Friday, 7 December 2012

If it ain't broke... tear it down and start again.

You may recall that at the very start of November I did a re-install with the aim of getting my sim setup working with the GAP Rhodes scenery, which involved going back to FSX SP2.  In the end I was forced to give up on the GAP terrain and go back to Acceleration.  In the process I also tried out Kosta's FSX optimisation settings.  While the guy clearly knows his stuff, for some reason I couldn't get along with his method, so I wound up going back to Bojote's online Tweaking and Tuning Tool, which had worked well for me in the past and is a simple, one-shot deal.

The problem is that at some point in all that tinkering, something happened that has left me with some unsightly visual artefacts, looking like black vertical spikes that momentarily appear as I pan the view around.  I definitely hadn't been getting that originally with a "pure" Acceleration Pack install.  Combining that with the problems I'd had a few days before with MCE, led me to the decision to do yet another complete uninstall and reinstall.

Of course FSX isn't just FSX any more.  I've accumulated far too many add-ons in my brief flight-simming career already, many of which need to be uninstalled and reinstalled too, which makes it a much bigger job.  After a false start, I've got all the absolute basics installed - which for me is FSX, Acceleration Pack, GEX Europe and UTX Europe.  Yet to come are MCE, GSX, FSRecorder, plus all the add-on airports and aircraft.  I'm hoping to get another chance to work on this over the weekend to get things back to an optimal state.

We are, or course, entering the holiday season now.  One happy effect of this is that a lot of stores are running sales and promotions of various sorts, so there are chances to pick up a few bargains, especially in the flight-sim arena.  One of my "default" flights if I can't think of anything else to do and have a short time window to fly, is the hop from Manchester to Dublin, so since it's a regular destination I've splashed out on a rather nice looking version of it by the charmingly named "Fly Wonderful Islands" or FWI, which I found on offer over the Thanksgiving weekend.

I've also bought the A318 Jetliner from Just Flight's "F-Lite" range, my first actual payware aircraft.  I've been happily flying the FSX default A321 and the freeware Project Airbus A320 with the A321's virtual cockpit transplanted to it.  The problem with cockpit transplants is they are fixed to the same position relative to the original aircraft's center point.  That means that the A321's VC view is a couple of meter or so further forward than where it should be for the A320.  In flight this isn't too much of a problem, but it does make it tricky to judge your aircraft's position accurately when taxiing or parking at the gate.  While the effect isn't too bad with the A320, with the smaller A319 and A318 you start to get a much bigger difference between cockpit view and aircraft position.

But to be honest, my real reason for picking up the A318 is that it was the cheapest aircraft they had, on sale at under a fiver, and Just Flight are currently offering a free payware Spitfire Mk IV with any purchase.  I have a couple of freeware Spitfires which are great for fun VFR flights, but I've not been entirely happy with the quality of texturing in their virtual cockpits.

Finally UK2000 are running an Xmas 3 for 2 offer on their Xtreme airports.  I've splashed out on three airports that I often visit - Liverpool John Lennon, East Midlands and Belfast.  The first two were already quite well represented in the VFR Airfields packs I already have, which despite the name also include nicely modelled versions of the major airports.  But the Xtreme sceneries really kick the quality up several notches, so it's a really worthwhile upgrade.  If I can scrape together the funds before Xmas I might use the offer to get the London airports and possibly Edinburgh and Glasgow, which would mean I had pretty good coverage of the UK and Ireland in terms of airport sceneries.

What I'd really like to do is start improving the European airports that are short to medium haul flights from the UK.  France, Spain, Germany and Italy are all good flights with a little longer in the air than the hop to Dublin.  This part of the world seems to be monopolised by Aerosoft, so fingers crossed they run a sale which includes digital downloads and not just physical boxed sets, which since they ship from the US can see any sale saving being swallowed up in postage costs.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Remember, remember the fifth of November...

...which was the last time I posted here... jeez!  where'd that month go?

I'm afraid the reason I've not posted recently is that Real Life reasserted itself, leaving little or no time for playing pretend pilot games.... sorry I of course mean practicing in the very serious and not at all frivolous flight simulator.  (whew, what a slip of the tongue!)

I did try to fire up the sim last Saturday, but fell foul of technical problems which managed to eat up both the time and motivation to fly.  Circumstances are such that I'm probably not going to get a chance this weekend, but hopefully once real life has settled down a little bit, I'll be able to get back behind the yoke.

Regarding the problems I was experiencing with Traffic 360 - apparently the greatly reduced volume of traffic I was seeing was actually a feature not a bug.  T360 apparently uses accurate up to date airline schedule data, and according to Just Flight, what I'm seeing is actually a closer reflection of actual traffic volumes at EGCC than I was getting with TrafficX

Now thinking about this, I've let the sim run for a couple of hours and watched the volume of aircraft movements and compared them to the scheduled flights according to FlightAware.  Grudgingly I have to admit that they may be right  My own personal experience of flying is limited to 2003-2006, in which I experienced the queues on the taxiway that TrafficX was giving me.  But apparently those years correspond to a peak in UK air travel, and there are a lot fewer passengers flying these days.  Combine that with the end of summer holiday season and the result is thata Manchester Airport is a lot less busy than I remember.

In many ways this is actually a good thing.  Getting a word in edgeways with Clearence Delivery or Ground, especially using MCE voice recognition, could be problematic at best.  And when I do get back in the cockpit, I'll be spending a lot less time queueing on taxiways and get up into the air faster.  But in a way I'm kinda sad that EGCC, while still the UK's third busyest airport, isn't quite as insanely busy and bustling as I'd thought.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Artificial Stoopidity.

I recently took advantage of Just Flight's pre-order upgrade offer to get their new AI traffic package, Traffic360, to upgrade my existing TrafficX.  One of the advertised features is that many of the AI aircraft models now have functining doors and other animations.


Let's be honest.  We've all done it.

One other slight problem with the new eye candy.  The parked AI traffic now get visited by fuel trucks, baggage trucks, pushback tugs etc.  And according to some posters on the Just Flight forums, departing aircraft won't start to taxi without at least a visit from the fuel truck.  As a result, the traffic, which always took a little while to get moving, is even slower than before.  As I type this I've had the sim running in another window for 15 minutes and only just seen the first taxi clearance request come through on the ATC window. Five minutes later there's been nothing else departing, just one arrival taxi-ing to the stand, and that's with the AI slider set to 50%.  On the one hand, this would make it a lot easier to get clearance than the fairly crowded ATC frequency I had under TrafficX, but on the other hand it's not quite the bustling EGCC we know and love.

Stop press: Another hilarious side effect of the slow departures - the incoming flight I just mentioned was an Emirates A380, the departing flight, which opened up the only empty terminal gate, was a narrow-body short haul jet.  The result?

The Airbus A380.  Making other airliners its bitches since 2005.

Stop Press 2: Two more flights just requested taxi clearance.  That's three in about half an hour.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Torn between two lovers

Prophetic words, these.

"And at some point I'm going to run into an aircraft that requires Acceleration not just SP2, at which point there'll be another choice to be made."

Little did I know.

I was going through the process of bringing the zombie FSX install back up to full strength, reinstalling various freeware airports and aircraft, when I got to the Airspeed Ambassador. Whose readme file repeatedly said "REQUIRES FSX ACCELERATION PACK."


