Reality Check

When I first purchased X-Plane, like many, I loaded up my home airports. The main regional airport is on the east side of the river and the small county airport is on the west. I’ve practiced virtual pattern work at the county airport, as well as doing countless short hops from the regional to the county.

This past week I had a business trip flying out of the regional airport. As a passenger aboard a CRJ900, I found the departure especially exciting. I’d been on the virtual versions of all of the airport’s runways and taxiways and knew them well. I knew how to read the assorted signs and taxiway markings. I could see the hold short lines approaching ahead, and expected the airplane to stop and await clearance. As it did, I eyed the block numbers on the runway. 22. I visualized the two-hundred and twenty degree heading out of the airport, pointing southwest, and produced a mental image of the VFR landmarks I’d spot after take off. And here I was very curious - would I be able to pick out the small county airport from the air, and how would it compare to my virtual experience?

The jet rolled down runway twenty-two and rotated, smoothly ascending. I watched the main airport drop away, eyeing the general aviation area and trying to pick out the models of the assorted aircraft parked there. Green grass spun by, then the white roof tops of an industrial complex. To the right, the blue-gray of a winding river appeared.

When I practiced my virtual pattern work, I used two islands in the river as reference points. They were easy to spot in real life from my window seat. And here is where my jaw dropped. They were so close. Walking distance close, and huge. The small county airport also wasn’t so small, its surrounding grass swathe impossible to miss (although the runway itself was difficult to make out, blending in with the landscape).

My brain stumbled trying to readjust its reality. It’s like thinking a house is a mile away when in fact its right across the street. Was X-Plane wrong in its depiction? Had I been experiencing the thirty-seven Pixel Plane airports through binoculars held backwards? I loaded up the same flight in X-Plane, now with a Cessna 172, and checked it out.

 The island is on the right near the bottom of the head rest. The airport field is on the right 3/4 of the way down the wing strut.

The island is on the right near the bottom of the head rest. The airport field is on the right 3/4 of the way down the wing strut.

There it is, above. A bit hard to see unless you know what you’re looking for. It’s a little easier with an exterior view of the plane:

 Field on left, island on right.

Field on left, island on right.

I checked the Cessna’s Garmin. 2272 feet to the county airport from my position in the sky. It actually was walking-distance close.

This perhaps is one of the best arguments for VR. It’s a matter of scale and depth. On my 13” laptop screen the field is just under 2” wide, which looks tiny and distant. Now, indulge me in this mental exercise. Take a moment and look up. Mentally place markers at the furthest left and right point in your field-of-view. Divide that view into six equal pieces. One of those pieces would would be the airport. Big, isn’t it! Something which takes up 1/6 of your visual field when viewed from a three-thousand foot altitude must be large and close. Now, add depth perception to that mental image. That’s a very different experience than a 2” collection of pixels on a computer screen.

I admit I’m still not 100% sold on VR, mainly because of my play style (I gave up a desktop long ago in favor of a laptop’s portability), but I’d be curious to experience how different flying would look at full scale with depth perception. It’d be like turning the binoculars around and looking through them the correct way.

The last comment I’ll make from my real-life flight is that it was a partly-sunny day with brilliant white clouds scattered in drifting pockets. For all of X-Plane’s amazing photo-realism, it can’t come close to the beauty and complexity of a real sky. Hopefully future versions will bridge the beauty gap, because the views are half the fun of flying.