Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020: the next-gen VFR trainer

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Head out to just about any airport in the U.S. today and ask a pilot what inspired them to learn to fly and you’ll likely hear one of the following three answers: (1) a family member is a pilot or is involved in aviation, (2) they caught the bug after their first airline flight as a child, or (3) a flight simulator game introduced the excitement and freedom of general aviation.

For me it was really a combination of all three, but I give most of the credit to Microsoft Flight Simulator 95. There’s no question that the countless hours spent taking off from Runway 36 at Meigs Field in Chicago and joyriding around the U.S. led me to choose a career path in aviation.

And I can say for a fact that the experience and knowledge indirectly gained from manipulating the controls of the Cessna 172 and studying the instrument panel trimmed more than a few hours off the time to earn my Private pilot certificate in 2000.

Over the last 10 to 15 years though, it seems like flight simulators lost their magic. While I’m sure the modern versions of these platforms still inspired many to earn their wings, they didn’t offer the same emotional connection as Flight Sim 95 or Flight Sim 2004. The simulators of the past decade are as technically accurate as it gets and allow you to flip every last switch in an Airbus or King Air cockpit, but they felt more mechanical in nature and didn’t have the “it” factor that the original Flight Sim offered.

Change is in the air though, as Microsoft recently released an all-new version of Flight Simulator, and it’s hands-down the most capable and inspiring version yet in the product’s 38-year history. If you haven’t seen it yet, check out one of the hundreds of videos on YouTube, and you’ll be amazed. The unparalleled visuals incorporate over two petabytes of satellite and 3D photogrammetry data to show airports, structures and terrain around the world in detail never seen before.

The new scenery is a big part of why the new Flight Sim delivers the “it” factor aviation enthusiasts crave, providing the lifelike views from the cockpit while flying low and slow. At Sporty’s, we regularly fly to regional airport diners for $100 pancakes at sunrise before the work day begins, and there’s an unwritten rule to stay below 1,000’ AGL during the short hops in an effort to help appreciate the journey and the rolling hills below. The new flight sim will allow future pilots to experience that same feeling from the comfort of their home, flying low and slow over any spot in the world and marvel at the views from above.

The visuals are so lifelike and realistic that student pilots will find it to be a great resource to practice cross-country flights before heading out for the real thing. After selecting visual checkpoints on a chart and creating a navlog based on forecast weather conditions, you can fly the trip in Flight Sim in actual weather conditions and practice your dead reckoning and pilotage skills. It’s a great way to familiarize yourself with how your planned visual checkpoints look from above and get a lay of the land of the destination airport in advance, so you’ll be much more comfortable when actually flying the trip in the airplane for the first time.

Beyond the lifelike scenery and airport detail, the development team spent countless hours creating detailed airplane models, instrument panels and aerodynamics that will surely please pilots of all experience levels. You can fully interact with Air Traffic Control, fly alongside real time traffic with data from FlightAware, and even enable real-time weather data (complete with thunderstorms and in-flight icing) thanks to Microsoft’s partnership with weather forecasting company Meteoblue.

You’ll really be impressed with how Flight Sim presents both clouds and reduced-visibility conditions, making it arguably the first real VFR condition simulator available for the home PC. This provides a great opportunity for student pilots to experiment and learn the challenges inherent when flying in marginal weather conditions.

We can all recite VFR weather minimums and cloud clearance requirements, but it’s unlikely that you’ll launch on a training flight when the visibility is down to 3 miles with low ceilings (and for good reason). Thanks to the realistic presentation of terrain and weather, Flight Sim 2020 allows you to push those limits to the legal edge in an effort to better understand why building in extra weather margins is so important. For example, try setting the visibility to 4 miles and the ceilings at 2,000’ AGL, and see how comfortable (or uncomfortable) you feel flying from your home airport to another airport 15 or 20 miles away.

There’s been some exciting new developments on the hardware front too, and timing couldn’t be better. If you were like me, you started playing Flight Sim 95 with a gaming joystick, and probably upgraded to a basic yoke along the way. Today it’s never been easier or more affordable to outfit your home flight sim right from the start with a full set of controls, including yoke, throttle and rudder pedals. 

One company leading the way with innovative new hardware is Honeycomb, which launched their first flight sim yoke last year. Beyond looking flat out cool, the Honeycomb Alpha yoke provides the best control feel of any on the market, thanks to roller ball-bearing construction and freedom to bank a full 90°. They also have a new throttle quadrant in the works which should be out later this year (check out all the flight control options here).

There will always be those who will be quick to dismiss home simulators because they don’t “feel” the same as the real airplane and view them as just a game. As a flight instructor, I feel the exact opposite and see real value in practicing real-world scenarios with these systems, as long as you approach it with the right mental attitude. Taking small steps like starting each flight from the FBO ramp or tie-down, using checklists and including your favorite iPad navigation app in the process will help get you in the correct mindset. 

Finally, let’s not forget the fun aspect of the new Microsoft Flight Simulator – it’s only fair that you reward yourself with some King Air or Boeing 747 stick time or backcountry flying in Alaska after cross-country practice in the 172. It’s ultimately this fun-factor which will likely attract new pilots and help grow the aviation community, including those that are both young, and young at heart.

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Bret is vice president and senior flight instructor for Sporty's Academy. In addition to Bret's teaching responsibilities, Bret leads Sporty's video production and app development team and serves as editor of the popular iPad Pilot News online journal. As an airline transport pilot, Bret is a senior captain in Sporty's corporate flight department.