Back in 1994 or thereabouts, someone gave me my first copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator. It’s difficult to overstate just how important an influence flight simulation has been on my ambition to learn to fly for real.
How many thousands of aviation enthusiasts would have shared my first experience of installing MS Flight Simulator, firing it up and taking that first computer flight in a Cessna Skylane from Chicago’s Meigs Field and experiencing the thrill of flight from within their own home?
I haven’t done any computer flying for several years now, but for a long time, this was my main means of satisfying my urge to fly. A decent (or not so decent) computer, a copy of the software and a computer joystick is for most people a much cheaper alternative to the real thing. I often wonder what proportion of the flight sim community would actually – given time and funds – choose to fly in the real world, versus those who would still prefer the simulated alternative? Huge virtual flying communities now exist, driven and enabled by the Internet boom over the last 15 years. Not only do these communities allow people from all over the world to fly virtually, they even let them direct air traffic virtually. There’s some serious investment of time and money behind all this.
At first, I used Flight Simulator to just buzz around and look out the window at the (virtual) scenery. But I quickly grew tired of that. There’s only so much vicarious pleasure to be had by looking at grainy, poorly rendered graphics of scenery on a 13″ computer screen. (Not that the graphics didn’t improve – spectacularly – over the years as both software and hardware capabilities improved, but in the end it’s still just looking at computer renditions.) I then started to explore the “flying lessons” that Flight Simulator offered.
And there’s where I started to learn some stuff. Flight Simulator offered a series of “private pilot license” tutorials that featured guided lessons – straight and level flight, turns, climbing, descent etc – that, once passed, awarded you a virtual PPL certificate. This was way cool. Real aviation concepts were introduced in a fun, accessible, hands-on way.
From that “hands on” perspective there is, of course, very little comparison between the virtual and the real thing (unless you’re flying in commercial or military grade flight simulators or on the most advanced home set-ups). Furthermore, many people will tell you that flight simming can actually teach you bad habits which, if not “unlearned” when you fly for real, can be downright dangerous. But as a theory learning tool, flight simming is extremely effective.
Using Flight Simulator I first learned about the primary flight instruments. I learned about the basic flight controls, and about fundamental concepts such as angle of attack. And the fun and engaging virtual environment in which I learned these things definitely piqued my interest and made me want to experience the real thing.
Once I had my virtual PPL I then had a crack at the instrument flying lessons that Flight Simulator offered, but I found them very difficult to complete. If you exceeded certain altitude tolerances, for example, when attempting to fly straight and level solely on instruments, the lesson would “fail” you and end automatically. It was just too hard for me to control the virtual aircraft well, using the light touch and discreet use of control inputs that real flight calls for, with the relatively clunky Flight Simulator software and a moderately priced computer joystick.
(I’m sure there are many flight simmers out there who have successfully passed these virtual flight sim hurdles where I failed. As far as I’m concerned, hats off to them, but I found it too difficult to sustain my interest in persisting with the instrument lessons.)
Notwithstanding my failure on virtual instruments, I played around with Flight Simulator for many years, buying several upgrades of the software and enjoying the new features as they rolled out, stopping only when the time demands of starting a family made it difficult for me to find time in front of the computer. Now, this is more than compensated for by the prospect of flying for real next year!
Around the time I started flight simming, a colleague of mine at the time ridiculed MS Flight Simulator as an “old man’s game”. Now, as then, I beg to disagree. If you love flying, flight simulation is an exciting, educational and endlessly engaging pastime, whether you’re doing it virtually or for real.