To Fly: Flight Simulator X


I sat down to write a review -- a preview really -- of Flight Simulator X from Microsoft. I thought it would just be fun, 'cause hey, I love Flight Sim. I thought it would be cute to talk about the good old days, before I lost my pilot's license, so I pulled my logbook down from the shelf. That's when I realized two things:

1: My log book is over the shelf on my desk. I haven't opened it in years, but still, no matter how I rearrange my office, it's within arm's reach. This is an entirely unconscious act. I can't even remember putting it there.

2: It's been exactly ten years to the day since I first learned to fly.

I remember that first day with extreme clarity. It was unseasonably cold. The sky was completely free of clouds. I walked into the Hanscom Field FBO and asked, nervous as hell, if I could take them up on the "Learn to Fly!" coupon they'd put in the Boston Globe.

I was introduced to Mike, my instructor. He was 20 years old. I filled out some paperwork, and with little ceremony, we grabbed headsets and walked out onto the tarmac. If I close my eyes, I can smell it: avgas fumes blown across acres of perfectly smooth concrete. We approached the Cessna 150 from the rear, Mike pointing out the various control surfaces, their functions, statistics about the plane. While petrified, I was also cocky as hell. I'd flown a Cessna for dozens of hours in Flight Simulator for Windows 95. I'd read every book I could find on becoming a private pilot. I am quite sure I could have passed my written exam that first day.

Mike walked to the left door, opened it, and unlocked the controls. "Go ahead and walk around, move the control surfaces, hop up on the wing and check the gas."

I obliged. I ran my hands across the elevator, flexing it back and forth. The aluminum felt insubstantial. As I continued my walk around the plane, it hit me. This icarian contraption weighs nothing. It's a dragonfly. One person can easily push it around. Two people could flip it over. We hopped in. Mike read the checklist, showing me where everything was. I already knew. We started the engine, and moved through the interminable delays of running up the engine, waiting for traffic to clear, waiting for tower to clear us.

Lined up on the runway, I looked down a cliff of stained, crosshatched grey concrete. "Cessna Lima Papa Alpha, clear for take off." Mike nodded. I pushed the throttle to the firewall and released the brakes.

In that one ceiling-and-visibility-unlimited afternoon, I became a pilot.

Fast forward two years. I'm flying every chance I get. I'm sending my wife and I slowly into the poorhouse with rental fees. Page after page of my logbook fills up. I've graduated from tiny planes to bigger planes, from flying patterns around the airport to taking weekend trips to Nantucket. My "casual" flying days involve strapping on a parachute, climbing into a far lighter, far more powerful airplane, and flying upside down and sideways for hours. When I'm not flying a Decathlon in real life, I'm practicing in one of the best simulators ever made: Flight Unlimited. While not a huge commercial success, it stills stands as the best aerobatic trainer ever made.

Then one Saturday afternoon, sitting on the couch, I have a seizure. In 45 seconds, I lose my license -- my ticket -- and I'll never get it back. The FAA has a zero tolerance policy on a few things, and a predisposition for unpredictable losses of consciousness is one of them.

Some month's later, medicated, stable, re-evaluating what all this means for my life, I look at the shelf above my desk, see my logbook, and start flipping through the pages, remembering, until I get to the end.

Date: 7/24/98
Aircraft: 8-KCAB Decathlon
Ident: N5061K
Route of Flight: BED-Local / Aerobatic Box 2 Ldg
Time: Single-Engine Land - Solo 1.5
Note: Review dutch/slow roll, loop, half I, invert stall, spin, hammerhead

I sit there staring at that last page. This is it. There will be no more lines scribbled, announcing my progress into twin engine planes, or my first aerobatic competition. In cold, black Sharpie, I add one more note, across the bottom of the page in straight, large capitals

I had no desire to ever fly a flight simulator again. I went so far as to uninstall Flight Unlimited from my computer. My anger at God overtook any pleasure I had in the recollections of flying. I sold everything I owned that made me a pilot.

In late 2003, half a decade later, this changed. Microsoft released Microsoft Flight Simulator: A Century of Flight, known colloquially as "FS9" for being the 9th release of the franchise. I bought it. I bought a yoke and rudder pedals. I bought a really good joystick and a throttle quadrant. I bought a better PC. I became a junkie.

------------

The current version of Flight Simulator: FS2004/Century of Flight/FS9 is insanely great, but it's not a game. You don't "play" flight simulator. You fly. Where you go, what you fly, how you get there, how real it is -- it's all up to you. What FS9 gives you is an engine. An engine that takes you somewhere.

