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Virtual vs Real: A Review of Knife Edge RealFlight G5.5 RC Simulator

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You can download a free demo copy of this software here

Rummaging around the basement, in addition to some old radios, I found my Radio Control (RC) airplane.  This plane has not seen flight for a decade – at least.  Found my Futaba transmitter/controller too.  Looks like I might be in business for some RC flying this year.

In the “old days” the way you learned how to fly RC was to join a club and get some training.  Fortunately for me, there were lots of RC clubs in the area and the park district set aside flying fields for flying RC airplanes and helicopters.  Perfect.

Back then the only option for learning how to fly radio control was what I would describe as “white knuckle” learning.  After some “ground school” you got out there in the flying field along with an instructor.  You and the instructor had a conversation about the “flight plan”.  Start the engine; check the radio transmitter, receiver and servo’s; trim the control surfaces, and make some final checks.  Ready to go.

The instructor would use your RC transmitter/controller to taxi the plane onto the runway, take off, and once straight and level flight was obtained hand you the controls.  “There you go kid – it’s all yours.”  There I was, The Great Waldo Pepper.  Holy cow.  That is where the “white knuckle” learning began.  It ended in one of three ways – successful landing, lose the plane in a tree, or crash.  At risk was several hundred dollars of airplane, electronics, and my time invested in building the plane and getting all the electronics and servo’s installed in the plane and working.  If you were lucky, if you got in trouble, the instructor could take the controls from you and get you out of a mess – sometimes.

Pilots Log – 2011

Making my way to the local hobby shop to get some model airplane engine gas along with a few accessories I saw a demo of a RC Simulator called RealFlight G5.5 from Knife Edge Software.  The hobby shop had a computer set up with the software and the controller ready to go.  I am not at all a game player.  Why would I want to play a game called RealFlight?  I live in the real world and I want to fly real RC airplanes.

I obviously am not paying attention to the advances in RC Flight Simulators.  What makes Real Flight G5.5 interesting is not only the great graphics but  that it comes with a controller that is nearly identical to a real RC controller.  So, controlling the flight of a real RC airplane with a real Futaba controller is (I would say) almost identical to controlling the simulated airplane using the supplied simulated Futaba controller.  Take a look at the pictures below.  Real Futaba on the right; RealFlight simulator controller on the left.  The look and feel of the controls is nearly identical.


Making the buy

If I remember correctly, I have about $400 tied up in that real RC airplane in the basement.  Can I still fly this after a decade?  Or will it end up in a heap in a matter of minutes?  Maybe I should get the RC simulator.  Two-hundred dollars later, it was mine.

Review of Real Flight G5.5

This is a really great piece of hardware and software.  If the controller that comes with the software is not good enough for you then you can use your own controller with an interconnect that is supplied with RealFlight.  It will connect to the instructor/training port on the back of your real RC transmitter/controller.  So, you can use the real thing – the real controller that you would use in the field – as part of the RC simulator.

The reality of the thing

The first thing I noticed was the physics.  RealFlight uses an engine called RealPhysics 3D.  We are all experts in the way objects behave in 3 dimensional space – that is our daily experience, every day, and there is no option to understand otherwise.  Since we are all experts in the real world and know how objects move when something does not move in the way we expect we notice it.  I can tell you that RealFliight G5.5 has great physics.

RealFlight comes with a number of “flying fields”.  Lots are supplied.  More can be downloaded for free or purchased through expansion packs.  Flying fields can be created, uploaded, and shared.  Some people have taken photographs of their RC club flying field and uploaded them to the internet to be shared with others.  Flying against a real photograph of a real place adds to the realism of the simulation.

Most of the airplanes in RealFlight G5.5 are 3-D built out of wireframes and textures.  One thing ithat becomes obvious is that they all “look right” with regard to sunlight reflecting off of the textured surfaces and the related aspects of light and perspective.  Models move as they should through 3-space and the reflection of the sun off the surfaces looks right.

There is some interesting crash physics in RealFlight.  You can definitely crash into objects while taking off, flying, or landing.  Somehow, RealFlight knows something about the strength of some elements of the airplane.  Depending on what you hit, the angle, how fast you are going, different things happen and they all seem to look right.  Again, the physics in this simulator is very realistic.

The sound is good.  If you have at least good stereo speakers the sound is 3-dimensional

Editing and designing aircraft

You get about 100 airplanes and helicopters as part of RealFlight G5.5.  If you are really into it, you can edit detailed aspects of the airplane that affect the flight (see image).  Or you can design your own airplane – if you have the expertise to do so.  Files that represent the definition of any of the aircraft in RealFlight can be shared and exchanged over the internet.  The vendor provides a forum and file store for this activity.

Flying  (and talking) with others in real-time

One of the features I have comes to really like is the capability (free) that allows you to fly with others in a common flying field over the internet.  RealFlight G5.5 out of the box allows anyone to host a flying field or to join a flying field.  If you have a microphone, you can fly and chat with others in real time.  What a great feature.  When I wrote this posting  I checked what was available right now.  There were 14 separate fields available to fly in real-time and talk with others.  There are more or less depending on when you look.  Anyone can host a flying field so things change often.

