Simulated Flight in Real, Uninterrupted Time

Microsoft Flight Simulator offers the experience of navigating live weather while flying to far-flung destinations.

Microsoft Flight Simulator offers the experience of navigating live weather while flying to far-flung destinations. [Image courtesy: Peter James]

Recently I took a real-time trip in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 (MSFS 2020) over multiple days, from the contiguous U.S. to far western Alaska—a place I would love to see in real life, and certainly a popular place for aviation in general. Although frequently associated with horrendous weather, Alaska is a place that’s probably not often seen except in the last few seconds at minimums and below, or on the TV show, “The Deadliest Catch.” 

My weather was live and real-time as usual, and I was greeted by ceiling and visibility unlimited (CAVU) the day I started this trip. Once there, I marveled at the incredible scenery and beauty of it all, with lots of snowy landscapes to view. It was early spring but winter in Alaska using the live weather features of MSFS, showed the heavy snows they have been having this year are still in place. 

As seen from the A320neo cockpit, the vast extensive glaciers meet the sea—the weather was rarely clear, offering this amazing vista. [Image courtesy: Peter James]

But once flying a variety of heavy aircraft west along the Aleutian Islands, far western Alaska isn’t far from Russia. My curiosity got the best of me, so I continued the short two-hour trip westward to land in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky Airport (UHPP), a fairly remote outpost but real-world fuel stop for Asia-bound ferry flights. 

Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky Airport in the private Boeing 747-8i. A desolate, beautiful, snowy world on a 13,000-foot runway, with volcanic terrain not too far away. I felt uneasy being here, and I doubt today under our political climate, if this base is still actually open to tech stops. [Image courtesy: Peter James]

From UHPP, it was only another two hours or so to northern Japan, where the flowers were in full bloom and the weather warmer and more inviting. From there, I decided to explore North Korea, but my stay was brief. I entered illegally and had to get out fast, prohibited from taking any photos.

This pic was actually taken in North Korea at an undisclosed [MSFS] location. [Image courtesy: Peter James]
MSFS' Top Gun add-on comes with Darkstar, the new Lockheed Martin SR-72 rumored to be in development. In this image—nearing 100,000 feet up—you’ll see the darkness of space creep in, and the curve of the earth clearly below. [Image courtesy: Peter James]
Despite studying published profiles of the SR-72, I failed to obtain the outrageous speeds that the Darkstar achieves. I did, however, get it up to Mach 5.6  at 3500 knots, where I was tearing through the edge of space, scramjet power, on the way to Hong Kong. [Image courtesy: Peter James]

A day trip was reduced to 20 minutes at hypersonic speeds. After some great difficulty hand flying this beast, I was able to get it back into the normal atmosphere, approach the new Hong Kong International Airport (VHHH) with wide open runways, and land at some 200 kts. I was exhausted, but the real reason to come to the new Hong Kong airport is to see the old one, Kai Tak International Airport (VHHX), which operated until 1998. 

For any aviation fan, the destination rekindles some great memories of when airline pilots had to practice the famous “checkerboard” approach to Kai Tak’s Runway 13. It was perhaps the most famous airport in the world back then, and lives today in fame. 

We can explore what landing at Kai Tak was like via MSFS, which still has the airport open and fully operational. Here, I selected the Boeing 747-8i, an aircraft popular among passenger airlines until recently. 

The sun was rising on a clear morning vectoring in from the nearby real Hong Kong International Airport. It’s only a 20 nm journey but for the special tour charter, well worth the effort to fly to the old Kai Tak airport, located in Kowloon Bay. [Image courtesy: Peter James]
Twisting and turning, fully configured for landing at about 145 kts, with the runway just abeam the rising sun. Because of this wild maneuvering, and years out of practice in any sim, I actually blew my approach and had to go back around for another attempt. [Image courtesy: Peter James]
The Boeing 747—the "Queen of the Skies"—with her great talons tilted and ready for touchdown, is the most graceful widebody jetliner ever produced. [Image courtesy: Peter James]
The second time back around worked like a charm with more planning and aggressive turning. If you can imagine yourself in a “tunnel” or railroad of tracks, leading to the threshold you’ll do much better. This is a thing real pilots use all the time: fly in the imaginary boxes leading to the runway. [Image courtesy: Peter James]
Aiming for the “checkerboard” in my mind, at the ridge line, down low with a sharp right turn close in at the lead in lights. They are functional—just hard to see in the rising sun. [Image courtesy: Peter James]
Blasting over the skyscrapers, is incredible on this very “unstable approach." [Image courtesy: Peter James]
The lead-in lights below the nose, speed at 141 kts. The life-like density of the area is a sight to see, and probably the densest flight simulator scenery, in perfect photorealistic detail. [Image courtesy: Peter James]
Threshold height, seconds from auto spoiler activation. 100, 50, 40, 30, 20, 10…. [Image courtesy: Peter James]
Delicately taxiing the “road” around Kowloon Bay, noticing every detail, such as the rock retaining walls and detailed boats in the harbor. [Image courtesy: Peter James]
MSFS' default 747-8i was recreated with perfect accuracy, scale, and modeling. Although not a “study level” or in-depth systems-driven add-on, it’s certainly fun, and flies fairly realistically. [Image courtesy: Peter James]
Is this a real photo? I often ask myself the same thing when viewing many screenshots. I never dreamed 30 years ago that any flight simulation would feature a 747, let alone almost every aircraft ever built, with the entire world done in such detail. [Image courtesy: Peter James]

This was one of those special flight sim moments where I remember this event as if it were real. To be able to experience a famous, challenging airport, one that thousands of aviators worldwide got to experience first hand, hand flying in their wide bodies and heavy jets of their time into this exciting airport. 

I had hoped in my lifetime that I would have been able to experience flying into Kai Tak International but sadly missed that opportunity. My feelings are similar to having never been able to fly or even be a passenger on the Concorde. Yet we have all of this in MSFS and other simulators as well, keeping this dream alive. 

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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