I’ve been flying X-Plane 11 since it first came out and recently gave Microsoft’s latest version of its venerable Flight Simulator a try — it’s first update in over 10 years — and my first reaction is Wow!
This new version offers real-world satellite photography to dynamically generate the scenery, allowing the virtual pilot to fly anywhere in the world without having to pre-generate (or buy) photo-quality scenery ahead of time. The visuals are stunning and very realistic.
I already knew that would be the case when I decided to purchase MSFS 2020. What I wasn’t prepared for, but was delighted to experience, was how refined and elegant the interface and mechanics of the software actually is. This doesn’t come across as what is essentially a first-gen product. Refined really is the best word for how the simulator runs and how you interact with it.
I really like X-Plane 11, and still feel it is the more realistic simulation in terms of how it simulates flight. But MSFS 2020 is a leap ahead in terms of product quality, from how it installs to how it automatically detects and configures your flight control hardware to how you work with the AI and air traffic control systems once you’re airborne.
Comparing X-Plane 11 to Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is like comparing a command-line version of Linux to the latest version of Apple’s OS X operating system. They both get the job done but one is substantially more refined than the other.
There’s that word again, refined.
Although MSFS 2020 is a new product and still has some bugs and functionality that’s not yet in place, this is a flight simulation product that all flight sim enthusiasts should try.
Just make sure you have two things: a large solid-state hard drive and a very fast internet connection.
I recently received a discovery flight in a Cessna 172 as a birthday present. It was out of Gorge Winds Aviation in Troutdale, Oregon (KTTD). A discovery flight is a chance to sit in the left seat of a small plane with a CFI (Certified Flight Instructor) there to guide you. The CFI handles the hard stuff, like the initial take-off and landing, but you are given the opportunity to take the controls for just about everything else.
My CFI, Jason, already had the plane prepared and pre-flight checked before I arrived. I was in the cockpit with the engine running within 5 minutes of my arrival.
The plane we flew was a Cessna 172, tail number N5201H. It was built in 1975 and the cockpit showed its age. Everything was in working order, though, and I had no fears or doubts about its reliability and the maintenance care Gorge Winds provided it.
We taxied to the hold-short line of runway 25 and performed the run-up procedure. This entails revving the engine to 1800 rpm and checking the magnetos and gauges. After waiting for another Cessna to land, we moved out onto the runway and without delay were airborne.
The first thing that surprised me was how rapidly those little planes can gain altitude. My ears popped right away. The second thing that surprised me was how little visibility you have forward over the engine when climbing at that rate. We rose at 600-700 feet per minute and at that angle of attack, you can’t see anything directly in front of you. After we reached 500 MSL (mean sea level), we reduced our rate of climb to about 300 fpm.
To my left I saw a helicopter moving parallel to the runway at about 100 ft. AGL, below us. Soon we banked left and headed south. Jason mentioned we were in the KPDX air space and had to stay at or below 1,200 feet MSL to stay below incoming airliners. Once we got out of a particular radius from the main PDX airport, we were able to climb to a higher altitude.
Once we made our bank to the left and Jason got the aircraft trimmed up, I took the controls. The yoke was fairly small, a bit smaller than I anticipated. Even though we didn’t have much wind–calm to 3 mph–we got moved around a bit at different times during the flight. At one point the aircraft yawed rather abruptly to the left and down. I instinctively corrected and righted the plane without any fuss.
I was impressed by how deftly Jason handled the comms. He was conversing with me, listening to air traffic control, and giving them updates as we flew, all without missing a beat. Jason also kept a small tablet on his kneeboard (a clipboard strapped to one leg) and tracked where we were at all times on a digital map.
We followed highway 26 at about 1,800 ft. MSL and made our way to my hometown of Sandy, Oregon. Although I didn’t specifically see my house, I could see my neighborhood. We flew directly above it. As we maneuvered further south, I was surprised by how dense the trees are in east Multnomah and west Clackamas counties. When I fly over the area in X-Plane with photo-realistic scenery, everything is in its place and even larger buildings are replicated rather well, but the density of trees is not very accurate in the simulator.
I was allowed to choose our course and fly there, and Jason never took over the controls until we were on the final turn to land back at Troutdale. We passed over my house another time, then flew above the Sandy River back toward home base.
