Sound Advice: Home flight simulators realistically re-create flying experience

  • Article by: DON LINDICH , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 4, 2014 - 1:22 PM
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Programs such as “Flight Simulator X” re-create the experience of flying an airplane.

Q: On your Facebook page, there’s a picture of you at the controls of what looks to be a large airplane. Is that an actual plane you are flying?

A: It’s a full-motion Boeing 737-800 flight simulator. I flew it in Las Vegas through Airline ­Captain for a Day (www.airlinecaptainforaday.com).

Although I love airplanes and aviation, I’m not a licensed pilot. I took lessons years ago but didn’t finish my license due to time restraints. I later took up home flight simulation at the suggestion of an airline captain friend who was a “simmer” himself. I find it to be an enjoyable and interesting hobby.

There’s been a lot of interest in the subject lately because of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and subsequent discussion of its captain’s home simulator, so I thought it would be a good subject for this week’s column.

The two major flight simulation programs are “Microsoft Flight Simulator X” (“FSX”) or “X-Plane.” I run “FSX.”

You need a fast computer to run “FSX” well. Plan on an overclocked Intel i5 or i7. AMD chips will run “FSX,” but tests show that it works best on Intel. You don’t need more than 8 gigabytes of RAM. Dedicated NVidia video cards are also recommended.

It’s possible to build a home simulator that exactly mimics a real airliner cockpit but doesn’t move. This requires a six-figure budget and a lot of skill. See examples at www.tinyurl.com/kmghktx.

Most home simmers have something more modest. I use the Saitek Pro Flight yoke, throttle, pedals, autopilot and switch panel interfaces with the SPAD driver (www.saitek.com).

Extra software components greatly enhance simulator realism. I use Real Environment Extreme (www.realenvironmentxtreme.com) for weather and scenery. It offers better scenery and downloads actual weather patterns and loads them into your simulator.

For traffic, I use ICE AI traffic (iceaitraffic.altervista.org), which is free. It adds actual airlines and realistic air traffic, fully integrated into FSX’s air traffic control. How real? Once, I had to wait in line on the tarmac for half an hour before taking off, waiting behind other planes taking off one by one.

Part of the fun of simulation is that you can try lots of different planes. You can get many for free at www.simviation.com. The most realistic airliner you can buy is the PMDG 737NG (www.precisionmanuals.com), designed in cooperation with Boeing. It duplicates all of the aircraft’s systems and mimics the flight model of a real 737 within 5 percent.

If you decide to try your hand at simulation, don’t start with jets. It will lead to endless crashes and a lot of frustration, especially if you max out the realism settings to make it as unforgiving and realistic as possible. A good plane to start with is the Cessna 172, which is included in the “FSX” package. Start there and work your way up. There are many good forums online where you’ll find other enthusiasts eager to help.

A home flight simulator won’t make you into a real pilot, but it can build a lot of knowledge and skill that will give you a big advantage if you do start taking lessons. You also can build your own little world with the custom airplanes and scenery, and fly around the world. It’s fun!

Send questions to Don Lindich at donlindich@gmail.com. Get more recommendations and read past columns at www.soundadviceblog.com.

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