Microsoft Flight Simulator – Steam Edition

  • Circa 2006. Had not been updated in decades.
  • We found 4 actual hang gliders that could run in this simulator. They could be foot launched/landed and had decent flight characteristics.
  • We found an add-on program that created ridge lift and random thermal generation with some life cycle modifications. Including cloud development.

Because this is the ONLY simulator that we could find with actual aircraft in it, this is the only contender.

We are a long, long, long way away from our Must Haves list right out of the box. It takes a lot of work just to find, download, install, and then load a glider into the sim. And then, the sim will basically just put you on a runway. Not helpful. You could then ‘teleport’ your aircraft to a lat/lon/alt using options in the sim. That could put you on a hillside (if you were lucky), and if you knew that information, and that information was correct, and if the sim actually matched the real world (it does not). It took a lot of time to get our first launchable site just known, let alone working. Once on the ground, the glider models were built to instantly take off if the sim was not paused. Very frustrating. If you could get the glider into the air successfully, you would be back on the ground in minutes, if not seconds, because the sim does not simulate the real world. Clouds are not clouds, they are visual only. Wind is just a number, it does not provide lift on a ridge. Thermals do not naturally exist. They can be made, if you are a programmer, but not by the native simulator. In these simulators, you need a motor and wheels.

Then we found an ancient, out of date, but functional, application called CumulusX! It runs outside the simulator but injects very reasonable ridge lift and some semi-reasonable random thermal generation right in the simulator! This works much better than expected, but has some missing functionality as it pertains to hang gliding. It would programmatically produce a thermal based on some settings for a given area, which looked sort of random (but not). If it did not produce a thermal within gliding distance of your chosen launch site, you were never going to find a thermal. That is not how real life works.

We found we could configure the wind/weather in the sim to some degree, but not much really. It used to have support for real-world weather updates, but that had stopped working over a decade ago. Setting up weather now meant the weather you started with, was the weather everywhere, all the time. That is no how real life works.

So with perseverance and persistence, we made some flights. Some really shitty flights too. Nothing like the real thing. Each and every attempt was a heroic effort to get to the point you could even take off. Even then, the scenery was so bad you could not possibly ridge soar or navigate. The elevation mesh was so far off as to be laughable. You could not tell if you were 30 feet or 300 feet off the ground. This sim was built to fly from one airport to another airport and that was the only way to get any ground awareness at all. Then we found some photo-real scenery files!

It took us days and many attempts to get these photo-real scenery files to download off the internet. Many are decades old as well. They took effort to get installed correctly into the sim and doing so usually crashed the sim! We found other tools that could then fix that. All scary stuff, but worth it. We finally got a glimpse of what we were after. Now the jungle that the sim put on what was the real launch is replaced with a 2 dimensional (flat) picture of what should be there. Looks like nothing on the ground, but way better in the air. We could at least now launch at real launch sites and then once launched get some semblance of the third dimension so important to hang gliding. We could see some flying that started to resemble what we were looking for. It got exciting again, instead of frustrating.

With some tweaking to CumulusX! using thermal script files, we could get some ‘house thermals’ defined and actually soar some sites we knew. Not totally realistic, but not unrealistic. We had become the world’s first true virtual hang glider pilots. I am convinced of this. Others had flown hang gliders, but that is not the same thing. I hope that comes thru as I document this.

We need help!
At this point, we saw a glimpse of what can be, but were very, very far from what we wanted. We needed to start doing some coding! This simulator lets you interact with it using an API set. This DLL was ancient! Yet, we found a way. Once we could communicate with the simulator, we could control the simulator. We built an application that allowed us to store site information, install gliders, teleport to any location, setup static objects, control the weather and even thermals. We add functionality for being able to control our gliders on the ground. We could walk around. We could launch at will. We could land realistically. We could manage tasks and flight computers. We could inject real world weather and save weather scenarios and replay them. We could hang glide.

Once we had a working app, we started filming some of our flights. Would anyone care? Probably not. Why? Well it is not visually appealing. You can always tell it is fake even if we are having fun flying!

But we knew what was coming: