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Helicopter Flight Simulator Development - Sorry we were Late?

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The Bell 206 Flight Model included in Microsoft Flight Simulator is much more powerful, accurate, and flexible than it receives credit for. Especially, when considering that this core model has been basically available in its current form since the release of FS2002.

Like many aspects of Flight Simulator, there are endless myths, theories, and opinions on why the Bell 206 flight model in Flight Simulator is structured as it is. One of the longest lasting myths, and also one of the most difficult to live down, is that the flight model is based on a rehash of the cessna flight model within the simulation software. I think the team at Microsoft would have a good chuckle if they saw that one. Perhaps they have.

The Bell 206 simulation model in Flight Simulator is flexible platform for general helicopter flight modeling. It also includes a powerful configuration capability, that while very flexible, has always been poorly documented. In fact, let's call it like it is....It is ENTIRELY undocumented. If one reads the FS2004 Aircraft Container SDK, they will find that in regards to the Bell 206 based aircraft in Microsoft Flight Simulator, that there is one line regarding the configurability of this aircraft in the aircraft.cfg file. Keep in mind that this is the file that Microsoft intends you, the user or developer to be messing around with in order to adjust the properties of the aircraft.

This could certainly give the casual reader, the impression that the Bell 206 helicopter flight model as it exists in Flight Simulator is somewhat limiting, or entirely eye-candy. This is not the case.

After nearly 2 years of frustrating work within the binary air file for the Bell 206 Helicopter Flight model, I have come up with a surprising opinion of my own. That it is much better than it gets credit for, better than I every had imagined, and that it is much more flexible than most people would ever know. Whoever implemented the Helicopter model to Flight Simulator must have dreamed of a day when developers were getting the most out of this portion of the software. If he did think that way, he would certainly be disappointed to find out that it has taken us this long to reach our current position.

The irony of developing a broader understanding of the Bell 206 Flight Model in MSFS, is that as I came to understand more of the structure, certain unknowns continued to come into focus. So that the last few months have actually uncovered more interesting items, than in the entire time I have been searching. I continue to find behaviors, and flexible configuration options, that if only we had found 2-4 years ago, would have put our community much further ahead in terms of technical achievement and realism. The most frustrating part of that discussion is that those capabilities lay there silently in wait...the entire time.

Restated, there is nothing we have done in the past 6-12 months of helicopter flight simulation development as it relates to the Bell 206 flight model of Microsoft Flight Simulator that couldn't have been achieved in the first few months of FS9's lifetime, and in some cases from the beginning of FS2002. If only we hadn't been forced to search for each item of knowledge, like a strange sadistic treasure hunt.

There is a bright side to this. Now that some of the basic structure for how Microsoft chose to incorporate the helicopter component of the sim is better understood, in addition to what appears to be a new commitment from Microsoft to work with 3rd party add-on developers during future versions of the Flight Simulator product, it would seem unlikely that we'll be going back to the helicopter flight simullation dark ages any time soon.

During my development project on the Hovercontrol 412, I had the pleasure of working with a technical resource, that before his current position with a major helicopter operator, worked for another major helicopter operator. During this tenure, he worked with a small team from Microsoft to help develop and improve what would become the FS2000-FS2004 Bell 206 Flight Model. The physics model, and its corresponding configuration layer (represented in the binary airfile) were created and improved upon by professionals. Aeronautic Engineering professionals that were passionate about helicopters, and had the development skills, and technical resources to included a powerful, full featured, and accurate helicopter flight model in Microsoft Flight Simulator. This is exactly what they did.

We are only now starting to fully appreciate the level of flexibility they built into this model, as well as the level of accuracy it contains in regards to general helicopter physics.

I was concerned over the last 3 years, that as my opportunities to fly helicopters increased, and as I had more opportunities to work on, or otherwise experience more expensive helicopter flight simulation platforms, that I would start to see the shortcomings of the Bell 206 helicopter flight model in Microsoft Flight Simulator. However, just the opposite has happened. I now find myself absolutely amazed at how good the model is, how flexible it is (and has been, for quite some time), and how affordable it was to get it on my desktop for enjoyment and further development.

Leaving me with one heavy regret. That it took me so long to realize what was there. Right under my nose the entire time.