Been There, Done That

Aviation gaming simulation offers familiar views that rival the real thing.

The fidelity of aviation gaming simulation allows the comparison of sim vs. real life, and the gap of realism is closer than ever. [Credit: Shutterstock]

“Been there, done that.” It's an old adage that seems every pilot says at some time in their career, to the younger newbie just starting out. I used to hate that expression. Now, I use it much to my chagrin. 

In my early 20s, I started my first real flying jobs, first as a CFII, then a fledgling “corporate pilot” flying an advanced T-Tail Piper Arrow. To me, with its big tail, the Arrow was an airliner. It looked like a McDonnell Douglas MD-80 or Boeing 727, I thought. Some 30 years later, I’ve now gone full circle having flown almost 11,000 hours with some 7,000 of those hours in business jets. 

Recently I got checked out in a club’s Piper Archer II. It’s just like the one in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, also known as FS2020. Or, I should say, FS2020 is a lot like the real aircraft. 

The fidelity of sims allows me to compare sim vs. real life, and the gap of realism is closer than ever, with some of the photos I see on the internet fooling me into thinking they’re real. I wanted to share my personal sim vs. reality pics with you. But let’s take a look at the first part of this “Been There, Done That” series together.

The real club aircraft I used to fly recently. A well-maintained Archer II with some modern upgrades. [Courtesy: Peter James]
The Carenado add-on Archer II is a faithful representation of the real thing, as this image may have you doing a double-take as it's so photorealistic. It’s available via the Flightsim marketplace within MSFS itself. [Courtesy: Peter James]
The real Archer II I had flown recently, with proper viewing perspective. [Courtesy: Peter James]
The Carenado sim add-on Archer II with a classic panel. [Courtesy: Peter James]

The Carenado sim add-on Archer II with a classic panel offers the same pilot's-eye perspective at proper viewing height. This is extremely important in any flight sim, as you must position the seat at the exact correct angle and height to get the best visual sense to make proper takeoffs and landings. This is just like real life, where you must do the same, but for some reason, most “default” viewpoints in the flight sims I have seen have this far too low, as if being seen from the eyes of a toddler in the seat.

MSFS Garmin GPS panel. [Courtesy: Peter James]

I have learned how to use the real-life Garmin GPS panel based on what I see in the sim here. When flying the real plane for the first time, I felt right at home learning on the go. A real "been there, done that" feeling.

[Courtesy: Peter James]

Early on in my career as a new jet pilot, first type rating class for a Beechjet 400A, I was faced with the flight management system (FMS). The instructors at CAE were amazed at my ability to program and execute anything on the “box,” as normally, new jet pilots must take an extra five-day course on this machine. They couldn’t believe someone who had never flown jets could use the FMS so quickly, and when they asked me where I learned all this, they were stunned. They couldn’t believe any Microsoft Flight Simulator “game” could produce this much accuracy. I proved them wrong. 

The finest Collins FMS representation for 20 years or more has been on the PMDG 737 series, often known as the finest jetliner add-on ever produced year after year for the MS series. It is identical to most business jet FMS units in service today and was most beneficial in my first type rating Class. A. 

MSFS balcony view in Sedona, Arizona. [Courtesy: Peter James]

I recently visited my sister in Arizona and we took a trip to Sedona. The spectacular scenery was showcased all around us. Equally impressive is the scenery in the new MSFS. While not totally photorealistic, it sure beats any FAA level D that I have used. So I decided to find our exact Sedona hotel view, and replicate it in the flight sim. This is my balcony view in MSFS which took quite a while to find by Bell 407. 

My real hotel balcony view I used to stage the sim screenshot. [Courtesy: Peter James]
Photo taken in Zermatt, Switzerland. [Courtesy: Peter James]

Years ago I took a trip to Europe in one of the Challenger 300s I flew, where I got to go to the most beautiful place I have ever been on earth—Zermatt, Switzerland, home of the Matterhorn. This is me standing on a glorious May afternoon at about the 11,000-foot level. 

