As many of us in different countries are being asked to stay at home and isolate ourselves, this may be a strange question. Is this a good time to learn to fly? If being a pilot is in your future plan, and isolation is hampering your ability to pursue your training, or you are simply an aviation enthusiast who is frustrated from not being able to plane spot or indeed travel, this might be for you.
I am talking about Flight Simulation. It is not exactly X-Box or PlayStation, but it is a way to learn a new skill or hone an existing one. Imagine as you are locked up at home, still being able to go out and see the world out there, the one that you used to move about in. That sounds a bit science fictionish, but in some countries, it is not far from the truth as we try and stem the spread of the dreaded virus by staying home.
Now when we talk about flight simulation, it is tempting to visualise a fully functioning flight deck replica that sits in a box suspended on hydraulic ramrods. Like the ones they have down at your national airline’s training centre. If you can run to that kind of thing, I salute you. Not only that, I’d love to get an invitation to hangout at your house when the whole isolation schtick is finished.
For the rest of us, flight simulation is available at home on your own PC, and not surprisingly for a fraction of the price that your local airline has forked out. Flight Simulation for the home user has come a long way over the last years. When I was first introduced to it back in the early 1990s, a pilot friend of mine showed me this new program he had bought. It seemed really cool at the time, although in all honesty it consisted of a flat world where land was green and sea was dark blue and sky was light blue. You had the choice of flying from Chicago Merrill Meigs airfield on Lake Michigan (I believe that was actually closed in March 2003), Los Angles, New York or Seattle. The only aircraft was a Cessna Skylane, but it was such a blast to actually fly this plane around.
New versions were added over the intervening years, each with some new enhancement that gave a new wow factor. The addition of sound, the addition of new geographical areas, improved scenery, dynamic scenery. The list goes on.
Enough reminiscing. What I am driving at is that today, Flight Simulation provides a very real experience. The scenery realism is getting closer to the real thing, using data derived from Google Maps you really get the feeling you are arriving or departing the actual location as you know it in real life. Not only that, but with an internet connection you can get your simulation weather conditions to match the real forecast for that location.
So who is flight simulation for?
You could be forgiven for thinking that flight simulation is only for those who have a good knowledge of flying. This is not necessarily so, in fact not so at all. Let’s look at two of the more popular flight simulator programs for PC on the market. Microsoft Flight Simulator and X-Plane 11. Both of these simulators are designed for the beginner right through to airline pilot. There is a training academy built in to enable the novice to gain confidence in the various phases of flight right from the very beginning. For example, my son who is now in his late teens started with my help when he was 6 or 7. Now he gets a lot of pleasure flying missions in various airliners domestically in Australia and overseas. This is in the simulator of course. Whilst flight simulation can be a great help in practising various phases of flight for the real world, it is of course there as an additional resource not a replacement for real flight training. It can, of course, help you to get good practice in procedures and manoeuvres and end up saving you money in hours flown in the real world.
So you could say it is both entertainment and a relevant tool.
Do I just fly on my own?
Like most things with flight simulator programs, you have choices. If you just wanted to go and tear up the sky in a Lear Jet, see the scenery up close in a Cessna or explore further afield in a Boeing 737, you can do this alone or in company. For instance, if you wanted to fly an actual mission in a Boeing 737 from Los Angeles (LAX) to San Francisco (SFO), as the real world airliners do, you can certainly do that. You would begin by creating a flight plan where you can designate such things as the actual route you want to fly, the height you want to fly at, among a host of other things. Once you file your flight plan, just as airliner pilots do, you then use air traffic control through the radios to get clearance for each phase and guidance right through your whole flight mission. As you go through the flight you will hear other aircraft talk to air traffic control as well as see them along your travels if it is a busy route. The feeling of realism is very high and the satisfaction of completing a mission likewise.
But what about real people? I want to share this with my friends. Yes, during this time of isolation, doing things together with your friends is challenging. Thankfully we have the internet at least, and also thankfully flight simulator programs have the option to fly with others. I know I have used this function many times to fly with someone else in my household or with friends on the other side of the world. You can chat as well see each other’s aircraft which can make for an interesting way to hang out. Go and explore the world together.
So what do I do to get started?
Flight simulator programs have come down quite a bit in price since the early days. If you have a reasonably up to date PC you should be able to run these programs quite easily. In addition, I would recommend getting at least a basic controller. Whilst you can run the simulator from the keyboard, the controller will give you that extra feeling of realism. That’s what we’re after, right? We want to feel like we are flying a real aircraft. Like anything, there are much more high-tech add-ons you can buy if you decide to become a real enthusiast. What ever you choose, happy flying and keep safe.