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How Microsoft Flight Simulator Made Me A Better Pilot

I happen to be a pilot in real life. I also happen to be an archaeologist by training and so I guess that I have many talents, but at least one up on Indiana Jones because I actually know how to land an airplane. In any case, I have somewhat mixed feelings about flight simulators, having used everything from game controllers to the full cockpit variety endorsed by aviation authorities around the world.

I’ve always considered flight simulators to be wonderful when it comes to practicing procedures, especially instrument procedures. I readily admit to having spent countless hours flying holds or procedure turns before shooting a few missed approaches, but in terms of capturing the feeling of flight, these almost always come up short. Pilots and passengers of light aircraft in particular experience a lot of different physical phenomena while in the air which flight simulators can’t easily capture, something which most aviation authorities refer to as human factors. I could give dozens of examples, but the best would have to be the leans.

Pilots often perceive level flight during a turn, so when returning to straight and level, there’s a tendency to enter back into a turn, particularly if they’re flying at night without any outside visual references. This can be explained by the semicircular canals in your vestibular system which detect angular acceleration. These are filled with fluid that moves around with your head, stimulating hairs and giving an impression of movement. The fluid settles after a while, causing the hair to stand back up, stopping the sense of rotation. This means that when they return to level flight after a turn, pilots feel as if they’re banked in the opposite direction, causing them to either turn or quite literally lean to the side.

While some of the more sophisticated flight simulators can replicate this type of thing with a series of hydraulic lifts, I’ve only ever trained in a handful of such setups because they’re often worth a staggering amount of money. The result is of course that practically all flight simulators feel a bit fake no matter what software is being used, as graphical fidelity is just one part of the overall experience.

I’ve already described using them to practice procedures, but the eponymous flight simulator by Microsoft in particular has been a huge help to me in a couple of other ways, making me a much better pilot over the course of my aviation career. I started playing 20 years ago, and if you start counting from when I completed my first lesson in flight school, I’ve easily put thousands of hours into various versions of the game. The long list of airplanes featured in the latest release has on the other hand been the cause of my improvement as a pilot.

You can ask anyone who manages airplanes they’ll tell you that aircraft run on paperwork, not aviation fuel. This takes the form of several different logbooks, but also documentation along the lines of the all important pilot operating handbook. This would be how I’ve made the most growth as a pilot over the course of the last couple of years, the most recent version of Microsoft Flight Simulator having been released back in 2020.

The game features a wide variety of different aircraft ranging from popular trainers like the Cessna 172 all the way up to airliners like the Boeing 787 in passing by light and medium twins, a couple of my personal favorites like the Beechcraft 58 and 350 for example. Microsoft Flight Simulator features a number of rather unusual or interesting airplanes including some warbirds like the North American T6 and P51. I couldn’t resist flying every single one of these, meaning of course that I had to read the relevant pilot operating handbooks.

You have to read the pilot operating handbook if you plan to fly an airplane properly. This takes a practical dimension, but there’s a legal aspect as well, given that a plane isn’t actually considered to be airworthy if not operated according to the manual. This document includes all sorts of information about the airplane in question such as a description of the different systems and structural limitations along with various handling instructions, most notably normal and emergency procedures. This normally runs a few hundred pages for something like a Cessna 172, but when it comes to more complicated airplanes like a Boeing 787, you’re looking at more like a few thousand. The upshot is that when you finally get through the pilot operating handbook, you’ve got a pretty solid understanding of the airplane.

Microsoft Flight Simulator managed to somehow motivate me to read a pile of pilot operating handbooks. I really do mean a pile. I’ve probably worked my way through thirty or forty thousand pages worth of material. The result has been that I’ve become a substantially better pilot for having done this, familiarizing myself with a much wider variety of airplanes than I otherwise would have, learning all about them in great detail right from the source. It might have been a little bit tedious, but everything was well worth the effort.

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