03 July 2007
Airliner simulation on the PC
Rob Fisher

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767 Virtual Cockpit
”Airline pilot” is the answer you would have received on asking me, many years ago, what I wanted to be when I grew up.  Myopia and a talent for computer programming meant I never pursued that ambition, but lately I’ve been discovering just how thoroughly it is possible to play at being an airline pilot at home on a PC.

There are two versions of Microsoft Flight Simulator currently of interest.  FSX is the brand new version with extra prettiness and extra behind-the-scenes realism, but it requires a fairly beefy PC, so there is the previous version, FS2004, to fall back on.  Being an incurable computer geek, I naturally have a machine NASA are jealous of and that generates so much heat that I suspect it has a carbon footprint about the size of real airliner’s.  Having a powerful computer helps if you want the latest and best of everything, but isn’t essential.

It turns out that Microsoft Flight simulator falls short in various areas, and this is where the wonderful world of flight sim add-ons comes in.  For a start, if you want to simulate an airliner with enough fidelity that it can be flown just as it would be in real life, you need to buy an add-on aircraft.  The best are PMDG’s 747 and Level-D’s 767.  These are meticulously researched using data from the manufacturers and input from real airline pilots, many of whom use these products themselves.

The three dimensional representation of a Boeing cockpit makes for an immersive experience, but when every knob and switch does exactly what it does on the real thing, you may just wonder which to turn or press first.  Mike Ray is a retired pilot who writes informal guides for real pilots to use to revise for their regular “check-rides”.  These are great for reference, but Mike has also written a more introductory tome especially for flight simmers.  Another company makes step-by-step DVDs that take you through the whole process of a flight from planning to arrival at the gate.  If you still have questions, there is an active community ready to help who treat their flight simming as a serious hobby; no mere computer game.

For flight planning there is a plethora of tools available.  You can download up-to-date charts, including standard departure and arrival routes for every airport.  You can look up the routes taken by real planes in the last few hours (or even track planes on a map in real time), and there are tools that let you calculate the correct amount of fuel and other parameters needed to set up the aircraft correctly.

An extra touch of realism comes from air traffic control, which Flight Simulator is by default notoriously bad at.  One product simulates air traffic control with recorded voices, while another allows you to talk to real people who will watch your progress on a simulated radar display and give you instructions by voice over IP.

Finally, there are products that add realistic traffic and real-time weather to the experience.

Playing with all these toys has provided me with hours of entertainment.  I now feel like I have well and truly got inside the mind of an airline pilot, and should have all kinds of added insight into what’s going on next time I fly.

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