For the Love of the Game

The creators weigh in on designing the world of virtual aviation.

[Courtesy: X-Plane]

At AirVenture 2001, Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002 premiered. The company had a large presence at the show—they had a kiosk in an exhibit hangar and had rented a large trailer with an awning where they set up computers so that members of the media could test-fly the game.

The audience for the virtual aviation experience—I hesitate to call it a ‘game,’ and more on that later—was both aviation enthusiasts and certified pilots, as MSFS 2002 had been developed to be “as realistic as possible.” I promptly tested this assertion by rolling a virtual Cessna 172 inverted and keeping it there. As the fuel tanks on the 172 are in the wings and the aircraft has a gravity-fed system, going upside down means the fuel doesn’t reach the engine. In real life, you expect it to stop—and quickly. I silently counted alligators as I held the aircraft inverted—there was the sputter and cough as the engine quit approximately 15 seconds into the maneuver.

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The MSFS representative looked awfully proud as he told me that the development team included pilots who took great pride in crafting this realistic virtual aviation experience.

Kit Warfield was one of these pilots. It is Kit’s voice you heard on your virtual check ride. Now a retired commercial seaplane pilot from the Seattle area, Warfield was the content lead on Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000, 2002, 2004, Flight Sim X, and all three versions of Combat Flight Simulator.

“The tagline at the time was ‘as real as it gets,’ and we took great pride in trying to replicate the aircraft aerodynamics, the weather, and the scenery and so forth,” she says. “To call it a game seemed to trivialize that, but officially and formally, the category that Microsoft Flight Simulator fits into is a game, as it is entertainment software.”

The Fun and Fantasy Factor

Simulation games allow you to fly anywhere in the world in a variety of airframes—from gliders to commercial jets—and you can do silly things that you would never, ever do IRL, such as landing a 172 on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

According to Warfield, the MSFS developers went looking for ‘fun’ approaches to build into the experiences.

One of these is the approach into Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport (VHHX), known as the Checkerboard Approach or Hong Kong Turn, created by a retired Northwest Airlines captain turned programmer who had flown the approach in real life. The approach put aircraft very close to high-rise buildings.

[Courtesy: Virtual Naval Air Operations]

“He knew the [Boeing ] 747, and he knew that approach, and he knew it in enough detail that he would take off and fly the Checkerboard Approach inverted,” says Warfield. “I’ve heard the airport is closed now, but from people who have been in there, I asked, ‘How close did they get to the buildings?’ And I was told, ‘You could see people cooking in their kitchens.’”

Go Anywhere

With aviation simulation, you can virtually fly an aircraft any place in the world—feeling homesick for NewYork? You can take off from LaGuardia. Have a hankering to fly up the Vegas strip at night? Or around the pyramids of Egypt? That can be done.

There are some areas where game designers won’t cross the line into absolute fantasy, says Warfield, “You’ll never be able to take your general aviation aircraft into space.” Also, there will be no dramatic and frighteningly realistic crashes in MSFS because, for all the attention paid to making sure the virtual aircraft fly as close to the real thing as possible, the developers have agreements with aircraft manufacturers if the virtual aircraft crashes, the simulation simply ends or the aircraft bounces back into the air.

Getting Started

There doesn’t have to be a steep learning curve with the games, says Michael E. Puochi, a game developer who has been tinkering in virtual aviation since 1987 when he played Maverick in Nintendo’s Entertainment Systems Top Gun. He’s also a student pilot IRL.“Most modern sims will let you fly in a few different modes from a ‘simple’ flight model that may have things like auto trim, auto rudder, self-righting, unlimited fuel, so the non-pilot can just experience flight with very little instruction or understanding of flight dynamics and basic pilot instruction. You can also go full realistic or ‘advanced’ where the aircraft will not fly itself and requires full input from the virtual pilot. The games are made to be accommodating to all skill levels.”

R22 Float Helicopter [Courtesy: X-Plane]

Puochi notes the sim creators use the pilot’s operating handbook for the aircraft and rely on the guidance of subject matter experts (SMEs) such as pilots, aircraft designers, and mechanics to get the most accurate information for the aircraft’s performance. They use laser scans of the cockpit and thousands of photos, videos, and recordings of various operating envelopes to get the virtual aircraft as close as they can to the real thing.