So there we were.  All that work done to get the Greek Airport Projects Rhodes Diagoras package working by reinstalling to SP2, and I'd have to sacrifice my beloved Ambassador.  I fired up the SP2 sim and tried it out to see what wasn't working, and it was only some minor details like the altimeter, heading turn indicators.


Well... I still had the other Rhodes scenery by Live In FSX in my SimMarket shopping basket, from before I started this whole shenanegans.  I'd had doubts about it, since they'd pulled the promo video for it from Youtube, the LiveInFSX forums didn't seem to have been active since 2011 and I couldn't find a single, solitary review of their products anywhere on the interwebs.  So I'd backed off buying them in favour of trying to roll back my FSX to SP2 to get the GAP product working properly.

(In case you missed the previous blog post, basically GAP left a bug in their scenery that conflicted with Acceleration pack, causing framerates to drop to 1FPS and less after dark.  They were aware of the problem but in their support forums had refused to patch it, saying that users had to simply use the slightly older FSX SP2 instead.)

So I bit the bullet.  The Live In FSX Rhodes scenery came as two products, one for the airport and one for photoreal textures & custom autogen for the northern half of the island..  Fortunately these were available together as part of a bundle that also included photoreal textures for the island of Corfu, which together cost about £18 including VAT, which was about the same as I'd paid for the GAP scenery.

There were a couple of minor problems installing - first the Corfu scenery installed some "optimisations" to the terrain.cfg which conflicted with elements of the Ultimate Terrain X Europe package, resulting in large chunks of the mediterranean sea being turned into land.  Rerunning the UTX setup tool fixed that easily enough, and the photoscenery looked so good I had high hopes for Rodos.

After installing the various components and patches for Rodos and the airport, I was left with a runway that disappeared into a ground and a ridgeline that cut right across the taxiways and grass.  I tried several things, but in the end uninstalling and physically deleting the GAP scenery folders from the scenery library solved the problem.  Even though they'd been unticked in the library, somehow the GAP scenery folders were still applying their mesh edits over the top of the Live In FSX terrain.  Things were looking perfect.

So how's the new Rhodes?  Not bad, not bad at all.  Diagoras itself looks very similar to the GAP offering, not hard given the fairly simple layout.  Adjacent Paradisi town isn't quite as custom-modelled as the GAP version, but does the job well enough.  The power station to the south is modelled in this package as well, giving a handy navigation landmark.  About ten miles to the south, the photoscenery ends, and the transition back to the default (or in my case UTX) textures is quite well handled.

Heading north, the suburbs have great phototextures with just enough custom autogen that's been aligned to perfectly match the textures, an effect that continues into Rhodes Old Town.  The hotels at Ixia aren't as well modelled, although even the GAP version is more of a general impression than an accurate representation.  But they're blended a little better with the smaller surrounding buildings, and I was still able to work out from the texture where the hotel I'd stayed at was, and which of the nearby buildings was our favourite bar.  There were also quite a few buildings modelled on the clifftops, including what looks like it might be a hospital with a helipad.

Further north into Rhodes Old Town and the famous harbour itself is modelled fairly well, but instead of modelling the castle, Live in FSX have relied upon the phototexture to delineate where the ancient walls are.  Traded off against this, you have the custom autogen which gives a much better impression of a sprawling city.

One thing that I think may be a little weak is the scaling of some of the sea traffic.  The sailboats off the coast of Ixia dwarf the hotels there, though I suppose it's possible they represent some sort of monster, transatlantic tall ships.  And while we saw some pretty huge private yachts in the harbour, the one that's in Live In FSX's harbour looks about 10-15% too big to my eye.  This could be an optical illusion, cause by so much of the surround detail being 2d textures rather than true 3d.

But on the whole I'd have to say I'm really happy with this version of Rhodes.  The trade-offs work well, and  most importantly of all it's very framerate friendly, barely shifting off 30fps, both night and day.  With this in place, and a set of Jet2 textures for the default 737-800, I think I'm all set for another attempt on the Great White Whale - Manchester to Diagoras (which if you haven't followed the blog from the beginning, was a flight I'd been a passenger on in real life and was my first major flightsimming goal.  Previous attempts have met with various fates, and I've yet to complete the whole trip in one go)

Note: the screenshots of the Live In FSX Rodos were taken at dusk and colour-corrected to bring the detail back out, since I wanted to show the night lighting effects.  The aircraft I used, incidentally, was the Just Flight freeware Cessna 152, which is a nice simple aircraft comparable with the default 172.  I did find some of the Virtual Cockpit textures a little blurry though, which I think was a deliberate design since those tended to be for non-functional panels.  All the actual functional cockpit controls and panels were nice and clear, and the plane handled just as you'd expect a basic fixed-prop GA utility plane to fly.

Friday, 2 November 2012

What *is* the difference between one unsupported legacy product and another?

Avsim forumite "Quraisy!" asked "Does FSX with all the sliders to the left still look better than FS9 with all the sliders to the right?"  And he demanded, demanded I say, screenshots to prove it.

Never one to disappoint... I turned all the basic detail sliders down to "minimal" and took the default Cessna out for a spin over Port Columbus International Airport, Ohio.

Welcome back to 1995, population: you.

Nothing to see here, move along.
Flying over the main terminal buildings.... er... I think.

So basic sliders to the left turns off pretty much everything - no traffic, no buildings, low res textures and mesh.  Oh it also dropped my screen resolution down a few notches too. The default minimal settings locked the frame rate at 10FPS, but when I went back into the settings and pushed it back to unlimited I was still only getting 30FPS. (though I have to wonder if something else was limiting the FSX framerate)

So here's FS9, all sliders to the right, with various freeware add-ons and the ENBSeries shader.  Framerates locked at a steady 50FPS throughout.

Ready for takeoff
Stuff.  Loads and loads of Stuff.
Aha!  Terminal buildings, there you are.
Shame about the slightly iffy ground texture.

There's not much traffic on the apron here.  That's because I've been building up my World of AI traffic environment on an airport-by-airport basis.  I don't normally fly to or from Port Columbus, so I haven't installed any of the airlines that use it, so all you've got are the airlines that also fly to one of the airports I have installed (Boston and Philadelphia, I think)

Now this clearly isn't a fair comparison between FS9 and FSX.  Turning up the sliders even partway on FSX will yield vast improvements, and once you start enhancing it with payware, or even freeware add-ons it's capable of some serious eye-candy.  FS9 has some limitations that just can't be enhanced around.

Lots of people online say that to optimise performance in FSX, you have to be prepared to dial the sliders down.  "Turn off road traffic... turn off autogen... bloom is a frame killer so ditch that."  They're right up to a point.  But when turning off the details and eye candy, at what point do you defeat the object of having a more modern flight sim?

Of course it also depends on what you're flying and how you're flying it.  A tubeliner pilot flying ILS focussing on accurate procedures isn't going to be as concerned with having pretty scenery as a low-and-slow General Aviation pilot peering out the side window at the countryside.  But I guess it's all about finding the right balance between performance and eye candy that suits you.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Today I learned....

...VOR navigation.

It's one of those things that I'd put off, since it's so easy these days just to load up your destination into the GPS and follow the magenta line.  And while I pretty much understood the theory and how it worked, for some reason it never quite clicked for me as something I should use.

