Consumer Grade Flight Simulators – Not For Me

This video was recorded before I got my rudder pedals, and is no indication of my ability to perform a take-off 😛

As I wrote in my last post: this year I have been making an effort to get in the air more often and get closer to attaining my pilots license. This month I bought some equipment and software for my own personal flight simulator. My set up consisted of X-Plane 11, the Logitech G Saitek Pro Flight Yoke System and Thrustmaster TFRP T-Flight Rudder Pedals.

My thought process behind putting together the simulator was that if I could practice some elements of my training from my home office and therefore save myself even a few hours of real life flight time, I’d break-even or even save money. An added benefit was that I could use VatSim to practice my radio communication with Air Traffic Control and other aircraft outside the busy environment of an aircraft cockpit.

Unfortunately my time with the combination of hardware and software I bought and used left me feeling dissapointed.

X-Plane

My initial impressions of X-Plane were mixed. The hardware configuration wizards, aerodynamic physics and aircraft models are fantastic — however it’s not without some bigger problems, outlined below:

  1. To get close to the environmental detail you see in many videos of X-Plane posted online you need to download a load of mods (like ORTHO4XP and HD Mesh). Most of these are labours of love and, therefore, whilst excellent don’t have the best initial set up user experience
  2. The sim doesn’t come with a model of any of the PA-28 family of aircraft, which I fly in real life and is the second most popular training aircraft in the world. (In the video above I am flying a Cessna 172)
  3. Although the hardware setup wizard was excellent, X-Plane had an irritating habit of losing my rudder pedal settings everytime I launched it, so I saw this screen far too often
  4. In the out-of-the-box configuration everything is very american centric. First I noticed the massive amount of Delta Boeing 747’s at Cambridge Airport, then when I tried to use the built-in ATC it spoke of, for example, ‘altimeter settings’ rather than ‘QNH’. This, as far as I could tell, wasn’t configurable

VatSim

Being unimpressed with the simulated air traffic control built into X-Plane I decided to join VatSim. VatSim is an impressive feat; a well-organised collective of virtual pilots and air traffic controllers all around the world coming together to produce a very realistic flying network. There’s a range of software built around the VatSims protocols including this neat Google Map which shows the sheer number of people currently flying in the network.

Whilst in theory and in terms of technology I loved VatSim in reality it wasn’t quite right for what I wanted to do. After spending far longer than I should have done configuring VatSim and getting connected I spawned into Cambridge Airport with my puny Cessna 172. Fairly quickly I realised that not only were there no other aircraft within 50 nautical miles, there was also no one playing as ATC in my region. It turns out that most of the VatSim pilots simulate large commercial aircraft (Boeing 747s, Airbus A380s etc) rather than small single prop General Aviation planes. This, in turn, means that most people simulating Air Traffic Controllers converge around large national or regional hubs such as Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester where GA isn’t welcome.

When I gave in and spawned at Gatwick in a 747 the ATC ‘chatter’ was of really good quality — I could have believed it was real — …right up until someone joined the server and proceeded to breath very heavily down their microphone for 5 minutes whilst everyone shouted at them.

Rudder Pedals

On the hardware side of things my biggest complaints lay with the Rudder Pedals. In both a PA-28 and a Cessna 172 the pedals perform two major functions:

  1. Their primary function, as is evident from the name, is to control the position of the rudder on the vertical stabilizer. The rudder allows the pilot to control the yaw of the aircraft.
  2. The top half of the pedals, known as toe breaks, can be used to perform differential breaking on the main landing gear. Differential breaking can be used to aid tighter turning when taxiing on the ground, and both breaks are applied at even pressure during landing to slow the aircraft down.

I unfortunately had issues with both functions. Rudder control in an aircraft, as you can imagine, has some weight to it — the rudder is being hit not only by the air you’re flying through at 112kts but also by the slipstream caused by your propellor rotating at 2400RPM. Unfortunately with consumer grade flight simulation pedals you cannot feel any pushback when you press on the pedals, so they make very large movements. Even with the sensitivity turned right down in X-Plane I still had to take my shoes off and press as lightly as I could to make anything other than full whack changes to the position of my rudder. After a while I remember exclaiming “wow, it’s actually easier to fly a plane in real life than use these”.

Other than the issues related to the lack of force my Thrustmaster pedals also had a bad relationship with X-Plane. They often seemed to invert direction between simulated flights, and in more than one simulation both pedals just affected how far to the left I wanted my rudder to position. No right rudder for me!

Yoke

I actually quite liked the Logitech Yoke. As well as being nicely shaped for extended use and having additional buttons on the controls for things such as flap extension it came with some very nice to use Throttle, Mixture and Prop Feathering quadrants.

Despite the good build quality and ease of use and set up of the Yoke it too suffered the problem that all affordable consumer greade flight simulator products have; a complete lack of feedback in the controls. This made it exceptionally difficult to trim (explanation) the aircraft, which was one of the skills I was hoping to improve on using the flight sim.

Conclusion

X-Plane 11 is a cool product, I think that if it came with ORTHO4XP and HD Mesh out of the box and improved its internationalization and built-in ATC I would be able to reccomend it to more PPL students.

The VatSim community remains impressive to me. It’s well organised and seems to have positive outcomes for most of the people involved. However, for someone who is practicing for their PPL I’d reccomend to give it a miss. In my experience you’ll quickly become frustrated with the lack of other single piston aircraft in circuits and ATCs at small and medium sized airfields and airports.

In terms of hardware the biggest problem for me was a lack of feedback on the controls. I understand that more expensive commercial set ups have this feedback built in using hydralics and I’d love to give these at go at some point to see how realistic they feel. However, for my budget I just don’t think the hardware is of great use — my equipment has therefore gone back to Amazon and I’ll be spending the refund money on some more real life flight hours.

Danny

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