Fly overseas from your loungeroom: Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 Review

Can’t fly overseas anymore? No problem. Flight simulators are better than ever, whether you’re serious or social we review Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020.

In these days of social isolation, simulators are coming into their own and the experience is getting better and more immersive. I’ve written extensively about the joys of online racing and how to start, and now it’s time to look at something that’s even more of a dream to many, flying.

Check out our review of SnowRunner.

Microsoft Flight Simulator has been around since 1982, and a new version has been released for this year and it’s taken a bigger step forwards than perhaps any other version so far. FS2020 is a serious simulator for those that wish to get into a flying experience as real as computers can make it, but it’s also been called “Microsoft Landscape Simulator” because there’s a whole new dimension to it.

Every flight-sim has some sort of world you fly around, but FS2020 takes things to a whole new level. Using data from Microsoft’s mapping system, Bing (it’s like Google Maps), the simulator pulls in data and renders a 3D model of the world using a technology called photogrammetry – this is the creation of 3D objects from photography.

This means that the entire world is, to some degree or another, available for you to fly over and inspect. Now that’s very cool, and interesting to people who may not care about flying for the sake of it.

So how good does it look? I made a video of a few of my favourite racetracks, including a Melbourne flyover. Have a look below:

The graphics aren’t perfect, because they’re designed for real-world flying, so as to look realistic when you’re flying over at 1000ft, not staring at ground level from six feet away. Expect things to get better over time though, and some areas have been manually modelled for better realism.

So with the whole world for you to explore, that brings me to the social side of things, the “Landscape Simulator”. You can amuse yourself and friends by plugging in the coordinates of anywhere on earth, and go take a look. I call the game Around the World, and here’s how you can play it:

How do you play Around the World with Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020?

What I did was to run a Zoom meeting for my friends, and share my screen running Flight Simulator 2020. Then, I asked friends to nominate where they’d like to go…anywhere. Here’s the steps:

1. Open Google Maps and look look up where you want to go. Let’s say we want to check out the Sphinx:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is FS1-1024x661.jpg

2. Click anywhere next to the point you’re interested in to create a new waypoint

3. Click that point to get the lat/long

4. Go to the simulator, and in the Search field just paste in the coordinates, e.g. 29°58’32.1″N 31°08’05.0″E. Then set as departure, and you’re away.

It’s a good idea to set the coordinates a kilometre or so away from your intended destination, then turn back. And, if you have a navigation-savvy friend not flying who can look up coordinates for people and paste them into the Zoom chat…that helps a lot too, not easy to fly and search for places.

FS2020 is a real sim, so the navigation isn’t for beginners. If you want a digital moving map, then use Flighttracker – download, run it, and send your friends the link – your aircraft will appear in the Select Your Aircraft drop-down box. You don’t need Zoom for that.

I would suggest using the Extra 300 as I did; it’s powerful and manouverable, and is pretty quick – good for around 300km/h. But if you want a nice slow-speed look at things, then the Savage Cub is better. Don’t bother with the airliners like the 747 for sightseeing, they’re just too big and cumbersome. You can turn all the assists on if you’re not too sure about this flying business, and using the coordinate system above you start in mid-air, so no need to master the art of combating propeller-induced yaw on takeoff.

Which are the best cities in Australia to fly over in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020?

The following cities have been modelled in more detail:

  • Canberra;
  • Darwin City;
  • Gold Coast;
  • Hobart;
  • Newcastle; and
  • Wollongong.

I’d recommend a fly over Canberra for all its significant landmarks that are so close together; having spent a fair bit of time there, I’m pretty amazed at the realism!

What do I need to play Microsoft Flight Simulator?

A Windows 10 PC is the minimum, and not a hyper-powerful one either. You could just use a keyboard, but realistically, you’ll want a joystick. A good entry level unit is the Logitech Extreme Pro 3D which I picked up at JB Hi-Fi for $90. The software itself starts from $99.95.

The PC minimum specs are:

  • CPU: Intel Core i5-4460 or AMD Ryzen 3 1200.
  • RAM: 8 GB.
  • OS: Windows 10 64-bit.
  • VIDEO CARD: Radeon RX 570 or GeForce GTX 770.

The main thing is to have a good graphics card, and it helps if you reboot your machine and run only FS2020. Reports are that 16Gb is plenty and my machine has 32Gb, but is limited by its GTX960 graphic card not its RAM or i7-4790 CPU.