As we flew, Jason remarked at how smooth and well coordinated my turns were. He was surprised that I have never actually flown before; my only experience is conceptual and simulated. The principles are easy to follow, though, and I have a fair bit of coordination after riding motorcycles all my life and playing drums since grade school.
When we approached KTTD, Jason gave me the opportunity to have my hands on the wheel as he performed the landing. I wasn’t comfortable with that, as I didn’t want to risk influencing his control inputs. I was satisfied with observing and noting his actions. Jason described what he was doing every step of the way, which I greatly appreciated. I soaked it up like a sponge.
We came in close for a ‘short final’ approach, just west of the bluff above Troutdale. In my simulator, I had always flown over the bluff further to the east, making a longer and more gradual final approach. Jason dropped the flaps to full (30 degrees), slowed it up, and dropped us down for a steep approach. He flared the aircraft and made a nice landing.
In the real aircraft, I had a much more accurate sense for how far we were above the runway. In the simulator, it’s harder to tell where and when to flare because you don’t have the same sense of altitude.
We taxied off the runway, contacted ATC, and made our way back to the parking area outside the Gorge Winds office.
I helped Jason tie down the plane, took a minute to snap some photos, then went inside. I purchased a pilot log book and Jason noted our flight within.
The experience was a thrill and completed a bucket list item I’ve had since I was a small boy. I definitely wish to fly again, and hope to take the controls a bit more next time.
I have been flying in my home simulator based on a Cessna 172 cockpit for almost two years now. My gear is focused on the tactile fidelity of a real cockpit, using a yoke and throttle quadrant and simulated gauges. Everything runs wonderfully with X-Plane 11 and is super easy to configure. This is probably the most common and well-supported gear you can get for a home cockpit.
Lately I have been wanting to fly other types of aircraft, including fighter jets, and the narrowly focused nature of my gear doesn’t handle the versatility I need. As a result, I have sold all of my current avionics (other than my rudder pedals) and am switching to a touch screen for gauges and a Thrustmaster H.O.T.A.S. ‘Warthog’ joystick and throttle for flight controls.
I have sold the following items as a package to a small airport in Michigan.
Recently I videotaped a simulated flight from Troutdale, OR [KTTD] to Aurora, OR [KUAO]. The aircraft was the default Cessna 172 with the Reality Expansion Pack installed.
This was on my home flight simulator, which runs X-Plane 11.25 on a Windows 10 machine with an i7 processor (4.2 GHz overclocked to 4.6 GHz), 32 GB RAM, and a GTX 1080i video card. I was getting an average of 31 frames per second during the flight. I use three 32″ flat panel monitors, Saitek FIP gauges, yoke, throttle quadrant, and rudder pedals. I also use Saitek radio, switch, and multi-function devices.
I recently decided to take up guitar again. I used to play back in the 90’s and gave it up when I traded my guitar rig (Epiphone Les Paul and Line 6 POD) for a laptop around 2003 or 2004. I messed around with bass guitar for about a year and had some fun with that, but I wasn’t playing it often enough to continue so I sold my bass.
Recently I bought another Les Paul and a Digitech multi-effects pedal and decided to try my hand at electric guitar once again. I was never very good at it, but I always enjoyed it.
Training videos didn’t exist the last time I had an electric guitar. My, how times have changed! With the advent of YouTube, you can practically watch videos explaining how to perform brain surgery in the comfort of your own home (where is Gary Larson when you need him?)
The first thing I searched for were charts of scales and chords. Those are easy enough to find and print out. The next thing I searched for were YouTube videos produced by guitar teachers. I found the best there is:
Justin has been teaching guitar for most of his career and is a natural. There are those who are great at something but can’t teach it effectively. There are those who are great teachers but not that great at the skill itself. Justin is both. After watching some of his videos and reviewing his web site (I’m now a member), it’s obvious he’s both a very hard worker and a genuinely nice chap.
Membership to JustinGuitar.com is free, although donations are happily accepted. His videos are freely available on YouTube, although I strongly suggest those that are interested in learning guitar sign up for a free membership and make a donation. Its cheaper than in-person lessons and you can watch them in any order you wish, as often as you wish, or watch the same ones multiple times.
