For some years now, companies like Elite and Jeppesen have sold software that can power PC training devices on which students can actually log training time. Microsoft has sold a similar product for entertainment purposes. Well, look out Elite; watch it Jeppesen. Microsoft has upped its game with the issuance of the 2002 version of MSFS 2002 PE -- and sells it for around $70. Rob Guglielmetti takes it for a test flight in this product review.
[Click any photo for a larger image.]
the box it says the product is "as real as it gets." As a licensed pilot, I know that if you want real, you go rent a real
plane, launch into real air, and pay a real bill when you turn in the keys.
(Aircraft owners pay later, but pay more.)
But "as real as it gets" has been Microsoft's tag line on the
software box of their Flight Simulator product for many years. December of
2001 brought a new son to the Microsoft Flight Simulator lineage, and I bought
it the day it came out. I wanted to see how close to the ideal Microsoft had
come this time. Was the new one as real as it gets? I knew it couldn't be
true, since the whole thing fit in a box and only cost about seventy dollars.
I can't even rent a real 172R for an hour for seventy dollars, and a
four-place single-engine aircraft does not fit neatly on a software store
shelf. I knew the software would not live up to its lofty subtitle, but I was
looking forward to exploring the newest baby-step in that direction. As a
computer professional -- and as licensed private pilot -- I have a keen interest
in flight simulators. I'm interested in the ability of the latest computer
technology to simulate reality, but I'm most interested in how well the
simulated flight experience emulates the cockpit of a real plane.
I've had a rather healthy addiction to using flight simulators ("simming,"
as it's known in the flight sim community) for quite some time. I was hooked
on them from the first takeoff -- not unlike my addiction to real flying, which
happened several years later. The first time I witnessed a flight sim in
action I was squinting at the tiny built-in display on an Apple Mac Classic.
The runway was represented by a handful of black pixels and the instrument
needles resembled staircases whenever they wandered from perfect right angles
-- victims of low-resolution "jaggies." But as that handful of pixels
representing the runway fell away and my chair took flight, I was hooked.
In the ensuing years, flight sims evolved and took advantage of the
ever-increasing computing power that was becoming readily available. Flight
Simulator 95 was a watershed release for me. Playing --er -- using that sim was
the first time I really felt like I was "flying." It was also during
the reign of "FS95" that I began flight training for real, in a real
C152, at a real airport, with real sensations. Oddly enough, some of the
sights and sounds were not totally foreign. I had "been there"
before. Flight simming had given me a head start on the glorious pursuit of a
pilot private certificate.
OK, what do you say we shoot an approach?
I want to stress again that I'm a
non-instrument-rated pilot. I'm just interested in the goings on up there in
the clouds. But I'm Interested enough to have waded through most of Jeppesen's
"Instrument/Commercial" text, and I have old Jepp and NOS approach
plates strewn all over my computer desk. When I knew the basics, I became
curious enough to try some basic approaches in the sim. That's the perspective
I have, and the one from which I'm reviewing this software. Your mileage may
Since I have lots of charts and plates for
the New York area, I'll move the plane over there. The RWY6 ILS to TEB is on
top of the pile here, so let's set up for that approach. Switching to the map
view, we can drag the airplane to any spot on this rock.
See all those magenta dots? Those are
airports. Airports that you can actually land at in this program, using
whatever navaid facilities are available at that airport. And this is just
North America. The entire world is in there, hence the need for
gigastorage if you want to install the whole shooting match to your hard
Zooming in to my stomping grounds, I can
easily see airports, VORs, NDBs, localizers, intersections, airways -- you name
it. It's easy to set yourself in position, either at an airport, or even in
the air positioned for an instrument approach. Any scenario can then be saved
for easy recall later on. This is great for those crosswind landing practice
sessions too. When the plane is wrinkled into a ball in the weeds, you can
easily reset to short final for another go at things.
Zooming in, I dragged my plane to a
convenient spot for localizer intercept at TEB, put it on proper heading,
altitude, and speed, as if I had been handed off from approach control.
Here's my view out the window, and above
we see the view to the right (southeast). That's EWR in the distance.
But this is supposed to be an IFR approach,
so let's take a look at the weather.
...but it's cloudy...