If you're here from the flightsim world, then you no doubt know what VOR navigation is, but for the 50% of followers (hey Rick) and the lurkers (hey Jonesy) who aren't , a VOR is basically a radio beacon that sends out radial signals in all directions, like the spokes on a wheel.  If you have the VOR frequency and the bearing of a radial, you can feed those into your little nav doohickey and it can tell you whether that course is to your right or left.  (Pardon the deep technical jargon here, but we're trying to entertain AND edumacate.)  So if you've set the frequency and radial bearing and your gauge shows you lined up perfectly, then you know you're either heading directly towards or directly away from the VOR station on that heading (or its reciprocal)  There's obviously more to it than that, but that's the jist of it.

So yesterday I popped over to Aviator 90 for a refresher and rewatched the videos pertaining to VOR navigation, and this morning I tried and impromptu VOR navigated flight.  Just for shiggles I fired up FS2004, with the default Cessna taking off from Barton Aerodrome, then once airborne looked around for somewhere to fly to.  I decided on RAF Scampton, which I'd driven past on the (Real Life) return trip from Lincoln, then flown to (Simmed) in the DC3.  This time I decided to work out the course purely using nearby VOR stations.

Flight Simulator 2004: A Century Of Flight.
Surprisingly less crappy than you might expect!
In real life you'd have nice navigation charts with radials marked on them and a little protractor like thingie to work out headings, but I fuddled by with just the default FS9 on-screen map and reckoning headings by eye.  It turned out to be a lot easier than I feared it would be.  Eyeballing it worked well enough, and I found it wasn't always necessary to stick strictly to the radial course, as long as I was heading roughly parallel to it.  I think I'm confident enough with it now to consider using VOR  navigation in some of the older aircraft.  Following GPS in a Spitfire, DC3 or the Ambassador just doesn't seem right somehow.

One other thing that struck me was how nice FS2004 was looking.  Somebody put a post on one of the Avsim forums asking if people thought FSX with all the graphics options turned to minimum would still be better than FS2004 with all of them turned to maximum.  For me it's no contest - I've enhanced my FS2004 with various freeware textures and add-ons, treating it as a little side-project challenge.  The only payware I have on there is Manchester and Rhodes airports, and that's purely because I'd bought the FSX versions which were back compatible.  I'm also using the entirely free ENBSeries shader, which adds some visual niceness.  I think it compares very favourably with the appearance of FSX, into which I may or may not have ploughed a certain amount of money for payware improvements.  Oh and FS2004 happily chugs along at twice the framerate I'm getting from FSX.

It's not hard to see why some of the old timers still rigidly cling to the older version.  If I was starting again from scratch, I'd be sorely tempted to forgo FSX and stick with FS2004 myself.  After all, what's the difference between one unsupported legacy product and another?

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Zombie Flight Sim in back from the dead. in "stoopid here did some tinkering, broke FSX and had to reinstall from scratch."

Yes I finally fell foul of the worst side effect of Tinkeritis, breaking the sim.  You see one of the first add-ons I bought was the Greek Airports Project "Rodos 2010", in order to complete my original flightsim goal of replicating the flight from Manchester to Rhodes Diagoras (one of the few times I've actually flown in so-called "real life").  The problem I ran into was that due to the length of the flight, taking off mid-afternoon from Manchester often saw me arriving (when I didn't run out of fuel!) at Diagoras after dark.  Then for some reason I found the frame rate dropping through the floor as I got onto final approach... I mean serious slide-show, 1FPS levels.   I lost at least one otherwise perfect flight that way.

So before I tried that flight again, I did some serious googling to try to find out what could be causing the catastrophic loss of framerate.  And it turns out to be a known bug with the Rodos 2010 airport.  Something in the airport's (or more likely the Rodos town) lighting causes a conflict with the FSX Acceleration pack, leading to...well the opposite of acceleration.  The developer's solution?  "Well, we only said it worked with Service Pack 2, not acceleration.  So don't install Acceleration and use SP2 instead."

Right..... Never mind the fact that Acceleration came out over five years ago BEFORE you created the Rodos scenery.... never mind that the most commonly available version of  FSX these days is the Gold box which comes with Acceleration, and any new players are likely to have gone ahead and installed it before buying your airport... the simple fact is that Acceleration represents the "final" patched version of the sim.  SP 2.5 if you like.  It's pretty outrageous for a developer to refuse to support the final patch of a product and instead insist that customers back-rev their installls.  Especially not after five years.  And they seem to be quite irate when people ask why they still haven't patched their product yet ("We said we only supported SP2!")

But the GAP Rodos is a very good terrain, and the representation of Old Town and Ixia looks so much better than the freeware offerings or the other payware Rhodes (by an outfit called "Live In FSX", about whom I can find very little information or reviews).  Giving up Acceleration means giving up the air-race missions (which I don't do) and some aircraft (which I don't fly) so I decided to try uninstalling Acceleration and installing SP1 and SP2 in its place.


Anyway I bit the bullet and did a complete re-install of FSX.  Sure enough, Rodos by night is giving me a buttery smooth 25-30fps as I fly over Old Town.  But I'm not 100% convinced that SP2 is entirely as stable as Acceleration.  And at some point I'm going to run into an aircraft that requires Acceleration not just SP2, at which point there'll be another choice to be made.

But all is not doom and gloom.  A recent household expenditure turned out a bit cheaper than I'd allocated funds for, which coincided with a company called TropicalSim offering a 40% sale on their sceneries.  This included a bundle of 32 airports, mainly in South America and The Caribbean, for what worked out at around £2.80 per airport.  I succumbed, so my payware airport collection just increased in size by 1600%

On the whole they're nice.  Okay.  Not mind meltingly awesome like the best from Aerosoft or OrbX, or quite up to UK2000 standards either.  The airports in the bundle tend to be slightly older designs, which is OK for the most part, but... well this morning I simmed a flight from Manchester to Bilbao (LEBB) in Spain, the first significant flight I've done since the reinstall and one that was mercifully uneventful.  On arrival, I found myself routed to General Aviation parking for some reason, and found myself surrounded by.... well, see for yourself.

Look closely, and you'll see how blocky and unfinished the static aircraft are.  I mean, from the cockpit window, we're talking serious Lego builds here.  And not the modern funny shaped bricks either, the good old "ages 3-5" big chunky bricks too.  Now I understand the need to keep static models fairly lean and FPS friendly, but dayum, those things were nassty.   Fortunately it was only a couple of minutes work to locate the BGL file for the static aircraft and disable it.  I'd rather have empty aprons than those... things.

I don't know what's involved in creating a static aircraft BGL, compared to creating an AI traffic BGL.  Some googling is required, and if it's not too much work I might see if it's possible to replace these with some nicer looking AI aircraft and take the possible FPS hit.

Finally, speaking of AI, Just Flight have today released the upgrade from Traffic X to their new product, Traffic 360, which not only expands on the old version (which I have) but adds in the "Plus pack" add-on-add-ons which adds military and general aviation traffic.  Since I was re-installing anyway I've held off reinstalling my AI traffic till it was released, so as I type this I've just finished the 900MB download and am eagerly awaiting the activation code from Just Flight.

(hit refresh)..... nope (hit refresh)..... not yet (hit refresh)..... still nothing (hit refresh)..... uhuh... this may take some time, catch you later, okay?  (hit refresh)..... (hit refresh)..... (hit refresh)..... (hit refresh).....

Friday, 19 October 2012

I fell in love with a plane

So the last few days I've found myself succumbing to "tinker-itis".  It's that terrible condition when you start up FSX with the full intention of doing some flying, but then wind up tinkering and tweaking a few things "while you think of it".  As a result you spend more time messing around with config files than actually flying.

