I am very well aware that Microsoft Flight Simulator is meant to be just that: a flight simulator. In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic though, I couldn’t resist the urge to treat it like a personal transporter device, virtually beaming over to my hometown of Saskatoon, SK, Canada for a good ol’ sticky beak. After all, I won’t be getting there in person any time soon.
Flight Simulator is a technological marvel, one that pulls data from Bing Maps, streaming imagery and real-time weather as you fly.
For a large city like Melbourne, Toronto or New York, Bing’s photogrammetry is detailed down to a 5-centimeter resolution. For Saskatoon — Saskatchewan’s largest city at around 250,000 people — that level of detail isn’t quite there. Nevertheless, I took advantage of the situation and went sightseeing, the occasional tear welling in my eye in the process.
I’m getting ahead of myself though; before all that happened, I was stalling planes on the runway or flipping them over and into rivers because I had no idea what I was doing. For any modicum of success or enjoyment, you’ll need to go through some tutorials and master the basics before you succumb to the temptation to treat Flight Simulator as a postcard generator. Alternatively, I guess you could just let your AI co-pilot do all the flying, but where’s the fun in that?
A total of eight tutorial missions are surprisingly informative, acting as much as physics lessons as a flight how-to. Abandoning the idea of “pull back on the stick and then don’t crash,” I quickly learned the basics. Airspeed and altitude are tied together by that pesky little thing called gravity; pull back on the yoke too much and you’re going to slow down (or worse). The tutorials are packed full of information on flying, doing so without the need to manipulate controls every second of your journey, engine management, landing, travel planning and much more.
No joke: before you do anything else, go through those tutorials.
Even with that wealth of information secured in your toolbelt, I cannot stress that Flight Simulator is heavy on “simulator”. Menus are hidden behind menus, and behind those are even more; I still struggle to get things going the exact way I want even with 15 recorded hours of experience in hand. If you can fully turn off the HUD and get rid of giant blue signs telling you that the famous building you’re flying in front of is the Sydney Opera House, I couldn’t tell you how.
There’s an Achievement for starting up an Airbus A320neo without any assistance, yet no matter how hard I try, the pre-flight checklist mysteriously appears half-done when I load in. After letting my autopilot manage a three hour flight the one time, I took back controls to see an on-screen tooltip informing me I needed to turn my plane’s engine on. Um, what? It was too late by that point and I plumetted straight into the Pacific Ocean.
Flight Simulator can be a struggle at times, but it’s all very worth the effort you put in. Primarily it’s an exercise in patience, from having to go through tutorial missions so you’re not constantly fighting the stick to waiting for a long-haul journey to complete, seemingly in real-time. Before all that, you’ll need to enter into a state of zen just to get past the game’s inital loading sequence.
If you can handle the wait times in-between, then your reward is an absolutely breathtaking journey.
It’s likely no surprise that most of my flight plans revolve around Saskatchewan. I generally take off from John G. Diefenbaker International Airport (love you, CYXE), heading down runaway 27 before turning west and buzzing my childhood home in Parkridge. In the twenty or so years I’ve been away from Saskatoon, it’s changed in leaps and bounds; my closest high school was about twenty-five minutes towards the downtown area. Now, there’s two — a public one and a Catholic one — each about a five minute walk from where my parents still live.
When I last visited, the area around the two new schools was pretty barren, but now it’s full of new homes; new families starting out on the edge of Saskatoon’s boundaries in a community called Blairmore. From the air, I realise just how close my home was to a local park, with two elementary schools (one public, one Catholic) nestled within it. While I continually joke that any point in Saskatoon is about a fifteen-minute drive to any other, a bird’s eye view really helps me to appreciate its size.
It’s here in my ol’ stomping grounds where I can’t resist the urge to pause the game (literally by hitting the Pause key on my keyboard) to freeze my plane in midair. I’ve got the game set to Live Weather, though a quick click into the Weather menu lets me manipulate that.
Not only can I change the time of the day, watching shadows form and loop as I move forward and back on a slider, I can change the weather itself.
Boom. Here’s my parents’ house in the middle of a bright, sunny day… and here it is shrouded in the darkness of a Canadian winter at 3.30 pm, snow covering everything the eye can see. It took me a day or two before I realised I could also play with cloud cover, altering the altitudes of multiple layers. The more you play around with things though, be aware you’ll likely have to sit around for a bit after the changes while Flight Simulator freezes and tries to make sense of all that’s been amended.
