“Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” — Morpheus, The Matrix
The world has changed. You’ve probably heard that phrase a lot over the last few months. You’ve probably thought that a Matrix of your own, where you can control the environment precisely, doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. We can’t do that, but we can use a virtual world to sharpen and refine skills even if we can’t actually get into a real-world airplane. We talked about using these virtual worlds in our November/December 2017 “Sim City” issue, but here the focus is on what you can do to take advantage of these virtual worlds from home.
Follow Me Down the Rabbit Hole
In today’s world, there is something of an arms race in the evolution of processors, and graphics cards are back in a big way. This is important because these developments enable flight simulation programs that are more sophisticated both in visual presentation and integration with real world weather and air traffic control. To determine what equipment you need in terms of hardware for good simulation, though, first you need to understand what the requirements are.
Beware the System Requirements
System requirements identify the minimum hardware and software specs required for the program to run. They are usually expressed as Minimum System Requirements and Recommended System Requirements. Minimum really does mean minimum! There is generally little to no performance margin built into those minimum specs if you want to get anything close to advertised fidelity. Fidelity loss might not be an issue for less sensitive games, but for flight simulation, it breaks immersion and can make the aircraft impossible to control. So you need a computer that meets or exceeds not just the minimum requirements, but also the recommended system requirements. Now let’s decode each item in the list of requirements.
→ Central Processing Units (CPUs): This is the computer’s “brain.” It is a critical component. There are really only two CPU vendors to choose from: Intel and AMD. Intel offers its Core series of processors. Now in the eleventh generation, these come in four flavors: Core i3, i5, i7, and i9 (higher numbers are better). Each model has a subset to indicate generation (i.e., Core i9–9900K) (ninth generation). New generations usually arrive every year.
AMD offers its more modern Ryzen processors (now in third generation) to compete with the Core series. Ryzen CPUs are usually listed as Ryzen 3, 5, 7, or 9 to give you a rough correlation to the Intel competitors. As with Core, there are multiple offerings in each group, (i.e., Ryzen 7 5800X) (third generation).
→ Graphics Processing Units (GPUs): Formerly known as a video card, these processing units handle advanced visuals. Pay close attention to these specs, especially if they require a minimum amount of VRAM (Video Random Access Memory). A good GPU is key to better visuals.
→ RAM: Random Access Memory is the computer’s “working memory.” More is better and capacity is measured in gigabytes (GB). 16GB is good but 32GB is better. RAM is faster for the CPU to access than the larger capacity hard drive.
→ Hard Drive (HD): This is the computer’s long-term memory. You’re trading speed of access for larger capacity. Standard modern HD capacities are measured in terabytes (TB) (1,000 GBs). But the advent of Solid-State Drives (SSD) and later NVMe SSDs (nonvolatile memory solid state drives) improved transfer speeds so that HDs can be considered a performance part. NVMe SSDs, sometimes referred to as m.2 drives, plug directly into the motherboard and offer transfer speeds much closer to that of RAM than traditional HDs. Some programs recommend not only a minimum amount of free capacity, but also suggest using a SSD.
→ Bandwidth: Some programs require an active internet connection to run. This is measured in megabits per second (Mbps). You can test your connection here: www.speedtest.net.
On a Windows 10 system you can see your configuration by clicking on the Windows button on the lower left side of the screen, then click Settings, About, and look at the Device Specifications.
Choose Your Path
X-Plane has been (and may still be) the de facto standard. But in August 2020, Microsoft returned to the virtual sky with Flight Simulator, generally referred to as FS2020. FS2020 is much closer to what’s called a Triple A game (think Call of Duty or Madden Football). So how does it stack up to the tried-and-true X-Plane? It’s tough duty but since someone has to do it, I spent some time with each simulator in order to find answers.
Anything less than a really modern system is likely to struggle with FS2020. X-Plane has lower system requirements and also offers a free demo download you can use to test your system. Since my venerable desktop was not up to the task of properly testing these programs, I arranged access to a more capable system (Intel Core i9–9900K with an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti, 32GB of RAM, and an m.2 NVMe). I “flew” both in a virtual Cessna 172 with full controls (yoke/throttle quadrant/rudder pedals). Here’s how they stacked up.
Microsoft FS2020 has gorgeous visuals with many photorealistic airports and an eye-popping level of detail. When it came to the actual “flying,” though, X-Plane had the edge. Its physics and handling felt more like an airplane, while FS2020 was more “arcade-like” (i.e., slightly more rubbery and forgiving). The difference wasn’t stark, but it was noticeable.
X-Plane also has a significant lead in community support including upgrades, a greater and more diverse set of aircraft models, and plug-ins (some free) that expand functionality. For example, PlaneCommand allows you to give spoken commands to a virtual copilot, (i.e., flaps 10), which obediently performs these tasks. With proper hardware and controls, X-Plane is used in FAA-approved training systems. The base simulator is very similar and can be upgraded. Another point of divergence is that FS2020 requires an internet connection to work.
In the end, both options were fully capable of providing enough fidelity to serve as a virtual training ground for your flying skills. For what it’s worth, I think the differences boil down to personal preference: FS2020 feels like a really polished video game, while X-Plane feels more like a simulator accessible to the general public.
We can use a virtual world to sharpen and
refine skills even if we can’t actually get into a real-world airplane.
VR and Gear, Lots of Gear
One of the biggest aspects of immersion and fidelity in a simulator is the visual presentation, which is dependent on the simulator programing, GPU ability to output that programing, and how you choose to display it. A large, high resolution monitor (or several) was once the best choice.
With the rise of high quality accessible Virtual Reality (VR) systems, though, multiple monitors are now optional. Until I tried VR with flight simulation, I confess I thought it was a solution in search of a problem. I don’t think that anymore. A VR system with X-Plane 11 is impressive, so if you’re looking for the best possible “Matrix,” VR is worth consideration. You can see how it improves flight fidelity by just, well, looking. Are you abeam the numbers? Just turn your head — no more fumbling with keyboard controls to pan the camera left or right. While you can’t necessarily touch the flight deck controls, you can use the VR controllers to manipulate them. It gave me a bit of a chuckle to reach down and disengage the parking brake to taxi out.
Right now, X-Plane is the only way to go for VR support. FS2020 recently started taking sign-ups for a closed beta test, but Microsoft has only confirmed support for one headset that is not yet publicly available. If you want VR, also keep in mind that it may need additional system requirements.
Using the right controls is one of the best ways to improve fidelity of PC-based flight simulation. Yes, you can use keyboard controls, but that doesn’t translate well as a stand-in for the airplane. FAA-approved trainers prohibit the use of a keyboard or mouse to manipulate the flight controls or other aircraft systems. There are a number of options now, to include VR controllers, joysticks, and yokes at various levels of sophistication. When combined with throttle quadrants and rudder pedals, you can have a great personal flight simulator. While it won’t meet FAA standards, it can allow you to keep your head in the game and keep muscle memory firm.
One final word of advice: When shopping for PC components in general, and things like yokes in particular, be sure to check manufacturer’s suggested retail prices (MSRPs) and patronize reputable vendors. I’ve seen some crazy prices in the secondary market.
Back to the “Matrix” idea: Red Pill or Blue Pill? Building your own “training matrix” takes some money and effort, but start with what you’ve got and build your way up. Just think of the virtual flying possibilities in a Matrix of your very own.
Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the FAA. The FAA also does not officially endorse any goods, services, materials, or products of manufacturers that are referenced in this article.
James Williams is FAA Safety Briefing’s associate editor and photo editor. He is also a pilot and ground instructor.