How realistic are flight sims?

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This was going to be quite a long post. And then one of the YouTube channels I follow posted this.

Frankly, I agree with everything he says in this video, so that’s saved me a lot of typing.

Flying an aircraft in FSX, P3D or X-Plane is nothing like flying an aircraft in real life. And for two key reasons:

  • There are significant limitations to how much of the experience can be simulated.
  • In a flight sim, there are no significant consequences to your actions.

You’ll note that neither of those points uses the world ‘realism’. And that’s deliberate because that is a much abused and devalued term in this context, although we will get to it. On the whole, when flight simmers talk about realism, they’re mostly concerned with how things look, not how they behave. There is an obsession with visual detail and not so much about how close the experience of flying in a simulator comes to flying in the real world. The two are very far from being the same thing.

It’s self-evident that a PC-based simulator is not going to provide the physical sensations of flight. Even a professional, full-motion simulator is limited in this regard. And so this element of flight is largely ignored in discussions of realism. And that’s a mistake.

The gut-chilling moment when negative g kicks in during a stall, the head-spinning disorientation of a steep turn, the constant buffeting of turbulence, the heat and blinding light of the sun through the plexiglass, plus the cognitive overload of radio traffic, weather, other aircraft, navigation, the need to maintain situational awareness and many, many factors have a profound impact on your ability to fly the aircraft and perform at an adequate level.

In real life, this might be considered a problem.

In a flight sim, you cruise around in a safe, stable, calm environment, able to deal with things at your leisure. In other words, you have it much too easy. And no, it makes no difference how much weather you dial in, how many ‘realism’ mods you have, how high you turn the settings – a sim can never come close to the sensation of being in a real aircraft. Its recreation of the experience is only ever partial.

Then there’s the matter of how realistic sims are in their own terms. The skilled people who design the simulated aircraft do a pretty good job. But, as the video points out, they are probably limited by the simulation engines themselves. For example, in X-Plane I fly C152, C172 and Grumman AA-5 Traveler aircraft, all of which I’ve flown in the real world. And I can aileron roll or loop those puppies like they’re F-16s. Try that in real life and people will be telling funny stories at your wake.

In the simulator, I don’t have to worry about making a good approach. Still at 90 degrees to the runway while over the numbers at 100ft? No problem – just wrap that C152 into a knife-edge turn, pull hard back, level out and chop the throttle. You’ll be knocking back a brandy in the clubhouse in no time. All those g-forces you would have pulled? Well, you can’t feel them, can you? And no FAA or CAA to worry about.

In other words, you can fly badly, excessively, and face no consequences. It’s something that promotes poor and, dare I say it, unrealistic flying.

Yes, I know in some flight sims, in some settings, failures can occur if you abuse the aircraft too much. But I’ve committed hooligan flying in X-Plane that I know should have put me deep into a hole in the ground – and didn’t.

There are individual points where the simulation makes contact with reality – points at which the flight simulator accurately, to a greater or lesser degree, faithfully emulates the real world. But physics doesn’t work as a series of discrete components.

And this, ultimately, is the limitation of flight sims. Yes, you can program stall speeds and P factor and many ‘realistic’ forces into a simulated aircraft. But the PC-based plane will never have the complexity of interactions between these elements that a real plane will. And in a real aircraft, you’re not going to want to test the limits of those factors. In a simulator, there’s really no reason not to.

Of course, that’s part of the attraction of sims. You can have the kind of fun you can’t have in real life.

Simply landing a C172 at Heathrow with no-one yelling at me is a bit of a thrill. Similarly, performing a catapult shot from the USS Nimitz in the Grumman AA-5 – and then somehow managing to land it back on the deck in a thunderstorm – was also a wild ride. If that isn’t an example of flight sims being closer to the fantasy world of games than to the reality of flight then I don’t know what is. And I play with sims for precisely that reason – to have fun. A different kind of fun to that I had flying real planes.

Because flight sims are games. Yes, you can usefully practice procedures with them. And I don’t just mean things like ATC and navigation exercises, but even things as simple as judging visual approaches to runways. There’s enough realism there for sims to be useful aids to flight training and staying current IRL. This is what I mean about reality touching the virtual world at certain points. But only those points. Ultimately, the complete experience of flying a virtual plane and flying a real one are worlds apart, and in very significant ways.

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