RealFlight The inside story

RealFlight The inside story

RealFlight

The inside story

By Jay Smith jays@modelaircraft.org  | Photos by Scott Kemp and as noted

For those of us who have had the opportunity to help someone have his or her first flight, or take it a step further by teaching someone to fly, it is a rewarding experience. We get to share in the excitement of someone new to the hobby earning his or her wings.

Imagine having that same experience but indirectly helping thousands have that first flight or learning to solo. That is what Scott Kemp (and later Jim Bourke) did with RealFlight. The popular simulator, similar to Ambrosia and Dave Brown’s R/C Flight Simulator that came before RealFlight, has been a learning tool. Today, a RealFlight kiosk is located in the National Model Aviation Museum, and a trailer full of RealFlight simulators travels the US, attending events and providing a digital flight experience.

At the end of 2021, RealFlight was acquired by Horizon Hobby. At that time, Chris Dickerson, the CEO of Horizon Hobby, said, "Knife Edge Software has built an amazing platform with RealFlight. The Horizon team is excited to continue to enhance the software with next-generation features and align our RC airplane offerings so pilots can further explore their passion for flying."

As someone who has been flying and enjoying RealFlight since roughly 2002, starting with RealFlight G2, I can honestly say it has taught me a lot. I would often try new maneuvers on the simulator and transition that to my actual flying. If you are not familiar with RealFlight, check out my review of the latest version, RealFlight 9.5S.

In the Beginning

Let’s take a trip to the 1990s and the founding of Knife Edge Software by Scott in 1996. Scott started in the hobby in 1992, flying a Carl Goldberg Eagle II. He also enjoyed video games and programming and came upon an idea. The ’90s era was filled with innovations around the personal computer and, for a time, encyclopedias on CD-ROMs were popular.

Scott began creating an RC encyclopedia. This encyclopedia covered the history of various aircraft, include many photos and videos, and it had a feature where you could watch a video of a PT-40 being built step-by-step. Also included was a flight simulator.

This is the Great Planes PT-40 that was built for the RC Encyclopedia that Scott originally marketed to Great Planes.

This is the Great Planes PT-40 that was built for the RC Encyclopedia that Scott originally marketed to Great Planes.

As Scott shared, "The sim was an afterthought." Great Planes showed some interest in the encyclopedia, but it was the flight simulator that really caught the company’s attention.

Scott put all of his focus on the simulator after work and on the weekends. He named the company Knife Edge, but it was Great Planes that named the product RealFlight. The simulator took nearly a year to create.

Scott is shown in 2000, programming RealFlight with his daughter on his lap.

Scott is shown in 2000, programming RealFlight with his daughter on his lap.

One of the challenges was that RealFlight required two graphics engines: one that supported triangle graphics and one that supported Direct X because not all PCs had Direct X graphic cards at the time. Scott spoke of his appreciation of the flight simulators that came before his by stating, "I give a lot of credit to those who invented the genre."

A screenshot of RealFlight G1 using basic graphics, if the computer didn’t have a 3D graphics card. A screenshot of RealFlight G1 using basic graphics, if the computer didn’t have a 3D graphics card.

A screenshot using Direct X on a computer with a video card running RealFlight G1. A screenshot using Direct X on a computer with a video card running RealFlight G1.

Connecting an input device, such as a joystick or transmitter, was done via the game port. Switching to a USB connection would come with G2. Both Scott and Jim shared with me that the release of Microsoft Direct X included a programming interface that handled game programming and multimedia and helped make RealFlight a reality.

Upon its completion, Scott entered into an exclusive agreement with Great Planes, and the company was quite happy with the completed simulator. Apparently, hobbyists were also extremely happy with it because the launch was more successful than expected, selling roughly four times the initial projection.

Scott Kemp displays the original RealFlight simulator CD. Scott Kemp displays the original RealFlight simulator CD.

The success made it clear that Scott could quit his job and focus on Knife Edge full-time, but even that wouldn’t be enough, so he hired a few employees while continuing to be the lead programmer.

An undated photo of the Knife Edge team, provided by Jim Bourke. An undated photo of the Knife Edge team, provided by Jim Bourke.

I inquired about how aircraft included in the sim were selected. Scott shared that Great Planes would specifically ask for a few of its aircraft to be included, and he chose various aircraft and sought permission from the companies whose airplanes would be featured.

To make the simulator as realistic as possible, the team would run airplane engines, put microphones on them, and used those sounds in the simulator. A contraption was made to record the sound of the helicopter blades. To isolate the blade sounds, a soundproof electric motor was used.

The "Whopper" contraption was made to mic the sound of the helicopter blades. To isolate the blade sounds, a soundproof electric motor was used.

The "Whopper" contraption was made to mic the sound of the helicopter blades. To isolate the blade sounds, a soundproof electric motor was used.

The helicopters were being modeled at 900 to 1,000 frames per second for the physics, so changes would make them fly differently. Scott managed the physics and admitted that because they were so subjective, it was the biggest challenge. "We tried to please the majority of users," he told me.

At this point, they could enter all of the parameters about the aircraft and achieve a nice-flying model.

The helicopter was a challenge, Scott told me. They would test-fly aircraft to try and ensure that the models in the simulator flew like the real thing.

Enter Jim Bourke

Jim began working at Knife Edge as a contractor in approximately 2001. He contributed a bit to G2 and was much more involved with G3 when he became the general manager. Scott saw Jim as someone who could eventually take over the business, having the skills and experience necessary.

Scott continued as the main programmer through G3. Upon its completion, he was ready to step away after spending as much as 80 hours a week for the past few years dedicated to Knife Edge.

