(CNN) — We’d heard about the new Microsoft Flight Simulator’s mega-realistic scenery, digitally distilled from satellite imagery. We knew the sim could recreate real-time weather conditions on the go, relayed from live climatic data feeds. Even real-world pilots say that the look and feel of the airplanes are, in so many ways, indistinguishable from the real thing.
But what other features, quirks and unanticipated goodies are lurking below the radar, now that it’s officially out there? And what kinds of unexpected shenanigans do simmers get up to with the game’s colossal capabilities?
Doors to automatic. Fire up your PC. It’s time to find out 10 incredible things we’ve discovered about the 2020 release of Microsoft Flight Simulator.
1. You can recreate famous movie flights
Movie buffs can get in touch with their inner Spielberg by using Flight Simulator to emulate famous cinematic flight scenes.
Ian Higton at Eurogamer has used the sim to recreate the opening scene of Bond movie “Goldeneye,” as well as the moment in “Top Gun” where Tom Cruise buzzes the control tower. He’s also attempted to land a 747 on the Las Vegas strip, just like in “Con Air.”
He’s also done a recreation of the nailbiting scene in “North by Northwest” where Cary Grant is chased by a cropduster.
“Inspiration came from finding my own house in the game. Once I’d discovered that and flown around the surrounding areas I needed something else to explore, which is when I thought of flying over movie locations,” says Higton.
2. You can refuel at any time
If you forgot to fill up your plane’s fuel tanks before you took off, it’s not a big deal — at least not in the virtual world. Range anxiety is no longer an issue as the sim lets you top up with virtual kerosene on the go.
“We discovered — which I know that a lot of people don’t know, because they were spamming it during the stream — is that you can refuel the plane at any time. You can tell the video game just to put more fuel in and it’ll do it,” says Greene.
“I don’t really know why they did it that way. But we tried to fly the route with a 747 at 100% fuel and the plane wouldn’t take off (it would have been too heavy). But that’s how much fuel is needed to get to Dubai. In real life I don’t actually know how they do it, because they don’t refuel, clearly!”
So that’s the trick. Take off with 50% fuel, and if you need to you can just drop more fuel in and you’re good to go. It’s a little outside of the realm of realism, but at least you won’t be left high and dry.
(In the real world, Boeing 787s and A350s are usually used for that length of flight. The only way a 747 could tackle it would be with less fuel, no passengers and no cargo — and therefore no revenue.)
3. It’s a low-cost, quarantine-free way to go on safari
In a year spent being cooped up inside, one of the most delightful things to explore on MS Flight Simulator is the natural world.
“Flying over Africa looking for elephants or seeing wild flamingos in Chile is not an everyday opportunity, but doing this virtually in a sim can still inspire a sense of awe,” says ObsidianAnt, a world games enthusiast.
He has used Microsoft Flight Simulator’s drone camera feature to fly lower than a plane would normally fly and then zoom in on wildlife such as giraffes in Tanzania or grizzly bears in Canada.
“This adds an extra dimension to sightseeing and is the tool I used for getting close-up footage of the various animals in the sim,” says ObsidianAnt.
4. You can fly alongside your buddies
Some like to fly in formation with flamingos, others like to fly with other simmers.
Once you’re done buzzing the control tower like Maverick in “Top Gun,” you can activate the “live traffic” button and take to the skies alongside your chosen wingmen or women.
During he and Boon’s 16-hour flight from LA to Dubai, Bruce Greene says “We had a bunch of people that were flying along with us for a lot of the flight.”
“They would turn on live air traffic and people would just meet up with us. They would flank us along our route. And throughout the world, people would jump on and try to find us and then fly the little jets by us. Basically we had escorts.”
5. You can fly where the maps don’t go
Flat Earthers might like this one.
When Greene and Boon were virtually flying from LA to Dubai on their Twitch livestream, the game charted a route over the North Pole.
“So we flew over the top of the earth and flew outside of the realm of Bing Maps,” explains Greene.
“And the VFR (Visual Flight Rules) map that you have up when you’re playing the game just has a little red line of where you’re going, and the red line disappears over the top of the Earth.
“As we flew over the North Pole we were looking at different weird map structures that may have just been glitches or may have been the video game filling in, but we didn’t know where we were.”
Fortunately, the digital duo didn’t fall off the edge.
“But we were still flying over the North Pole,” says Greene, so that was a fun little thing that we discovered that maybe Bing Maps either doesn’t have that map at all, or that’s just the way the North Pole looks. I’m not sure!”
6. Your co-pilot’s got your back
For rookie pilots overwhelmed by the hundreds of buttons and widgets in the cockpit of some of the larger aircraft, help is at hand.
Got yourself into a spin? Pressed the wrong button? Just hit the co-pilot switch and the built-in AI pilot will take hold of the controls for you, deploying artificial intelligence to get your plane back on course.
“The AI co pilot that they have in Microsoft Flight Simulator is fantastic,” says Greene.
“It’s one of those things where, if you were worried about what your plane was doing, or all of a sudden you realize it was diving, you just turn on the AI copilot and it fixes everything. It’s a nice failsafe.”
