Flight Simulation–The Struggle for Balance

While I’ll be the absolute first to tell you that Prepar3D, Flight Simulator X (FSX) and X-Plane are NOT video games…they are computer based flight simulators!  It certainly didn’t start out this way.  As I often show my age when I speak about the fact that I’ve been flying computer based simulations since the early 1980’s…really and truly at that time, the ancestors of P3D, FSX and X-Plane were just simply games.  At that time, I really don’t think anyone (perhaps other than the developers) could imagine what these games would become and the industry which would rise up to support it. 

A Picture is Worth…

They say “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words”.  The top image is what things looked like back around 1984 on the Commodore 64.  I spent hours upon hours and a few hours more sitting at my desk flying around Chicago Meig’s Field. 

Advance the calendar some 35 years and this is what the above evolved into.  The image below is from my own Prepar3d version 4 setup and the PMDG 747-400.  I believe I captured this screenshot on a flight from Denver to London late last summer (2018). 

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The stark contrast between those two images is truly amazing.  From a very basic 2D cockpit with very limited controls to the flight deck of the Queen herself where just about every button, every switch and every dial does something is again just simply amazing.  While I often envy the younger generation who have basically grown up with only knowing the more modern of things, I do consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to witness this first hand. 

There’s an interesting backstory with the above image.  I have this image on my work laptop and Windows 10 automagically changes out my desktop image every 15 minutes.  I have two very large external monitors in my office and they are situated where if someone stops by to visit, they can see the desktop image if I have my applications minimized.  One of my co-workers stopped by one day, saw the image and asked me where I found it.  I explained that I captured the image (that’s all I said), he looked at me and said “how the hell did you manage to convince the pilots to A. let you onto the flight deck, and B. convince them to step out so this picture could be taken.  LOL  I explained this was a screenshot from my home flight simulator setup.  I think we spent the next hour discussing the hobby.

The Struggle is Real

While I can’t speak for all who are involved in the hobby of flight simulation, I would wager to guess that most (at least some) struggle with the balance between ultimate realism and beautiful/stunning eye-candy.  Which is more important and does it really matter? 

As Microsoft Flight Simulator evolved over the years, there was still a time where third party add-ons were somewhat rare.  Especially what I would refer to as complex versions like we have today from the likes of PMDG, FSLabs and A2A.  So I would say (for me), as the complex aircraft were slowly starting to come onto the scene, I was still stuck in the “I care more about eye candy” mode.  What I wanted was simple.  I wanted an aircraft which closely resembled what ever I wanted to fly (Boeing 727, 737, 757 etc.), I wanted it to have decent flight characteristics (meaning perform better than a brick) and I wanted a livery for which ever real world airline I was simulating at the time.  Again, at that time….all the rest wasn’t a concern.  I also wasn’t all that bothered if the aircraft didn’t have a virtual cockpit.  I would guess this was the time frame of about 25 years ago. 

The turning point for me was sometime after the dawn of the SATCO/VATSIM age (circa 2000-01).  Of course, this is also around the same timeframe when internet based virtual airlines began popping up and the interwebz made the world a much smaller place. 

Immersion is Key

I think with any simulation based title, the immersive experience is due part from the software itself and also from ones own imagination.  While I’m not suggesting any of us sim gamers go around thinking (or certainly not pretending) we’re farmers, truckers or pilots…but I believe, our own imagination certainly makes up a small (perhaps larger) part of our overall experience. 

For example, I have my own rules for how I enjoy flight simulation.  First, I almost always begin a flight from the last airport I previously landed at.  There are a few times in my mind I will just say “jump seat” and start off from an airport I hadn’t just flown into…but that’s rare.  Second, I’m also not the type of virtual aviator who fires up a flight and then either goes to bed, goes to work or goes shopping.  While I’m not going to lie and tell you that my rear keister is always firmly planted in my chair for every minute, every hour of a flight….I’m generally not far away.  After all, pilots in the real world will get up and stretch their legs and go to the toilet.  Finally, when I was single…I would often heat up a “TV Dinner” which I would eat on longer flights.  But hey…I was eating a lot of these types of dinners when I was single. 