These screens show how much flexibility
you have over setting up weather scenarios. You can control the cloud
cover/density/type, precip, visibility, ceilings and winds. You can throw
in a deviation factor, so that, even though you set the ceilings, you can't
be assured of seeing the runway at DH. I have set the base of the cloud deck
at 220', which is decision height for this approach. But the deviation
factor of 50' means that the ceiling could be as much as 50' lower than
that -- or higher, or right where it was "reported to be." Good
practice! Switching back to the cockpit, we see that we are most
definitely in IMC:
A little later I'm (momentarily)
stabilized, flying through rain, over the marker.
No sign of runway environment yet.
OK, there goes DH, still no runway.
Going missed, I guess wait, what's that?
The runway threshold reveals itself (and
not much else; the visibility is three quarters of a mile) and I make an
uneventful landing. What a great flight. I'm a great pilot. I can fly in
IMC like Ernie Gann, and I do it solo. I rule.
Ahhh ha! Here is where the consumer sims
separate themselves from the truly serious simulators. I have no formal
training in instrument approach procedures, and cheated several times during
this approach. Look at my rate of descent and altitude in the
"breakout." I'm a hundred feet below DH, and dropping like a stone
trying to find the runway. Antics like these are allowed because there's no
one around to tell me otherwise. I'm sure some bad habits are developing that
will have to be unlearned when I begin real instrument training someday. This
is an area where flight discipline needs to enter the picture if you expect to
get any real benefit out of the simulated flight experience. There's something
to be said for putting yourself into really, really bad situations, to see if
you can extract yourself from them. Heck, that's Flight Safety's bread and
butter. But a loose cannon like myself can really ingrain some bad habits
quickly if not careful, doing the same thing on these sims.
One way to keep the ego in check is to play
back the approach, something that Elite used to be able to brag about but now
MSFS2k2 has as well:
Here is my very non-Gann-like approach
to TEBs RWY06, illustrated in plan and profile view. You can actually play
it like a VCR tape, and watch not only how well you held the needles, but
also your airspeed. It's a wonderful learning tool. Sorry, my holding
pattern videos are more closely guarded than the Zapruder film. I will not
share them here.
Years later -- today -- I have my private pilot certificate. My pilot career
is not the stuff Tom Wolfe was writing about. I have endured one biennial, obtained a taildragger endorsement, and flown about a half-dozen variants of two- and four-place single-engine-land aircraft. My logbook is bursting at the
seams trying to contain all of my 147 hours. I have the minimum hood time
required for the private certificate, although I want to obtain the instrument rating someday,
and have already read several books on the topic. I have flown all over the
New York metropolitan area, landing at most of the airports here. My wife and
I have gone on short daytrips to exotic places like Block Island, R.I., 120NM
away. I never fly at night. I often go long stretches between flying, and the
next time I have a rental on a VFR day the crosswinds are howling across the
skinny runway at my home base. I have been known to have difficulty with VFR
pilotage, especially in unfamiliar areas.
In short, I could still use a lot of practice with this flying business.
Meanwhile, flight simulators, and the computer hardware they run on, have
advanced by leaps and bounds. If my flying experience, skills and ratings
had advanced as quickly in the last four years as simulators have, I'd be
scheduled as Commander for the next shuttle launch. The power of the modern PC
has -- to use a word the computer industry is so fond of these days -- been
leveraged to bring us an incredibly deep simulated flying experience, right in
our living rooms, for the cost of an hour of flight time in a ratty 172. The
emphasis on aircraft flight characteristics, realistic instrument panels,
accurate terrain features and weather modeling, really shows in the latest
Flight simulation can also be very serious, very big, business. Places like
Flight Safety & Simcom have megabuck full-motion simulators that are so
adept at simulating reality that the FAA will allow you to log time --
including landings -- in them. I cherish the hour or so of time I have driving
a Falcon 50 with my flight instructor in a Level-D simulator (a present for
finally passing my private checkride), so I know what I'm missing when I sit
at my PC and fly a consumer sim.
Do these consumer sims like Microsoft Flight Simulator have something to
offer the "real" pilot? I believe they do. My opinion on matters of
flight training may not hold a lot of weight, but as a fair-weather, low-time
pilot, I believe I have the most to gain from simming, and I am here to tell
you that there is some benefit to using these "consumer,"
"entertainment" flight simulators in a serious manner.
