Flying Too High
Archive: April 1st, 2013
[Editorial] Flight simulation is a hobby that has made quantum leaps over the past decades. From computer simulations that reproduced a mere silhouette if an aircraft, to early virtual cockpits, to add-ons that replicate almost all functions of a modern (and historic) aircraft, flight simulator has reached a point that anyone can now learn how to program an FMC, or how to recite ATC phraseology, or simply how to fly an aircraft. Releases over the past few years have come with checklists and procedures that mirror those of their real life counterparts in such detail and complexity that they are virtually the same. Virtual pilots can now access approach charts, and arrival procedures, and can now not only fly, not only program a simple autopilot, but they can enter information and create a flight plan as to let an advanced autopilot system fly the route at the correct altitudes, and even to land the aircraft, just as is done in real life.
No one can deny that flight simulation has truly become "as real as it gets" and has then gone further. It is no longer a simulation. For all intents and purposes, it is reality.
With complex aircraft and fully accurate sceneries, realism is definitely in its golden era.
Logistically, this era of FS is perfect. I marvel at how truly realistic it has become, and I'm sure I'm not alone. I have, however, some slight "concerns". The concerns that I have are apparently unfixable, but go right into the core of flight simulations, and the desire for reality to the absolute maximum. I think that in replicating reality, we have gone too far. I am not the first to think this. The editor of a well-renowned PC simulation magazine had similar thoughts, and I want to share what I believe about flight simulation as a whole. Again, don't get me wrong - I do love the unbelievable realism in FS, but I think it has gone too far. I have to point out that I am referring to advanced modern aircraft. I'm not talking about VFR flying, or flying into little airstrips, or even flying in older jet aircraft. I'm talking about aircraft like the 737NG, or the A320, or even the 747. The kind of aircraft you can autoland and the kind of aircraft with a FMC, or fly-by-wire.
The Boeing 777 is an example of a modern aircraft quipped with quite advanced technology.
Alright - back to what I was saying. Flight simulation was created in the beginning for fun. It wasn't meant to be exactly like the real world; rather it was a way to fly around through the simple virtual skies and to feel the joys of flying an aircraft. Since then new versions have been released, and new add-ons and developers have come onto the stage, to morph FS info what it is now. I have a question to propose about modern flight simulation - are we really flying? Sure we taxi and take off, and we program the FMC, and reset the dials on the MCP, but are we really flying? Can you call flipping switches, turning dials and entering ICAO airport codes flying, considering that half of the time we aren't even the ones landing the plane? For some, this is fun, but is this really what flight simulator was meant for?
The 737NG series of aircraft is equipped with an advanced autoland system.
It's quite interesting the way FSX especially has come to follow the real world. We are now at a point in real world aviation in which technology is, or at least likely is, causing the problem. I'm thinking of Air France 447, where the pilots were likely lulled into a false sense of security, with six LCD screens reading the same information 40,000 feet above the Atlantic, and when the displays suddenly read stall information, the two tired co-pilots pulled up, and held that position as the A330 fell from the sky. That situation, however, may not have just been a case of inexperienced pilots but rather of a generation of aviation in which there is a supreme reliance on technology, to the point at which when something goes wrong, pilots have simply forgotten how to fly.
The “high-maintenance” analog gauges of older aircraft have now been replaced with digital LCD screens in most new aircraft.
Back to flight simulator, though. That is kind of what is happening to flight simulation, only in a slightly different light. We are forgetting how to really fly. We can program an FMC really well, but when it comes down to what really matters, I think that flight simulator is getting too advanced, and this might be taking away the fun in FS.
A familiar sight for most pilots of the PMDG 737NGX.
To wrap it up, I’m not saying that you should forget about the NGX, or the A320, or whatever other modern jetliner that you, as do all of us, like to fly. There is really one simple solution. Call me old fashioned (which I would find hard to imagine), but remember to, every so often, fly. Maybe just switch off the autopilot before final approach once in a while, or hand fly the aircraft to cruise, or just hop in a prop every so often. Fly the airplane. Be in command. What I am really trying to say is that above all, flight simulator is for fun, and as fun as programming an FMC is, we need to remember to have fun for as long as aviation, and its virtual counterpart, jet forward and fly towards the future.
-Derek Macpherson (Vancouver, Canada)