My interest in flight simulation is not something that I keep a secret, and thus, many people with expressed interest in starting to fly have come to me with advice on where to start.
“What is best simulator to use?”
“Do I need a joystick? What’s the best one?”
“Do you play by yourself, or with others?”
The questions go on, and on. I will take my time and try to answer every question to the best of my ability, but herein lies the problem. I’ve been doing this so long, over twenty years, on 8 different simulators, with hundreds of different add-ons and dozens of different hardware configurations. It may be hard to believe, but I don’t really remember how to get started! When I started, my first sim was on Microsoft Flight Simulator ’95, and it was a much simpler time then. Today you have such a wide variety of options to customize your experience…it’s crazy! There are a few topics worth glancing over though. Most, if not all, warrant a full article on their respective subjects, but for today we’ll just cover a summary of what is involved in flight simulation.
Today, you have 4 relevant choices to pick from that suit a wide variety of needs and hardware minimums. Each have their own advantages and disadvantages.
Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004:
We’ll start on the bottom, MSFS 2004 (Also known as FS9, being the 9th MSFS release) was released in 2003, so it’s a bit dated. This makes it an ideal selection for legacy hardware that can’t run the newer sims at a sufficient level. The default visuals leave some to be desired, but FS9 has had plenty of support from top tier add-on developers in the past, and although they no longer support FS9, their products are available to improve every visual aspect.
Microsoft Flight Simulator X:
Moving up from FS9, FSX is still a huge staple in the flight sim community. Released in 2006, it’s not new software. It is however still supported by most add-on developers and features upgraded default visuals. The downside to FSX is that the platform itself is no longer supported by Microsoft…in fact, in 2009, Microsoft went through a big downsize, and eliminated their ACES studio, the department that created the flight simulator. So…no more MSFS.
Lockheed Martin Prepar3d:
Fret not! All is not lost. The same year the ACES studio was shuttered, aerospace giant Lockheed Martin negotiated with Microsoft to purchase the original FSX source code. From that they developed an updated version of the software called Prepar3d. (Pronounced ‘prepared,’ and shortened to P3D.) P3D is largely similar to FSX, but offers a mild increase in performance and visuals, an updated UI, improved default aircraft, and most importantly, a navigational database update.
Laminar Research X-Plane 10:
For a long time, X-Plane vs. MSFS was much like Ford vs. Chevy. Both had loyal patrons, both argued fiercely theirs was better, and both did pretty much the same thing. One may outperform the other in some aspects, but in the end, they were level. X-Plane has traditionally been strong in low level, VFR graphics, and simpler airplanes. Means the planes were not system deep, but had beautiful scenery. MSFS on the other hand has traditionally been the opposite. With less stellar default scenery, but super detailed and realistic systems depth. With the closure of MSFS, the XP player base has grown by leaps and bounds over the past 5 year. XP11 is in beta release.
Hardware for flight sim can range anywhere from a $25,000 full enclosure that replicates the entire flight deck of a 737, or a $15 sidewinder joystick. One of the beauties of flight simulation is that you can put forth your best budget, and it will do its best to work with you. There are more options for hardware that can be covered in a single sitting, so I will list two…which are on two separate sides of the spectrum and have received raving reviews from their users.
This is the golden joystick. It offers a realistic Hands-On Throttle Experience, with plenty of buttons and sliders. The two halves can stay connected, or you can separate them as you see fit. The feel is solid and the durability is out of this world. For $40, this is an absolute bargain.
Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog:
This is the previously mentioned HOTAS’s older, way cooler brother. Mad by the same company, the Warthog features precision cut mechanics, aluminum construction, real toggle switches and a real-aircraft feel. The price tag of $400 is not for the faint of heart, but is a good choice for when you win the lottery.
When I started simming in 1995, it was simpler time. Graphics were minimal, systems were basic and scenery was either green for the ground, blue for water of another shade of blue for the sky. Everybody and their brother was an add-on developer, because it was so easy to pull off. Things we take for granted today, like retractable gear, transparent windows, wheels that roll…were all either non-existent, or heavily marketed as a premium eye-candy feature. Today, there are far fewer developers, but they offer a solid range of price vs. complexity ratios.
Addons are optional, you can fly just fine without them. Especially in the newer sims, the default planes are not horrible. If you want to start considering add-ons though, I will recommend you start off with picking just one plane, an add-on for weather generation, weather textures, global scenery, one regional scenery and one or two airports.
Add-ons range in price from $15 to $140 each. The more complexity, the higher the cost. Add-ons are another subject for a standalone article but I will leave you with a few developers to check out in the meantime.
Carenado: Cheap, beautiful models. Lacking in system depth. Good for non-hardcore pilots who appreciate a good-looking aircraft.
PMDG: Expensive, realistic models. Models every aspect of the actual aircraft systems to the more minor detail. Very expensive, worthwhile for hardcore, long-range pilots.
ORBX: Offers a wide range of scenery products that include everything from $100+ global scenery updates (FTX Global is worth) to free airport scenery. They offer gorgeous and affordable regional, and local sceneries.
When it comes to flying, you have three options. One, fly by yourself offline. Two, fly with others on a private server. Three, join one of the two major flight sim networks and connect with hundreds of other pilots.
I’m going to talk about option 3. When it comes to joining a large online network, you have two major options. VATSIM and IVAO. Both networks formed in 2001 after their predecessor SATCO dissolved over fundamental disagreements. While pilots from all over the world participate in both, IVAO is primarily a European network. VATSIM is the larger of the two, and its lead is growing.
Flying on VATSIM is not like flying offline or on a private network. It’s is used primarily for serious flight, that mimics real life procedures. Air traffic control is provided by real people, who participate on a voluntary basis. They do a very good job at imitating real life and is a joy to work with them. Anyone can fly online with no training. It’s recommended that you practice offline first though. If you want to be a controller, that’s a process that take a lot of time, studying, testing and practice.
In the end, there is a LOT that goes into flight simulation, so much a full-scale textbook could be produced to cover all the aspects. I’m just covering the super basic bare bones for those looking for a little information. Look forward to future articles that cover in depth each of these subjects in the future.