When I have, finally made it into the air, things haven't been entirely glorious.  Let's just say my default practice destination of Dublin (EIDW) is in need of a little landscape gardening, after I've ploughed up their grass a couple of times.  Both were the indirect result of crappy MS ATC and its merry go-around.  ATC also cost me another flight when taking off from Manchester (EGCC) an AI plane crossed 23R as I was throttling up to take off.

But on a brighter note, I finally took the plunge and replaced my Logitech USB  headset with a newer Microsoft LifeChat 3000.  This seems to have cleared up the problems I was having with the MCE copilot constantly hearing his own voice and misinterpreting it as voice commands (so that he'd get himself into an infinite loop saying things like "Got that.  Sorry what was that?  I can only handle so many things at once. You're welcome."  etc etc.).

And this morning I fell in love with a plane.

The Airspeed Ambassador is a British twin-engined prop airliner that flew in the late 40s, 1950s and 1960s.  It was designed to be a replacement for the DC-3 for short to medium haul flights.

A chap by the name of Rob Richardson has produced an absolutely stunning freeware recreation of the Ambassador, with a full virtual cockpit.  Someone posted screenshots of a flight with it at, and as soon as I saw it I just knew I had to fly her.

Look at her, isn't she a beauty?  That tri-tail and the long boat-like nose just scream "yesteryear" don't they? Unlike the tail-dragging DC3 the Ambassador has a modern tricycle landing gear arrangement, which makes taxi-ing a lot easier.

In the air she's nice and stately, and the VC seemed to be fully functional.  I struggled to get the autopilot working, but then again I don't generally use autopilot when flying this sort of aircraft.  The only fly in the ointment, I felt, were the sounds.  They're aliased to the default Grumman Goose, which sounded OK on the whole, but on a couple of occasions the sounds didn't quite match the sim.  For example, when I started the engines, the full engine idle sound didn't kick in until I'd started the second engine, and it came on suddenly rather than sounding like a natural result of starting the engine.

My first shakedown flight turned into a bit of an adventure.  I took off from Manchester from the active runway and just headed north VFR while I tried working out all the sim's systems.  After a while at 6000 feet I noticed the cloud getting a bit thick below me, so I decided to drop down below the cloud cover.. only problem was, there was no "below" cloud cover.  with zero visibility down well under 1000', I decided to play safe and pull back up above the clouds.  It looked like Cumbria was not a safe place for VFR flying.

I finally got the radios working and called up the nearest airfield asking for permission to land, and something happened that I'd never experienced in FSX before.  They refused, citing the poor weather conditions restricting them to IFR flights only.

In the end I turned around and headed back south hoping to get back ahead of the cloud, and contacted Leeds Bradford (EGNM) who cleared me for a landing.  With a few verbal directions and by getting the GPS working again, I found the field and landed without further incident.

(I know it sounds like a cheat, using modern GPS in a classic bird, but to be brutally honest I just don't quite grok VOR/DME navigation yet.  I understand the principles, but in practice it just hasn't quite clicked for me yet, at least not enough to actually use it in a sim flight.)

Anyway Rob's freeware Ambassador is a fantastic plane, and I'm definitely adding her to my "fly for fun" hangar.  He's also created an Avro Shackleton which I'm looking forward to trying, as well as a whole slew of vintage British fighter jets.

There are some fantastic freeware planes out there - I've also downloaded the impressive looking Basler BT-67, another DC3 replacement (actually a DC3 turboprop upgrade) which I'll try out, as soon as it doesn't feel like I'm cheating on my new love!

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

A whole new game

I has a new toy.

Or more accurately, a new set of toys.

Specifically a full set of Flight Yoke, Rudder Pedals and Throttle Quadrant, courtesy of a nice fellow on Ebay.  I managed to snag them for about a third of the cost new, which in my book is a win.  They arrived this morning, visually in very good condition, so I eagerly hooked them up to the flight sim PC and loaded up a Cessna 172.

... which I found myself almost completely unable to fly competently!

There's nothing wrong with the new kit, except possibly the yoke is a little sticky but a clean and lubrication job ought to fix that.  It's just that flying a (simulated) airplane with yoke and pedals is a completely different ball game to flying with a joystick.  For a start, you're using the whole body, co-ordinating legs and hands, which if you're as out of condition as I am can be a physical strain.  After ten minutes of flying I found my calves were starting to cramp up a little bit.  And the yoke, while not force feedback in the strictest sense, is sprung so that you do have to exert quite a bit of force to hold it in position, the more it's deflected from neutral, the greater the force required.

The other thing I noticed is that the aircraft feels a lot less responsive than with the joystick.  I certainly wouldn't want to be flying a combat simulator with a yoke.

The first couple of flights ended ungloriously with the sickening crunch of a Cessna meeting the world for the final time.  Then the third flight I managed to get into the air and back onto the ground without disaster.  It was then I realised that during some recent tweaking around, I'd accidentally set my flight model realism to 100%, whereas I normally turn down Torque and P-Factor down to about 75% (people say it's harder to fly sim sometimes because you don't get the physical senstations that a pilot can learn to pick up on, so my story is that the 25% roll-off on those factors is my way of compensating)

Anyway, with the realism set back to the usual level I found it easier to fly, but still a completely different ball game to the joystick.  I tried flying the default DC3 out of Barton Aerodrome, which I failed repeatedly at until I switched to the longest runway on the field.  Theoretically I should have been able to use the shorter runways as the Dakota has a nominal 900ft take-off, but between inaccuracies in the MS flight model and my own clumsiness with the flight yoke, I needed 2000ft+

Once in the air, the new setup worked great.  With 6 levers I was able to configure the throttle quadrant to match the DC3, which then meant I finally have to learn how to use prop pitch!  One nice thing is that the yoke also has a 3 lever throttle/prop/mix and it's possible to configure this separately.  So if I'm in an airliner I can have the quadrant handling 4 engines, flaps and spoilers, but for a GA bird like the C172 I can use the simpler 3 lever control on the yoke.  Another nice feature of the quadrant is that the levers have a detent point at about the 10% mark.  This is "idle" and actually counts as zero for throttle purposes.  Pulling the lever to this position actually triggers a virtual button press which your flight sim can read.  Pulling it back further triggers a seperate button press.  So if you configure that second button press to be reverse thrust, you can switch from forward to reverse thrust and back very easily

So anyway, after taking off from Barton I just flew south and waited until I was able to pick up RAF Cosford, with a view to landing the historic DC3 there for the Aerospace Museum.

Sadly the museum staff will have a little... uh... restoration work to do before it can be put on display.  I'm counting this as a landing though!

I've now got to work on re-learning to fly with the yoke & pedals instead of the joystick.  Like I said the new kit also opens up some more learning opportunities, like the mysteries of prop pitch/throttle/mixture controls.  After that I have a little bit of an adventure idea bubbling away in the back of my mind  Watch this space.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Chasing the white porpoise...

... as opposed to the white whale, is a little easier.  Or would be, were it not for MS ATC!

Since my last post I've generally been managing a flight every other day, due to Real Life(TM) commitments, which have generally been the usual short hops to Dublin.  There's not really much worth commenting on these flights, as they're mainly a way for me to practice and become familiar with the new aircraft I'm starting to fly.  I've been migrating off my dear old CRJ-700 onto the slightly larger tin - I've got a few hours on the default 737 and A321 and started filling the gaps in the collection with a few of the better freeware birds available.

