Testing Live Weather and Winter Wonders Along the Way

In Microsoft Flight Simulator you can work your way through all kinds of icy scenarios.

With winter gripping most of the country, it’s one of my most favorite times to sim fly. Actually, that’s a lie. All seasons are fun. However, winter does hold that special, adventurous spirit the other seasons sometimes seem to lack. 

I am often inspired by the real locations and weather I experience when I am on a real work trip. With ForeFlight by my side, it’s fun to test the realism of the sims and how they’re interpreting live weather worldwide. Both X-Plane 12 (XP12) and Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 (MSFS2020) do a pretty good job of keeping up with it and both have shown continual improvements. It seems each month the message forums are showcasing live weather questions, observations, frustrations, and praise. 

I feel the most accurate live weather award currently goes to MSFS2020 as most of the flights I take, with ForeFlight next to me, are startlingly accurate. The altimeter, visibility, and clouds are really spot on. Locations of rain or snow are pretty accurate too with virga and visual depictions often having me saying “wow.” 

I made my way westward recently from the East Coast to encounter winter spots. The first was a stop into Cleveland Hopkins International Airport (KCLE) using a 787 Dreamliner. KCLE is known for lake-effect snow and this day didn’t disappoint. Snow bands were flowing west to east, and my flight session, down the ILS to an eventual autoland, took me right in the heart of it all.

KCLE ILS Runway 24L along the lakeshore with snow showers topping up to 8,000 feet. Winds 230@23G37 would make for wing shaking and bouncing on the 787. [Courtesy: Peter James]
The 787 entered the tops at 8,000 feet, turning base, down onto the ILS Runway 24L to an autoland. The accuracy of the weather is amazing in MSFS2020. The cloud tops would most likely contain ice, if not the entire descent. [Courtesy: Peter James]
External view showing the dense cloud, with glowing light beam effect. [Courtesy: Peter James]

Various moments from the cockpit view included bursts of snow whooshing past, some varying visibility, and not a lot of turbulence. Even as shown on ForeFlight, the snow showers ended east of the field near the city, allowing for an almost completely visual approach. As I got closer, some definite wind shear jibs and jabs made the wings bounce, something the 787 is famous for with its dampening, flexing wings.

Short final improved rapidly into visual conditions, depicted exactly as the radar on ForeFlight showed as well. A large gap until past the field, where more squalls were approaching. Low level chop started in as winds gusted to 37 knots.[Courtesy: Peter James]
Taxiing into the gate you can see squalls moving in during the ‘golden hour’ as sunset approaches late afternoon. A distant Speedbird 777 awaits pushback as shown with live traffic mode as well.[Courtesy: Peter James]

Testing live weather was a success in this scenario. Let’s see the next one. 

I proceeded westward a few hours to the Dakotas and upon reaching there had some very windy weather and snowy bursts to contend with as well. I was using the amazing Learjet 35 I recently featured and it was a blast to feel this one out in surface winds gusting to 40 knots. The Learjet has enough fuel for about 1,500 nm tops, and in this case I traveled about 1,000 miles. I set out for a field in the North Dakota-eastern Montana area for fuel and aircraft change.

Continual power adjustments to contend with wind shear and keep VREF were required in this area. In sim, you can hear the wind gusts on the windshield just like in real life. Changing speeds and shear are very well depicted in MSFS2020. [Courtesy: Peter James]
Crosswinds and gusts over 30 knots corresponded with the live weather readout, which was recording low overcast and 300@32 peak winds. [Courtesy: Peter James]

The somewhat higher elevations and wide-open areas with some gradual terrain will start making shear. The bumps were noticeable but not yet overly crazy. The wind flow over terrain effect within MSFS is remarkably accurate. 

For the next leg of the adventure, I chose the default Cessna Longitude bizjet, with more range and modern avionics to attempt a “visual” in horrendous weather, surrounded by dangerous terrain. Revelstoke, British Columbia, in Canada is spectacular as it gets, so I went to go check it out.

