“1’s and O’s”, (and lions, and tigers and bears) …oh my!
So, exactly WHAT is a flight simulation? It’s obviously a software program you run on your computer that allows you to fly around in a world created by that program. Cool. Can any computer run them? For the most part, your average run of the mill, home computer would not run them very well. Those of us in the hobby tend to build our own rigs, tailor them to our software needs and regularly upgrade them as the simulations themselves get more and more complex. The basic needs for a machine to run one of the current programs consists of a pretty robust computer chip, but it must (and I mean MUST) have a powerful video card, lots of memory (not only in the form of “storage” type, but also in the family of RAM…or random access memory), add in a good 4K monitor, and you get a gorgeous, very real looking environment. It is, after all, a visual medium, so the stuff that makes the program run and LOOK good is vitally important (I’ll address the advent of VR…virtual reality… in a bit).
(In the above picture [or as we in the computer world call them…”screenshot”], I’m flying the iconic UH-1 Huey in a “multi-player” [or online] flight with a bloke from Australia. In the shot below, I’m in a “single-player” [meaning flying against the A/I…or artificial intelligence] flight in the P-51D Mustang escorting a formation of B-17 Flying Fortresses. Again, it’s a VISUAL medium…that chip and video card have to make literally millions of calculations very, very quickly.)
Is all that junk fairly expensive? It can be, yes. The latest and greatest video card will set you back about one large (not in 100 large, it’s big brother with one more “0”), the motherboard, the chip, the RAM, the hard drive(s), the cooling system (these babies will run very hot as you ask them to do all that fancy math), the computer case, the monitor, the “peripherals” (joystick, throttle, pedals, etc), and you can be looking at a rather expensive “hobby”. More than say, collecting sportscars, airplanes or ex-wives? Good God no, but it does help to have an understanding banker, and far more importantly, an understanding spouse. Luckily for me I have both…lol.
Back to the programs themselves. BTW, I will be addressing military flight simulations only, there are civilian versions of these thing (Microsoft X being the most famous), but they aren’t really my thing. First of all, when speaking of military flight simulations, there are two basic types… they are either a “Survey” sim, or a “Study” Sim. A Survey sim means just that. A veritable smorgasbord of stuff to choose from (some Study sims offer a bit of that too), but THE major difference is the complexity of the program, and this is most evident when you’re sitting in the cockpit. They are both visually stunning (and I mean jaw-dropping gorgeous), but the big difference is what is called a “mouse clickable cockpit”. In the Study simulations, the folks that code them work extremely hard to make it as close to being EXACTLY like the real deal as they can. Every switch, every knob, every dial, every lever is movable, and MUST be moved with a mouse click (or mouse wheel rotation) to operate the machine correctly. In a Survey simulation, all of the stuff is there, but the cockpit is not “mouse clickable”. You simply “map” all of the things you might need to move (flap lever, gear handle, gun/rocket/bomb arming switches, etc.) to either a keyboard press, or a button push on your joystick/throttle setup. You can do that too in the study sims, but sometimes it’s just way too much fun to flip the switches, move the levers, and push the buttons…lol.
