Stephen Smith's Blog

Musings on Machine Learning…

Learning to Fly

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Microsoft recently released their Flight Simulator for 2020. This version stands out because it includes landscapes for the entire world. I can take off from YVR, fly over downtown Vancouver, Lions Gate Bridge, out over West Vancouver, Horseshoe Bay, Howe Sound, over my house in Gibsons and then land at Sechelt airport. In this blog article I’ll describe a few discoveries and some of my first impressions. I’m not a pilot and I haven’t played Microsoft Flight Simulators since the 80s but I did play a bit with the latest version of X-Plane.

Taking off from Vancouver Intl Airport

Besides the impressive landscapes, the graphics include almost photo realistic views of your plane, the cockpit and the weather. There is a nice selection of planes to try out, all very detailed.

Flying towards downtown Vancouver showing cockpit view.

You can buy Flight Simulator standalone (around $70), but I bought an X-Box PC game pass which gives me access to a whole slew of games, though Flight Simulator is the only one I’ve installed. It was only $1 for the first month and then $7 for each month after (at least for now). This is a really good way to try before you buy since you can cancel this anytime and you only pay each month.

Approaching downtown Vancouver

First the Downsides

Flight Simulator is a very impressive program, however like any initial release of such a large program there are a few downsides and incomplete features. Here I’ll list a few things I ran into or are commonly reported. This looks like a long list, but none of these put me off playing the game.

  • It takes a lot of disk space, it needs 158Gig to install and ends up using 130Gig or so once installed. Even with all this local data, the program still requires a connection to the Internet to download scenery from the Internet as it runs. This data needs to be quickly available so ideally installed on an NVMe SSD drive. I.e. not on an external USB drive. Even with an NVMe drive, it still takes several minutes to start the program.
  • Lack of multi-monitor support. You can’t have one monitor show the instruments and another the view out the window, or have more monitors to show the side windows. This support is promised in the future, but not sure when. Without this you can’t build a full fancy realistic garage flight simulator.
  • The installation doesn’t check prerequisites correctly. It required me to update Windows 10 before installing, then it happily installed. However the program wouldn’t work until I updated my nVidia drivers. Just a quick Google revealed what to do, but it would be nice if the installation program had pointed this out. Especially since I have the nVidia control center set to auto-update, so my drivers weren’t that old.
  • Lack of supported hardware. I guess this is a matter of Flight Simulator being a victim of its own success. I ordered a flight yoke controller, but these are all sold out and chances are I won’t get it for another month or so.
  • Without the yoke, I had to use the keyboard, but I’m running on a laptop and the keyboard layout in Flight Simulator defaults to extensively using a numeric keypad that laptops don’t have. I would have expected the install program to configure the keyboard correctly for my computer. As a workaround I’m using an external keyboard with a numeric keypad (which I’m now sharing with my Raspberry Pi).
  • The processing demands of Flight Simulator are pretty high, I’m running a gaming laptop with a 9th generation i7, 16Gig RAM, nVidia 1650 and Samsung NVMe SSD. Flight Simulator configures itself to medium power for this (there are two higher settings). But it does run well this way, even if the graphics aren’t quite up to some of those posted on various websites.
  • The core program is inexpensive, but then there are a lot of expensive upsells in the marketplace. Haven’t bought any yet and with my current computer most don’t make sense, like higher resolution airport renderings.
  • To be nit-picky, the scenery files for some areas are a bit old. For instance, in my neighborhood I can tell the aerial photography is at least five years old by which houses are built or not built.
Flying over the Lions Gate Bridge.

Now the Upsides

Here are the things I like about the simulator:

  • The training modes are quite good. They taught me the basics of flight, taking off and landing. They go a bit beyond the tutorials in X-Plane teaching landing patterns and radio usage. Once you can take off and fly, you can explore the world. There is an AI co-pilot that can take over at any time.
  • I find the plane easier to fly in Flight Simulator than X-Plane. Sadly I’m still using a keyboard rather than a yoke, but it was easy to get the hang of controlling the plane.
  • The simulator is deep. From weather to pre-flight checklists to tower radio interactions to detailed instrumentation, this is a very detailed simulation. If you are an aspiring pilot then you can go a long way here.
  • To repeat, the scenery is fantastic and the ability to fly anywhere in the world is amazing.
  • With the core product there is a good selection of planes to choose from. If you want more you have to spend extra. There is also an SDK where people are developing add-ons, some silly, like adding Godzilla to San Francisco Bay.
  • This product is really designed for the next generation of computers and hardware, but even so I find it works quite well on my laptop and I’m happy with it. But it does make me consider building a gaming desktop with an nVidia Ampere graphics card.
Flying over Horseshoe Bay looking up Howe Sound.


Overall the positives far outweigh the negatives and I enjoy flying around familiar places. There are lots of challenging airports to land at and a good selection of planes to learn about. This program is both educational and fun. It’s too bad that all the good flight simulator hardware is sold out. It is expected that this program alone is going to generate over 3 billion in hardware sales. In this pandemic world, this program lets you explore a bit of the world from the distance of how high you are flying without leaving your house.

Flying over my house in Gibsons (note the lack of neighbors).
Coming in hot to land at Sechelt.

Written by smist08

September 11, 2020 at 4:04 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] While I write this blog, Stephen sits across from me and my clutter of USB devices and writes a review of MS FlightSim. To read his interesting review follow this link: […]

  2. […] and gaming systems are selling great. There have been some games like Microsoft Flight Simulator that hit the market just right. With Flight Simulator you can virtually fly anywhere in the world […]

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