But I found myself one day with a couple of hours to spare and decided to try something a little different.  So I hopped onto, put in my local airport code (EGCC) and had a look to see what flights were happening that day.  There was KLM Flight 1088 to Amsterdam in a 737 taking off around that time, so I thought "Let's fly that!"

First thing I had to do was quickly look around for a KLM livery for the default 737, which I quickly found.  The actual flight was using a slightly different model of 737 (a -700 instead of an -800 IIRC) but I wasn't going to be too fussy.  By the time I'd entered the details into the FSX flightplanner and loaded up into the gate at Manchester, the KLM1088 was halfway to its destination.  With the FlightAware screen on the home theatre PC showing the real-world flight's reported position, the chase was on.

It's weird, but recreating an actual flight as it was happening was quite a thrill, adding yet another layer to the "game".  More importantly I was able to look up the actual flight data from FlightAware, and this led to another interesting development.  I have to confess a general level of ignorance regarding real-world civil aviation procedures, including what altitude airliners generally fly at.  I did learn a handy snippet from one of the forums in the form of the mnemonic "Odd people go east" - certainly in FAA controlled airspace, if flying a course IFR between 001deg and 180deg, you should fly at an odd-numbered altitude, any other heading you should fly at an even-numberted altitude.  For VFR flights, add 500ft to that. (moot in FSX, since its ATC  can only handle even thousands of feet, and more than 200ft deviation from that will get you nagged at)

But exactly how high an airliner might fly at for any given journey, that I didn't have a clue about.  In practice I've generally been taking most of the flights I've done up to just above the 10,000ft mark.  But I was able to fire up the flight tracking data from the real flight and saw that it made it all the way up to 30,000ft, even for just a one hour hop across the North Sea.  So, dutifully recreating the flight as best I could, I got clearance to head on up to FL300.

Which is how I got this....

My first ever FSX contrail!

Flying at the lower altitudes I'd never seen this effect on my own aircraft, only on AI flights that were barely visible in the distance.  Another little thrill of excitement there! (As you can tell, I'm easily amused.)

So by this time the real flight was landed, deboarded and the flight crew were no doubt enjoying the comforts of the pilots lounge at EHAM.  Our simulated flight was fated to take a little longer, however.

The view from the ground.  See that contrail on the left?
That's me and Flight 1088!

Things started to go wrong after the descent. ATC gave me an ILS vectors approach to runway 27, which was fine.  But then they decided to send me off on one of their "round Europe" air tours, and had me routed halfway across the Netherlands at 3000ft with no indication that they were going to turn me back towards final approach.  Eventually I grew a little concerned that I was going to wind up somewhere in Russia, so I contacted ATC and asked for a new runway, something I've done to fix this problem before.  ATC gave me a new approach to 22, but then something strange happened.  I seemed to be getting alternating conflicting instructions.  It was almost as if two different controllers were both trying to get me to land on two different runways,  I'd get an instruction directing me towards 22, then a minute later an instruction steering me towards 27.  In the confusion between the two, and constantly trying to switch NAV frequency & course between the two runways, when I got final landing clearance for 22 I was right on top of it still at 2000ft with no chance of getting down safely.  I had to call a missed approach :-(
After the second runway change request, finally heading
towards final.

ATC then sent me off on a jaunt again, even further across the country this time.  In the end I tried requesting a different runway again, this time back to 27, and mercifully this seemed to do the trick.  The landing was a little sloppy and may have clipped the green stuff, but by that time I just wanted to get the damn flight over and done with.

The real-life KLM1088 had logged a flight time of just over 50 minutes.  I was pushing two hours before the passengers were carted way in their little bus.

I can see why people condemn the native MS ATC system.  I've not had them try to fly me through a mountain so far, but I'm sure it's just a matter of time!

But apart from that little glitch towards the end, I found copying a real flight as-it-happened (almost) was definitely a worthwhile exercise.  Not only have I learnt a little more about real-world aviation as a result, but somehow it felt a little bit more immersive than yet another Orbit 208 flight (which is the callsign I've been using for my practice flights)

I'm now carefully trying to fill in the gaps in my collection of flyable aircraft so as to improve my chances of being able to replicate as many of the real-world flights out of Manchester as possible.  I'm obviously looking mainly at freeware, trying to stick to the best available.  In the process I've been learning a lot about how the aircraft are put togetherm combining models, textures and panels, and I've even managed a couple of virtual cockpit merges, so I have a Project Airbus A319 successfully setup to use the default A321 virtual cockpit.  The only problem with that approach is that the VC is positioned to match the longer A321, and so sits about ten feet in front of where the A319 cockpit ought to be.  It's not a problem in flight, but it does make parking at the gate a little tricky, especially if using the GSX marshaller.

One final bit of news - today I won an eBay auction for a full set of CH flight yoke, throttle quadrant and rudder pedals, for about a third of the price of a new set.  Reading comparisons between CH and Saitek gear online, it did seem that opinions did seem to lean in CH's favour - talk about excessive dead zones with Saitek yokes and short lifespans.  The deciding issue for me was the CH 6 lever throttle.  Saitek offer a three level throttle, but allow you to connect two of them together.  Nice, but it adds another layer of complication as from what I read you have to connect and configure them one at a time before combining them.  The CH combination also has about 30 buttons, compared to about 20 with the Saitek gear.  Finally the CH pedal unit looks like it's a little more compact than the Saitek ones, which will make it easier to fit under my desk simpit.

On the one hand I'm stoked because flying with "proper" controls is going to change the feel of flying immensely.  But there is going to be a little work required to fit everything in the limited space I have, plus I'll need to consider what functions should move off the custom keyboards and onto the yoke/throttle buttons and what the keys that frees up can be assigned to.

How long before I'm getting out the jigsaw and soldering iron to build some actual switch panels, eh?

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Still chasing the white whale!

You'd think it would be simple.  A short-to-medium haul flight across Europe, carried out every week by a low-cost airline.

Todays latest attempt to recreate the Manchester-Rhodes flight ended in yet another failure, caused by a combination of three factors.  Firstly, I tried this in the FSX 737-800.  Previous attempts have been in the Bombardier CRJ-700 or with a freeware 737-300 in FS9.  Of course using the -800 for this flight isn't strictly accurate, since the flight operator Jet2 mainly uses the older -300s in its fleet, but I wanted to do this in FSX so I could get the benefit of my latest toys (MCE & GSX).  I did, of course, locate a Jet2 livery for the default 737-800, so things weren't completely crazy.

The second factor was that I decided to up the realism again by sitting down and doing some proper flight planning in terms of initial fuel load.  Nothing fancy, just taking the estimated fuel burn from FSX and adding a 30% buffer to allow for climbs, taxis and go-around.  In the end that gave me a figure that was only 2000kg about 2000kg less than the default fuel load.

Finally, having gone through the take-off and climbout without so much as a hitch, I set the autopilot and handed the radios over to the MCE copilot, before nipping back into the cabin to catch the in-flight movie (i.e. left the sim running to go watch TV).

When I returned I realised that I hadn't quite set the autopilot GPS/NAV Hold correctly.  Though only a few degrees off, a couple of hours flight had put me hundreds of miles east of that purple line. I fumbled with the controls until the MFD showed "LOC" ("Ah so that's what it should have said!") and headed back on course.  But a quick look at the fuel gauge told me that the wing tanks were completely empty and what was left in the centre tank would certainly not be enough to reach our destination.