Sim image of the Matterhorn. [Courtesy: Peter James]

In the sim, I risked it all to land a Bell 407 in the exact general area in MSFS, using the same time of day, date, etc. I had to manually play with the snow depth adjustments to better tweak the visuals to match the photos. 

The real Gornergrat Observatory. [Courtesy: Peter James]

The real Gornergrat Observatory is perched high on a mountain at 10,200 feet, complete with a train line. It is a hotspot for skiers year-round, and is a luxury hotel as well. 

I safely made the landing despite the thin air, which is quite noticeable in the sim. [Courtesy: Peter James]
A real photo of a mile final arriving at Lihue, Hawaii. [Courtesy: Peter James]

Two years ago, I was in command of my first-ever Pacific Ocean crossing to Lihue, Hawaii (PHIL). The 5.5-hour flight was non-stop from Oakland International Airport (KOAK) to PHIL, arriving on a glorious July afternoon. 

A sim view of the same approach at PHIL. [Courtesy: Peter James]

The MSFS2020 view is at the same place and about the same distance, at the time of day, reflecting the same weather. The only corporate jet by default that we can use in MSFS is the Citation Longitude, it’s quite similar to the Falcon 2000s and Challenger 300s that I have flown in its performance and range. 

A photo in the valley in Jackson Hole, Wyoming on a glorious winter’s day. [Courtesy: Peter James]
A sim view of the same Jackson Hole, Wyoming location. [Courtesy: Peter James]

Here is the same location in the sim. Not quite as photorealistic as some areas, but the terrain and placement of the lakes are perfect. Flying this close to those sawtoothed peaks ought to be rough, but surprisingly in all my years operating in and out of this place, I have yet to experience any shear, turbulence, or mountain rotor activity. The reason for this is when operating in the Rockies, we tend to only go in or out during good weather. I have not been there when it’s too windy. Perhaps a good thing to try in the sim for a future piece. 

A real Boeing Business Jet 2. [Courtesy: Peter James]

I love simulating the ultimate private airliners, especially the Boeing Business Jet (BBJ) series. Nobody has produced a better BBJ than PMDG Simulations. PMDG has made the 737 series for more than 20 years and is heralded as the finest replication of a 737NG on the computer platform with much attention and approvals from Boeing. I was shocked when I saw the real BBJ2 (737-800 series) in the exact livery of the one on the sim I love in Van Nuys Airport (KVNY). 

The exact BBJ2 in the sim, placed in approximately the same location and time of day with the same weather to show the comparison. [Courtesy: Peter James]
The realism of this aircraft in the sim is stunning. This image shows a landing at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, California (KBUR) that is exactly like the real thing, which I have done. [Courtesy: Peter James]
Flight sim set. [Courtesy: Peter James]

Up until now, all my sim flying has been done primarily while traveling, in a hotel using a great portable joystick, and throttle quadrant. But in a moment of “hold the press” excitement, I just got my first ever professional grade yoke, throttle quadrant, and rudder pedals. I am blown away by the quality and workmanship of these units. I have never felt such realism and precision until now. 

[Screenshot/ Sporty's Pilot Shop]

I would highly recommend getting this pack as I did from the great Sporty’s Pilot Shop for about $600, which by itself is an amazing deal on the three components of any home cockpit. Once you make this investment, for the cost of about three flying lessons, you’ll get years of realism and fun out of them. The build quality is the best I’ve come across without cannibalizing a real aircraft. 

Peter James
Peter JamesContributor
Peter is an experienced Part 135 business jet pilot with a passion for simulators and how they blend with the real world. Learning to fly at age 12, he supplemented his passion and career goals with the early versions of Microsoft Flight Simulator. With the growing realism of all PC simulators today, he frequently uses them for extra proficiency, and loves to show other pilots how great they are.

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