As a person holding a Private Pilot certificate in the US, it is right to assume that I have spent quite a bit of time in flight simulators over the course of time. So how does one relate the real world and real aircraft to the virtual world and an aircraft that is placed virtually anywhere? Continue reading to hear the first of my many cents!
Lets start off with a little about me. As a 'young' pilot, only 21 years of age at the time of writing this, it is no surprise I grew up with an extreme passion for aviation. I can remember my first logged hour with an instructor; I was only 11 years old. Since then, not only have I matured to a person holding a certificate, I have accumulated over 450 logged flight hours, with many more not logged due to not being with an instructor. From single engine pistons all the way to multi-engine turboprops, I have spent a fair amount of time in planes. All great, right? For the most part. That is until you want to spend some time in aircraft you are either not licensed for, or don't have insurance for. Enter Flight Simulation.
All in all, Flight Sims are great. I have spent a handful of hours in full motion training simulators, and countless hours sitting in front of my computer screen with Microsoft Flight Simulator X running. That is not the title of this post however, so lets get into some of the things that frustrate me as a pilot in a flight sim.
A little preface to this post: Most of the complaints will be against FSX, as that is the simulator I have the most experience with, so not all of them may apply to all current flight simulators.
It used to be that when I heard the word simulator, my mind thought of an immersive experience, something like a walking into a planetarium: Its surreal to walk into a place and just look up at the stars like they are right in front of you. Unfortunately, my mind has seemingly changed its definition of simulation with the ever increasing number of 'simulator' games on the market..
That said, I know a game from 2007 won't be perfect. To be quite honest, until I started to fly more and grew older, I didn't even notice anything super strange. I figured they must have got it right if it has 'Simulator' in the name, but that impression changed quite quickly. After I started focusing on flying, I soon began to notice certain things that just didn't feel right. This leads me to...
Complaint Number 1 : Aerodynamics.
Aerodynamic simulation in flight sim is one of those 'do it right' or 'do it very, very wrong' kind of deals. If you have ever flown any aircraft before, or a proper simulator that models aerodynamic forces, you know what you can expect from certain inputs. Fluid mechanics and inertia are the big players here. (Yes, air is a fluid by definition.)
When you stomp on the rudder as hard as you can, yeah you go sideways, but not as instant as good 'ol MS:FSX likes to do. Yes, you eventually end up in about the same orientation, and without correction in the roll and pitch axes, you will start to roll over like you do in the sim. My complaint is more in the way it happens. It takes time for the air deflected from the rudder to actually push the tail of the aircraft and make it yaw.
On the same subject, things like aerodynamic buffeting can be interesting to simulate. As you near stalling, the air moving over the top of the wing parts the wings surface. This turbulent air that is now passing rear of the wing can hit the tail and empennage of the aircraft, and when it does there is a good chance that you will get buffeting. It is a violent feeling and one of those 'feel it to believe it' things. It is also a good indicator for the pilot to nose over the aircraft and add power.
The counter argument here is that the processing horsepower needed to power the real time simulation of air near the aircraft was not up to par until recently, and I fully understand that. More than likely, future sims will be on top of this, and some, like X-Plane, are already most of the way there.
Complaint Number 2 : Immersion, virtually.
Now this is a personal issue for me, and I can understand that, but it is still a genuine complaint about the way that simulation works as a contrast to the real world. I need to be motivated to actually do well in a simulation. If there are no consequences, why should I apply myself?
Lets say that I am flying around at the speed of sound in my Skyhawk. Obviously there are issues here. The airframe can't handle the stress on it, the control surfaces would likely have been gone around the Mach .5 mark, and I would definitely be in trouble with the feds. That last one aside, how does the sim handle this? Well, an abrupt halt with a message saying I damaged the airframe is the answer.
Thats okay, but I would like more. I get that without excessive R&D, leading to excessive cost, we can't accurately simulate what would happen, but the abrupt stop is enough for me to usually turn 'Aircraft stress causes damage' off. Why? It is just so 'on rails' that I would rather be un-legit at times and personally not know if I had damaged the aircraft, assume that I have, and figure out the best cause of action to take.
There are several simulator add-ons, aircraft, and multiplayer networks that aim to deal with most of my complaints here. Still, it would be nice to see some of these features built into the simulator to begin with, at least in a form where you can turn on and off the 'realistic' features to help the young that are interested in aviation.
Complaint Number 3 : Immersion, physically.
Lets face it, there is nothing more immersive than sitting in front of your computer screen, with a narrow FoV, and a joystick. End of story! Right?
Not in the slightest. As a guy who actually has the joy of being able to fly, it is a totally different world. Literally and metaphorically. Being able to look out at your surroundings, feel the weight of controls, get shaken around by turbulence, it's not even close. Physical immersion is something that is very difficult to do in flight simulation, for many reasons.
Perhaps the largest reason is the fact that in order to really do physical simulation accurately, you need to have lots of space. You don't want your Boeing 737 cockpit in front of a single computer screen, do you? You more than likely need a dedicated area of your house, need a projector or a couple of TVs edge blended together to make a seamless image, a proper panel to look at, realistically located switches and controls. As you can imagine, its a nightmare for space. It's not impossible though.
More than likely second on the list is cost. If you think all of the things mentioned above are generic components you can find at the local big box store then you are sadly mistaken. There are some components, such as switches, that are usually generic, but most hardware, such as proper yokes, joysticks, etcetera are usually not readily available without an online order. There are some really good companies that make really good components for flight sims, but the cost is usually more than just a couple cups of coffee.
Third, and the one that impacts me the most, is I just plain don't like flying the same aircraft over and over again. There are times that I will go on a spree with one particular airplane, but one of the many joys of flying in flight sim the ability to go and do whatever you would like. I like to mix up my aircraft, and locking myself into a particular cockpit, lets say an A319, and then flying a Skyhawk, would feel completely out of place. I would much rather have a virtual cockpit experience that matches the aircraft than fly a different aircraft than I have a cockpit for.
There are some things that help with these issues. One notable at this point is FlyInside in combination with the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift in order to make flight simulators a VR experience. The downfall at this point is that the price of the Rift or the Vive is out of reach for most people. Personally I have never tried this piece of software, however @Mazzn on this site has, and he likes it. I can see huge advances for VR and flight simulation in the near future, and I can't be more excited to have more physical immersion in sim!
All in all, flight sim has some drawbacks, but it also has quite a bit to offer if you want to use it. Stay tuned to not only read part two of things that drive us nuts about flight sim, but also check out why I think that flight sim is a great tool, and should be used by pilots everywhere.