I bumped the time acceleration up to 16x to at least bring us back onto the course, then looked around for an alternate airport to divert to.  The "Find nearest airport" option only gave me a couple of very small uncontrolled strips and I really wanted to make it to a "proper" airport, but by the time my fuel got down to the last 1000kg, I finally realised that those small strips were the only things that were in range.

Autopilot off.  Time for some handflying.

The approach was possibly a little steeper than the customers would have liked, but I was watching that fuel gauge ticking down the digits.   I might possibly have clipped the grass a little on my original touchdown, but nothing broke or caught fire and at least the passengers were down on the ground safely.  I started to taxi looking for some sort of airfield building but before I'd gone half the length of the strip, the engines flamed out.  I'd touched down with under a hundred kilos of fuel remaining.

IF I hadn't been flying the unfamiliar 737-800 for the first time... I'd have realised the GPS Hold wasn't correctly set...
IF I hadn't done the flight planning and reduced the fuel load... I probably still wouldn't have had enough to make it to Diagoras, but the options for the diversion would have been a little better.
IF I hadn't left the flight deck for as long as I did, I would have spotted us drifting off-course soon enough to correct it and continue.

The white whale of the Manchester/Diagoras flight continues to elude me.  At least this time the simulated passengers survived the experience, albeit stranded in a deserted field in Serbia.

Friday, 21 September 2012

It's all in the little things.

Today I managed to squeeze in not one but two flying sessions.  The first was inspired by a friend of mine who's currently posted with 'Er Majesties Armed Forces to the wonderful country of Kenya, for the purposes of training other soldiers how best to not get ganked by short angry men.  I asked my friend for the names of any airports, bases or fields in his general area and he gave me a couple of names.  They turned out to be only 12 miles from eachother, so I did a couple of quick ferry runs back and forth with the DC3 (good landing and takeoff practice) then did another slightly longer and slower flight in a microlight.

This afternoon I found myself with an hour to spare, so I fired up FSX again with the DC3, this time starting at my home base of EGCC Manchester.  I decided to try the run I used practice in the CRJ-700, down to EGNX East Midlands Airport.  With weather conditions pretty poor and lots of low level cloud, it took a bit more "proper" flying to keep to the VFR rules, and finding EMA at the end of the flight was harder than you'd expect.  But a slightly bumpy landing later I found myself taxiing to the parking area.

Now, in the DC3 I've taken to turning off the Multi Crew Experience copilot and only using it for talking to ATC, a task for which it works well.  Talking directly to ATC, rather than pushing buttons and hearing my strange, American accented voice talking to them, just feels a whole lot more natural and... I hate to use the word realistic but... it feels more like I'm captaining a vehicle than playing a computer game.  Does that make sense?  It's only a tiny little difference, but I think it's the tiny little differences like this that build up to make a good sim experience.

With that in mind, this week I picked up Ground Services X, an add-on which gives you things like baggage carts, passenger stairs and catering vans while on the ground, as well as a greatly improved push-back service.  This is nicely supported by MCE, at least at the departure end of the journey, so I can request all these services by voice.  Now on the surface this is an absurd thing to spend your flightsimming budget on.  Having a bus pull up alongside your parked plane for a few minutes before departing for the terminal building, does absolutely nothing to enhance the act of simulated flying.

In reality... well frankly I was surprised.  Somehow that extra act of passenger deboarding at the end of the flight makes for a really nice closure to a flight session.  I found myself watching the DC3 sitting on the tarmac while the bus disappeared into the distance gave a strange sense of... completion I suppose.

At this point, I can't really afford the BIG changes that would have a BIG impact on the simming experience, like switching from a joystick to a yoke, quadrant and pedals... or even moving to a proper sim cockpit rather than a tricked out computer desk.  So little things like this are helping the sim experience to grow and evolve.

Next on the agenda - On the one hand I really want to make the transition from the Bombardier CRJ700 to a "proper" airliner i.e. Boeing or Airbus.  On the other, I'm growing quite fond of doing "semi-bush" flying VFR in the DC3 and would like to scope out some new routes with interesting scenery.  I've said it before and I'll say it again... it's great that flight simming offers so many different aspects within the one hobby.  With such variety, if things grow stale there's always something new to try.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Back to basics

I've had a little mini-break from simming, brought about by a weekend away at the Lincoln Asylum Steampunk Festival, which for the uninitiated is basically an excuse to dress up an quasi-Victorian gear, promenade around all day and consume vast quantities of tea and cake.  I must confess I was seriously considering asking to borrow a friend's laptop and seeing if we couldn't load it up with FlightGear and a few vintage flyers, to keep with the tone of the weekend, but in the end it was a welcome break away from the 21st Century.

The trip wasn't entirely without an aviation element however.  On the drive over to Lincoln we were overtaken quite rudely by a BAE Hawk trainer flying a couple of hundred feet overhead.  It was in fact one of the Red Arrows RAF Aerobatic display team presumably going through a bit of a shakedown flight.  Later in the weekend, we were actually treated to a random fly-past of the whole team in diamond nine formation over the city.

It was quite a sight, and took me back to the days of the Barton Airshow, when as a child I used to stand in our back garden and watch the display aircraft fly overhead.  One year as a young man I actually managed to make it to the show itself, but to be honest I think the child in the back garden enjoyed it more than the young man at the airfield.

Anyway on the way back from the Asylum we actually passed RAF Scampton, the Arrows' home base.  I took this as a sign from the gods of simulated aviation that this ought to be the inspiration for a flight or too.  But Real World(TM) has been getting in the way of sim time for me this last week, and so I haven't gotten around to doing anything about it until today.

I did look around to see if there was a freeware BAE Hawk I could download.  The only one I could find was on a website that requires a paid subscription, which I'm not quite ready to sign up for.  Besides flying a singleton Red Arrow would be nothing without the other 8 members of the team to fly in formation with, display aerobatics is a lot more fun to watch than it is to play.  So I started thinking about things to try and came up with the idea of flying VFR from Barton to Scampton.  Just another trip in the Cessna wouldn't be special enough, and I've been doing a lot of "autopilot follow the purple line" flying recently, so I decided to keep with the Asylum weekend's "back in time" feel and try the venerable Douglas DC-3.  The plan was to handfly the whole way under 5000ft, solo without the benefit of MCE's copilot (though still using MCE for ATC comms).  I did allow myself to use a GPS to steer me in the right general direction though.

Well OK, it's not exactly steampunk, but it's certainly a piece of aviation history and it's an absolute beauty of an airplane.  I'd played around with the DC3 in FS9 a few weeks back, and even installed the tweaked flight dynamics recommended by a couple of sites, which made it fly much more like a transport than FS9's default settings.  But I'd not tried the FSX version of the bird, which made for a bit of a nervous start.

I started by revisiting a youtube video I'd seen outlining the DC-3 start-up procedure, which is very different from a Cessna or a modern jet.  Then I found myself plunked down at the start of runway 20 at Barton Aerodrome and had to repeat the process for myself.  After a couple of false starts, both engines were roaring away and I contacted Barton Ground... only to be given clearance to taxi to runway 27 instead.

Folks, taxi-ing a big tail-dragger like the Dakota is not fun, since by definition your nose is way up in the air in front of you, obscuring your view of the path ahead.  Sadly FSX doesn't allow you to stick your head out of the side window to see where you're going, so I was forced to switch to the external view to make sure I was heading in the right direction.  Fortunately the taxi went without incident, and after lining up on 27, I throttled up and barrelled up the grass runway until takeoff, forgetting to set flaps but still getting airborne with plenty of clearance.

