every game, flight simulation it is what you make it. Unlike most games, you really do have the opportunity to make it as real, beautiful, and technical as you want it to be. With some research, a little investment in controllers, time, and patience, you can have a very good simulation that gives you a close idea what it’s like to fly an airplane and be part of a community that is passionate about this hobby. My guess is that if you’ve read this far, you have a genuine interest not only in simulators but in aviation. My best advice is just to give it a try. I think you’ll be hooked. If you don’t know how to fly, there are plenty of options available to teach you. Besides the built in lessons in Microsoft, there are plenty of online resources to learn. A simple YouTube search will turn up many, many videos on how to aviate, navigate and communicate.
Here’s a link to get started. No more excuses, go get after it!