However, unlike in the movie “Airplane,” Flight Simulator’s automatic pilot doesn’t light up a cigarette following its deployment.
7. You can play with the sky’s aerosol levels
One of the game’s most talked-about features is its incredible level of realism.
Denis, a first officer for a major US carrier based in New York who flies the Airbus A320 in his day job, documents his Flight Simulator adventures on his YouTube channel 15-Minute Flights. He says the sim replicates the sensation of flying through the stratosphere in a way that previous sims have never managed to achieve.
“When you fly a real airplane at high altitudes you get that sensation that you’re at a higher altitude,” says Denis. “There’s something about being in an Airbus A320 at 32,000 feet that feels different in the sense that when you look outside, the light is brighter, the blues are deeper, the reflections are stronger.”
“With Flight Simulator the sky definitely has a different hue in terms of how the sky looks, how things are reflected off the airplane, and it just looks bitter cold. It just feels different.”
One of the options in the new Microsoft sim is the option to change the aerosol levels in the sky. These are the minute particles suspended in the atmosphere which, when reaching a certain size, become noticeable as they scatter and absorb sunlight. This causes hazy skies, reduces visibility and reddens sunrises and sunsets.
“Microsoft did a fantastic job in recreating the atmosphere from the ground to the upper atmosphere,” says Denis. “So that is one huge thing that stands out. That gives you a different feeling. It actually makes you feel as if you’re cruising as the flight levels rise.”
8. When it’s cold in the real world, your virtual windscreen will ice up too
In real-world flying, when the weather is cold, especially at high altitudes, ice can form on the wings and engine inlets, affecting the performance of the aircraft.
One of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator literally coolest features is that when the temperature drops in the real world — the sim, after all, derives its weather input from real-world climatic data — ice actually appears on the flight sim’s rendition of the cockpit windscreen and on the airplane’s external surfaces, just like in the real world.
“Under certain conditions, you start to get ice on the aircraft and you don’t see anything because the cockpit windshield will be iced up and the plane can actually lose lift because of the ice,” says Sérgio Costa, known in the simmer community as HeliSimmer.com.
Costa was one of an elite cohort of flight sim enthusiasts who participated in Microsoft’s beta testing program.
A few other flight sim games do have the option to buy extra icing features as an add-on from third-party game developers, but Costa says that “only Microsoft Flight Simulator provides it as a default feature that comes with its sim.”
If your cockpit starts freezing up you can always descend to a lower altitude to help melt the ice, or turn on the Flight Simulator’s de-icing system.
9. You can test yourself with landing challenges
Boeing 737 pilot Sam, aka flightDeck2sim, is a captain with one of Europe’s largest airlines and shares his knowledge by explaining real-world procedures to the flightsim community on his YouTube channel.
Sam says, “One of the things that the previous simulators didn’t really model accurately were things like how the terrain, and the wind over terrain, affects external factors on the aircraft, things like wake turbulence.” (That’s the spiraling vortex of air that comes out the back of the airplane when it’s flying.)
These are exactly the types of features within Flight Simulator that make flying close to the ground — especially when landing on the runway — more realistic. With Microsoft’s new sim Sam enthuses that, “You’re flying an aircraft and it’s windy, you’re close to the ground, you can feel the effect of updraft from the terrain.”
A feature of the sim is that it offers a series of “landing challenges,” which Sam attempted on a livestream using his real-world 737 experience (though he flies a variety of other virtual planes for the landing challenges too).
Famously difficult landing strips provided in the sim include Jackson Hole Airport, located at the base of the Teton Mountain Range in Wyoming, where a short runway, high altitude and constantly variable weather conditions make it particularly challenging.
Or there’s Aspen/Pitkin County Airport, also known as Sardy Field, where pilots have to contend with a steep approach through mountainous terrain, and a strong chance of rotten weather.
For those with a competitive nature, Microsoft Flight Simulator provides a rating after each landing, where “landing precision” (whether you landed on the right spot on the runway), “ground roll” (did the wings wobble when you landed? — they obviously shouldn’t), and “landing smoothness” are all assessed.
This can be compared with everyone else who has attempted the same landing using the new sim to produce an overall global ranking score.
10. The only way is up
The flightsim universe is populated by friendly helpful simmers, always eager to lend tips, comments, and the occasional sneer. Nearly everyone involved becomes a bit of an amateur flight instructor.
It’s fortuitous that Microsoft Flight Simulator has been launched in the age of livestreaming, enabling anyone new to the game to clamber aboard the virtual world of flight simulation, secure in the knowledge that there’s a helpful community of simmers at hand, as you take to the skies, to cheer you on and prevent you getting in to a spin.
Perhaps the most amazing thing we’ve discovered about Flight Simulator is not just its technical wizardry, but the fact that it is a door into a universe of like-minded enthusiasts, always eager to help out, ever ready to share knowledge and tips graciously about specific places around the world, how to fly there and how to handle the planes.
It brings together people of every nation, culture, religion and orientation — in an age of polarization.
Flight simulation is a world of amiable nerds who are just trying to reach out at a time when so many things have suddenly become untouchable. Bringing the whole world virtually into our homes, with unprecedented realism, is at least some consolation in the age of Covid-19.