Microsoft today celebrates the 40th anniversary of the venerable Flight Simulator series with the release of the aptly named Microsoft Flight Simulator 40th Anniversary Update. As the company has teased before, this simulator 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 sim in 2020, they were still missing from the game.
In total, the update includes 12 new aircraft (2 helicopters, 2 gliders, and 8 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 wooden seaplane and plane ever built. Other new aircraft include such classics as the 1903 Wright Flyer, 1915 Curtiss JN-4 Jenny, 1927 Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis, 1935 Douglas DC-3, 1937 Grumman G-21 Goose and the Havilland DHC-2 from 1947. Beaver.
To celebrate the launch, Microsoft and simulator developer Asobo Studio invited a small group of flight simulator influencers and tech media to the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon. Why? It’s where the Spruce Goose is on display, so what better place to celebrate the release 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, tough enough that Microsoft has added quite a few new assist settings that simplify the experience. Without them, and especially if you’re playing on a gamepad for example, it will crash. Repeatedly. However, once you get the hang of it, flying those helicopters (a large Bell and the small Guimbal Cabri G2 two-seat trainer) is a lot of fun and allows you to fly slow and low through Microsoft’s impressive virtual model of the earth.
To enable the helicopters and their ability to subdue the air, Asobo’s team had to build a new physics engine into the simulator and, while the fluid dynamics simulation for modeling planes in the game runs 100 times per second, for example, helicopter rotors are modeled at 1,000 times per second for a higher degree of realism. And to really show it off, 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 you to recreate emergencies and lower the helicopter using auto-rotate when you turn off the engine, for example.
Unsurprisingly, gliders are much more tame. Here, too, Microsoft added a new visualization to the simulator to let you see updrafts and downdrafts all 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 admits that they still cheat quite a bit here to do this. within the computational engine limits. The weather engine doesn’t create clouds from the first beginning, for example, so when creating the system for thermals, the team had to work from where the clouds are and then work backwards from there.
“If we want the perfect simulation, then we would need a quantum computer 100 years from now,” explained Asobo’s Martial Bossard. “Sometimes you have to make some smart decisions that help us create the same kind of behavior with low computational cost.”
Still, as Bossard told me, the idea here was to create an engine that would allow real-life glider pilots to find thermals exactly where they’d 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. One nifty feature is that you have the choice between winch launches, which are standard in Europe, for example, or using a tow plane, which is the usual way to launch a glider in most of the US. And those animations too they are nice. including his friendly launch helper who runs alongside the glider to help keep him steady as he begins his takeoff run. And you can also launch a glider from anywhere, be it JFK or your local glider camp.
Interestingly, while there are no new in-game tutorials to teach you how to fly helicopters, because the team argues that with all the assist features 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 some helicopter tutorials in future versions though.
As for regular planes, I tend to stick to the smaller general aviation planes that are more like the ones I fly in real life, but the highlights here are the A310-100 and the Spruce Goose, the giant seaplane from Howard Hughes (the H-4 Hercules) hat was a bit of a mess 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 third-party paid DLC, so it’s nice to see something of this quality now becoming part of the base game.
The Spruce Goose feels a bit like a novelty, but it’s also a beautiful model and surprisingly easy to fly. She is a beast, no doubt, with the huge engines and weight of her. You’re not going to be doing any sharp turns with it any time soon, 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 helipads and 15 glider airfields. And for those of you feeling nostalgic, the team also brought back 24 classic missions from previous versions of Flight Simulator.
But beyond looking back, Asobo and Microsoft also took advantage of this event to look a bit into the future. As Jorg Neumann, director of Microsoft Flight Simulator at Asobo, pointed out several times during the event, the mission here is to build a digital twin of Earth. That includes cities, for which the Flight Simulator team is now putting together their own plans to get the photogrammetry data, but also smaller features like adding more animals, including birds, and getting better weather data (and maybe historical weather data in the future).
“ME‘meter hard very hard a get other continents caught because it is very much United States and andeither to have great data by Europe, pretty Okay data for western Europe. Y after it’s gets pretty slim. there are some things in Australia, some stuff Y japan aNorth Dakota after me tell, ‘Hears What on Brazil?’ And everyone appearance out,” he told me. “So now we’re renting planes and outfitting them with cameras and flying it ourselves.”
Initially, the team worked with data from Microsoft’s Bing Maps. Now, it’s almost the other way around, and the Flight Simulator team provides their data to Bing Maps. And while Microsoft worked with Austrian startup Blackshark.ai to fill in the gaps where it didn’t have 3D photogrammetry data when it launched the simulator, the company has now brought this work in-house, Asobo director Bossard told me. “Yessometimes on the ground the scene appearance I like it a PlayStation 2 game. Wme would do love a be in position a to improve that, but it is a lot of work and a batch of investigation,” he said.
He also noted that the team is aware that Flight Simulator’s built-in air traffic control system remains rudimentary and often breaks immersion. The team is also working on that and is actively looking to hire specialists to improve it.
Neumann said he’s also thinking a lot about digital preservation these days. That may mean building digital models of classic planes like the Spruce Goose, but also classic airports, and using the satellite images and other data the team is capturing, visualizing and preserving. He noted that the current version of New York City in the game is a few years old and the team has a 2022 version ready to roll out, but he wants to be able to give players the option of choosing which one to use. . That’s an interesting concept and something we’ll probably hear more about in the years to come.