Virtual Flight Training

RealFlight G5.5 has recorded training session where a number of instructors will teach you how to fly.  There is basic flying instruction as well as training on acrobatics.  Any flying session can be recorded and shared with other.  Some of the real-time multi-user flying fields have people who will help you learn how to fly and can demonstrate various techniques to you using any airplane or helicopter.  It’s sort of like being there – but not.

Much more

There are a lot of features in this simulator including the ability to control the environment (wind direction, strength, thermals), view the flight  from various camera angles (cockpit view, chase plane view, ground view), and a combat mode.  I have included the manual at the end of this posting.

The Take

I was pretty sure I lived in the real world.  And all I wanted to do is to practice a bit before I took my real RC airplane and $400 investment into the flying field.  I found that RealFlight G5.5 can be very addictive.

When I started out in RC the challenge was to get enough flight time to really get good.  This required either an instructor and/or your own practice time.  Each time you took your plane out to the flying field you put that plane at risk.  Make one mistake and you might take your home in a bag.

So, the real value of RealFlight G5.5 is that you can practice in the simulator – as much as you want with zero risk – before you get out into the field in the real world.  The danger is that you might have so much fun with the simulator and the virtual world that it creates ( including with the community of virtual RC clubs where you can “meet” real people in real-time and chat)  that you lose your desire to fly a real RC airplane in the real world and meet those real people in the real life.

Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit Simulator in the real world

A few days ago I was watching the History Channel.  They had a segment on the B-2 Bomber.  There is an elite group of pilots that fly the B-2.  All pilots selected for the B-2 program have experience flying other military aircraft.  According to the segment on the History Channel, before any of these experienced pilots set foot in a real B-2 Bomber they spend months training in a B-2 simulator.  The B-2 simulator is an exact replica of real B-2 Bomber cockpit and all instrumentation.  The visual perspective is provided by wrap-around screens creating a 3-D visual reality.

Because the B-2 is dynamically unstable the pilots don’t so much “fly” the B-2 as the Great Waldo Pepper would “fly” an airplane.  Those B-2 Pilots “fly” a set of electronics – whether in a real B-2 or a simulated B-2.

So, if B-2 pilots fly a set of electronics why do they even need to be in a real B-2?  If the state of communications at this point in 2011 is good enough to fly a predator drone over Iraq by a guy sitting in a chair 5,000 miles away then why does anyone need to sit in a real B-2 to fly it?  How far are we away from a time when we have mostly pilot-less military aircraft – meaning the pilot is no longer in the aircraft but located elsewhere?  The only thing missing in a simulator is the sensation of movement as feedback to the pilot.  Is this feedback necessary?

Managing Risk

It’s all about managing risk.  RealFlight G5.5 is a way that someone like me (or you) can manage the risk of damage to a RC aircraft while we are learning how to fly or improving our skills.  The cost of a B-2 bomber is about 1 billion dollars each.  It makes sense for the military to have a simulator to manage the risk of losing this aircraft while pilots learn how to fly the B-2.

To not fly the B-2 Bomber in the real world is not an option.  The B-2 designed during the Cold War was nearly a solution looking for a problem after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  But the B-2 did see service in the wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

When virtual reality replaces… well, Reality

To not fly a RC aircraft in the real world is definitely an option.  To the point that simulators like RealFlight G5.5 replace Reality (or at least provide a viable suspension of disbelief  to Reality as in the movies) I wonder if anyone who uses RealFlight G5.5 will simply not choose to fly real RC aircraft.

I like this term “Alone Together”.  We are all alone together on the Internet and perhaps in multi-player simulators as well.  In RealFlight G5.5 you can fly with friends in real-time in a common flying field just like I did a decade ago in the real world.  Why do I need to go to a real flying field?  Maybe the weather is bad – but I can control the weather in RealFlight.  Why do my flying friends need to be only local and in close physical proximity?  In RealFlight I can fly with friends all over the world and talk to them in real-time as we fly alone together.

Reality is not a simulation

So, you like flying Radio Control airplanes and helicopters?  Go buy RealFlight G5.5 for $200.  It is worth the price of $200?  Measure the value against the (lost) opportunity cost: 1) never learning how to fly RC airplanes or helicopters in the real world. 2) risking the real-world assets that you have in learning or mastering new techniques.  3) missing out on opportunity that is not now possible.  (Would you like to design an airplane and fly it – “there’s an app for that” – in RealFlight.

On the other hand, be wary of the seduction of simulated reality.  Simulation and virtual reality that make you better in the real world (as in the case of real pilots in the B-2 Simulator) is the way to go.  Simulation and virtual reality as escapism from the real world – not so much.


The vendor of Real Flight – download a demo for free

Forums for discussion of Real Flight

This is the manual for Real Flight G5.5

Here’s the real thing – as far as RC is concerned.

Reality Bites.  (Press “reset” in RealFlight G5.5 and you’re back flying)


Written by frrl

April 24, 2011 at 7:08 am

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