One of the biggest advantages of setting up an account at JustinGuitar.com is the lesson plans. Justin maps out lesson courses based on your skill level and goals. Following the lesson plans are easy and you can check each lesson off as you complete them.
Justin’s teaching style is very approachable and he has an affable personality that makes the beginner feel very comfortable and at ease.
One of the things I’m impressed about the most, though, is Justin’s approach to teaching in general. It is thorough yet approachable, it is complete yet easy to follow, and it is encouraging throughout the entire experience. Justin not only has a knack for teaching, but he has an organized approach and method that I think would be a valuable lesson to anyone seeking to teach others.
After a recent Windows 10 update from Microsoft, many features of my flight simulator (running X-Plane v11.21) stopped working. Specifically, all of my Saitek Flight Instrument Panel (FIP) gauges stopped working, and my Buttkicker stopped as well.
To get the FIP gauges working again, I had to reset their USB power management settings. The Windows update reverts those settings back to their default state. Why does an operating system feel it has the authority to change user-managed settings like this? Turning their power management back to off is a tedious process.
The Buttkicker stopped working because the software that manages the sound signals stopped working and had to be reinstalled. It also changed the assignment of which sound device fed the Buttkicker its sounds. Again, why does Windows do this?
After a bit of tedious settings management and some more trial and error, I got everything working again. The simulator is running normally.
On the X-Plane side, after updating it, I noticed the Cirrus Vision default airplane starts off with its control surfaces defaulted to full-left, making it impossible to fly. Calibrating the yoke and rudder pedals doesn’t fix it. Finally, X-Plane 11.21 gives me a warning that my Reality Expansion Pack Cessna 172 won’t look right. I click the OKAY button and then fly it as normal. I can’t tell what’s different visually.
After going through all this, I’ve since disabled Windows updates. Having a tightly controlled system like this requires only modifying it when necessary, and random changes imposed by OS updates can cause a lot of headaches. I only use this system for flight simulation, and it is well protected behind dual firewalls, so I’m not concerned about security. I don’t even surf the web from that machine.
To improve the sense of immersion in my home flight simulator, I purchased and installed a Buttkicker Gamer 2 transducer. This is a device that bolts to the base of an office chair and transmits vibrations into the chair based on sounds generated by the flight simulator. It’s like a subwoofer with vibration only, no sound.
Update Dec 17, 2020:I currently use the Buttkicker in X-Plane 11, Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, and DCS World 2.x. All three use the Simshaker software utility referenced below.
Buttkicker Gamer 2
I purchased the Buttkicker from FullCompass.com, with free shipping, and it left their warehouse the day after I ordered it. Many other vendors I researched were either out of stock or sold them at above MSRP (Amazon, what the hell?) The Gamer 2 edition comes with the transducer, a dedicated power amplifier, and all the cables you need to connect it to your flight simulator.
Installation took about a half hour, and most of that time was spent feeding the wires around and out of the way behind my simulator. After getting it plugged into the sound-out jack on the back of my PC, I fired it up and tested it out. It really startled me the first time it vibrated my seat. Even though I knew it was going to happen, the amount of vibration it can produce was startling. I reduced the sound levels and did some more testing.
From all I’d read on the forums, I learned that although the Buttkicker can be used directly with X-Plane 11, the experience isn’t as specific as it can be. The solution is a pair of software solutions working in tandem, one free and one payware. Simshaker for Aviators is the free part, and Simshaker Sound Module is the payware part (about $30 USD; it’s from a guy named Andre in Vologograd, Russia, so the exchange rate will vary).
Using these two apps, you can fine-tune the types of simulated events that produce vibrations and the amount of relative vibration for each event. Otherwise, without these apps, it vibrates generically with any low-frequency sound.
My flight simulator is located in a spare bedroom on the second floor of my house. There was some noticeable vibration in the room beneath on the first floor. This was because the Buttkicker was attached to my office chair, which was sitting on its wheels pressed into the carpeted floor directly above. I needed some way to reduce or eliminate the vibrations being transmitted through the floor.