First off, it's important to note that Microsoft is not the only game in
town when it comes to flight simulators. There are a lot of them out there;
many are combat-related, or arcade-style shoot-em-ups. Of the
"serious" sims, that is sims that are dedicated to GA aircraft, you
have Flight Simulator, X-plane, Flight Unlimited, and Fly. I have used all of
these sims at one stage or another and believe that the Microsoft Flight
Simulator offering is the best of the lot. X-plane is interesting in that its
flight modeling is second-to-none, and the cloud rendering is the best
of this class of sims. This is a real plus when shooting low IFR approaches;
the ragged bases of a scuzzy overcast are really well-done in X-plane. I also
mention this product because the Mac users out there do not have MSFS 2002 as
an option. The new version of X-plane, due in early February, boasts native OS
X support (and will be on my G4 Powerbook as soon as practical).
Of course we can't leave out Elite, the simulator most instrument students
have grown to hate at Part 61 and 141 schools all over the land. Most
instrument rating syllabi include a few hours of sim time learning the basics
of attitude flying, holds, and approaches on a lower-cost airplane. This
"airplane" takes the form of a PC & monitor running Elite
software, with FAA-approved controls and your friendly CFII sitting at a
workstation, throwing vacuum failures and below-minimums weather your way.
That this has become the standard intro to IFR flying in our flight schools
should lend credence to the idea that a personal computer can be used for
The drawback to Elite was always cost. Elite has recently released a new
consumer-targeted version of Elite, which costs $200.00. This may be some
competition for the other serious sims, but I have no experience with that
Despite what you may think of Bill Gates, if you own a new PC and you want
to give serious simming a go, you should buy the newest offering
from Microsoft. It has the best combination of features for the
money in the consumer simulator market. Flight Simulator 2002 (MSFS2k2) comes
in two flavors, a Standard Edition and a Professional Edition. The Pro version
will set you back an extra twenty bucks, and it's worth it. For the
extra dough you get more planes, a scenery modeler, and an aircraft
performance editor. A full comparison of the features of both versions can be
found at Microsoft's website.
System requirements, as printed on the box, are the usual humorous reading
to anyone used to these antics from Redmond. The word "minimum"
seems to mean the minimum to get the program to load. If you want to actually
USE the software, you'd better plan on feeding MSFS2k2 a lot more. My test system is a 1.2 GHz Athlon with 512MB of
RAM and a 64MB Nvidia GeForceII MX video card. This is the first time I've
loaded the latest Flight Simulator and been able to turn up all the display
quality settings to eleven and still get usable performance. Surely you can
run MSFS2k2 on a lot less, but I'd set the true minimum system somewhere in
between what I'm running and what Microsoft recommends (300MHz Pentium, 64MB
RAM, 8MB video card). If I had to guess, a 500MHz Pentium with 256MB RAM and a
32MB video card would be a good average setup.
As for disk space, set aside 2GB for a full install to disk. Yes, giga.
It's a lot of space, but then Microsoft has upped the airport count to 21,000,
and the aircraft list has grown longer too:
New Aircraft In FS 2002 Professional Edition:
· Cessna 208 Caravan on Amphibious Floats
· Cessna 208 Grand Caravan
· Boeing 747-400
· Cessna 172S Skyhawk SP
· Raytheon BE58 Baron
Favorites from Previous Versions:
· Boeing 777-300
· Boeing 737-400
· Raytheon/Beech King Air 350
· Mooney Bravo
· Cessna 182S Skylane
· Bell 206B JetRanger III helicopter
· Learjet 45 business jet
· Cessna Skylane RG
· Extra 300S
· Sopwith Camel
· Schweizer 2-32 sailplane
So, have a fast PC with a good video card, lots or memory, and a big hard
disk. Buy MSFS2k2 and load it up. Then join me at the departure end of 36 at
Way back in the days of Flight Simulator version 1.0, Chicago's Meigs
Airport was the only airport in the sim. I suppose in the interest of
tradition, the latest version of Flight Simulator still places your aircraft at
the departure end of Meigs' RWY36 by default, even though there are 20,999 other
airports from which you can launch. As a result of spending
so much virtual time around the Chicago lakefront, many a pilot (including
this one) has paid the $15.00 landing fee at Meigs just to finally do it for
real. But that's another story.
