(CNN) — Avgeek desktop gamers and wannabe airline captains can finally get the high-altitude fix they’ve been craving.
Following a prolonged period of hibernation, the rebooted Microsoft Flight Simulator, officially available on August 18, could be the perfect antidote to pandemic-induced cabin fever — or to airplane cabin withdrawal symptoms, for those who’ve been bumped off their real-world flight plans due to Covid-19.
Or if looping the loop over the snow-capped Pyrenees is your thing, the new flightsim helps users master the controls of a Pitts aerobatic plane as it slices through snow and wind effects that mirror real-world weather, derived in real time from climatic data sources.
Alternatively, if you didn’t manage to get your skiing holiday in this spring break, you could go off-piste and get some digital solace by landing your Cessna Citation executive jet at Courchevel Altiport.
Photo-realistic graphics are a given in the world of online gaming, but what separates this sim from its rivals is the facility to fly anywhere in a world reconstructed from high-definition satellite-generated Microsoft Bing mapping imagery.
Bing data is siphoned through Microsoft’s machine-learning technology which then builds 1.5 billion houses and 2 trillion trees — not to mention 37,000 airports, all hand-touched to ensure that each runway has the right length and that taxiways and parking stands are marked correctly.
The colossal quantity of data required to simulate this realistic world in real time is managed using Microsoft’s Azure cloud-based platform. Azure does the heavy lifting, so your home computer doesn’t need to be of the super-duper variety to deliver a convincing experience.
Take off from London City Airport on a frosty morning, and as you pass the Shard you can even peer through the glinting glazed superstructure into the highly detailed interior of the building — just one of many architectural icons that have been modeled in geek-satisfying ultra-high-resolution to bring a sense of realism that transcends the norm for digital games.
That’s quite a feat for a sim that many fans had assumed, just a few years ago, would never be resurrected, or supported by Microsoft — given that the last revision was with the release of Microsoft Flight Simulator X (FSX), its 10th version, in 2006.
In the meantime, other flight simulator rivals had built their own simmer followings, notably Laminar Research’s X-Plane 11, which provides over 3,000 airports, an intuitive interface, high-resolution graphics and even pushback tugs and roaming fuel trucks at airports.
Another popular sim is AeroFly FS 2, that offers such features as route planning, an Instrument Landing System (ILS) Omnidirectional Radio Range (VOR), Non-directional Radio Beacon (NDB) plus Virtual Reality support for Oculus Rift and HTC Vive without any additional software.
And for simmers taking their first steps in preparation for a career in aviation, Lockheed Martin’s Prepar3D is also well liked, being specifically geared for prospective private, commercial and military pilots, and allowing users to create training scenarios using realistic environments.
A sense of community
Since announcing its intention to reboot Flight Simulator at E3 in June 2019 Microsoft has been honing the product and responding to the flightsim faithful with a raft of new features.
“We listened to the community and two things were loud and clear that came out of E3,” Jorg Neumann, head of Microsoft Flight Simulator, tells CNN Travel. “One was VR; the other one was seasons.”
Virtual Reality, which is gaining traction in the gaming world as players shift to more immersive gaming formats, “is going to be supported this fall,” says Neumann. That’s just the start.
On seasonal weather variations Neumann enthuses that, “You can turn snow on and off now to make sure that when you fly in winter over Norway, for example, it actually looks appropriate.”
Insomniacs haven’t been forgotten either. For those who love night flying the sim can handle what’s called NVFR (night visual flight rules). To do this Neumann’s team recreated the glow above cities.
“We’ve taken the Kelvin temperature of different light types (the Kelvin scale is used to measure color temperature). And then the parking lots have completely different lights now than, say, sports stadiums or neighborhoods.”
Attention to detail at airports has also been upgraded since the sim was previewed at E3. At that time the airports didn’t have undulating runways, and simmers who tested the pre-Alpha version wanted to sense the feel of a genuine runway during takeoffs and landings.
“We heard quite a bit from the community that most runways aren’t actually flat. So we added undulating runways and a bunch of what we call ‘airport life’ — more and more vehicles were added to the airport nightlife,” says Neumann.
Weather realism has been cranked up a number of notches too: For example, rain on the airplane’s windshield is now affected by the propeller, because that’s what happens on a real plane when a propeller spins — it drives the raindrops over the windshield.
And if nature doesn’t quite hit the spot, these elemental parameters can be overridden. If a player wants to test landing in a cross-wind, for instance, they can turn up the wind force or direction, make the sky cloudier, or intensify rainfall to make things even more challenging.
