Microsoft Flight Simulator came out on Tuesday to stellar reviews, including here at Polygon. Developer Asobo Studio worked to make the game as realistic as possible, including spending time with aircraft manufacturers to ensure that the planes’ flight models and instrumentation were spot-on in the game.
So, I decided to do a little experiment: I invited a professional pilot to give me a flying lesson inside the game. In so doing, I discovered the one feature that Microsoft Flight Simulator is sorely lacking — one that would make it much easier for new players to learn the ropes. It’s a multiplayer mode called “shared cockpit.”
Genesah Duffy is chief pilot at aircraft manufacturer Icon Aircraft. She’s in charge of all of Icon’s flight operations — including training flights and sales calls — around the world. She’d never played Microsoft Flight Simulator before. Nor had she ever done a demonstration flight via Zoom, but that’s just what we tried earlier this month. I’m happy to say it worked out all right ... eventually.
The Icon A5 is a quirky little aircraft. It’s a light sport airplane made almost entirely out of carbon fiber. You can pull it with a trailer on an SUV, or park it at the dock next to your pontoon boat. The A5 also has a bevy of unusual safety features. There’s a ballistic parachute that will bring the aircraft to the ground if something goes wrong at altitude. (Sadly, that’s not actually modeled in the game.) The A5 is also, according to Duffy, the first FAA-certified spin-resistant aircraft. That makes it a lot easier to handle when it stalls, and I can confirm that it behaves like no other airplane at low speeds in Flight Simulator.
But the A5 is also an amphibious airplane, meaning that it can land in water. It even has a rudder that drops down into the water, helping it steer more like a boat. The A5 is the only amphibious plane available in Flight Simulator. It’s the only aircraft in the entire game that you can use to safely land on water. That’s how I found myself in-game on final approach, about a thousand feet over a lake, in southwest Michigan’s wine country.
On my screen, I could tell that we were getting very close to the water. But on Zoom, it wasn’t quite as easy for Duffy to realize it. The issue was that the default settings in Flight Simulator had set my altimeter wrong: I was actually about 500 feet closer to the lake than I had anticipated. Even though it was a lesson and Duffy was guiding me in, I flared and landed before she actually told me to. I came in a little high and fast, but the plane didn’t bounce. And it was much better than smacking headfirst into the water.
It turns out that videoconferencing is a terrible way to learn how to fly an airplane in a video game. Even with Duffy looking at the same screen as me, our connection’s shifting quality and its one- or two-second time delay nearly led to disaster.
It would have been a lot easier if we had done the flight lesson entirely in-game, with Duffy sitting virtually in the seat next to me. That kind of multiplayer mode is referred to as “shared cockpit multiplayer,” and Microsoft Flight Simulator launched without it. While Asobo has said that it’s on the way for both the PC and console versions of the game, it’s a shame that it wasn’t available at launch. It would make it a lot easier for newbie pilots to learn how to fly.
Earlier this week, I ran into another situation where a shared cockpit would have been nice to have. I took Polygon’s Nicole Carpenter for a multiplayer tour of Maui with each of us in our own planes. Only once we got connected did I learn that she had never piloted a plane in a flight simulator before.
Let’s say we had our ups and downs trying to land her on a little airstrip along the Road to Hana. Once again, it would have been a lot simpler to talk her down had we been sitting in the same cockpit together. I could have even taken the controls if something went wrong.
Shared cockpit functionality is a huge boon when flying Microsoft Flight Simulator’s larger airliners, including jumbo jets from Airbus and Boeing. There’s so much going on inside those virtual cockpits that I can’t imagine making a cross-country flight alone. Here’s hoping that shared cockpits make it into the game sooner rather than later.
Back to my flight with Duffy. Eventually, I got my altimeter squared away. We restarted the flight, and even with the Zoom delay and my hinky internet connection, she guided me down to a perfect landing. Icon’s chief pilot was so pleased with the experience that she plans to recommend the game to A5 owners as a good way to keep up their skills.
“This is pretty much on point to what our plane looks like,” Duffy said. “This is pretty impressive.”
What about using the A5 to learn how to fly in-game? Duffy said that it’s an excellent option for pilots of all skill levels.
“Our owners vary from never been in an airplane before to American Airlines captain,” Duffy said. “This is like a backcountry, landing-at-your-lake-house, having-a-good-time plane. But it’s also probably one of the easiest trainers that you could learn to fly in, because there isn’t a ton of instrumentation, you only have one throttle, you don’t have to worry about fuel mixture or anything like that. It’s pretty easy to learn on.”
The secret is the “angle of attack” indicator smack dab in the middle of the dashboard. It’s perfect for learning how to orient the plane prior to landing. In fact, the gauge is so handy that the team at Asobo built a version of it into the HUD (when playing from an external camera angle) for every plane. You’ll find it labeled as “AOA” on the left side of the screen.
For more info on how to get the most out of your time with Microsoft Flight Simulator, check out my 12 best tips.