While Scott built a home in Alaska that he then turned into a fishing lodge, Jim was at the reigns of Knife Edge. Jim was a C++ programmer, which was used in creating RealFlight. He had started programming as a 12-year-old and made a few games of his own, just for fun. He even considered working on a flight simulator before joining Knife Edge but decided he couldn’t do better than what Knife Edge had created.

Programming games was a hobby for Jim, and he considered himself a student of software architecture. That background helped Knife Edge with challenges such as a real-time game engine for terrain, sky, clouds, aircraft, etc.

RealFlight G3 had been in development for three years and was released in 2004. One of the biggest features in G3 was that it included a fully programmable USB radio.

 Jim Bourke leads a Knife Edge company meeting in April 2004.

Jim Bourke leads a Knife Edge company meeting in April 2004.

Jim was very complimentary when discussing Scott, stating that "Scott was a super coder in C++." He laid the foundation and Jim was able to add to it.

One of Jim’s major focuses was on new features for the simulator for each release. He shared that the biggest complaint was about physics, which the team continued to tweak. By 2008, the physics were finalized.

In my conversations with both Scott and Jim, they shared that they were quite proud of the fact that RealFlight became the second-best selling product for Hobbico behind MonoKote, and later took the top spot!

As new releases were being worked on, not only was the team testing the product, but others got in on the fun as well. Play testing was key, and they would let people figure things out through trial and error. The Knife Edge team determined that it was better to give someone a controller and let him or her learn on their own rather than trying to explain the basics before the testers could give it a try.

 

"Nothing is really ours; we keep building on what other people have done."

—Jim Bourke

The team concluded that people found crashes were fun. Jim stated, "We made crashes realistic because it was fun to crash with the right sounds and the aircraft broke apart. We focused on the tactile feel."

Jim completed a large amount of testing of flight physics, especially when part of the aircraft had broken off. Because of this, he was able to land his full-scale airplane after part of the wing was lost in flight. This experience was later recreated for the Discovery channel.

Jim also mentioned that flight failures were tested so much that he could fly with backward controls with an actual aircraft. He found that out when test-flying an aircraft for a friend, and he failed to realize that the ailerons were backward. He successfully flew and landed the airplane.

I asked how new features were determined. Jim spent a lot of time thinking about that. He had a roadmap with journals of ideas. Multiplayer was a big one, as well as PhotoFields. "One that I am most proud of is rewind. People can back up the sim to before the crash." Hobbico provides a lot of input on features. "As we got further along, it became harder to come up with new features."

The focus later turned to content. Including more aircraft was popular. Flying from water in the simulator turned out to be a difficult challenge. "You have the reflection and being able to see deep into the water at certain angles. We had to have physics with the waves that were created. If an aircraft crashed, the parts float and then sink." It was a lot of interaction, he told me.

Multiplayer was also challenging to integrate because it required a lot of network coding. Combat and paintball added additional challenges.

I inquired about the cycle time for a new release. At Knife Edge, 10% of the company was always working on the most recent product after release. The rest of the time was spent on engineering. At least 75% of the staff was focused on the next version. "We tried to have a major release every two years," I was told.

"Are there any features that you were not able to add?" I asked. "Certainly, there are things that we would have liked if we had more time. I felt like the team could do anything, but there are always time pressures," Jim responded.

Jim shared with me that sometimes he wishes that he could go back to 1995 or 1996. At that time, he didn’t know it would work out so well and he would have encouraged himself. He also told me that being inducted into the AMA Model Aviation Hall of Fame is the greatest honor, "… something I wanted my whole life."

Jim managed Knife Edge until 2012 when he bought the company from Scott. He sold RealFlight to Horizon Hobby in 2021, but retained Knife Edge, which continues to work on flight simulators for full-scale aircraft.

Looking Back

At the end of my conversations with Jim and Scott, I inquired what each was most proud of regarding RealFlight. Scott shared the following:

"I think delivering a product that is pretty cool, in an entrepreneurial way. I guess to actually call your shot and build this and be able to make a living off of it. We saved people millions of dollars on crashed airplanes and I’m proud of that. It is pretty cool that you can use this simulator to gain skills and it can be used as a training tool."

"We saved people millions of dollars on crashed airplanes and I’m proud of that."

—Scott Kemp

Here are Jim’s thoughts:

"I would say it is not really about any particular feature. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to do something that was such a great fit for me and let me have so much fun. I just enjoy this feeling of gratitude. I got to hear so many great things over the years. I was in the hobby shop the other day and they recommended RealFlight to me because I was buying a model airplane for someone.

"I’m most proud of the flight model and working without compromise to make sure the physics were solid. There was a lot of confusion and fighting at times because there were so many ideas and we were taking all these ideas to make a very strong flight model. I feel really good on how I led a team. I am proud to have worked with these people and I think they were fantastic. I’m proud that I found the people and gave them work to do that amounted to something. I’m glad I made something of the opportunity."

In closing, Jim told me, "I learned most of what I know about flying RC and full-scale from RealFlight. If I hadn’t flown in cockpit mode in RealFlight and flew around and enjoyed that, I probably wouldn’t be an air show pilot today. I felt like my job was to bring aviation to people. I built RCGroups to do that and my entire career at RealFlight was to do that."

I greatly appreciated the opportunity to speak with Scott and Jim and took the time to thank them both for their contributions to our hobby. Now, under the direction of Horizon Hobby, I look forward to seeing what the future holds for RealFlight!

SOURCES:

RealFlight

(217) 398-8970

www.realflight.com

Jim Bourke

www.jimbourke.com

Hall Bulldog (Jim’s current full-scale project)

www.hallbulldog.com

Cinematicsolutions.com

Scott Kemp

https://cinematicsolutions.com

 

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