Microsoft Flight Simulator — for Pilots?

Realistic? Are they kidding?

Yesterday, I received a flurry of packages delivered by USPS, FedEx Ground, and FedEx — all within 30 minutes of each other. Inside were Christmas presents from my family.

The Benefit of Having an Wish List

I maintain an Wish List. I use it primarily to store the items I’d like to buy but don’t want to buy right now. But it also makes a handy way for family members to send me gifts at Christmas time. There are items there ranging in price from about $10 up to $200 or more, and ranging in type from books and music to movies and electronics and housewares. So whether someone is shopping by price or by type of item, they can find me something I really want.

This year, my mother, sister, and brother decided to dip into the list. And because I told them not to pay extra for shipping if free shipping was available, most of my Christmas gifts arrived after Christmas.

Yesterday, in fact.

My First Computer Game in 10 or More Years

Product ImageAmong the items on my list was Microsoft Flight Simulator X Deluxe. On the surface, that may seem like a pretty average gift for a pilot. But I’m a helicopter pilot and I normally use Mac OS computers. FSX (as it’s apparently nicknamed by its cult of users) runs on a Windows PC.

I’d asked for this to help me with my instrument rating, which I’m working on this winter. A flight instructor had suggested it to help me with my “scan.” The scan is an important part of instrument flying — it involves scanning a certain group of instruments in a certain order or frequency to maintain situational awareness and keep the aircraft from doing aerobatics in the clouds with you on board.

Although I’m a Mac user, I do have a PC. Each year for the past 10 years, I’ve written a book about Quicken for Windows. [Greetings Google Alert scanners at Intuit!] I did a Mac version for a few years, too, but sales weren’t impressive enough for the publisher to keep doing it. I’ve also used PCs when writing about Microsoft Office products. In fact, I did two Microsoft Office Excel 2007 for Windows books in 2007. So although I don’t really like using PCs, I have one — a Dell laptop everyone who knows about PCs seems to be impressed by — and I do know how to use it. And since it’s sufficiently loaded to run Vista in all of its questionable glory, I didn’t think it would have any trouble with FSX.

My brother and his wife got the software for me. This makes sense. My brother is a big Windows PC gamer and spends hours fighting wars on the Internet. (Ah, if only that were enough to satisfy world powers!) He’d asked for a bunch of components to load up his PC, but I was a more practical gift giver this year and sent him and his wife Home Depot gift certificates to help them fix up their kitchen, which really needs work. Oddly enough, I’ll probably give him this game when I’m finished with it.

I mentioned in the subhead that this is my first computer game in 10 years. I’m estimating. My first computer game was Myst, which I found interesting, if not a little spooky. I followed that up with the sequel, which I don’t recall actually playing. That’s the extent of my game experience. I’m not a gamer; I don’t believe in spending hours in front of a computer entertaining myself. I’d rather read a book or do something more constructive with my time.

The Flight Simulator

Product ImageI installed FSX last night. It took nearly an hour to copy the 15GB of data from two DVDs to the Dell. While it installed, I perused another gift from my Wish List, Microsoft Flight Simulator X For Pilots Real World Training. My mom sent me that one and it arrived yesterday, too.

This book is a big, fat, extremely well thought out volume that explains how to fly, using FSX as a training tool. It assumes you know nothing about flight but want to learn. It then teaches you from the ground up (pun intended), using accurate descriptions, illustrations, and features within FSX. It has chapters that take you through all the ratings you might want: sport pilot, private pilot, and instrument rating. It’s the instrument rating chapters that interest me and they look very complete.

The only problem is, the book — and the software, for that matter — assumes you want to fly airplanes.

I don’t fly airplanes and I don’t want to learn.

FSX comes with two helicopters: a Robinson R22 Beta II (which I’ve already customized with the N-number of my old helicopter) and a Bell 206B JetRanger. So rather than mess around with the airplanes, I went right for the R22.

And crashed it numerous times.

I have to mention here that when you’re a 2,000-hour pilot and you’re manipulating the controls of a virtual aircraft and can’t keep it in control, you can get pretty freaked out.

