The Pilot's Perspective

I’ve been flying airplanes for about a decade. The first game was released before I was even born, so I can’t claim to have played every single entry in the series, but I’ve been flying airplanes in Microsoft Flight Simulator for about two decades. In any case, I know a thing or two about aviation.

I have mixed feelings about flight simulators. I’ve used all sorts of different equipment from keyboard and mouse to actual flight training devices. The fact of the matter is that nothing really compares to flying a real airplane. I would even go so far as to say that flight simulators create a false sense of confidence that can be dangerous when you’re in the air. They give you the impression that you can handle anything when you might not actually know what you’re doing. While this holds true for professional pilots, the situation is a lot more serious when it comes to armchair aviators. You can log hundreds of hours in Microsoft Flight Simulator, but still be a danger to yourself and others in a real airplane. 

The realism in flight simulators creates a false sense of confidence

The latest entry in the Microsoft Flight Simulator series comes pretty close to capturing the experience of being a pilot. I could talk to you for hours about the flight model, but I don’t actually consider this to be of primary importance. The only thing which really matters in this regard is the feeling of flight. The game captures this by doubling down on some of the sights and sounds. You can hear creaks and cracks from the airframe when you handle the ailerons. You can hear squeaks and squeals from the pulleys when you step on the rudder. This kind of thing conveys a strong sense of what you could probably call presence. You really get the impression that you’re sitting in a cockpit. While it gets a lot of things right, the game definitely misses the mark on a couple of points when it comes to the experience of being a pilot, though. You can break these down into at least three categories. These are the mechanics, instruments, and communications. I found these to be just a little bit lacking in the game.

The most notable difference between flying airplanes in the real world as opposed to the game world is that you aren’t confined to the cockpit. You can get out of the aircraft. This might not seem significant at first blush, but the majority of airports don’t have dispatchers out there on the tarmac, so pilots do most of the ground handling. This involves removing wheel chalks and cowl plugs before takeoff, but also refueling and parking after landing. The most important aspect of ground handling would have to be the walkaround, though. You’ll find this referred to as the exterior inspection in most manuals. The walkaround literally consists of walking around the airplane to make sure that all of the mechanics are in good shape. The rudder, elevator, and ailerons in particular. Similar to the engine, these have to be maintained by a mechanic, but the pilot is the person responsible for the airplane, so the walkaround is never waved. You can’t even get out of the aircraft in Microsoft Flight Simulator, so doing a walkaround is pretty much impossible. 

The majority of airports don't have dispatchers at the ready

Airplanes are never in perfect shape. Since they get sent to a mechanic for maintenance, the most important parts of them are kept in working condition, but cosmetics like handles and visors tend to be a little bit battered. The fact of the matter is that most aircraft are used pretty hard. The airplanes in Microsoft Flight Simulator look like they’re brand new, though. You could say the same thing about the instruments. While most airplanes are still equipped with older instruments, almost every aircraft in the game has a bunch of digital displays. You’ll often hear this referred to as a glass cockpit. Some aircraft have been refitted with digital displays, but glass cockpits are pretty new, so if you take a look at the dashboard of most airplanes, you’ll find analog instruments. I can think of something else that Microsoft Flight Simulator doesn’t capture in this regard. The reality is that all of the dials and switches on the dashboard are designed to be touched. I think that something seems strange about turning and flipping these with a keyboard and mouse. 

Glass cockpits are a pretty new phenomenon

Aviation is all about sticking to procedures. This involves keeping in close communication with air traffic controllers. You have to state your intentions and follow their instructions to the letter. You aren’t held to a very high standard in Microsoft Flight Simulator, though. You can do pretty much whatever you want in the game world without worrying about the consequences. When it comes to the real world, you can end up in a lot of trouble if you don’t follow the instructions of air traffic controllers. You might lose your license or find yourself being handed some other sort of penalty. While they’re definitely a weak point in the game, procedures are only part of the problem with communications in Microsoft Flight Simulator. The reality is that you’re barely even able to use the radio. You can only pick something to say from a list of predefined requests. The result is that you can ask air traffic controllers for permission to takeoff, but you can’t ask them how to find the right runway. 

Communication is critical between pilots and air traffic controllers

The game gets a lot of things right when it comes to aviation, but Microsoft Flight Simulator also gets a couple of things wrong. These mostly have to do with the mechanics, instruments, and communications.

When it comes to the experience of being a pilot, Microsoft Flight Simulator manages to capture some of the sights and sounds, but doesn’t deal with all of the details. I can’t really hold these minor imperfections against the game, though. You just can’t simulate some things. I think that a strong communication system would be a tall order from a technical perspective. The programming would have to be pretty impressive. Improving the instruments would be impossible without handing out some serious hardware. I’m pretty sure that only a couple of people have anything more than a controller. Making sense of the mechanics would mean expanding the possibility space. This just isn’t that kind of game. What exactly do I make of Microsoft Flight Simulator when everything is said and done? Supposing that I had to summarize my impressions, I’d say that I appreciate the game for what it manages to accomplish, but nothing compares to flying a real airplane. You can’t be a pilot without climbing into a cockpit.

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