Folks, I have never instantly fallen in love with an airplane before, but the default FSX Dakota just blew me away.  It felt just like an 80 year old transport plane should, a world away from the tightly controlled chrome of the modern tubeliners and a lot more stately than the likes of the Cessna 172.  I found myself instantly thinking of the plane as "the old girl" and felt a need to fly her with respect, unlike the way I normally throw airframes around the sky in sims.

The flight was nice and uneventful and on reaching Scampton I slipped smoothly into the right hand pattern, bringing her round for a purely visual approach and landing.  I had been very nervous about the landng, since it was something I'd screwed up monumentally with the earlier FS9 trial.  After flying off the end of a runway in one of those flights, I looked up online and found that the secret to landing a big tail dragger was to touch down on the main gear first, then counterintuitively apply a gentle back-stick pressure in order to bring the tail down to the ground.  With that in mind I brought the DC-3 in for the landing and thankfully everything worked as it should.  Scampton Ground directed me to parking and all too soon the old girl was shut down and the flight was over.

Flying the DC-3 VFR felt, if you'll pardon the expression, like real flying.  It just brought home to me how vast the scope of the flight-simming hobby can be.  If you get bored of flying airliners, you can try your hand at bush flying.  If that grows dull, you could try flying vintage birds like the DC3.  When that get's dull, try firing up a modern jet fighter.  And that's not even starting on the rotorwing craft (or one of the rare lighter-than-air sims)

Anyway I've promised myself I'm going to do some more back-to-basics flights with the DC-3.  Given how ubiquitous they were throughout the world in the post-war years, they should take me to a few more interesting locations than the domestic airline hops I've been doing a lot of recently.

Speaking of which, a few days ago I tried unsuccessfully to get back into the flight-sim saddle with a test flight of the Just Flight 757 Jetliner Freemium.  I'm not quite ready for the full-on payware complex simulations, but the Justflight offering is (a) free and (b) part of their F-Lite range, which offers simplified simulations, a little more complex than the default FSX birds but a lot simpler to fly than the hardcore PMDG offerings.

I fired up the tutorial flight as per the Jetliner Freemium manual and got things started.  First thing that I found frustrating was that a lot of the panel functions only responded to mouseclicks and not keypresses.  I have two regular keyboards modified for flight-sim use, one over the screen with keys for most "overhead" functions and one below the screen for avionics, comms and flight controls.  Having gotten used to using them on the default birds and a few freeware aircraft, it was annoying to find that I couldn't start the APU by hitting the "APU start" key, but had to bring up the overhard console on screen and manually click with the mouse.

Anyway once that was completed and I got clearance to taxi - strangely the flight-plan in the tutorial was for a VFR flight, which I didn't think commercial airliners ever did.  Nonplussed I trundled down the Gatwick taxiway and joined the queue for 8R.  Now Gatwick, like Manchester, appears to have two parallel runways, unfortunately with the taxiway for the furthest one crossing the threshold of the nearest one.  The result, combined with my traffic setting of 40%, was a traffic queue blocking 8L.  This meant that all the incoming traffic was being directed to 8R, which meant that the aircraft on hold never got a chance to take off.  Which meant that the queue grew and grew and grew and grew.

I joined the queue with about a dozen aircraft in front of me.  In the time I was watching not one was able to actually take off, though several of them timed-out and disappeared allowing us to move up the queue.  After some minutes queue behind me grew quite impressive too.  And on top of that, about one incoming plane in three was getting the go-around as well, which meant there must have been a growing traffic jam in the sky as well.

In the end, after about a half hour sat on the taxiway with still nine or ten aircraft in front of me, I gave up on the idea and ended the simulation.  Waiting two hours before you can start a two-hour flight is not a good use of time, and frankly the experience had dulled my enthusiasm for flying at that time anyway.

Clearly this was one of those cases where the more primitive FSX ATC AI just can't handle even 40% of the Gatwick traffic without running into gridlock.  Next time I try this flight I'll swallow my pride and turn the traffic down to 25%, or maybe even use the accursed Time Acceleration to while away the hours on the taxiway.

Is it any wonder that after that, flying the DC-3 was such a delight?

Friday, 31 August 2012

Dr Vesuvius emerges from his secret laboratory, cackling madly.

Jess, my new Flight Attendant, before she's done her make-up.
"I have made a woman"

(Well Doc, there's no need to brag. There was bound to be one or two out there with low enough standards....)

"No, you buffoons!  I talk not of base carnality, but of the supreme act of creation.  I have brought forth life from unlife, using the power of SCIENCE!!!! MWAHAHAHAHAHAHA"

(Something tells me the science used falls somewhere under the "mad" category.)

To rewind the story to the beginning, in previous posts I talked about testing and then buying the Multi Crew Experience add-on, which adds a voice-controlled co-pilot and voice activated ATC (which is what I bought it for mainly).  But it also includes a ground mechanic (which is actually quite useful, initiating pushback verbally and refuelling you, as well as putting chocks around your wheels so you don't need the parking brake) and a Flight Attendant.  The latter is, rather limited in what she can do using the default voice commands - you can tell the cabin crew to open and close doors (useful), prepare for departure, takeoff or landing (which have no effect on the sim whatsoever - they may possibly be placeholders that integrate with the features of another product called GEX, which provides simulated ground services including passenger embarkation and debarkation.

Anyway, one of the things that I've seen in several YouTube FSX videos is simmers using various means to recreate the ambience and procedures of an airliner cabin, including safety briefings, cabin announcements etc.  Some of these are simply playing recorded announcements through a sound-effects switch panel.  But since MCE already has some functions of the Flight Attendant covered, I thought it would be nice to expand on that, but keep the cabin announcements in the same voice rather than use an existing recording.

So since MCE supports SAPI5 text-to-speech voices in addition to the pre-recorded voices it comes bundled with, the first step was to buy a suitable voice for my new girl.  After looking at some of the options, I settled with "Jess, UK English" from  The determining factor was the fact that she speaks with a northern English accent rather than the usual "Queen's English".  In fact, most of the Cereproc offerings have regional accents and their selling point is that they're "voices with character".

I surfed the web initially looking for samples of the traditional airline safety briefing.  You know the traditional "turn off all devices, there are the exits, here's how you use a lifebelt etc".  But I stumbled across a blog posting which listed sample scripts for several different circumstances on flight, including turbulence, arrival, gate departure and cruising.  Modified slightly, these let Jess cover the entire sequence of a flight.  But MCE has a limit on the number of characters it can include in a response, which is way too short for most typical airline announcements.  But the MCE creators at the Avsim MCE support forum pointed out to me that you can use MCE to create custom scripts that can, amongst other things, trigger .wav sound files.  So I downloaded a text-to-speech file reader to turn those scripts into audio files, then tweaked them to sound like they're through an airplane intercom system.

Finally it was just a matter of writing the MCE VoxScripts to trigger these events, along with a couple of others to reflect important Flight Attendant duties ("Any chance of a cuppa?" "What's the in-flight movie?")