Evening arrival into Canadian Rockies. Revelstoke, British Columbia, is surrounded by incredible terrain and opportunities for potential dangers if not careful. [Courtesy: Peter James]

I vectored myself onto the arrival below the terrain. I would be landing on Runway 30 with the poor weather conditions, so I decided to use the modern technology at hand.

The approach to Revelstoke Airport (CYRV) presents a canyon down the riverbed, traveling northwest to Runway 30. [Courtesy: Peter James]
Blindly (or not so much) following the river with the 3D view ahead. Enhanced vision makes it so much easier. [Courtesy: Peter James]
Using the modern technology available, I decided to make an approach on my own. I don’t think real flight crews ever do this, but in a sim it is definitely tempting. [Courtesy: Peter James]

Following the 3D view with an eyesight-enhanced vision system on the Latitude, I could see right through the clouds and snow, down the river in virtual visual conditions. Now, I don’t think pilots with this avionics package do this yet, but I could see someday in the not too distant future the ability to just fly a visual approach in something horrendous.

The runway is pure white, covered in snow and ice—not very good but sure a lot of fun. [Courtesy: Peter James]

I was led right down the shoot to the breakout point and runway in real visual conditions at a low altitude I would say was near ILS minimums.

Full-bucket action is powerful enough to stop the jet without using brakes. [Courtesy: Peter James]

In the real Challenger 300 I fly, similar to the Longitude, the reversers are so effective and rev up to such a high percentage, we don’t even touch the brakes until almost walking speed or something under 40 knots.

Some leading-edge ice had accumulated and was partially burnt off. [Courtesy: Peter James]

MSFS has great icing modeled with effects on performance. It doesn’t always come off cleanly, and sometimes even windows don’t get cleared very rapidly.

The Longitude is similar to the real Challenger 300 I fly, where the reversers do all the work at about 77 percent thrust available in reverse. [Courtesy: Peter James]

Continuing the adventure, I got into an A321neo (LatinVFR available on sim marketplace) for the rest of the journey westward. There is no better, more scenic place than Juneau, Alaska, and an unusual weather event was occurring at the time—clear skies! Alaska in winter is usually terrible with huge rain storms likely along the coast or wet snow blizzards. Apparently a cold snap following some heavy snows was occurring the day I tried this, and the built-in live weather matched the conditions almost to a T.

Descending with speedbrakes into the Juneau region on the A321NEO. [Courtesy: Peter James]
A glorious ‘golden hour’ evening descending into the Juneau, Alaska, bay region on a visual to the eastbound runway. [Courtesy: Peter James]
Juneau International Airport (PAJN) is situated in a steep valley with approaches over the channel, and it’s one way in and one way out (opposite) due to high terrain and glaciers east. I have never been in real life but feel I am well equipped to go eventually as it’s been a favorite sim location of mine for years. [Courtesy: Peter James]
Right base with the Juneau airport clearly seen in the canyon. [Courtesy: Peter James]
Partially frozen waterways look so real here, changing with the weather. [Courtesy: Peter James]
Final approach into PAJN over a fairly steep hill that keeps you well above glideslope until short final in a “chop and drop” scenario. [Courtesy: Peter James]

I have to stop somewhere, because the adventuring available in Alaska is endless. Maybe I’ll do this  again later this winter as there is so much to discover and tinker with. Setting up manual weather to something wild and dangerous is also fun, especially in mountainous regions. Using the variety of GA aircraft available in the sims opens up a whole new avenue of bush flying, where icing dangers are more noteworthy. 

As always, I have to link the “must-haves” as you fly: 

FS Realistic Pro for the best add-on ever made.

Sporty’s Pilot Shop for all the flight controls imaginable and an easy home setup.

ProDeskSim for the coolest affordable add-ons to the Honeycomb throttle quadrant that will leave you drooling. 


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