The problem is, the controls are not sufficiently realistic. In a helicopter, when you move the cyclic, you get immediate feedback. Push it forward, the nose immediately dips. Push it to the right and the aircraft immediately starts to bank. And you don’t have to push very much, either — a little dab will do ya (with apologies to Brylcreem). Although there might be delays of a fraction of a second in different helicopters depending on hydraulics or rigging, a pilot can get the “feel” for these minor differences within a few minutes and be able to fly.

But these delays were not fractions of a second. The delays between control input and aircraft reaction had to be at least two or three seconds. While a non-pilot might think that two or three seconds delay isn’t such a big deal, it really is — when it’s not what you’re accustomed to. I’d make a control input and, when nothing happened right away, I’d make a bigger input. By that time, the first input was just starting to take effect and the second would send the aircraft careening out of control. Too much correction and it would be headed the other way.

If I climbed into the cockpit of a real-life helicopter today and it had lag time like FSX’s R22, I’d crash it, too.

R22 PanelThe details inside the cockpit, on the other hand, are amazingly accurate, from the vertical card compass (not shown here) on the split cockpit bubble to the instrument panel — although this particular configuration is not one you’re likely to find on a real R22. (The instrument in the bottom center is normally found on Instrument trainers, which have a larger panel with more instruments.) The realism of the scenery, airports, etc. is also pretty good. This screenshot has everything set to low quality graphics — I’m trying to realistic performance — but when you crank it up a few notches it looks pretty darn good. (Of course, there aren’t any houses near the runway at Phoenix Sky Harbor.)

As I type this, I’m downloading a 213MB update to the software. I’m hoping that the update, as well as finding the power cord for the Microsoft Force Feedback Joystick we have (from Mike’s old Flight Simulator days) will work together to make these aircraft fly more realistically.

I’m simply not willing to re-learn how to fly just to get practice on a computer — when I can go out and fly the real thing for a lot more benefit.

3 thoughts on “Microsoft Flight Simulator — for Pilots?

  1. I too have gone down the road of flightsims in an attempt to practice various helicopter manuvers, and being a helicopter pilot myself I know exactley where you are comming from. I have a pretty good control settup with pedals and made a collective by modifying a throttle but even with endless hours of messing around with the settings etc I have decided that helicopter flight in FSX just isnt very good. Thats a big disappointment considering the time and effort ive put into making the controls etc.

    Its an approximation and nothing more. Ive found the B206 much better to fly on the sim than the R22, its vastly more stable but once again the flight modeling is very poor ie; almost no torque yaw etc. I keep plugging away with the hope that if I can fly something as horiffic as the FSX R22 with any semblance of control, then maybe Ill get better at the real thing haha. There are several helicopter only flight sim websites around now, one of the best ones is check it out, they may have suggestions for you.


  2. I just started on my private instruction in a R22 and decided to use FSX to hopefully shave off a few hours of instruction needed. Well, I can definitely say that I did just that, and my instructor has made numerous comments about how much the sim is helping me. Maybe it’s because I come from a video gaming background and already had HOTAS + Pedals used for games like EECH. I added a TrackIR to my setup, and I’m doing traffic patterns, hovers, taxies and the like without a problem. It’s not completely realistic, though. For example, the pedals don’t require nearly as much input, if any, for basic yaw control. And moving the collective doesn’t seem to affect torque and require you to adjust pedals in correlation. However, I have not had any lag problems with my inputs. I get instant feedback from my controls. I get a solid 60 FPS, though. FPS is going to make a huge difference with that. You might have a crappy video card in your laptop, which is common for laptops. I have a gaming rig. =) Anyways, just some feedback.


    • Nate: Thanks for the feedback. I never did get the hang of Flight Simulator. I’m not a game player and even though the graphics are very good, I can’t see the three dimensionality I need to “fly” a simulator VFR. I got a chance to spend about 10 hours in a Frasca flight simulator and didn’t do much better in that.

      You might be right about the laptop, though. It’s about 2 years old now, and was bought to run Windows Vista. I never intended to run games or do any kind of video processing.

      Best of luck on your training!

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