Microsoft is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the venerable Flight Simulator series today with the launch of the aptly named Microsoft Flight Simulator 40th Anniversary Update. As the company previously announced, this sim update will introduce helicopters and gliders, as well as some classic planes. Gliders and helicopters aren’t new to Flight Simulator, but when Microsoft and Asobo resurrected the simulation in 2020, they were still absent from the game.
In total, the update includes 12 new aircraft (two helicopters, two gliders and eight fixed-wing aircraft). The highlights here are what Microsoft and Asobo call their first “realistic” airliner in the base game – an Airbus 310-300 – and the Spruce Goose, the largest seaplane and wooden plane ever built. Other new aircraft include classics like the 1903 Wright Flyer, 1915 Curtiss JN-4 Jenny, 1927 Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis, 1935 Douglas DC-3, Grumman G-21 Goose from 1937 and the 1947 De Havilland DHC-2. Beaver.
To celebrate the launch, Microsoft and simulation developer Asobo Studio invited a small group of flight simulation and tech media influencers to the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon. Why? This is where the Spruce Goose is on display, so what better place to celebrate the launch of this update (and the Spruce Goose just celebrated the 75th anniversary of its flight on November 2).
During the event, I had some hands-on time with the new planes. Just like in real life, flying helicopters is going to be tough – challenging enough that Microsoft has added several new assistive settings that make the experience easier. Without these – and especially if you’re playing on a gamepad, for example – you’re going to crash. Many times. Once you get the hang of it, flying these helicopters (a big Bell and the little two-seat Guimbal Cabri G2 trainer) is a lot of fun, though, and allows you to fly slow and low over Microsoft’s impressive virtual model of Earth.
To enable the helicopters and their ability to beat the air into submission, the Asobo team had to build a new physics engine into the simulation, and while the fluid dynamics simulation for aircraft modeling in the game runs 100 times per second, for example, helicopter rotors are modeled 1,000 times per second to achieve a higher degree of realism. And to really show that, you can now also visualize exactly how the air flows over and around these helicopters (and planes). The team says this new physics system realistically models ground effect and also allows recreating emergency situations and landing the helicopter using autorotation when you turn off the engine, for example.
As you’d expect, gliders are a much tamer affair. Here too, Microsoft has added a new visualization to the simulation to let you see the updrafts and downdrafts around you. The physics engine for this takes into account everything from the outside temperature, the angle of the sun, the material the sunlight is reflecting off of and more – but the Asobo team also admit they’re still cheating a bit here to do it in the calculation engine limits. The weather engine doesn’t create clouds from first principle, for example, and so when creating the system for thermals, the team had to work from where the clouds are, and then go back from there.
“If we want the perfect simulation, we would need a quantum computer 100 years from now,” explained Martial Bossard of Asobo. “Sometimes you have to make smart choices that help us create the same kind of behavior with low computational cost.”
Yet, as Bossard told me, the idea here was to create an engine that would allow real glider pilots to find thermals exactly where they would expect them to be.
Otherwise, there are very few surprises here. If you are looking for a more relaxed flying experience, gliders are definitely the way to go. A nice feature is that you have the choice between winching launches – which are standard in Europe, for example – or using a tug plane, which is the usual way to launch a glider in most of the United States . And those animations are cool too, including your friendly launch assistant running alongside the glider to help keep you steady as you begin your take-off run. And you can also launch a glider from anywhere, whether it’s JFK or your local glider land.
Interestingly, while there aren’t any new in-game tutorials to teach you how to fly helicopters – because the team maintains that with all the assist features turned on, it’s actually quite easy to fly them – there are about half a dozen glider tutorials in the game now. I’m sure we’ll see helicopter tutorials appear in future releases.
As for regular planes, I tend to stick to small general aviation planes which are more like what I fly in real life, but the highlights here are the A310-100 and the Spruce Goose, Howard Hughes’ giant seaplane (the H-4 Hercules) which was a bit of a disaster and never flew more than 27 seconds. The A310 is modeled in exquisite detail, with virtually every switch doing what it would on a real aircraft, including the flight computer. Typically, a model like this would be paid third-party DLC, so it’s nice to see something of this quality now part of the base game.
The Spruce Goose looks a bit like a novelty, but it’s also a beautiful model and surprisingly easy to ride. It’s a beast, no doubt, with its massive engines and weight. You’re not going to make any sharp turns with it, but it’s a fun diversion.
And there’s more. Microsoft and Asobo also brought back four classic airports, including Chicago’s Meigs Field, and added 14 heliports and 15 glider airports. And for those feeling nostalgic, the team has also brought back 24 classic missions from previous versions of Flight Simulator.
But beyond the decline, Asobo and Microsoft also took advantage of this event to project themselves a little into the future. As Jorg Neumann, the head of Microsoft Flight Simulator at Asobo noted several times during the event, the mission here is to build a digital twin of the earth. This includes cities – for which the Flight Simulator team now charters its own planes to get the photogrammetry data – but also smaller features like adding more animals, including birds, and getting better weather data (and possibly historical weather data in the future).
“II am trying very hard at obtain other continents capture because it is very a lot United states and yWhere have great Data for Europe, pretty one good data for western Europe. And then this gets pretty one thin. There are some stuff in Australia, some Things and japan onen/a then I say, ‘Hey How? ‘Or’ What on Brazil?’ And everyone looks away,” he told me. “So we’re currently renting planes and fitting them with cameras and flying ourselves.”
From the start, the team worked with data from Microsoft’s Bing Maps. Now it’s almost the other way around and the Flight Simulator team is feeding their data to Bing Maps. And while Microsoft worked with Austrian startup Blackshark.ai to fill in the spots where it didn’t have 3D photogrammetry data when it launched the simulation, the company has now incorporated that work, the director told me. ‘Asobo, Bossard. “Ssometimes, on the ground, the stage looks As a PlayStation 2 game. Oe would have to like at be in position at to improve this, but it is a lot of work and a plot of research,” he said.
He also noted that the team is aware that the air traffic control system built into Flight Simulator remains rudimentary and often breaks immersion. The team is also working on it and actively seeking to hire specialists to improve it.
Neumann said he also thinks a lot about digital preservation these days. This can mean building digital models of classic airplanes like the Spruce Goose, but also classic airports and using satellite imagery and other data that the team captures, visualizes and preserves. He noted that the current version of New York City in the game is actually a few years old now and that the team has a 2022 version ready to roll out, but he wants to be able to give players a choice of which one to use. . It’s an interesting concept and we’ll probably hear more about it in the years to come.
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