Just as the Half Life series spawned a thousand mods, so has Flight Simulator. The difference is that the vast majority of good Flight Sim mods are commercial. Microsoft does something quite non-Microsoftian when it comes to the franchise; they actually encourage the users to make new stuff. They not only expose the programming interfaces, they provide you with the actual tools. Here in 2006, virtually every aspect of FS9 can be dramatically improved with third part products.

My current add-on tally -- software alone -- is $510, distributed between aircraft, gauges, terrain, and pure functional modifications. This doesn't include the hardware, or the hours upon hours of setup, tweaking, and performance tuning I've spent to get everything just right. I'm probably about average for folks you'd see hanging around the Flight Sim message boards. You can spend a LOT more than this.

Now consider the conundrum when a copy of Flight Simulator X drops on my desk last week. At first, I was as giddy as a schoolgirl. Me likey the shiny. I installed it, fired it up, and low and behold, I saw...

FS9.

There's very, very little that's different between FS9 and FSX. But there are improvements. They've implemented a mission system which solves the "well, what should I do in flight sim today" problem. While the previous version featured some very limited pre-planned flights, the new system allows for well scripted, goal oriented missions. The missions that ship are just OK, but the tool set it gives the Flight Sim community will indubitably yield some very cool stuff. The game also ships with multiplayer features and real-person air traffic control. While interesting, it already seems inferior to what the community developed on its own for FS9, and its success will be determined more by whether anyone shows up than the new features themselves.

Visually, the game does ratchet things up. The textures, scenery, etc. are all better, but they're still not as good as what I've bought in the after market. The airplane designs have improved, but again, they're nowhere near the level of those from third parties. The best feature will likely be the one we can't even demonstrate -- the Direct X 10 graphic engine. If you look at Microsoft's screen shots, you will see some very pretty pictures. I can make the sim look nearly like them on my machine.

It's very pretty. At 2 frames per second. DX10 will, supposedly, make scenes like this possible at playable frame rates.

If I sound down on the game I'm not. There is good news for the hard core simmer here, and it's how much Microsoft didn't change. FSX remains FS9 in all the good ways. Word from the developer community is that most products will be easy to transfer. Many of the third party assets, particularly the visual ones, merely require new installers and a few tweaks.

Microsoft will be criticized by many in the mainstream gaming press as charging full-product prices for what is truly just an upgrade (of course, a $40 upgrade to my $500 flight sim seems like a bargain). Still, FSX won't be my primary platform for myself, nor I suspect for most hard core simmers, until that other $500 worth of software is upgraded too. Next year, when I can get a new computer, and all my software is compatible, FSX will be the catalyst for a substantial reduction in my savings account. Flight Sim will be prettier, faster, and more real than ever. My guess is that the computer that can max out the graphics options hasn't even been built yet, and it won't be until 2008 when the engine runs out of tasks to throw at a hot new PC.

Which is precisely when Flight Sim 11 will come out.

Calling Flight Sim a $500 product may seem absurd. An outrageous commitment of capital to a single game. But I'd venture that I've put more hours on my rudder pedals than most Xbox owners have on their Xboxen. And when I fire up Flight Sim, turn off the lights, turn up the sound, pull out my maps and my checklist, I'm there. Seen from the outside, it's a poor simulacrum -- a kind of golem, strong, automatic, perpetually tasked to imitate, but never succeeding. But when it works, I recapture some small bit of something that was at one time so supremely important to me.

Comments

Fantastic article Rabbit. With the wife in school and me working at lowerish wage job with a fair amount of debt my dream of being a private pilot is probably still a ways away. I have been passing my time in IL2 sturmovik and Lock On instead. It sucks to hear that something that brought you such great pleasure was ripped away so quickly. Here's hoping you don't have to suffer through another seizure.

The demo ran like a dog on my high end system, sad really.

Good article.

Great article, Rabbit.

Great article Rabbit. Really makes me want to follow one of my desires of becoming a pilot, I just don't have the money right now. I really hope you never have another seizure.

The demo dogged more than this does, and the code isn't gold on these preview DVDs. The preview press kit specifically says they haven't done any vidcard optimization yet. From what I hear, the cold just went gold, and if I get a copy, I'll post thoughts here.

Cool, sounds good. The game appears to be visually stunning but I sure can't get it that way on my 7900GT.

I'm on a lowly 850XT PE, but the main issue with flightsim is almost always CPU. I can pop resolution and AA/AF up with a better card, but in general, scenery quality seems to be CPU limited more than I'd normally guess.

Flux, not running an AMD X2 by any chance, are you?

I've been getting more and more into flight simulators lately. I've always dabbled in Flight Sim before, but I really see the value of it as a training tool now that I'm working on my pilot's license. For those times when it's been a while between lessons and I need a refresher, it's good to fire up Flight Sim and go through manuevers and procedures. It's a great tool to learn about radio navigation and how VORs and NDBs work and how to navigate using those. It's also really good for practicing instrument flight. You can obscure the outside environment and work on just instruments.