(Screenshot of a “non-clickable” cockpit. It’s the P-38J from the sim “IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Bodenplatte” https://il2sturmovik.com/ )
(Screenshot of a VERY “clickable” cockpit. It’s the F/A-18C from the sim “DCS World” (or Digital Combat Simulator” https://www.digitalcombatsimulator.com/en/ )
So, the major Survey sim is called “IL-2:Sturmovik” with its different add-on “battles” (it also offers an outstanding WWI add-on called “Flying Circus”). “IL-2: Sturmovik” only covers the Second World War (again, except for “Flying Circus”), and it offers a plethora of different machines to fly; from Spads and Halberstadts in WWI, to Stukas, Heinkels, Mustangs, Spitfires and Messerschmitt’s (even the late war jet powered -262) in WWII. Note: I’ve listed probably a third of the machines you can fly…they even have the good ol’ “Tante Ju” (Auntie Ju), the venerable Junkers Ju-52 tri-motor! Sound a bit weird …what the hell do you do in a Luftwaffe transport airplane on the Eastern Front? How about dropping paratroopers into battle? Plus, in all the bigger machines that have multiple crewmembers, you can switch around to any of the crew positions as you fly…tired of being the pilot, a few keyboard presses and you’re now the tail gunner! LOL! In the online world, you can jump in a machine AS the gunner with a human pilot…fun as hell. Again, it’s a “Survey” simulation, no button pushing, flip switching, etc., but a hoot to be sure. Like the other one I’ll talk about, it offers LOTS of different ways to get into the virtual skies. It has: Quick Missions, Single Missions, a “Career Mode” (you select the theater, a machine, create a pilot and follow them through with each day generating different objectives), a Mission Editor (where you get to build your own missions), and of course, the online option so you can fly not only against (and in cooperation with) the A/I, but against (and in coop with) other homo-sapiens from around the globe. They’re continually upgrading things (like a plan to add a Pacific Theater with carrier operations), and they’re quite good at “thinking outside the box”. They recently added a tank version whereby you can operate armor in the different crew positions in the battles of WWII.
And last but not least (and the principle sim I fly online), is a gem by the name of “DCS World”. It’s the premier Study Sim at the moment, and covers from World War II to the present day. Here’s a kicker…it’s actually FREE to download! It comes with two “modules” to fly…the Su-25 “Frogfoot” (basically, a Russian version of the USA’s A-10 “Warthog”), and the civilian version of the P-51 Mustang (the TF-51). From there, you’re free to purchase a dizzying number of props, jets, and helicopters. It comes with the map of the Caucasus, but you can purchase the Persian Gulf, the Nevada Test Range [basically Nellis Air Force Base and surrounding areas], and the Normandy area for your WWII flying (plans are to soon release a Mariana Islands map). It has a very robust Mission Editor, and our online flying is usually done is either missions I (or one of the LAN mates have) concocted, or something we’re downloaded from Al Gore’s internet. Since it’s a Study sim, it can be a bit intimidating (read complicated); hence the same “Study” sim. But with some honest effort to learn the machines from the PDF manuals included with each one, and liberal use of the “how to” videos on the internet (God bless the folks that take the time make these things), I find the challenge quite enjoyable. Like “IL-2” these folks are nothing short of magicians. Here’s a video of their newest marvel to be released in a few days. It’s a modern-day aircraft carrier going through “launch” operations with artificial intelligence animated crew members. Here’s the clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ztrv_ZML8w
A few screenshots from the two mentioned above:
(I’m departing an allied airfield in the P-38J from the WWII version of “IL-2:Sturmovik Battle of Bodenplatte”.)
(Here’, I’m flying over the “fields of Flanders” in the Pfalz III from the WWI version of “IL-2:Sturmovik Flying Circus”)
(Here I’m sitting on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln with two of my online “homies”…Roger “Falkan” M. and Terry “TBob” K. We’ve just landed [or in Navy lingo…”trapped”] in the F/A-18C Hornet…one of the MANY different airplanes/helicopters in the flight simulation “DCS World” )
(Here I’m messing around in “DCS World” in the UH-1 Huey module)
(Here’s a screenshot of my friend, James “Dusty” R. in an online flight about to “trap” aboard the carrier U.S.S. Stennis)
So those are the two simulations that occupy my “addiction hours” (and they can be many). One I fly principally in the Single Player world (“IL-2”), and the other entirely online (“DCS World”). We’ve come to the last thing to mention in the world of flight simulations. The advent of Virtual Reality, or VR. It came out a few years ago, and has gone through a couple of upgrades in both the hardware and software. These days, most every flight simulation supports VR, and it’s truly a game changer. Does it look as gorgeous as the 2D world showing the miracle of flight? Not exactly, but don’t get me wrong… it’s beautiful to be sure, but the clarity is not quite the same. It’s getting better, and it’s still amazing, but it’s not quite the same.
