Flight Simulator 2020: First Impressions

I have just started flying the new Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, and I want to offer my first impressions.

Background: I worked, in various capacities, on six versions of Microsoft Flight Simulator during my tenure at Microsoft. My projects included the last version of Flight Simulator for MS-DOS and all of the Windows versions up to planning for Flight Simulator X.

As readers of this blog also know, I’ve been a general aviation pilot since the mid-1970s, and I’m an active flight instructor and pilot. I’ve written two books (see my website for details, here and here) about using PC-based flight simulation as a complement to flight training. When I use a flight simulation, I want to be in the pilot’s seat.

The Flight Simulator development team is posting updates about its plans to fix bugs and add features at flightsimulator.com.

Like everyone else gushing about the new Flight Simulator 2020, I’m impressed by the depictions of the scenery, weather, aircraft models, and cockpits. These visual features take the world of PC-based flight simulation to a new level, and I am already working on ways to use FS2020 to help customers at the flight school where I teach learn about visual arrival and departure routes from Boeing Field (KBFI).

Over Blake Island at the start of the Bootleg Arrival to KBFI
The C172 in a typical ILS configuration: Pitch slightly below the horizon, power at about 1900 RPM, flaps 10, 90 KIAS
On an ILS in the C172

I’m disappointed, however, by many other elements of FS2020.

Flight Simulator 2020 is movie sequel with spectacular special effects, but without the plot or characters that made its predecessors so engaging.

Here’s a quick summary of my impressions so far.

  • Like every version of Microsoft Flight Simulator, FS2020 requires a state-of-the-art computer to run satisfactorily. I am running the simulation on a system with a 2TB SSD drive, lots of RAM, and a late-model graphics card with plenty of dedicated memory. FS2020 runs well, although even my 6-month old computer doesn’t default to the highest level of detail. And I haven’t experimented with features such as live traffic and ATC that typically bog down systems. In this respect, FS2020 is no different from every other release.
  • The developers and Microsoft (so far) have provided no documentation–not even a summary of basic keyboard and joystick controls–to help even experienced FS pilots manage key controls, views, and other details. This oversight is inexplicable and maddening.
  • Navigation within the simulation is clearly optimized for Xbox game controllers, not simulation enthusiasts who want to set up a flight quickly by choosing an aircraft, location, weather, and other initial conditions. Instead, you must navigate full-screen “menus,” and, so far at least, I can find no way to change just one or two initial conditions. Selecting a new airport, aircraft, or environment requires returning to the main screen, and restarting involves waiting through a long reloading sequence.
  • The cockpits, while stunning and realistic in appearance, provide only basic control of radios and navigation systems. For example, the GNS 530 or G1000 in some panels is really just an electronic depiction of a primary flight display and/or a moving map. You can’t build a flight plan, load instrument procedures, or otherwise use it like its real-world counterpart, even for basic navigation functions. You can, however, tune ground-based navaids (VORs and localizers) and fly “green needle” approaches.
  • FS2020 is a big step backward as a training aid for real-world pilots. And I suspect the limitations of the current avionics will also disappoint the virtual pilots around the world who have long enjoyed the challenge of navigating, flying instrument approaches and like. The beautiful scenery and modeling will engage “simmers” only so long before they return to FSX or X-Plane and the many add-ons that make those simulations much more realistic and complete experiences of “flying.”
  • Many virtual pilots obsess about “flight dynamics,” how realistically the simulated aircraft “fly.” I’ve written extensively about this topic (see, for example, Simulations, Flight Simulators, FTDs, and ATDs). I don’t yet have much experience testing the behavior of aircraft in FS2020 with which I’m familiar. And in any event, much discussion of the handling of aircraft is confused by limitations of the joysticks, yokes, rudder pedals, and other devices that virtual pilots use to fly their sims. So far, however, the aircraft I have flown in FS2020 seem to behave predictably, and the pitch+power+configuration setups that I employ in their real counterparts seem to hold up reasonably well in the simulation.

In sum, FS2020 strikes me as an update that focuses on visual wow factors that attract enthusiasts of console games and some veteran “simmers.” But it’s an incomplete flight simulation. In fact, in many respects, it’s a step backward for virtual aviators and real-world pilots who want to experience aviation when they can’t take to the skies in a real aircraft. I hope that Microsoft and the developer who created this new simulation will work closely with the add-on developers who can fill in gaps and make FS2020 more than just spectacular way to see the world from above.

Here’s another take on FS2020 from Pilot Workshops. (I am a contributor to some Pilot Workshops programs and publications.)