In the driving seat
A key aspect of the flightsim experience is the handling of the cockpit controls. Microsoft has improved the camera physics to get pilot head movements more accurate.
“It’s super-important also for VR,” explains Neumann. “In VR, you’re very much immersed in the experience. Your head sort of bobs around a bit as the air shakes the plane, but also when you make sharp turns or flips, so that’s all now improved.”
To pass muster with simmers who are also pilots in the real world, Microsoft has improved cockpit lighting and instrumentation, adding advanced systems such as weather radar and transponders (the tech that enables airplanes to be tracked by air traffic controllers).
Ready to launch
This new incarnation of Microsoft Flight Simulator is being launched amid a crescendo of mounting anticipation, catalyzed by leaked images and video clips across social media of the sim in action. But the buzz is justified, according to its most ardent proponents:
“Microsoft combined the wishes and hopes of the whole flight simulation community and made it happen, and made it real — that’s how powerful the product is,” Lisbon-based Sérgio “HeliSimmer.com” Costa tells CNN Travel.
Costa is one of an elite cohort of hardcore FlightSim enthusiasts that were invited by Microsoft last summer to flight-test the sim at Microsoft’s Renton, Washington, facilities during its pre-Alpha stage of development, and to provide ongoing feedback.
Enlisting the relentless enthusiasm of prominent figures in the FlightSim fellowship has been integral to redefining the sim.
“It’s always important when you get the community involved in the development of a product that is targeted at that community,” says Costa.
And, by funneling in the feedback, wishlists and expectations of the cream of its vast userbase of dedicated simmers, Microsoft has ratcheted up the pre-launch sizzle.
“After the first event [at E3], we opened up an Alpha [testing version] and embraced the simmer audience,” says Microsoft’s Neumann.
“We have people in the simmer community that are real-world pilots, and they give us a ton of feedback — even to the extent that they say, ‘Hey, I flew this sim and it doesn’t feel quite right. I’m going to fly the real version of this plane this weekend and let you know how it really works’.”
“And then, sure enough, on Monday, we get an email with a precise description of where our sim differs a little bit from the real world and then we make appropriate adjustments — that back and forth has been constant.”
Friends in high places
This close relationship between Microsoft and the simmer community has propelled the buy-in of Flight Simulator to new heights, with a level of engagement that converts consumers into active followers and advocates — not that the sim didn’t already have a gargantuan following.
“Getting the community to work with you, if done properly — and Microsoft has done it very well — is always a plus,” says Sérgio Costa with unbridled zeal.
“I think that’s a very smart strategy for Microsoft and I think it will bring a lot of new blood into the market.”
That market is a reference to the ever-expanding community of creators that make extra simulated planes and airports. Microsoft may have covered most of the bases with the new Flight Simulator, but has been careful to leave scope for its followers to produce ‘add-ons’ to augment the sim, which comes in three editions.
“We try to find the right balance. Third parties have built 1,000 airports or so over the years and we want them to be able to do this again on the new platform,” says Neumann.
Of the 37,000 airports in the new system, 30 of these have been specially “hand-crafted” for Microsoft’s Standard Edition ($59.99) of the sim, which includes 20 highly detailed planes.
This Standard Edition will also be available on day one (August 18, 2020) with Xbox Game Pass for PC (Beta).
The Deluxe Edition ($89.99) includes everything from the Standard Edition plus five additional highly accurate planes with unique flight models and five additional handcrafted international airports.
A Premium Deluxe Edition ($119.99) includes everything from the Standard Edition plus 10 extra highly accurate planes with unique flight models, plus 10 additional handcrafted international airports.
There’s no date yet for an Xbox One release.
“But now we’re facing completely different realities,” says Neumann. “We’re hearing from [furloughed] pilots that they keep fresh by playing the sim because they can’t fly in the real world.”
Then the FlightSim boss recounts a bout of homesickness a couple of weeks ago — his parents live in Germany, but he can’t visit them due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
“I was so homesick that I actually flew a plane and landed next to the lake where my parents live. And, it’s real time, so it’s actually the exact same time of day and the exact same weather that they were experiencing. And I picked up the phone to call them and said, ‘Hey, I just want you to know, I know I can’t be there with you, but I’m as close as I can possibly get.'”
Neumann’s yearning for home seems to be emblematic of a universal aspiration right now, in our pandemic-smitten times, to get traveling again.
“I get from the simmer community that there’s a real appreciation that we can still somehow reach across the planet, even if it’s just in virtual format.”
Paul Sillers is an aviation journalist specializing in passenger experience and future air travel tech. Follow him at @paulsillers