The Cost of the (Virtual) Cockpit

The price of virtual flight depends on how elaborate as setup the pilot wants. There are some who are content with a small control device and a laptop screen, while others will spend thousands of dollars on building a cockpit with rudder pedals, a yoke or stick, and even a VR panel.

“The more modern sims on the market you can spend upwards of thousands to tens of thousands of dollars. Some people have full motion flight platforms, scale pits that are fairly accurate to the actual aircraft in real life,” says Puochi.

The interest can start young.

“About one-third of my students have a flight simulation set-up at home,” says Robert Prosch, aeronautical lead instructor at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. The museum offers a Pathway Program for highschool students, several who developed their interest in aviation through games. The Pathway program uses light simulation to reinforce classroom concepts, such as basic flight and aircraft handling and instrument interpretation, and helps students develop hand-eye coordination and aviation communication skills.

Prosch and his students assert that middle school is a good age for students to be exposed to flight sims, as this is the time in their life when they develop interests in things that often carry into adulthood.

“Start out with simple ‘sandbox’ type games, many of which are free or relatively inexpensive,” suggests Prosch.

Top Gun for Fun

Would you like to be a Top Gun? There are virtual scenarios where each player is part of a squadron. Puochi, call sign ‘Puffin,’ is a regular participant in Virtual Naval Air Operations (VNAO), which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year.

According to Puochi, the premise of the group is emulating procedures used by the U.S.Navy, which means using the same methods as Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization. Participants become members of a squadron.

The group includes formally-trained military and civilian pilots who impart their extensive training and wealth of knowledge to the participants who are looking to learn as much as they can from the mentorships. The virtual pilots learn how to fly in formation, do inflight refueling, navigate, and practice launch and recovery off a virtual aircraft carrier.

“Taxi instructions, launch orders, and handoffs are done to the best of the ability of those involved in as realistic fashion as possible,” says Puochi, who also has logged several hours as a private pilot candidate. “The mission commences, and then the recovery phase proceeds, probably one of the most fun parts because we have trained live LSOs (landing signal officers) in the sim on the LSO platform waving in recovering aircraft. It’s really stressful and very fun at the same time, especially when you snag that third wire.”

It can get complicated quickly, says Puochi, as the mission requirements of a multiplayer game often do. The virtual pilots need to understand procedures and their role in the mission. The pilots choose their own level of training and involvement, says Puochi, “from the casual pilot that just wants to know what it is like to do recovery and launch operations aboard the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers, to the extreme enthusiast that wants to learn everything about how to fly and strategically use these study-level aircraft.”

SIMS as an Aviation Gateway

At CalPoly Humboldt in Arcata, California, a homebuilt simulator is a favorite of library patrons. Humboldt is the northernmost campus in the state university system, located on the rugged north coast.

In 2019 the PC gaming club built and installed the simulator, which consists of a non-moving platform, a gaming chair, and a console with toggle and rocker switches and appropriately colored knobs for throttle, propeller, and mixture. The aviation club took over operation of the simulator in 2022.

The simulator runs X-Plane. The sky and airplane are projected on a curved wall of video screens. The instrument panel is digital and correct. When the simulator was built, professor David Marshall, who holds both remote pilot (drone) and private pilot certificates, was the advisor to the club. Today, the aviation club, also advised by Marshall, takes care of and oversees the simulator, which is located on the second floor of the library in the area designated for collaboration. The space has whiteboards, desks, a VR setup, and a classroom-sized manual E6B.

Because the simulator is out in the open, posters are mounted over the screens providing instructions for its use.

At this time, the university doesn’t have an aviation program per se, but the simulator is proving to be popular with students looking for a way to have some fun and explore aviation without making a big investment of time or money. They are learning that flight sims can be just as enjoyable as flying IRL, and as it is much less expensive, is an activity in reach of many.

This article was originally published in the April 2023, Issue 936 of  FLYING.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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