My first exposure to what you could call a home flight simulation was a game called Strike Force Harrier on our already obsolete Acorn Electron in the mid 1980s. Loaded from a cassette (I appreciate that much of this article is already unintelligible to some), it featured lower fidelity graphics than you might expect on modern synthetic vision Primary Flight Displays.
Fortunately for me, my formative years coincided with the heyday of flight simulators, ranging from titles like ‘Chocks Away!’ to ‘Longbow 2’, and of course various vintages of Microsoft Flight Simulator. Despite most of these titles offering ‘photorealistic graphics’, mostly it was a frustrating experience that lacked a sense of actually being in the cockpit.
The game has changed
Fast forward two decades, being grounded for fifteen weeks thanks to coronavirus lockdown meant a flight simulator was the only way I could scratch the aviation itch. And I was surprised at how different things are now.
While there is much less choice than I remember, the technical capability of modern flight simulators is breath-taking, with graphics surpassing anything I’ve seen in professional full flight simulators.
All three of the titles I tried impressed me, and all but one have been around for some time. The newcomer from an old stable, Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS) 2020 offered absolutely staggering graphics, and weather modelling unlike anything I’ve seen in a simulator before.
However, Microsoft didn’t offer any Virtual Reality integration at the time of writing, so I was constrained to a monitor and the same old feelings of frustration at the lack of immersion (and any helicopters) soon lured me away to the other titles. Instrument flying in X-Plane was incredibly accurate, with real-world facilities modelled and an impressive array of aircraft and scenery available as after-market downloads, with the quality varying. Again though, low level VFR flight felt a little like running your eyes over a photograph, even in VR.
Finally, the only one of the three to offer any aircraft capable of shooting things, Digital Combat Simulator World (DCS) brought study-level simulation of various combat aircraft dating from the second world war to the present day. Of the three this is the best optimised for VR and offers a small collection of helicopters.
The best news is that it can be played completely free, and there are no ‘micro-transactions’ here. You download the game engine; a scenery pack based around the Caucasus, and you get two aircraft; the unarmed TP-51D Mustang and the very much armed Russian tank-buster, the Sukhoi Su-25T. After that you can download community mods for free, of varying quality again, or pay to download endorsed modules that are simulated in more detail.
So, does this ‘new breed’ of flight simulator have anything new to offer the General Aviation pilot?
Well, not in the traditional sense. Only Flight Training Devices (FTDs) meeting the requirements for Flight Navigation and Procedures Training (FNPT) II standard as a minimum, can be used to support the sort of training that a GA pilot might require. It’s also very unlikely that most PPLs are going to need to practice their carrier landings.
Furthermore, while tremendous advances have obviously been made in computing power, allowing more and more data about the scenery and weather to be stored, and at ever higher resolutions, little attention seems to have been given to simulating the physical sensations of flight. Even basic feedback is lacking, with control force being provided only by passive spring systems which do nothing to replicate the cues that a pilot might expect to feel through the stick or yolk during various flight phases.
However, that’s not to say that these systems don’t have a purpose beyond just entertainment. It just requires a little thinking outside of the box.
Winter is coming
As the days shorten, most GA pilots will already be preparing for the frustration and disappointment that the British climate delivers every year to aviators without an Instrument Rating and an aircraft with an icing clearance. This year there is the distinct likelihood that coronavirus will deliver further uncertainty.
Given the flight models and the lack of control force available, I wouldn’t trust any of these programs to keep my control finesse sharp during the seasonal lull, but they certainly can be used to keep your aviation brain ticking over. An unlimited number of scenarios can be cooked up in either X-Plane or MSFS 2020, with the former offering so many aircraft to download that pilots will be able to find renditions of almost any light aircraft they can think of. The technically minded might even be able to create their own. In particular I can see these simulators being useful to simulate decision-making in marginal weather conditions or during malfunctions, or keep instrument procedural knowledge fresh.
