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.
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.
Over the weekend I completed the next phase of my home flight simulator project. This effort was spent enclosing the cockpit in a shell or box to at least somewhat mimic the inside of an airplane’s cockpit.
I didn’t pursue realism. I wanted versatility, low impact, low cost, and ease of construction. The size of the cockpit enclosure is rather large compared to a real airplane, 59″ wide and 60″ tall. There are no side windows or imitation door handles. What it does, however, is make me feel like I’m inside the simulator, rather than sitting halfway in a room staring at a computer sitting in a closet. It also lets me control the amount of light and even the air flow to a certain extent. Here are pictures of the enclosure so you can see what I mean.
Step 1: Ceiling frame. I built a framework out of 1.5″ x 3/4″ hemlock and L brackets. It holds an AC Infinity USB-powered ventilation fan that will suck air up and out over the top of the simulator. This framework is very lightweight yet plenty sturdy enough to hold everything in place.
Step 2. Mount ceiling panel. I attached corrugated plastic panels to the underside (or inside) of the ceiling frame, and draped two additional panels down the sides. These are held in place by large binder clips, which means they can be easily removed for access. The entire ceiling panel rests on two L brackets mounted to the closet entrance, resting on the crossbeam you see in the ceiling framework. It actually pivots up and down with ease, as the whole panel is well balanced. In the rear, under the closet supports, are two down-facing L brackets with velcro to kept the panel from rotating up.
Side panels. In this photo, you can see the overall size of the enclosure, including detail of the side panels. These are corrugated plastic panels purchased at Home Depot. They are very lightweight and can be cut with a utility knife. The inside dimensions are 59″ wide and 60″ tall. They extend out into the room about 30″.
Far rear. Standing in the room looking into the simulator, you can see how much space there is to either side of the cockpit panel. I have an old speaker stand sitting to the right where I have my mouse to control the simulator’s menus and settings. I will put a small shelf of some kind to the left to hold an iPad, notebook, and a place to put a beverage.
Inside. From inside the cockpit you can see the ventilation fans I mounted in the ceiling panel. They are controlled by the dangling cord you see on the right; I’ve since tucked that back around the wall where I can reach it but it isn’t in my view. The back of the ceiling panel is pressed against the closet wall about 4″ above the top of my three 32″ monitors.
The materials to build the ceiling panel and side panels cost about $125, all purchased at Home Depot. The entire structure can easily be removed without having to remove any screws or other hardware, other than unplug the USB-powered ceiling fan.
After using the enclosure, I will be attaching some lightweight material along the back to block out sunlight, as there is a window directly behind the camera in this photo and it makes the inside of the cockpit a little too bright during mid-day. I’ll attach the material with binder clips for easy removal. The ceiling fan does a good job of ventilating warm air from the PC (lower-right, behind the mouse stand) and keeps the enclosure relatively comfortable. The fans themselves are relatively quiet, but because of how I mounted them they make a slight buzzing sound which actually is similar to what a Cessna 172 sounds like when it flies overhead at 5,000 feet. When I fly I wear headphones and don’t hear the fans or PC, however, so it’s moot. To others in the room, though, it actually sounds like a prop-driven plane buzzing along (quietly).
Next steps include putting a shelf of some kind on the left-hand side of the cockpit chair. I’ve also been teased that I need to put posters of blue skies and clouds on the inside of the side panels. We’ll see.
I have been very busy lately, but not with what you may expect. As you may know, I have been a motorcyclist for over a decade now, riding both a 2007 Suzuki V-Strom 650 adventure bike, and a 2012 Suzuki GSX-R750 sport bike. I had wanted to ride motorcycles ever since I was a kid, and have enjoyed doing so very much, racking up over 80,000 miles in 10 years of riding.
There is something I’ve wanted to do from an even earlier age.
I had the opportunity to take flying lessons when I was in my late teens but opted out because of the expense. Learning to fly is expensive, and flying once you get your license is expensive as well. So despite my passion and desire to fly since I was a very young boy, I have never pursued it.
Recently I heard about X-Plane, the flight simulation software that is arguably the de facto king of realistic simulation for the consumer (and professional) market. I ran a demo version of the software on my Macbook Pro and was blown away by the realism and depth.
Digging more, I found YouTube videos [ like this one ] of home-built cockpits and flight simulation rigs people are building in their own homes. Something clicked, and I realized I could get much closer to the experience of flying but at much lower cost and no risk to life-and-limb.
To get that desired realism, however, I would need a system a bit more involved than just a laptop and second screen. I began to research the kind of computer systems required to obtain the level of realism I needed, all based around X-Plane, and the flight simulation gear such as flight controls and gauges that would enhance the realism.
I purchased books about flying from both a theoretical and practical standpoint. I investigated products and vendors and watched hours of YouTube videos posted by home flight simmers. I produced a budget for what my desired system would cost.
Unwilling to incur debt, I was also unwilling to tap into savings. I had to find the money from another source. Doing some soul searching, I realized it would be better to own one motorcycle and a flight simulator than to own two motorcycles and no flight simulator.
So I sold the Gixxer.
Using the sale money from the motorcycle, I had the financial side of the project covered. Based on my vendor and product research, I had a shopping list ready to go. All I needed to do was start placing orders.
The heart of the flight simulator is the computer. I chose a high-end Windows PC purchased from X-Force PC, based in South Carolina. They partner with Laminar Research, the company that makes X-Plane, to provide LR with the systems used in X-Plane development and testing. This would ensure high compatibility and reliability. After a phone call with Michael Brown, the chief builder and head honcho at X-Force PC, I had a system ordered. I also purchased my Saitek gauges and flight controls. The service I got from X-Force PC in general and Michael specifically was fantastic.
Monitors, desk, and cockpit panel
Panel, yoke, rudder pedals, and computer
In-flight, showing LED lights around cockpit panel
Full system with gauges
Another key aspect of this system was location. Where would I put it? My home doesn’t have a basement, so I got creative. I emptied the closet of a spare room, mounted an adjustable shelf on the back wall to hold my video screens, and repurposed a small desk. The system is half in the closet, half out (no sociological puns intended). I have plans to build an enclosure around the seating area to mimic the realism of being inside an actual cockpit.
Flying is complex. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of knowledge. Operating the airplane is challenging enough on a perfect day, but when you factor in weather, topography, air traffic control, mechanics, and the myriad bits of information constantly deserving your attention, it quickly becomes an immersive experience that can eat up years of time and dedication.
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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.