It does have its limitations, such as you don't get the feedback from the controls, and you don't get to work on your radio calls (unless you're running with VATSIM), you don't experience thermals and weather in the same way, and landing is a completely different experience (I don't think I've ever bounced a place in flight sim, but I sure have IRL), but it is a good tool.

But I realize now that I'm lacking in hardware to do this the way I want. I need a proper yoke, rudder pedals, throttle quadrant, I'd really love a Track-IR. I need a better system so I can run the sim on a dual monitor setup.

rabbit, sounds like you mostly wanted the acrobatics side but if you just want to get in the air again there's ultralights. no pilot's license required.

How does it compare to the current version of X-plane? That seems to be the other sim out there that the flying community loves.

I run on two screens: the main screen I use for either virtual cockpit or just an unobstructed forward view, and a crappy screen on the right for gauges.

I agree that FS is a great training tool, but really for information management and cockpit awareness. 80% of instrument flying is getting your brain ahead of the plane, as my instructor used to say. For this, really good instruments and ATC are critical. Investing in Radar Contact and a good set of gauges from Reality-XP make the stock FS9 system seem like a child's toy.

Or VATSIM, but I find VATSIM hit or miss. I was unable to find anyone running ATC on the preview version -- it's possible it just isn't live yet, or that I'm an idiot and couldn't figure it out. I'm eager to see how it all pans out in release.

I can't say enough good things about my TrackIR. It's definitely odd to get used to but once you have adapted it is as vital as a good Joystick setup. I'm honestly looking forward to the prospect of independent head movement with it in FPS games. There is a preview of Armed Assault (The new game by the Operation Flashpoint guys) which shows independent head movement and leaning by tilting your head to the side. I can't wait

Flightgear prides itself on modeling some really exotic aircraft and a raft of end-user-created scenery and objects, so no commercial stuff there. Has any flight sim junkie here used it?

Your handwriting is a lot nicer than mine, Rabbit.

I am running Athlon 64 4000+. I chose not to go X2 because of issues with many of the games I run.

2 gigs of ram also. I guess you can say it runs fairly smooth but the textures look really bad compared to screenshots.

Just reading that preview gave me chills. The game is nice too, but wow sorry dude, makes me sad on the inside.

Markly wrote:

rabbit, sounds like you mostly wanted the acrobatics side but if you just want to get in the air again there's ultralights. no pilot's license required.

About 2 years ago, after we'd been living in the country for a bit and I'd gotten back into flightsim, I did a lot of looking at what I could, techincally, get away with doing in the air. I went so far as to get all of the detailed looksee stuff on Challenger ultralights. I came within a phone call or two of ordering the first bit - a tailsection to try the construction techniques on. At the end of the day though, I realized:

1: I'd end up plowing somewhere around $30,000, a year or two of evenings and weekends, then some non-insubstantial amount of money in storing the thing at a local field. And I still wouldn't be able to DRIVE to the damn field to fly it.

2: Whether I could do it legally or not, given that I still have the occasional seizure, it's just plain freakin' stupid for me to put myself 1000 feet in the air. I know well enough that 30 seconds of blackout could kill not only me but someone on the ground.

3: The three things I liked most about flying were:
a: Aerobatics
b: Instrument flying
c: Long distance (100+ mile) dashes off for hamburgers or weekends

A and B are essentially impossible in ultralights, and c is marginal at best, certainly with a passenger.

Hay Rabbit,

Excellent article but your flight history is a horrible tale. I could not imagine loosing something that dear. You mentioned Challenger Ultralights, that's what I first learned on! They were great and really fun. I mainly wanted to say that you can get a parachute for the actual plane http://www.brsparachutes.com/default.aspx, the plane I flew in had one. You could fire it off at any speed (in a challenger) and if you were above a couple hundred feet you would land softly. I don't know your situation and if this would even help but I just thought I would pass the info on to a fellow flight enthusiast.

Good luck and God Speed.

I've got the video from Challenger right here. I've always wanted the long wing 2 seat version. I can use the motor to get to altitude then turn it off and do some soaring.

Yeah, maybe someday. If I go seizure free for a bunch of years and my kids are out of the house. Of course, general aviation is a line item exclusion on my life insurance so there's that (grin). And alas, a triggered balistic parachute doesn't do ya much good if you're doing the floppy chicken in the pilot's seat.

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Is this the flight simulator x catch all?
I got a copy cheap and installed it. Actually ARMA 3 made me do it.

I wanted to fly the helos.
There are only two by default. I'm installing the acceleration addon that came with it.

Can anyone suggest good expansions or sources for more helos and missions?