Keep the flame alive
DCS World on the other hand, provided only two aircraft that GA pilots are ever likely to come across; a Christen Eagle II and a Yak 52, in very limited parts of the world. Although it’s not inconceivable that those with money to burn might have the opportunity to fly the P-51, Spitfire or even the L-39, they are unlikely to do so over Dubai or Las Vegas. But that is the point of this game, to do things that most pilots won’t ever get to experience. And that largely involves the delivery of high explosives onto targets on the ground or into other aircraft.
That’s not to say that there’s not something more subtle to be gained from this for enthusiastic light aircraft pilots.
Many people who would happily fly an hour or two simply to get a bacon sarnie at a new airfield will find little reward in doing so on a computer. However, virtually strapping into a fighter of any vintage in Virtual Reality brings a level of claustrophobic immersion that I have not experienced before.
DCS offers far fewer aircraft than X-Plane in particular, but they are all rendered in a level of detail that far surpassed my expectation. Any pilot expecting to just jump into a warplane and start causing mayhem is in for a shock, whichever aircraft they choose. Very quickly the emphasis becomes less about winning the Battle of Britain single-handedly and more about simply managing the gigantic liquid cooled problem strapped to the front of the machine. Fans of more modern aircraft are treated no more sympathetically. While they are easier to keep flying, getting a weapon off requires such a bewildering sequence of button presses that by the time my laser guided bomb eventually (and unexpectedly) detached itself from the Hornet I was ‘flying’ I was on my way back to base.
And this is what the DCS franchise offers GA pilots; an opportunity to experience aviation in a way they likely haven’t before, learn something about its challenges and appreciate the skill involved in doing it well. Whether it’s flying and fighting in a warbird or wrestling the enormous Russian Mi-17 helicopter into the sky with tonnes of cargo swinging around under it, the reward in DCS comes from trying something different, and keeping the passion for aviation burning through the cold winter.
They have the potential to bring in new members of the community
And it is this curious blend between novelty and painstaking realism that provides perhaps the greatest opportunity to GA; even if it doesn’t appeal to light aircraft pilots at all. It provides a gateway between online-based flying arcade games and aviation itself. There is enough action to excite those with shorter attention spans and enough detail to teach them that in aviation, the small things matter.
It is probably safe to say that many of those installing Microsoft Flight Sim or X-Plane onto their computers will already have had some exposure to flying, or at least will already know that it is the discipline of aviation that appeals to them; because there is little else to do in these titles. However, DCS is subtly different. It provides a portal through which those who have been attracted by the adrenaline and action of other flying games can learn about the detail, the process and the complexity that sits at the heart of aviation. Not all of them will be engaged by this, but a few will. Like me, they will realise that it is the flying – not the scoreboard that has become their real ambition.
They provide value to GA
The difference between early home flight sims and those of today is plain to see. It used to be much easier to make the mental distinction between what you saw on the square, low resolution monitor in your living room and the glorious widescreen of a real-life cockpit.
With all the technology available to enthusiasts, home flight sims now offer a far more immersive and realistic experience and have closed the gap between the virtual and the real. They are so realistic that they have made it far easier to make the mental leap between the virtual cockpit and the real thing. That might well be enough to convince aspiring pilots that they have what it takes to do it for real.
It’s easy in aviation to look back and imagine that the best has been and gone. The glamour of the airline industry; the low flying fast jets of the cold war; affordable fuel; all distant memories. But when it comes to flight simulation, a look at any of the modern titles is proof enough that they are the best they have ever been. Sure, there are fewer of them these days, but the fidelity and the graphics are unmatched. Technology like Virtual Reality has enabled a level of immersion that was previously unthinkable. And the proliferation of cheap and powerful microprocessors has made complex avionics easily emulated.
They might provide a limited opportunity for ‘more experienced’ pilots to refresh their brains during the winter months, but these games – or entertainment simulations if you prefer – are precisely that; they provide an escape to fantasy. But in doing so, they also provide a virtual window through which inquisitive eyes might peer, and realise that their experience need not be limited to their imagination and their computer. Hopefully, they will find them to be just as I did; a welcome escape for the winter, but come summer, not quite enough…