Weather tweaks fulfilled, I set course for the South Saskatchewan river and follow it toward the city’s centre. Saskatoon calls itself the “City of Bridges”, and it’s a suitable moniker — there are eight major crossings throughout its metropolitan area. The new(ish), rather plainly named “Circle Drive South Bridge” is where I aim my small propeller plane before heading to check out the rest. While I’m very familiar with most of Saskatoon’s bridges, this particular one was open to the public in 2013 and resulted in a 35% reduction in traffic on other main roads. It also provided benefits for folks like my parents, who suddenly had a much shorter journey when needing to cross the South Saskatchewan. Alongside 2018’s Chief Mistawasis Bridge, Circle Drive finally became whole, an actual circle that surrounds the city.
A majority of Saskatoon’s bridges connect the downtown area on the west to thriving communities on the east. In the image at the very top (and in the gallery just above), you can see the University Bridge, with the University of Saskatchewan just off that. Founded in 1907, the university occupies nearly 4 square miles and functions as one of Canada’s top research universities. I’m a proud alumus, returning home for a stint in 2006 to finish off a Bachelor of Arts degree I kicked off in 2000 before a working holiday to Melbourne that turned into a full-blown emigration. I returned again to the campus in 2015 in order to marry my husband when we weren’t deemed equal enough in Australia to do that here.
The combination of Bing’s photogrammetry and 3d modelling isn’t perfect, but it’s damn close.
I went snap happy on my trips to Saskatoon, breaking potential embargoes by sending some of my best shots to family and friends. “Remember this?” or “recognise this?” was how I framed most of my images. Some recipients entertained me, following up with, “it looks familiar, but I can’t place it!” Mom, on the other hand, fought me tooth and nail.
“No, it’s not,” she wrote to me matter-of-factly after I sent through an image identified as Saskatoon’s Bessborough Hotel, an iconic landmark that stands proudly as both a focal point of the riverbank and downtown itself.
I mean, I understood where she was coming from as the image I sent through didn’t look anything like the actual hotel, though it did have the correct shape and positioning within the city. Just like the in-game Sydney Harbor Bridge isn’t identical to the real-life one, you have to suspend disbelief just a little. Just as the Bessborough is a shadow of its real-life majesty, the famed double-decker bus that sits out front and serves delicious ice cream was nowhere to be found either. It’s hard to really complain when everything is so instantly recognisable, and also when thinking about what’s really happening as you play; in the four or so days I’ve had with the game, I’ve streamed just over 1GB of this type of content.
Saskatoon sorted, I had the bright idea of extending my tour out into Saskatchewan, the self-proclaimed “Land of Living Skies”. I took off from a small grass runway in Spiritwood and plotting a course west to the small town of Turtleford, Saskatchewan.
If you think Saskatoon’s small, get ready: the population of Turtleford is just over 500.
My sister moved there to teach at the local elementary school many years ago and has set down roots, raising two amazing children in the process. I’ve been to visit a couple times, known by everyone, instantly, when I arrive though sadly, I can’t return that favour. Split in two by Highway 26, my sister’s old place is on the right-hand side of the town, ridiculously close to Turtleford’s claim to fame: Ernie, the 8-foot tall turtle (eat your heart out, The Big Pineapple). By far, some of the largest buildings to the left of the highway are the Turtleford Commnuity School and — like any good small Canadian town — its curling and hockey rinks.
While Bing’s data is a bit old — poor ol’ Ernie was captured as a blob of white instead of the newly painted blob of green he should be (a tad above and to the right from my plane in the first image above) — my fly-by caused a surge of emotions to flood through me. I could pinpoint the exact spot that my husband, my sister and I were standing on when my husband looked up and realised he could see the northern lights gleaming in the sky.
Flight Simulator‘s not only great for a trip through your past, but critical in making new memories and connections in the middle of a pandemic. My sister’s moved about five minutes down the road to (another) small town named Mervin, and I’ve never had the chance to visit. Being halfway around the world and without a vaccine in sight (sorry Putin, I’m not taking yours), it’s painfully clear I won’t have the chance to for a number of years.
While I can’t be there in person, it was really nice to be able to visit virtually, sending an image through to my sister asking, “which house is yours?”
Fifteen hours in — actually more, but my PC crashed during an epic 58-hour long haul from Saskatoon to Melbourne — and I realise that Microsoft Flight Simulator will be a lot of different things to a different people. There will be the ones that rely on auto-pilot to get from point A to point B, firing up the drone and taking screenshots of the CN Tower on the way to Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport.
There’ll be die-hards who’d make far better use of the rudders, yoke and throttle Microsoft send through, manually taking control of every aspect of a flight. There’ll be the thrill-seekers who stick to challenges, plotting routes by hand or tackling tricky landings in high winds. Friends will gather together to jump in sporty jets and zip around the globe together. I’m more than happy to sit somewhere in the middle of all that, more than likely falling like a rock into an ocean more than I’d care to admit. Long story short, make Microsoft Flight Simulator whatever you want it to be — it can handle it.
Microsoft Flight Simulator was reviewed using a promotional code on Windows PC via the Windows 10 Store, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.