You can change the graphics settings to reflect the power of your computer, trading off detail and realism against a smooth video. The video you see above was run with some settings on Ultra, the highest, but to do that I had reduce resolution a little and make compromises on things like reflections.

You will need a broadband connection as the system downloads terrain data as it needs to…no way the whole world is fitting on anyone’s hard disk! There is an offline mode though.

Is it Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 any good for real-life pilot training?

Definitely yes, and that is coming from someone who used to fly light aircraft and hold instructor ratings on gliders. Plenty of others with far more aviation experience than I have agree.

Flying skills can be thought of as two parts – aircraft control and procedural.

Aircraft control is learning how to purely fly; stick, rudder, throttle. It’s the skills you need to pull off a gusty crosswind landing or a perfect flick roll. FS2020 will definitely show you the basics there; primary and secondary effect of controls, how stalls work, spins to some degree, and much more. But the physics model isn’t perfect, and there’s no force-feedback on the controls; for example in real aircraft when you’re flying close to the stall the controls feel sloppy and FS2020 the control pressure never changes, at least not for my entry level gear. And as I don’t have a virtual reality headset I can’t easily look around, unlike a real aircraft where when you fly a loop or turn tightly, your peripheral vision helps orient you. I also don’t have rudder pedals, just a twist of the joystick, so a big part of flying light aircraft is a bit inaccurate on my setup. Also, my desk chair is considerably more comfortable than the seats in a Cessna 172, and I’m not going to turn the sound up so far as to be real!

Procedural is a huge part of flying – that’s all the pre-takeoff checks, air traffic control, navigation, fuel management and much more.  FS2020 will help a great deal with all that, and your best references are real-life training and checklists. Cockpits are accurately modelled too. You can also connect to PilotEdge for an accurate, high-pressure air traffic control environment too.

If you really invest solid time into learning to fly and using FS2020 in a real-world manner with say a Cessna 172, then it’ll be a huge, huge help when you try it for real. But not if you just hoon around in a high-powered aerobatic aircraft with all assists on. Nothing wrong with that, but won’t help you learn real-world skills, if anything it’ll be counter-productive, like taking an F1 car out on a race simulator with every assist turned on.

Something a simulator can never replicate is the need for self-reliance when flying. When you drive a car, you can pull over at any time and stop, even on a racetrack. When you’re flying, you can’t ever do that because the hardest part, landing, is yet to come. When the weather is closing in, or the engine parameters are worryingly out of the usual ranges, or you’re a little lost…you can’t pause, reset and walk into the kitchen to make yourself a coffee. 

I actually think FS2020 might make learning to fly almost too easy. When I did my pilot’s license navigation test, I had to fly to places I’d never been to, plotting my course after allowing for the wind as per the weather report, using purely visual references. Now in FS2020, I could just fly the route virtually and learn it by sight, not needing to rely on actual navigation skills.

Is there live air traffic?

Yes, you can turn on live, real air traffic. So instead of just looking at someone’s flight on FlightRadar, you can fly in formation and escort it home!

What aircraft are available?

General-aviation aircraft such as the Cessna 152 and 172, for aerobatics the Extra 300 and Pitts Special, some airliners such as the 747 and some business jets. There aren’t any fighters or vintage aircraft. If you want to shoot people, that’s never been something for Flight Simulator – try DCS instead. There are no helicopters or gliders yet, but previous versions of Flight Simulator have had both (far more interesting that boring old power aeroplanes, methinks) so let’s hope an update comes out soon with them included.

The future…

As with any new software release, we can expect updates soon. Bugs fixed, new areas modelled, new features and aircraft. And more generally, FS2020 marks a major step forwards in the blurring of the real and virtual worlds. My tip is that all the virtual worlds will merge; right now, each simulation creates its own version of the world. But how cool would it be if say the Bathurst racetrack from Gran Tursimo was just incorporated into FS2020, and you could fly over a real-time replication of the next Bathurst 1000.

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Automotive technical journalist specialising in 4X4s, camping, racecars and towing. Has designed and run driving courses covering offroading driving, winching, track racing and towing. Enjoys most things involving wings, wheels or sails. Follow me on Facebook and YouTube if you want explanations you won't find anywhere else!