But what is it like to fly something in a “virtual reality” world? First of all, it’s REALLY freaky at first, and it takes a little time to get used to it. Here’s the best way I can describe it: in the 2D world, you SEE yourself in the monitor flying around in the world, and it translates into a “pseudo feeling” of what you’re doing. Of course, you don’t get any actual feelings like g-forces, air-sickness, vertigo, etc., but in the VR world, things are different, vastly different. Once you put on the headgear, it becomes your world. You DO feel things…hard to believe, but it’s true. Obviously, no g-forces, and even though I’ve never felt air-sickness, I’ve had friends try my Oculus VR setup and after a bit of time, some of them got a bit nauseous. In the 2D world, it starts with your eyes, then it travels to your brain, and that translates to (again) pseudo- “feelings” that build your simulation reality. But in the VR world, IMHO, it starts in your brain, works into feelings, and then you confirm that by what you’re seeing with those big baby-blues. Here’s a good example, everyone, and I mean everyone that I’ve ever watched wearing the VR headset while flying a flight simulation, has (usually several times) REACHED OUT TO GRAB something in the virtual cockpit! The landing gear handle, the flap handle, and any of the various knobs and switches. It happens every single time. Your brain “buys into” the idea that you’re sitting in an actual cockpit very quickly. It’s fun to watch…and usually elicits a giggle or two from the person trying to grab something and ending up groping in thin air. I find it much easier to do “feel” things (like hovering a helicopter, or hooking up to a refueling boom, etc.) in the VR world than in the 2D world. Strange, but true.
It does come with some downsides (there’s always a downside). First is the lack of total clarity. The center of the what you’re seeing is crystal clear, but the stuff on the peripheral of the view is not quite as sharp. Not horrible, in fact still very good, just not as clear as the center. Secondly, if you need to see the keyboard for whatever reason (like to take a super cool screenshot of you doing something very heroic), you have to tilt your head back and look “under” the visor itself, or simply lift it up, push the appropriate key, then put it back on (they’ve also developed a “voice command” software so you can simply speak what key you want pressed and it does it for you). Next is that fact that I find the headset to not be the most comfortable thing in the world. It’s not awful by any means, but it could be better. So if you’re doing a longer mission (say over an hour or so…and that’s not at all uncommon), it can get rather warm under the visor. The last actual “ding” I offer against the VR type flying concerns the price of one of these whiz-bang contraptions. They’re pretty expensive, again, not yacht and ski chalet “Kardashian” expensive, but not for the “VISA faint of heart”.
So, there you have it.
I stumbled into the flight simulation world about 25 years ago, and I’ve seen some pretty amazing things in terms of advances in software, hardware and Mr. Gore’s internet. The hardware keeps getting better to keep up with the software, and it promises to just keep getting more amazing all the time. Did you watch the video of the “animated” folks on the aircraft carrier? Was that unbelievable or what? The advent of a fast internet has revolutionized the online flying part of simulations, as I routinely fly with folks from Europe and as far away as Australia with no “lag” at all! Where my connection speed in the backwoods of Wisconsin was (for the most part) fine, the fiber optic setup in my new house is …well, I tear up just thinking about it. So all in all, I would have to say that, in my opinion, it’s a great hobby no matter the time period you choose to fly (or the genre being represented…military or civilian). You are offered literally an entire world of great people to fly with, and insanely cool hardware and software to do it with. I love the flying, I love the people, I love tinkering with the hardware and software, I love the “historical feeling” of the sims I choose to fly, and I dearly (dearly) love the fact that my wife understands (and supports) my “addiction”.
Below you’ll find a video compilation of many of the “movies” I’ve made over the years (and some random clips I made just for this vid). It showcases some of the machines in the two flight simulations mentioned above. I hope you enjoy it.
(be sure and hit the little HD thing in the lower right hand corner…and TURN UP THE VOLUME! LOL!)
‘till next time.