In the year 1929, Edwin Link built an Airplane module made of organ parts and electric pumps. He thus created the first flight simulator that trained over half a million pilots in World War II.

The flight simulation industry had gone a long way since Edwin Lin’s simulator, and nowadays, it’s widely used in military and civilian services. Simulators can help training for aircraft, ground vehicles, space crafts, and submarines.

Ed Link's flight simulator

Soaring Into the Digital Era

A simulator is a program or a machine that tries to imitate available possible situations in the real world, without the hazards and risks that come along with it. Simulators began as military training devices but pretty fast made it’s way to civilian use and millions of aviation enthusiasts across the world. They can fly an aircraft with the comfort of their own house and for a reasonable price.

The first official simulator considered by many to be subLOGIC, that was launched in 1979. The big break was in the ’90s, where many flight simulation labels like Jane’s simulators and Microsoft Flight Simulator were introduced. The models were so good that at some point, there were claims that 9/11 highjackers used Microsoft Flight Simulator as a part of their training. Big companies such as Lockheed Martin acquired civilian flight simulators to instruct pilots utilizing the company’s fleet.

Air Traffic Contol

Nowadays, the market for flight simulations belongs to a few leading labels. The civilian aircraft simulators are dominated by X-plane, prepar3d, and Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020. The latter will include many new features such as world mapping by AI, dynamic weather, and real-time air traffic.

In the military aircraft simulator, Eagle Dynamics dominates most of the market with its successful simulator DCS world. World War 2 simulators such as IL-2 Sturmovik and War Thunder have a steady fan base. But DCS world is the most significant player in the field with a variety of aircraft from WW2 to modern-day F-18 and F-16.

Among the simulators, there is one hybrid genre, which is the space simulator games. These games are in between science fiction and simulations. Space Sim games combine real-world physics and mechanics along with science fiction weapons, faster than light travel, aliens, and so on. Space simulators enjoy a new era with titles such as Elite Dangerous, Endless sky, Eve Online, and the most prominent crowdfunding project ever Star Citizen.

Star Citizen

The simulation industry is evaluated at $7 billion. Meanwhile, the entire gaming industry will revenue around $150 billion. That puts in perspective how meager the market is for gaming simulators. On the other hand, the computing and modeling that needs to be done in developing such games are highly demanding, both in research and development and as well as hardware and peripherals.

The simulation developers live off selling products to professional consumers. They are willing to pay well for a refined simulator. “Pilots fly virtual sorties 40%-50% of their training,” told me an Air Force official. “Airlines and the military are willing to pay well for a good simulator that will save money and lives.”

As mentioned above, the simulators assist the pilots in training for extreme conditions, malfunctions, and emergency landings. Military simulators can provide a sortie behind enemy lines, dogfight training, or high G maneuvering. Lockheed Martin official told me that F-35 pilots “fly several hundred hours before they board the actual aircraft.” Since F-35 doesn’t have a two-seat version, simulation is essential before the first take off.

Flying behind enemy lines is impossible during times of peace. But the pilots must train for wartime and familiarize themselves with enemy territory and mission. Bombs are too expensive for training purposes and not always in supply. High G maneuvers can take a toll from a new pilot and might crash the aircraft. Understanding the limits of the machine within a simulator can save lives and money.

DCS Flight Simulator

Civilian airliners use the simulation for obvious cost issues. Big planes’ cost of a flight is prohibitive, and airliners prefer the simulator for pilots’ instruction.

The evolution of Virtual Reality was a big game-changer in the simulator market. The possibility to illustrate a real cockpit and an actual field of view boosted the entire industry forward. It reduced the costs of a simulator and raised the fidelity. There is no need for peripherals at a high expense, and everything gets real proportions rather than a flat-screen animation. Virtual Reality made it possible for private people to feel what’s it like to be inside a real cockpit, with a fracture of the cost of a professional simulator.

Imagining a Reality

How different is a private, home use simulator from a real aircraft? How good is the fidelity of all these simulators? I wanted to know if they imitate life, or they look fancy. I invited an F-16c fighter pilot to get his hands on an F-16c simulator from DCS world. At first, we chatted about the aircraft, aviation mechanics, and the flight model. The knowledge I had about the plane was pretty much on par with his information. The main difference was in the different models of the aircraft. He went into the F-16c virtual cockpit and made a cold start precisely as I do. He went airborne and practiced flight, navigation, and maneuvering and stated that the model is pretty much accurate. For obvious reasons, not everything is modeled, and there are differences between the versions. Still, apart from a few errors, the model is pretty much accurate. And that’s just early access.

A fighter pilot that can fly an F-16 simulator is charming, but can a simulator pilot fly an actual F-16? Well, that is a little tougher to find out, but an F-16c squadron invited me over to watch a real plane up close. I couldn’t get on the plane, but I did manage to try and orient myself inside the cockpit. Shocking as it is, it did look familiar, and I could easily find myself around the cockpit. I can happily say that I could comfortably cold start the plane with my simulation knowledge. I don’t know if I can fly one, but I guess I will never know.

My conclusions were very optimistic. The simulator that is for commercial use is pretty much spot on to a real aircraft, at least for what I could confirm.

To Infinity and Beyond

My second analysis was to discover the difference between commercial simulators to professional simulators. How different are simulators that use real pilots comparing to simulators that gamers use?

Lockheed Martin was happy to invite me over to their simulation center, and let me try professional simulators that are used by real military pilots. Lockheed Martis has two outstanding simulators. The first one is the F-35 lightning, a supersonic fifth-generation fighter jet. The second one is the CH-53 Sea Stallion, a heavy-lift transport helicopter. The F-35 simulator in VR based on high fidelity HOTAS but a gaming chair and plastic peripherals. The simulator was stripped from any secret information, and all I had was a front panel with the available info.

The flight model is accurate according to the guides in the center, and I received plenty of useful information about the fifth-gen aircraft. That is not the actual simulator for pilots, but this is as good as it gets. The hardware was pretty familiar with Oculus Rift and HOTAS. The software is Prepar3d and pretty familiar to most sim pilots. I must admit that it felt pretty much the same. However, graphics were a bit subpar to the high fidelity modules I use, and the background was in lower resolution. The guide told me that in these models, graphics play a little part rather than the flight model. The weather did not affect the aircraft even though it is possible to recreate weather effects.

The CH-53 was an entirely different model. It was built from the ground up to simulate a real cockpit, and it is primarily used for pilots’ instruction. The touch screen is accurate, and the collective uses force feedback to resist, according to a real helicopter. the VR headset is replaced in a large wall of flat screens, and the graphics are much better.

“Helicopters use the terrain much more than fighter jets,” the instructor said. “It is imperative to simulate the terrain as good as possible.” I could see rooftops and trees and mountains. A simulator like this is estimated at $1 million, high above the affordability of most people. In the end, both offered software that is equal to the commercial simulators we can afford. The missing peripherals can be compensated in virtual reality cockpits and retail peripherals such as VKB, VIRPIL, and Thrust Master.

If you want to feel an F-16 without straining G force, and if you fancy flying a hornet without cramping in a carrier for six months, you are welcome to the Simulator world. That is less a game and more a reality, but sometimes reality exceeds any imagination.

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