Learn to Fly!
You can learn to fly one of these in your own home, on the Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS, for short). The recent versions are every bit as as realistic as this picture, and it doesn't cost much to get started (what you need is summarized below).
MSFS is often classified as a computer game, but it isn't - it's a simulator. A game is something you can win or lose at. I guess you could more accurately describe it as a toy; a very wonderful kind of toy!
You should realise that you are embarking on a life-time hobby of learning and experience. You will learn everything that a real pilot learns (including navigation and meteorology). In addition, you will have to learn the Flight Simulator itself. It's a long and steep - and rewarding - learning curve.
The big difference between flying a plane and driving a car, by the way, is that if you run into trouble in a plane, you can't pull in to the side of the road and get out, and an accident in a plane is usually much more serious. A Flight Simulator allows you to make mistakes and learn from them, and to learn how to get yourself out of various kinds of trouble, e.g. an engine failing.
Another difference is that you can get in a car and just go exploring, but in flying you need careful advance planning to do with charts, weather and fuel. It is when you learn to do this (and there is a lot of help and free charts available) that your experience with the Flight Simulator will "take off", so to speak.
MSFS has evolved over many years (it started well before Microsoft took an interest). Among the features that it offers are:
- Many very realistic aircraft to fly
- Very realistic weather - you can choose the real weather (yes, the kind of weather currently outside your window, wherever you are in the world), or you can set up any kind of weather you want.
- A simulation of the world you are flying over. You won't believe this until you see it. At night you see the street and building lights. The textures change according to the seasons. The sun and moon are where they should be at any given time, and reflect realistically off water.
- Pretty much all the airports and airstrips, and all the actual navigation aids, that there are in the real world.
- Air Traffic Control (ATC) is simulated, and so are the other planes flying around you.
- You can fly on line with other pilots, and (in addition to the simulated ATC) there are real Air Traffic Control centres out there that direct pilots flying simulators!
- Most importantly, it's an "open" product. You can add even more detailed scenery and aircraft and many other goodies, and a huge number of these are freeware.
- Something to consider...
- It has occurred to me, walking around some assisted living communities where people can live very confined lives, that a communal flight simulator facility might be a great thing to have.
- What it might need is an outside helper who could set it up (on a PC with a projection screen, maybe), and then transfer his or her skills to a resident (if one of the residents isn't skilled already). Imagine, for example, setting a flight up so that it begins with the plane already cruising, on autopilot so that it is holding a steady altitude. Then anyone with little experience could steer it, and (because the simulator lets you easily re-position the aircraft) fly anywhere in the world, seeing an amazing variety of scenery and weather. You can "save" interesting flights so that anyone can come back to them later. There's no need to stop there, though - the learning experience is there for anyone to take advantage of.
- When I retire (not too long now) I hope to help to set off something like this. If anyone else thinks this is a good idea and would like to participate, or knows of this happening already, please let me know!
- Can you learn to fly a real plane using MSFS?
- If you are lucky enough to have the time and money to learn to fly for real (and keep doing real flying afterwards, to stay current), then the orientation is different: your life, and possibly the lives of other people, are now at risk from mistakes that you make.
- You should take your primary guidance from, and do your flying training with, a real qualified instructor. He or she will advise you on how you can use the MSFS to supplement your learning (and you certainly can - the US Navy do this, for example).
- I speak as one who was not lucky enough to become a real pilot, although I have been very lucky in many other ways. Who knows what the future might bring, though?
Come fly with me!
Come on a little (simulated) flight, courtesy of Microsoft's flight simulator (the FS2000 version - quite old and clunky by today's standards). We are taking a Cessna 182 on a short hop from Burlington, Vermont, over to the Mount Mansfield radio beacon (the main Stowe skiing area) at 5,000 feet, then turning right and descending to land at Knapp State airport, Barre-Montpelier.
The weather is the real weather as of about 06:00 GMT this morning - a nice clear day at Burlington, temperature -7 degrees C. The ground textures are set for February, and are the simulator's guess about a realistic appearance for that time of year, not the actual current snow conditions! So this is pretty close to an actual trip at the time we will be going skiing. The takeoff time in the simulator is about 16:30 local time.
The first couple of pictures are taken from the plane, coming up to the Mount Mansfield beacon. The first picture is without the cockpit panel showing, to maximise the view, the second picture is more like what the pilot really sees.
The third and fourth pictures are taken out the right hand side of the plane, on the approach into Barre-Montpelier, very close to Stowe. No, you can't see anyone skiing!
The last two pictures are taken from outside the plane, close to the arrival airport. They show me coming into land, with Mount Mansfield in the background. The Cessna has a single landing light, mounted on the left wing. (Also, in case you're wondering, the simulator has an "action replay" feature so you can watch the previous 10 minutes or so of any flight from inside the plane or from any point in space outside the plane. The clock keeps ticking as the replay repeats, and it took me some time to get around to taking a screenshot of the last picture, which is why it is darker than the other pictures. It's the same flight, though.)
And finally, I've taken a screenshot of part of what the flight planner was showing me, so you can see the radio beacons and the location of the starting airport. The full screenshot is much too big and detailed to show here.
What do you need to get started?
Your general requirements are as follows:
- In order to get the best from the latest version of the flight sim (FSX), you need a reasonably fast PC (2.4+ GHz, ideally 3+ GHz multi-core CPU) with lots of main memory (1 GB+) and disk memory (100 GB+). You can't have too much memory. The previous version of the flight sim (FS2004, a.k.a. FS9) will give good results on a lower spec machine, but 1 GB of main memory is still recommended (and is relatively inexpensive).
- The very best graphics card that you can afford. This is a key ingredient.
- A large monitor, supporting 1280 x 1024 resolution or better. A second monitor (which needs your graphics card to have a dual head) will greatly improve your flying and your enjoyment - because like a real pilot, you will be able to look out of your left hand window just by turning your head slightly. You will love that second monitor for everything else you do with the computer, too! (Oddly enough, the second monitor can be a bit smaller and a bit less hi-res than the main monitor, if you're short of cash, and you don't lose too much.)
- A joystick. Later on you can convert to using a yoke and pedals.
- The flight simulator software. This is probably your cheapest purchase, you can buy the latest version for less than $40!
- Lots of time (say an hour a day or more) on a regular basis. As with a real pilot, you have to keep flying to stay current, or you will lose the knowledge and skills.
- A willingness to study hard, as well as having fun doing actual flying.
This is just to give you some idea. Don't buy anything before doing quite a lot of research first - the links in the right hand panel will help.
And last of all, this will give you some idea of the standard of visual realism in the latest version of MSFS:
- If you are interested in digital photography or image manipulation, then you might be interested in my Beginner's Guide to Photoshop, a major addition to this site that opened in February 2010.
- It contains stuff that you might find useful even if you don't have Photoshop.