Here we see the view north along Chicago's lakefront, and an attempt at
cramming all the useful stuff from a Cessna 172SP panel into the space of a
monitor. You will notice the lack of a radio stack. This is typical in a
"VFR" panel, where a full window view takes precedence over having
every knob in easy reach. Anything you don't see here is accessible via the
keyboard, or popup windows that show the stack, and, in larger aircraft, the
throttle quadrant, overhead panels, etc.
For serious IFR practice, Microsoft has added a few panels that resemble
the layout of the Elite sim. Now you can select a Mooney, 172 or 182S where
the view out the window is reduced to a very small percentage of the upper
edge, allowing for enough room to throw every switch out there in the open.
Keepin' it real
OK, so we hit "go" and the engine is running, and I'm sitting on
the active runway at a towered airport?!!?? I admit this is not very
realistic. What's even less realistic are the default "realism
settings" that Microsoft programmed in to the sim. The first stop for any
serious pilot needs to be the realism settings dialog, found in the aircraft
Here is what that dialog should look like if you expect to get any real
training benefit out of the sim. Here is where you tell Flight Simulator that
yes, you know that gyros drift and need to occasionally be reset (and you'd
better do it while straight & level & unaccelerated, or your compass will be giving you false
info -- just like the real thing). You understand that yanking
the stick back to the stop while in the yellow arc is ill-advised, fuel
is a finite resource, hitting other planes is expensive, P-factor is
a real force that WILL veer your plane into the weeds if left unchecked, and, yes, those pedals on the floor are supposed to be doing something when
in a steep turn.
Speaking of which, I should mention that you will need either rudder pedals
or a joystick with a twist-grip, so that the rudder can be used like it's
supposed to be, de-coupled from the ailerons (which is the default behavior).
They call it "auto-rudder," and it's there because most people don't
have rudder controls on their PCs, nor do they understand P-factor or the
concept of coordinated flight. If you want to use the sim seriously, get a
rudder controller -- seriously. Then you can practice crosswind landings,
forward slips (fun!) and even try your hand at spins. Auto-rudder ... if only
there were Auto-soft field landing -- now THAT would have been handy on my PPL checkride!
OK, having set all that, we can play
-- er, experiment with some of the other
niceties in the sim. During many, many hours of "flying" this thing,
I have made all kinds of interesting discoveries. Little things, that all add
up to a very rich and realistic, fake flying experience. Turning into the sun
causes the display to wash out, as if I had left my sunglasses in the pocket
of my jacket. Leaning the mixture causes an increase in EGT; you can actually
lean per the book. Nav and Com frequencies are for the most part correct. Pull out a chart or an approach plate, and you can actually use them to
navigate in the simulated world. The navaids broadcast their identifiers
(though I cannot get the Yankee game on the ADF). Switching to an exterior
"chase plane" view we can see the ground features accurately
reflected in the polished aluminum spinner on the Baron, and the sun even
glints off the windows of my 172 if I bank it just right. Stuff like that
seems trivial, but those are the kinds of things that add up. Those little things
you barely notice all add to the illusion of reality.
What about VFR?
Most people associate sims with IFR practice, but thanks to the voluminous
hard drive space and memory footprints of the typical home PC, Flight
Simulator is now able to render the virtual flying world with impressive
clarity. Armed with a sectional, it's conceivable that you could fly an entire
practice cross-country, using pilotage. There are enough prominent landmarks
to be able to match up major chart features with what you see in the sim.
Large lighted towers and water features in particular are rendered with
astonishing accuracy. Major highways too. Since winds aloft are accurately
simulated, you can really test your dead reckoning skills. And since the DG
precesses, you can simulate getting lost by following the incorrect feedback
the DG is giving you when you forget to realign your DG with the magnetic compass.
Visibility can be dialed down to three miles, and you can put yourself into an
unfamiliar area, turn up the turbulence, turn off the VORs and try and find
your way to that airport you "had to get to today." A lot of the
basic skills needed to complete your student pilot cross-countries can be practiced in
Where is everybody?
