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 Edition of the game. While these two new ways to fly are highly requested additions, it has taken extraordinary attention to detail and craft from French studio Asobo to make helicopters and gliders a reality in Microsoft Flight Simulator.
“We didn’t do this all by ourselves,” Microsoft’s head of flight simulator Jorg Neumann tells me in an interview. “This 40th Anniversary Edition really is a joint effort between Asobo and 10 other creative teams all coming together to make this the perfect gift for flight sim fans all over the world.”
Players are getting the Airbus A310 for free today, alongside two new helicopters, two gliders, seven famous historical aircraft, classic airports, and more than 20 classic missions from past versions of flight simulator.
The helicopters, in particular, were challenging to add to Microsoft Flight Simulator. While the game was developed with planes in mind, there was always a desire to add more. “There’s never really been a really great helicopter sim,” 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 far more complex than propeller planes or huge airliners like the Airbus A310. Helicopters are a totally different beast. Asobo has spent a long time meticulously examining the aerodynamics of helicopters and replicating them in Microsoft Flight Simulator.
The way the airflow works on a helicopter is largely from the top down. “It comes from the rotors and pushes down on the helicopter, so we had to increase the resolution of the specific turbulences a lot more around the actual helicopter.”
Things like translation lift have been perfected in-game to allow helicopters to realistically move from a hovering state to forward flight. That sounds simple, but it involves coding exactly how rotor systems react to turbulence and vortices created by hovering flight.
Tea Microsoft Flight Simulator team worked closely with helicopter manufacturers like 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. “That makes a huge difference when you’re trying to make something accurate.”
Even dissymmetry of lift is covered in the game, which in rotorcraft aerodynamics, is the unequal amount of lift on opposite sides of a rotor disc. “In our case, it means you have to do something like flapping, which is essentially a hinge where the motor blades hang on and the hinges go up and down,” says Neumann. “These things go up and down and bend and tilt. This all had to be completely rewritten. It has never really existed before in a flight sim like this.”
“None of us had ever flown a helicopter before, but we had to,” Neumann admitted. 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 pick between a Bell 407 or a Guimbal Cabri G2, but third-party developers will be eager to add many more.
But Microsoft and Asobo’s work doesn’t stop here. While there are many famous helipads available in the game — like landing next to the pyramids in Egypt or the Christ the Redeemer statue 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 broader aviation industry has codes for airports, and they’re all well documented, but helipads can be found on police stations, hospitals, private yachts, and oil platforms. So Asobo is creating its own database. “We are currently in the process of building this, from scratch, for the first time,” reveals Neumann.
Gliders are the second new type of aircraft available in the 40th Anniversary Update. Just like helicopters, there is the usual amount of attention to detail to make these as realistic as possible. The thermal environment is key for gliders, particularly when there’s no motor, your energy always depletes, and you have to analyze the wind around you and ride wind shears. While light can hit forests or water and look different when you’re flying in a plane, the thermal impact of the Sun has a bigger 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 with which the Sun fires rays at the ground, and that creates the updrift percentage,” says Neumann. “That’s dynamically creating the thermals.”
The real test for glider fans will be flying over the Andes Mountains in Patagonia, where you can experience the real-time weather that Microsoft Flight Simulator replicates. If you manage to make it back to an airport, then it’s like landing a plane. But if not, you’ll need to reset, and an AI-powered tow plane will get you ready for takeoff again.
Asobo has even found around 3,000 glider clubs around the world and written to all of them to find out what type of aircraft they have, the types of winch equipment, and how they use tow planes. This should make gliders more accurate in-game and also improve upon the 15 glider airports that are available today. “We’ve engaged the total sum of glider clubs in the world,” says Neumann. “As a group, they don’t really communicate together, and I think we’re triggering that a little bit.”
In the future, there are plans to allow you to tow a friend’s glider in the multiplayer mode of the game and perhaps even co-pilot helicopters together one day. Developers have also been waiting on this 40th Anniversary Update to drop 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 weren’t made 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.”
For now, the hope is that hardcore simmers and casual players of Microsoft Flight Simulator will enjoy the additions of helicopters, gliders, and an Airbus A310 that has a pilot handbook with thousands of pages. There’s always a risk that these new simulated aircraft might not be as accurate or as welcome as more regular planes, and it’s something Asobo has experimented with earlier this year.
The free Top Gun update allowed players to learn unrestricted takeoffs, high-speed maneuvering, and the low-altitude stunts that are found in the Top Gun: Maverick movie. “The maverick experiment was: will people enjoy a three-minute flight? The interesting thing about that was everybody did,” says Neumann. “We were pretty sure the gamers would like it, but the core simmers liked it, and that was cool.”
Like everything else in Microsoft Flight Simulatorthe attention to detail in the Top Gun: Maverick expansion was impressive, and the new helicopters and gliders being released today have certainly had a lot of work put into them. “We’re striving as an IP to be as authentic as we can be,” says Neumann. “I think we’ve got there.”