The truth is that you can play DCS and have a ton of fun doing it without learning what every knob does or how to use the aircraft’s complex navigational and mission avionics. You can even auto-start the planes with one key. Eagle Dynamics has really missed the boat not getting this reality across to prospective players—that there is scalability in terms of realism for the user—and that’s why they could be wounded by a product like Microsoft Flight Simulator that will cater to a huge swathe of perspective virtual pilots. In fact, potential users know this already as many have grown up with various iterations of the product or at least understand what it is and why it was such a big deal. This is especially true if Microsoft gets independent studios to provide highly advanced modules for their base software, just like DCS today. As such, you could execute high-fidelity carrier operations in a Super Hornet, or go on leisurely sightseeing tour a Cessna all within the same software suite.
Also, what’s so exciting is that hardware capabilities have finally caught up with flight simulator software makers’ ambitions. Few systems were able to smoothly run FSX well over a decade ago. Today, powerful graphics cards and processors can offer smooth framerates even in the VR environment. This is a huge deal when it comes to user experience and the potential future growth of the Microsoft Flight Simulator brand.
Regardless of how the relatively small consumer flight simulation industry will react to FS2020 after enjoying nearly a 14-year vacuum since the franchise’s last release, the biggest impact it could have is on a whole new generation of potential pilots, engineers, and aerospace industry workers who haven’t benefitted from a modern and highly accessible flight simulation experience in their lifetime. And boy does the aviation world need it.
Young people have largely been disenfranchised from the world of aviation. Getting access to light aircraft is prohibitively expensive. Actually keeping up your qualifications or even one day owning a plane is also seen as the domain of the rich. Engineering-wise, young people have been shown that if they are talented in STEM they can make huge salaries while being pampered in a creative corporate tech environment, so why would they go work for Boeing or Lockheed or Textron, let alone smaller and far higher-risk firms? I truly believe this shift in STEM talent is part of what’s to blame for developmental debacles like the 737 MAX, KC-46, and F-35, and so many other major programs. A lot of young engineering cream is rising to Silicon Valley, not Everett or Fort Worth. That’s not to say that there aren’t super talented young people working on these programs, but if you talk to enough people on the inside, recruitment in the engineering and computer sciences fields has become an existential issue.
The same thing can be said for those who actually fly the planes. With a huge demand for cockpit crews, wages are rising and competition has become more fierce for pilots internationally. The Pentagon is surely feeling the sting of this reality. The pilot seat was once seen as a lucrative and vaunted job within our society—right up there with architects and medical doctors. But in recent decades, that perception has dramatically lost its luster.
Endless stories about pilots living at or below the poverty line with hundreds of thousands of dollars in flight school debt, sleeping on friends couches and working grueling schedules for little pay, far eclipsed the old perceptions of the career aviator. For a new generation that is focused on work-life balance, these perceptions are akin to kryptonite when it comes to bringing new pilots into the fray.
One thing that can help overcome this roadblock is seeding the passion for aviation early via flight simulation—letting young people feel as if the joy of flight is right at their fingertips and that they can even be good at it without ever spending hundreds of dollars on an introductory flight. The addition of VR makes the computer flight experience all that much more exciting and real. Even still in its infancy, VR puts you in the cockpit. You are there. It is nothing like using a monitor or a head tracking device. I can only describe it as absolutely revolutionary.
This technological leap equates to a powerful opportunity for the aviation community and industry. With a computer that costs a couple thousand dollars and software that takes zero fuel to run, requires no insurance, no ramp fees, and no maintenance, we can now put young people in the cockpit and give them an experience that is remarkably real.
Flight Simulator 2020 is the key here. It can consolidate all of this into a sleek, reliable, scalable package that could even be able to reach across the computer gaming divide from the expensive personal computer to the relatively inexpensive gaming console. The fidelity may be inferior to its PC counterpart, but the penetration into a far larger user base is undeniable.
With all that in mind, I don’t think FS2020 looks to be a cool product that has been long in waiting. I think its existence is directly tied to the future of aviation. If the aerospace industry were smart, they would capitalize on Microsoft’s endeavor and see that as many kids as possible get access to this game in a virtual reality setting alongside an instructor, which doesn’t even have to be physically present. In fact, they can sit right next to them in the cockpit in VR while being thousands of miles away. It’s a small investment to see that the future of aerospace engineering and our aviation industry remains strong and replete with plenty of aviators to fill cockpit seats and to buy airplanes, as well as a solid pool of talented engineers to design the next breakthrough in aerospace technology and skilled workers who will keep those technologies functioning.