Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Joys of Virtual Travel

Is this thing on? This blog I mean. Since I haven’t written a post since 2018, I thought maybe the whole blog thing was over and nobody told me. We certainly seem to have passed the heyday of blogs if there ever was one. It was sort of cool back in 2005 when I was excited about Orbiter, a new space flight simulator I had discovered, and I decided to share my fascination with real and virtual space flight with anyone who cared to read those early posts. Cool to me anyway. I met a few other space bloggers and Orbiter fans and there was even a small online community of sorts for a while. Woo-hoo! If there are still any blog readers or old space blog colleagues around, welcome! Leave a comment! All my old posts seem to still be out there and we’ll soon see if this one joins them.

Of course, now it’s late 2021 and things have changed. You know what many of them are, but in addition, I retired from my job a few months ago, and between that and COVID, my travel has been sharply curtailed. But things have come full circle in a way. Last year I rediscovered an old interest, non-space flight simulators, and specifically Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 (MSFS). I had played with various flight sims from 1994 to 2004, and between 1999 and 2004, I got my real private pilot’s license (2001). I didn’t fly as much as I hoped I would, but I feel lucky that I got to fly at all. For more information on that, please visit my other moribund blog, Flight SchoolRetrojournal.

When I say I didn’t fly much, I meant only as a pilot. As a passenger I flew constantly from 1983 until late 2019, just before COVID started. Hundreds of international business trips and a few cool vacations. I do miss that part of my working life, going places, seeing things, meeting people, doing things. It was great. In retirement, my wife and I plan to do some fun domestic and international travel once things settle down with COVID and a few other issues. Maybe next year.

In the meantime, MSFS allows me to experience some of the joys of flying and “virtual travel” from the comfort of my own office chair, with or without a VR headset. I’ll spare you the details you can learn from any number of websites or YouTube videos, but MSFS takes full advantage of the power of fast PC’s, graphical accelerators, and cloud computing to create a highly detailed simulation of the entire world, complete with “Live Weather” and stunning depictions of terrain, human-built structures, many different airplanes, and even other simulator pilots sharing the skies with you over the internet. It’s an amazing experience with a large high-res monitor, but even better with a modern virtual reality headset. I have the Hewlett-Packard Reverb G2 which works great with MSFS.

Where Have I Been?

I have spent some simulator time in a Cessna 152 flying around Central Massachusetts as I did in real life 15-22 years ago, and it’s fun to see how well Asobo has done recreating airports, towns, and terrain familiar to me (Asobo are the French makers of Microsoft’s current flight simulator). It is detailed enough to navigate “VFR” using familiar landmarks. You can usually even find your house! But with the whole world at my fingertips, and with a stable full of airplanes from ultralights to business jets to a Boeing 747, I’m not usually so close to home. When not flying a Beech Bonanza G36 or a tail-wheel XCub, I tend to favor an old Stearman biplane or the Aermacchi MB-339, an Italian-built jet trainer, both bought from third-party developers. 

Human and Robot Tour Guides

One thing I have enjoyed is a weekly group flight organized by Jules Altis, who happens to be an active private pilot as well as a simulator enthusiast. For months he focused on US National Parks of which there are many worth touring from the air. He would research the history and special features of each park and share those presentations and videos along with the flight plan for all of us to follow in the simulator and on Twitch or Discord. Olympia National Park, Washington, was my personal favorite. More recently he switched to a more informal format with international destinations like the Amalfi Coast of Italy, the Great Rift Valley of Africa, and the Tokaido Road in Japan. He makes use of a great free add-on developed by others called Bushtalk Radio which provides computer-narrated tours within the simulator of over twelve-thousand points of interest around the world. I’ve helped in small ways with Bushtalk Radio, especially with this brief trailer video that introduces it in the same synthetic “English lady” voice used for the actual tours (the music is mine).

Favorite Places

In addition to the “standards” like the Grand Canyon, Mount Fuji, and New York City, there are so many lesser-known mountains, lakes, cities, bridges, and dams, not to mention so many great airports. If you love airplanes you’ve got to love airports! Many of these sights are beautiful right out of the box, but there is also a facility for “add-ons,” both free and paid. In addition to an expanded air fleet (fancy a Spitfire or F-14 Tomcat?), you can find hundreds of airports with added details. Duxford Airfield, England is a current (free) favorite of mine. Scenery enhancements are also popular, many free, but many great commercial ones that are well worth a few dollars, like this improved version of Seoul, Korea which reminds me of my many visits there over the years.

I have created many videos which are usually short flights in some cool area I’ve discovered. I’ve experimented with adding my own music to a few, like this one of a Spitfire (White Cliffs of Dover, of course) or this flight around Tokyo. One of my favorite videos is this one (not mine) of many beauty spots, set to an instrumental version of “What a Wonderful World.”

This is already a long post so I will end here. I’ll probably write another one talking about what it is that makes the Microsoft Flight Simulator experience so engaging for me.

MSFS screenshots above, from the top (* add-on aircraft):

1. Stearman* over north Australia; 2. Dorand AR.1* (WWI) over Minnesota; 3. Stearman* passing through Tower Bridge, London; 4. Diamond DA-40NG over Sphinx Observatory, Jungfrau, Switzerland; 5. Cubcrafters XCub, Milford Sound, New Zealand; 6. Cessna 208 on a group flight in Iceland; 7. XCub on floats, Nahuel Huapi National Park, Argentina; 8. Beechcraft G36 near Lotte World Tower, Seoul, Korea; 9. Nieuport 17* (WWI) over Duxford Airfield, England; 10. Aermacchi MB-339* somewhere over Ireland

Here's a link to a shared Google Photos album with a few other screenshots from Microsoft Flight Simulator.