The Trade Off

Unfortunately, it wasn’t that long ago most of us had to make a decision.  Did we want the experience which the complex, advanced simulation add-on aircraft would deliver…OR…did we want the breathtaking visuals?  Because it wasn’t always money that determined the path. 

Before P3Dv4 was finally capable of taking advantage of a 64 bit architecture and move beyond the 4 GB virtual memory limitations, we all found it hard to mix both together.  You’ll find older writings of mine on this blog site where I attempted to marry the complex and the stunning visuals….yes it was doable, but it required significant compromise. 

It’s All a Balancing Act

Today, I enjoy a perfect balance between the more advanced simulation add-on aircraft and the stunning visuals.  With the advancement of hardware, software and the financial ability to marry both together…I can finally shove those graphic sliders to the right and enjoy the challenge of learning and flying some of the greatest machines ever invented and experience the visuals as if it was really happening.  My friends…that’s how you define the tagline “As Real As It Gets”. 

Until next time…

Enjoy the experience however you define it.

Jerry

Hello Fellow Flight Simulator Enthuasists

OK…where to start?  Oh I know…let me tell you about myself.  My name is Jerry, I live in Denver, Colorado.  I’m less than 5 miles from KAPA and about 20 miles from KDEN.  I’m married to a wonderful woman who supports all my various hobbies.  Before moving to Denver in 1998, I lived in Dallas, Texas.  I lived very close to KADS and about 15 miles from the awesome KDFW airport.   As a child we would visit the Dallas/Ft. Worth area and one of my two highlights would be visiting Six Flags over Texas and KDFW to watch the planes.

I’ve always been fascinated with airplanes and flight.  Now the weird thing is I’ve never had any desire to learn to fly and/or pursue my private pilots license.  I know….this may sound weird…but it is what it is.  My Uncle has his PPL and he took me flying for the first time in a small Cessna when I was a small child.   While I wouldn’t fly again for 10+ years (and my first commercial flight was around the age of 16) I always loved watching airplanes.  Even as a “Big” kid, I love all aspects of travel (well perhaps not the waiting in security lines).  I love getting to the airport early and watching the planes and the people. 

I’ve been flying computer simulator games for over 25 years.  Yes….they’ve been around that long.  It all started for me with the Commodore 64 computer.  The Commodore 64 computer launched my flight sim hobby, but more importanly it helped launch the career I’ve enjoyed for almost 20 years in IT.  This IT career has helped to further my enjoyment of the hobby with a better understanding of how computer hardware and software functions together and has provided the opportunity for me to fly around the world. 

In the early days of computer flight simulation it was all very basic compared to what we have today withMicrosoft Flight Simulator X.  While a friend of mine had a TRS-80 around 1982-83, I didn’t personally own a flight simulator program until 1984 when a company called SubLOGIC created Flight Simulator II.  This was the second generation flight simulator and was amazing. 

While I was interested in a few other “computer games”, flight simulator was the one that I spent the most time playing.  Now I already mentioned that these early versions were basic.  While I haven’t played Flight Simulator II in over 20 years, I do remember you would start off at Meig’s Field in Chicago.  I honestly believe that was about it.  I believe (but not 100% certain) that KORD was represented in the software as well as several other smaller airports.  However, that was about it.   I also remember a few updates to the Commodore 64 version.  Towards the end of my Commodore experience I had obtained some sectional maps and such of the areas where airports were represented.  I still only flew with a joystick but my skills were improving with every hour of flying time. 