Sorbothane anti-vibration pads, 2 1/4 in. wide by 1/4 in. thick
The pads are very sticky and I read reports that they can stain carpet, so I cut circles of waxed paper and stuck them to one side of the sorbothane pads. I purchased some square furniture cups from the local hardware store and stuck the pads to the bottom of those. I tried sitting the chair’s wheels into these cups but the sides weren’t high enough to keep the wheels in place, so I removed the wheels from my chair entirely and placed them in the cups. (In the picture, you can’t see the sorbothane pads; they are pressed against the carpet under the brown furniture cups.)
Pads installed under furniture cups
This reduced the amount of vibration being transmitted into the room below by at least half. It was quieter than the noises generated by my forced air furnace.
Once I got all that set up and got the software installed, it was time for some test flying in X-Plane 11. I started in Boston and flew to Nantucket in a Cessna 172, then over to Martha’s Vineyard. The Buttkicker conveys a predictable engine vibration, along with other events like flaps going up or down. The most exciting vibration event is when the wheels first touch down while landing.
I still have a lot of experimentation to do, both with the amplifier settings and with the software settings.
So far I would say it was a worthwhile investment for those wishing to increase the level of apparent immersion in their home flight simulator.
X-Plane comes with a Cessna 172 by default. It’s a competent plane and it is what I have flown since I got X-Plane 11 back in May of 2017. I wanted more realism so I purchased the after-market Cessna 172 by Airfoil Labs.
It was buggy and presented several challenges to flying. I had to learn how to land all over again. There were several graphical issues that prevented me from flying the AFL 172 at all. I got fed up and uninstalled it.
After reading posts from other sim pilots on X-Plane.org’s forum, I discovered another approach. Now, I fly the default Cessna 172 with the SimCoders.com Reality Expansion Pack ($19.99) installed on top of it.
The aircraft experience feels more immersive, because I’m not just flying a virtual plane, I’m managing the entire aircraft from when I approach it on the tarmac to take-off to flight to landing and finally when I park it. I even conduct maintenance on it like I would a real airplane.
The REP has been very stable, too. There was one sound error that occurred, but removing the Cessna 172 from the list of possible AI aircraft fixed the problem.
I’ve spent several hours practicing pattern work, but I’ve always done it with clear weather and no wind. Lately, I’ve attempted to add crosswinds to the mix to simulate more real-world conditions. It hasn’t gone well.
I set up a 6 kt 90 degree crosswind at Aurora Muni (KUAO) and took off in the X-Plane default Cessna 172. Take-off and flying the left-hand pattern went relatively well, but when I came in on final and entered the glideslope, things seemed to get wonky.
My approach was made on runway 35 so the wind should have been directly from my left. The windsock showed this to be true. However, my plane seemed to be drifting to the left. I attempted a forward slip with a little right aileron and a small amount of left rudder, and things went wonky even more.
It was crazy trying to get the plane lined up with the runway, yet the wind was only 6 knots, with no gusts configured. I gunned the engine, raised my flaps, and conducted a go-around.
As I was flying the pattern again, I paid close attention to what the wind seemed to be doing to the aircraft. At pattern altitude of 1,000 feet AGL, it seemed to be getting blown to the west. That’s incorrect — the wind was configured to be blowing from the west. I turned onto the base leg and the groundspeed slowed, again indicating I had a headwind from the east. When I turned onto the final leg, once again I had fits getting a line on the runway.
I’ve heard that X-Plane 11 has notoriously inaccurate ground effect winds and handling. This seems to be the case. When I got my wheels on the ground, I turned my ailerons fully to the left, to the west and the direction the windsock indicated the wind was blowing, and got shot far to the right and onto the grass.
I can’t confirm it, but it very much acted like the wind was blowing the exact opposite direction the windsock was indicating (and the weather configuration specified).
UPDATE 01-29-2018: I have confirmed the wind and windsock are behaving correctly in X-Plane. It’s operator error on my part.
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Like many fantasy authors, Steve Williamson was introduced to the genre when he played his first game of Dungeons & Dragons. It was during a family camping trip in May, 1980, and as he and two friends sat inside a travel trailer rolling dice and fighting orcs, the air outside became gritty and hard to breath. It was permeated with the fine gray ash spewing out of Mount St. Helens which was erupting just sixty miles away.
Steve now lives in Western Oregon in the shadow of another active volcano, Mount Hood.