How Microsoft finally landed helicopters and gliders for Flight Simulator

How Microsoft finally landed helicopters and gliders for Flight Simulator

Today is a big day for Microsoft Flight Simulator fans, as helicopters and gliders finally take to the skies in the 40th anniversary version of the game. While these two new modes of flight are highly requested additions, it has required extraordinary attention to detail and craftsmanship from French studio Asobo to bring the helicopters and gliders to life in Microsoft Flight Simulator.

“We didn’t do this all by ourselves,” Microsoft’s boss Flight simulator Jorg Neumann tells in an interview. “This 40th Anniversary Edition is truly a collaborative effort between Asobo and 10 other creative teams all coming together to make this the perfect gift for flight sim fans worldwide.”

Players get the Airbus A310 for free today, along with two new helicopters, two gliders, seven famous historic aircraft, classic airports and more than 20 classic missions from previous versions of Flight simulator.

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The helicopters in particular were challenging to expand Microsoft Flight Simulator. While the game was developed with aircraft in mind, there was always a desire to add more. “There’s never been a really good helicopter swim,” says Neumann. “The manufacturers tell us that, too.”

And there’s a good reason for that: it’s hard. The physics involved with helicopters is much more complex than propeller planes or huge aircraft like the Airbus A310. Helicopters are a completely different beast. Asobo has spent a long time carefully researching the aerodynamics of helicopters and replicating them in Microsoft Flight Simulator.

How airflow works on a helicopter is largely top-down. “It comes from the rotors and pushes down on the helicopter, so we had to increase the resolution of the specific turbulence much more around the actual helicopter.”

Things like translation lift have been perfected in the game to allow helicopters to realistically move from a hovering state to forward flight. It sounds simple, but it involves coding exactly how rotor systems react to turbulence and eddies created by hovering flight.

The Microsoft Flight Simulator the team worked closely with helicopter manufacturers such as Guimbal, also based in France. “We got full access to the manufacturing team, to their flight data, and we talked to their test pilots,” says Neumann. “It makes a huge difference when you’re trying to do something correctly.”

One of 14 helipads in Microsoft Flight Simulator.

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Also covered in the game is lift dissymmetry, which in rotorcraft aerodynamics is the unequal amount of lift on opposite sides of a rotor blade. “In our case, that means you have to do something like flapping, which is essentially a hinge where the motor blades hang on and the hinge goes up and down,” says Neumann. “These things go up and down and bend and tilt. All of that had to be completely rewritten. It’s never really existed before in an aerosim like this.”

“None of us had ever flown a helicopter before, but we had to,” Neumann admits. The result of the Asobo team taking helicopter flight lessons and two-hour trips to manufacturers translates into what Neumann describes as an “extraordinarily accurate” representation of helicopters in Microsoft Flight Simulator. You’ll be able to choose between a Bell 407 or a Guimbal Cabri G2, but third-party developers will be keen to add many more.

But Microsoft and Asobo’s work does not end here. While there are many famous helipads available in the game – such as landing next to the pyramids in Egypt or the statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro – there’s a desire to map them all, not just the 14 available at launch today.

“It turns out there is no global database of heliports,” says Neumann. The wider aviation industry has codes for airports, and they are all well documented, but helipads can be found at police stations, hospitals, private yachts and oil rigs. So Asobo creates its own database. “We’re currently building this, from the ground up, for the first time,” reveals Neumann.

Roladen-Schneider LS8 glider.

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Gliders are the other new type of aircraft available in the 40th Anniversary Update. As with helicopters, there is the usual amount of attention to detail to make these as realistic as possible. The thermal environment is key for gliders, especially when there is no engine, your energy is always draining, and you have to analyze the wind around you and ride wind shears. While light may hit forest or water and look different when flying in a plane, the thermal effect of the sun has a greater role for gliders.

“Now we actually know the amount of moisture that’s in the ground based on the last time it rained, and then we know the angle at which the sun is shooting rays at the ground, and that creates the percentage of buoyancy,” says Neumann. “It’s dynamic to create the thermals.”

You can even pilot a Wright Flyer.

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The real test for gliders will be flying over the Andes in Patagonia, where you can experience the weather in real time as Microsoft Flight Simulator replicates. If you manage to get back to an airport, then it’s like landing a plane. But if not, you’ll have to reset, and an AI-powered tow plane will get you ready to take off again.

Asobo has even found around 3,000 gliding clubs around the world and written to all of them to find out what type of aircraft they have, what type of winch equipment and how they use tow planes. This should make gliders more accurate in the game and also improve the 15 gliders available today. “We have engaged the sum total of gliding clubs in the world,” says Neumann. “As a group, they don’t really communicate together, and I think we trigger that a little bit.”

The Airbus A310 has been recreated in Microsoft Flight Simulator.

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In the future, there are plans to let you tow a friend’s glider in the game’s multiplayer mode and maybe even co-pilot helicopters together one day. Developers have also been waiting for this 40th anniversary update to be released so they can take a look at the software development kit and bring more third-party gliders and helicopters to the game.

“If I look at the 12 planes, 10 of them were not manufactured by Asobo,” says Neumann. “All we really need to do is bring the platform to a higher level of sophistication, and then they can go crazy.”

You may need to read the manual to pilot the Airbus A310.

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For now, the hope is that hardcore simmers and casual players off Microsoft Flight Simulator will enjoy the additions of helicopters, gliders and an Airbus A310 which has a pilot’s manual with thousands of pages. There’s always the risk that these new simulated aircraft won’t be as accurate or as welcoming as more common planes, and that’s something Asobo experimented with earlier this year.

The free Top Gun the update allowed players to learn unlimited launches, high-speed maneuvering, and the low-altitude stunts found in Top Gun: Maverick Film. “The maverick experiment was: will people enjoy a three-minute flight? The interesting thing about it was that everybody did,” Neumann says. “We were pretty sure the players would like it, but the core liked it, and it was cool.”

Like everything else in Microsoft Flight Simulatorattention to detail i Top Gun: Maverick the expansion was impressive, and the new helicopters and gliders released today have certainly had a lot of work put into them. “We strive as an IP to be as authentic as we can be,” says Neumann. “I think we’ve gotten there.”

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