In previous versions, the world of Microsoft Flight Simulator seemed
post-apocalyptic. There was no one around, and no one to talk to. Flying
around at Teterboro or O'Hare you could buzz the tower and not expect to catch
any flack over the radio, or run into any other airplanes. It was pretty fake.
With this new version, there is an "AI" traffic & ATC engine,
intelligently adding traffic -- in the correct density -- at area airports. And
for the first time, there are controllers to talk to.
This screen shows an ATIS report crawling across the top of the screen.
This same report is being broadcast through the cabin loudspeaker (you can turn
off the scrolling text if you wish). The ATIS was present in prior releases,
but once you had "the numbers" you were pretty much on your own
after that. It was up to you to sequence and fly an approach, whether you were
approaching a grass strip or Newark International. With this new version, a press of the "~" key brings up the ATC
menu, arranged with logical choices for your present location and situation.
Here you can see the ATC window (overlaid semi-transparently over the main
screen). I have selected "contact Teterboro tower" from the options,
and you can see my call-up is being made. Here again is an area of required
discipline. The sim makes the position report and formulates the call-up. I
like to play along and think what I would be saying if I were in my real
airplane while the computer does its thing. You know, "Uh, Cald... --
correction -- Teterboro tower, uh, Cess, uh Cessna niner niner echo mike, uh,
uh, six miles, uh north I mean, correction, south uh west, landing.
Oh-(squeal)-pha." (pause) "Uh echo mike has information alpha."
Anyway, after calling up TEB, they asked me to fly a right downwind for
RWY19, which made perfect sense given my position and the current winds. After
turning base I was cleared for landing, and shortly after that a Mooney
called, in position for takeoff on RWY19.
The tower told him to hold short, even told him why
-- "traffic is a
Cessna on base." That's me!
The white speck you see to the right of the runway is the Mooney. There was
already a Cessna behind him by the time I rolled onto the runway -- the
traffic load at this typically bustling airport is accurately depicted. As soon
as I was clear of the active, I heard the tower clear the Mooney for takeoff.
I was then instructed to change to ground, the controller giving me the
correct frequency (as published in the current AFD).
You can ask for progressive taxi instructions, or you can ask to taxi to
parking or simply back for another takeoff. Back in the air, contacting New
York Approach takes a while, because the controller is barking instructions to
several planes at the same time. And yes, if you try to transmit while someone
else is speaking, you will step on them. There is a squeal and everything.
That's not to say this new ATC is not without flaws. Sometimes, you get
vectored all over hill and dale in seemingly inane ways before getting steered
to a sensible approach. Another limitation is that none of the virtual
controllers can vector you for a published IAP. They always just give you
vectors to final which is annoying if you want to try some VOR-A approach to a little
airport to practice holds. To practice those scenarios you have to do them the
old-fashioned way, and that means by not using the built-in ATC.
Not bad for a first try, but the ATC chatter is more of a novelty than anything, since
the times when you need ATC -- usually IFR -- are the times when it is the
least realistic. But I'd say it's a good start, and fun to try once in a while,
flying VFR. Call up for flight following on your next X-C.
I have but scratched the surface of what is buried in this sim, but I
wanted to give you a sense of some of the basic things you can do with it, to
further explore this thing we love to do, without actually leaving the
ground. Some of the other niceties include:
Runway lighting -- the lighting is very accurately modeled. That is to say,
if you head in to Newark, you get the whole light show, with rabbit lights,
touchdown zone lighting, the works. The centerline lights change color as you
approach the runway end too. If you fly to a smaller airport, it will be less
equipped. So far the places I've flown to have had lighting that matches what
the AFD says it will have. It's really quite impressive! The beacon even comes on
during the day when it's IFR!
Big iron -- when you're ready, you can give corporate flying or heavy iron a
go. There is a 747-400 and a King Air, for example, to try higher altitude
flying and a fist-full of go levers.
all the instruments can be failed, and you can set them to have
a reliability factor to almost ensure a snafu-free flight, or simulate a
typical rental. This is some spectacular practice, because, for example, if the
vacuum pump fails on the 172, the AI slowly rolls over and dies, instead of
the black disk attaching itself to the instrument face followed by a "you
just lost your vacuum pump" statement from your CFII. It's interesting
the first time you try it. Of course, while the death of an AI may be more
realistic in Flight Simulator than simulating it in a real airplane, the leans
and vertigo simply do not happen while planted in your desk chair. Flight
simulation, especially at this level, is a compromise.
Views -- cramming the oft-spectacular vistas we pilots get to experience
into a two-dimensional monitor display, and allowing for a rapid shift in view
direction, has always been a challenge. This latest version of Flight
Simulator includes an improvement on a feature introduced in the previous
version. The "Virtual Cockpit view" allows for a 360-degree
panoramic view of the cockpit and the exterior, and -- an improvement from the
previous version -- all the primary instruments still function and update. This
is a great asset when flying in the pattern. You can pan until the view is
just right for coordinating that turn from base to final, and keep an eye on
the ASI while you're doing it. The screenshots from the previous section
(flying the VFR pattern at TEB) show this Virtual Cockpit view in action.
Weather Download -- Flight Simulator can automatically download the current
weather for you from the internet, and set the conditions for you
automatically in the sim. Alas, it's a one-shot deal, so if you want to fly a
great distance and want the weather to update, you will have to download it
Building a better Flight Sim
A review of Flight Simulator would not be complete without a mention of the
incredible third-party support network that exists to support this program.
There are an unbelievable number of accessory programs, detailed scenery, and
additional aircraft and panels available on the internet. Many of them are
free of charge, and approach or surpass the quality of the commercial
products. Regardless of which way you go, the freeware route of the payware
route, many of these programs will turn an already great simulator into an
almost-believable flight experience -- even for us pilots.
A program called fsmeteo
will remain connected to
the internet and automatically download & update the simulator's weather
to what the currently reported weather is as you fly along. This really
enhances the cross-country experience.
The number of add-on planes and panels is unbelievable. MSFS2k2 is still
a relatively new product, but there are already hundreds of planes and panels
available at the flight simulation enthusiast websites. My personal favorite
is Avsim, which has a searchable file library of all the
add-on goodies available. Looking back to the previous version of Flight
Simulator, you will find thousands of add-on planes and panels. These planes
can be loaded and flown in MSFS2k2 as well. There's even a very detailed J-3
There is an entire network of "virtual airlines," a community of
simulation enthusiasts -- both flyers and air traffic controllers -- that have
formed a make-believe airline industry that is all too real. They have
checkrides and route bids, weather delays and ornery controllers. Have a
look at the "VA Forum" on Avsim for more info.
A program called Radar Contact
looks like a strong
attempt to cure the ills of the somewhat artificial ATC in Flight Simulator.
Written in part by an air traffic controller at the Memphis ARTCC, this is an
"adventure generator" for MSFS2k2. Basically what this does is take
a flight plan you create, and it scripts the ATC experience into the sim for
you. But it does so in a way that is realistic, in adherence with FAA
procedures, and it will grade you at the end of the flight based on how well
you held to the expectations of a real air traffic controller. Things like how
well you held to assigned altitudes and airspeeds, how often you need
clearances repeated, etc..., all factor in to the "grading." If you
want to really drill yourself in the system, this looks like a good add-on for
Go Get It
Computers have come a long way from the days of the dual floppy drive. So
have flight simulators. So have airplanes. So has flight training. In short,
if you have a fairly recent PC, and you are a pilot, you owe it to yourself to
pick up the newest version of Microsoft's Flight Simulator, 2002. You can practice certain things in this sim that will make you a better pilot
in your real plane, and do it in the comfort of your own home. There is still
room for improvement, but I don't see myself fitting my computer desk with
hydraulic struts to emulate a Level-D sim anytime soon. For the price of an hour of 172 time,
this one is well worth it.
is a confessed "low-time" private pilot, interested in anything with wings, among other
things. He hopes to obtain his instrument rating someday, but is currently
having too much fun flying taildraggers to don the foggles for any length of
time. He flies Cessna 172s, Piper Archers and now, proudly, has a collection
of J3C-65 entries and a tailwheel endorsement in his logbook, not to mention
untold hours of unlogged screen time.