My Commodore 64 computer was finally replaced in the late 80’s with an IBM PC.  My flight sim hobby took off from there with the Microsoft Flight Simulator version 3.0.  This was a HUGE jump from the version I had been flying on the old Commodore.  In the complete history of Microsoft Flight Simulator software, I did miss out on versions 1.0 and 2.0.  Microsoft Flight Simulator 3.0 (the first MS product I used with a PC) 3 aircraft including the Cessna we had all known to love along with a learjet and a Sopwith Camel.   The graphics were much improved over the Commodore 64 version and for the first time you could actually look outside of the aircraft.  From MSFS 3.0, I’ve owned every version released and each release was better and better and I couldn’t wait until the next one would come out.

Over the years as the graphics improved so did the options.  Microsoft began adding more scenery and a lot more choices for aircraft to fly.  With the birth of the Internet, an entire industry was born to cater to this exciting hobby.  No more were you just limited to the features Microsoft provided….you had access to hundreds…probably thousands of different add-on products to enhance your experience.  You could fly around the world and land just about anywhere.  “Real World” airports and the accurate scenery around them was all being developed into the software or available through a third party add-on. 

Again, while I’m fairly confident I’ve owned every version of Microsoft Flight Simulator since version 3.0 (circa 1988), for me personally it was Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000 (aka version 7.0) that really pushed the game experience into a true hobby.   I picked up a flight yoke and peddles and joined a virtual airline or VA for short.  I have flown for several VA’s over the years.  The first was a VA setup as American Airlines.  It soon went bust.  I then joined a VA operating as Air Canada and then found another American Airlines VA which looked awesome.  I joined and within a short period of time had worked my way up in the management ranks to VP of Operations and also managed the DFW Hub. 

In this timeframe I began flying online and experiencing operating with other online pilots and online ATC (Air Traffic Control) through a network called VATSIM.  During this same timeframe I was traveling more and more both through work and for personal reasons.  I would fly from KDEN to KDFW, then down to KILE (now KGRK) to visit family a few times a year.  One of my favorite things to do would be to re-create the flight before and after a trip.  I would fly the same aircraft at the same time of the day etc.  It almost became a pre-trip ritual.  My first real international (over the pond) flight was in the Spring of 2001.  I was headed to our London office for 3 weeks.  My real-life trip would take me from KDEN to KDFW then to London’s Gatwick airport EGKK.  I simulated this trip in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000 (version 7.0) before and after my real-world flight.

Microsoft has used the phrase “As Real As It Gets” since at least the days of Flight Simulator 95 (version 6.0).  It all became too “As Real As It Gets” with the release of Flight Simulator 2002 (version 8.0).  Microsoft had planned to release FS 2002 in mid-September 2001.  When the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened, Microsoft delayed the release of 2002 so developers could remove the WTC twin towers from all copies of the software.  As a way of paying respect to those who perished that day, all online flights taking place on VATSIM were suspended for the same duration that real-life air traffic operations were shut down.  I was scheduled to fly to London on 14 September for business.  Needless to say this trip was cancelled.  I wouldn’t fly again until just before Christmas of that same year. 

I continued participating with VA’s until sometime in late 2006 when life just really got busy for me.  Like with any hobby, my flight simulation hobby had to be set aside.   My wife and I bought a house and my job has changed dramatically over the years.  Just before I put the cockpit and software in storage I had purchased the latest version of Microsoft Flight Simulator X (version 10.0).  At the time of FSX release, my computer was a weakling and there wasn’t a lot of add-ons available.  I’m also not even sure FSX at the time would work on the VATSIM network.  But I had to have it and purchased it soon after it came out. 

Now it is late Summer 2010.  I was flipping through the TV channels and came across a History Channel program about to start called Extreme Airports and I was reminded of how much I loved flying the flight simulator software.   The PC I used back in the 2005/06 timeframe still had FS9 and FSX installed.  I connected my GoFlight gear, my yoke and peddles and flew from KDEN to KDFW in FS9.  My old PC just wasn’t powerful enough to run FSX.  But this was soon resolved. 

I’ll blog about my new “Beast” of a PC on the next post and bring you all up to speed on what I’ve been doing to get started in this awesome hobby again. 

Until next time,

J

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