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An introduction to flight simulation

Photo: Right: You can learn how to fly complex aircraft such as this latest hi-tech Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

 

 
In this brief overview, we highlight the main flight simulation platforms currently available on the market and discuss the type of hardware you’ll need to get airborne.

Although flight simulators have been around for almost as long as aviation, it was not until the early 1980s that they became commonly available on our desktops. Since then, they have evolved from wire-frame graphics, with basic aircraft models, into sophisticated simulators capable of accurately recreating the flight dynamics and systems found in their real-life counterparts. We can now fly any number of aircraft from warbirds to complex airliners while recreating historic flights or fly on real-world routes.

Fortunately, getting started is relatively straightforward, and you don’t need to be a computer expert or experienced pilot to get into the air. There are flight simulators out there catering for every need and level of experience: from the beginner seeking to master the basics of flight, up to the established and highly experienced flight simmer looking for the ultimate study-level aircraft. So, whatever your level of experience or focus of interest, there is something out there for you.

Simulation Software
Historically, Microsoft’s Flight Simulator dominated the civilian flight simulation scene and the last version, FSX, has been the longest-running edition since it was released in 2006. It comes with several entry-level aircraft and includes scenery for the entire planet, plus more than 25,000 airports. While the default simulator is fairly basic, it is possible to install detailed add-on aircraft and scenery, as well as utilities such as realistic weather and AI aircraft. In fact, a whole industry has evolved around creating add-ons for the platform. The franchise was taken over by Dovetail Games in 2014, and FSX was released on the Steam store as FSX: Steam Edition. It is worth noting that it is becoming increasingly difficult to purchase the original DVD version of FSX, but the Steam edition is currently still available. After more than 10 years, FSX is really in its twilight years as more developers (and flight simmers) are moving to Prepar3D or X-Plane.

Aerofly FS 2 is an excellent beginner’s flight simulator. Designed to be light on system resources, it features excellent graphics and a fleet of different aircraft types. It doesn’t come with scenery for the entire world but focuses on more detailed geographical locations in California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New York and Switzerland (www.aerofly.com).

The professional version of FSX, dubbed ESP, evolved into Lockheed Martin’s Prepar3D, which has become the simulator of choice for many hard-core FSX users. The latest version 4 introduced technical benefits including 64-bit and DirectX 11 graphics support (www.prepar3d.com).

Another noteworthy simulator is X-Plane. Known for its accurate flight dynamics, the latest version 11, added significant improvements to the user interface and the graphics. It is possible to download a demo from www.x-plane.com, and a great resource for add-ons is the website www.x-plane.org.

X-Plane features several highly realistic aircraft from general aviation trainers to complex airliners.

Finally, on the military side, we have the IL-2 Sturmovik series, which covers the World War Two era. Digital Combat Simulator World (DCS World) – a high-fidelity study-level simulator that focuses mostly on military jets and more recently World War Two aircraft (www.digitalcombatsimulator.com).

Realistic military jets are available for those into aerial combat.

Hardware
Although it is possible to purchase specialist PCs for running flight simulators, recent advances in computing technology means that many systems have enough horsepower to run flight simulators at good frame rates. Most modern desktops come with Intel Core i5 or i7 processors, and a CPU with a core speed of 3.2GHz (or faster) and 16GB of system RAM will be enough to get you in the air.

You will however need a dedicated 3D graphics card to run all flight simulators. The requirement varies depending on what platform you plan to use. For example, you can run FSX with a moderately spec’d card with 512MB of VRAM, while Prepar3D and X-Plane are more demanding on graphics resources, requiring 6GB of video memory.

Another area which is worth a little extra consideration is the hard drive. While a conventional electromagnetic drive will do the job, solid-state drives (SSD) will significantly improve load times.

Finally, you will also need a large monitor to give you a better view of the flight deck and outside world. This is particularly true for laptops, which are now capable of running flight simulators with excellent frame rates. But the screen is often too small to enable us to appreciate the full glory of the virtual world. Hooking up to a large monitor in this case will significantly enhance your flying experience.
 
Joystick Controllers
Getting the right control setup is an important consideration. Although most simulators will let us fly using the mouse and keyboard, for an authentic experience, you need a joystick as the minimum equipment. There are several types that come with a twist-grip and throttle lever for controlling yaw and power – as well as a host of programmable buttons and switches.

There is also more specialist equipment available such as yokes, throttle quadrants and rudder pedals to replicate the controls of a real aircraft. You can even add devices such as radio stacks and panels that allow one to operate the undercarriage, flaps and light switches without the need to touch the keyboard. When it comes to creating a custom cockpit, the sky is truly the limit.

You don’t need to spend a fortune to get airborne. There are HOTAS (Hands-On Throttle And Stick) units available such as this example from Thrustmaster for under £120.

For looking around the cockpit, there are products such as TrackIR head-tracking devices, which can be used to pan and zoom your view by moving your head, rather than using the HAT switch on the joystick. This adds a new dimension to the experience as you can look around while shooting circuits or scanning the flight deck. Virtual reality headsets are making significant inroads into flight simulation. This technology adds a huge amount of immersion – allowing you to see the virtual world in 3D – giving you a real sense of scale and realism.
 
Summary
Flight simulation can be a very rewarding hobby, giving us to a unique insight into the world of aviation. It is also an excellent tool for learning the technical and operational procedures of aircraft, such as start-up and shut-down. We can explore the world or embark on flight adventures to challenging airports. Whether your interests include combat or civilian aircraft, flight simulation has something to offer every aviation enthusiast. 

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