The result, when we're starting Cold & Dark at a gate, I can ask Jess to open the doors to begin boarding.  I can then periodically check back with her until she tells me that boarding is completed.  Then I'll ask her to begin the Gate Departure process.  She'll chirpily agree, then leave the cockpit and go back to the cabin to read the standard "Welcome to the flight" speech, then once the doors are closed she'll come back and report we're ready for departure.  Other phases of the flight are covered, with a mix of speech generated on the fly within MCE and pre-recorded announcements, and it's all in a consistent voice.

I've done three or four flights with Jess now and she's working out beautifully.  This is all about immersion, and it's a really funny effect.  I mean, I've programmed Jess's responses and so intellectually I know she's just giving stock responses to things I'm saying.  But when she comes to the cockpit to report on status, or bring me a (virtual) cup of tea, I find myself automatically thanking her.  As time goes by I'll be able to add to her list of interactions as well, hopefully enhancing the effect further.

In order to share what I've done, I also went back and recreated the whole setup using the default Windows 7 "MS Anna" voice.  Anna is vastly inferior to Jess in terms of voice quality, but at least she'll be available to a majority of current MSFS users.  The result has been posted to the Avsim forum here in this thread, which lays the groundwork for what I eventually came up with.

I'm absolutely chuffed with the result of this little bit of "mad science."  Jess sounds great and her current scripts and speeches make a good basis for expansion.  It wouldn't be too much work for me to recreate the relevant recorded messages with flight-specific details such as flight number or destination, useful if I was flying a regular route with a virtual airline, or for a special "event" flight.  And it takes about two hours to create a whole new set of recordings with a different voice, starting from scratch and ending with them installed and running in MCE.  To be honest the limiting factor is the cost of the SAPI5 voices, which tend to be around £25-30 each.

Anyway, now back to flying the friendly virtual skies!

Monday, 27 August 2012

Should have known better.

So I fired up the old CRJ at UK2000's Manchester Extreme and hit Ctrl-Z to have a look at the framerate.

It was awful.  Single figures awful, and that was just in a cold & dark cockpit staring at a terminal wall.  Panning the view from side to side was mega jerky.

Now I admit I have the vast majority of sliders pushed to the right, and I know FSX's reputation.  But by god, I'm running a 4.5GHz quad-core here, with a mid-range graphics card so a six year old game ought to be running a hell of a lot smoother than that.

Then I had an idea.

When I first built the flightsim PC, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that adding the "proper" graphics card didn't disable the onboard Intel graphics adapter on the motherboard.  Since I'm a big fan of multi-monitor (for all things not just flightsimming) I used one of its outputs to give me a third 17" monitor display.  I generally only used it for very graphics-lite functions like the ATC window or the GPS window.  Surely that wouldn't interfere with the main graphics display.

Would it?

On a hunch I disabled the on-board graphics adapter in the BIOS and fired up FSX back at Manchester Xtreme.  Framerates were now steadily in the 19-20 range and panning was smooth as silk.

So as I understand it, the problem is right down at the hardware level.  Having a slower performing graphics card working alongside a higher performing one will drag the performance of the faster card down to the level of the slower one.  Even though my cockpit display was running on the faster NVidia card, it was effectively limited to the performance of the onboard Intel graphics.  Hence very disappointing frame rates.

I really should have known better.

However that doesn't change the fact that I'm getting framerates that are really no better than OK on a bang up to date overclocked box running a six year old game.  Just how inefficient must the FSX code be for this sort of performance?

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Business as usual

So after spending far too long playing around getting FS9 all purtied up and giving Flightgear a second chance, I've been back in the flightseat with FSX the last couple of days.  MCE speech recognition is still not operating at 100% but I'm finding certain phrasings that it recognises better than others.  As of now it can handle 90% of routine ATC comms, and most of the routine tasks that I like to hand off to the copilot (like tuning the radios or autopilot settings).  Readbacks of complicated instructions are still a bit iffy, especially in high traffic situations, but I've now adopted the policy of "try it twice, then hit the key".

Yesterday I did a nice late afternoon/evening flight from Manchester to Edinburgh to re-aquaint myself with the CRJ700.  Until now I've mainly tried to fly during full daylight hours, but the dusk landing did produce some absolutely gorgeous looking sunset shots.  While personally I'm not quite as enthused about a simulated sunset as I would be about the real thing, I have to admit that FSX does a pretty good job of it.

This morning I did another short-haul hop in the CRJ from Manchester to Belfast.   Things went well mostly except for one, tiny, tiny detail.  Landing gear.  Somehow during the excitement of landing I forgot to check that the gear was down and locked - I was sure I'd hit the landing gear key, but whether I didn't hit it cleanly, or the MCE pilot misheard a later voice command as "raise landing gear" I cannot tell.  But when I came to a halt on the runway I found I was unable to taxi, and it was only when I went to external view that the reason became clear.  To be honest I'm rather proud that the landing was so smooth and gentle that FSX didn't register it as a crash, lack of wheels notwithstanding.

So to try and rebalance the ledger, this evening I started a flight to Dublin long after sunset.  Since I want to start moving away from the CRJ and into slightly heavier tin, I loaded up a freeware Boeing 737-300 (though since I don't have the correct panel for it yet, I was using the glass cockpit from the -800)  The livery was BMI Baby "Robin Hood Baby" registry G-OBMP, flight number 6689.  MCE's recognition of the "Baby" airline code was a bit hit and miss - often mishearing it as "Cathay".

Taxi and take-off after dark was a new experience.  The landing lights were so bright they almost bleached out the Progressive Taxi indicators (though by now I'm almost at the point where I can navigate EGCC's taxiways by memory).  Unusually, Ground put me at 05L for takeoff.  After waiting for the aircraft in front of me to take-off I was put on hold while an incoming Ryanair flight came in on final.  But at the last minute they were waved off, and a couple of minutes later I got clearance for takeoff.

Feeling a bit cocky I turned on to the runway to do a rolling takeoff.  Things were going great except.... there was this bright set of landing lights dead ahead about five hundred feet above the 27R end of the runway.  Some bright spark in the MS ATC had decided to bring someone in for a landing on the same runway in the opposite direction.  Of course by the time I realised this I'd hit V1, so I rotated and climbed as steep as I could.  The other 737 passed by about 300 ft beneath me, but in the excitement I forgot the less forgiving jetliner flight model and didn't throttle back, resulting in an overspeed "crash".

The second takeoff attempt put me back on 27R, and things were much less eventful.  Before I knew it I was over the Irish sea.  The night scenery wasn't quite as eye-pleasing as the sunset, but it did give the opportunity to give a virtual wink at the moon in honour of Neil Armstrong, who passed away today.

Approach to Dublin was a barrel of monkeys.  First I got put on a northbound course presumably to set me up for an ILS Runway 16 approach, but again FSX sent me way further than it probably needed to, to the point where I found myself handed off to Scottish Center.  Then out of the blue, Scottish Center just cancelled my IFR flightplan with no warning.  I checked the ATC message log, they hadn't spoken to me after the initial handoff so I hadn't missed any responces, and MCE hadn't sent a spurious cancellation request (which it's done on a couple of occasions)  It took a few minutes to log a new flight plan and get turned around, but coming in almost on the runway course it looked like it was going to be an easy ILS landing.

True enough I caught the localizer and glideslope together in quick succession, and I went through the motions of final approach pretty much spot on.  But it was only a couple of hundred feet above the ground when I realised that the glideslope was bringing me down about a hundred yards short of the start of the runway.  I throttled up and managed to just clear the trees at the end of the runway (though watching the replay I think the ground crew will be pulling twigs out of the landing gear for hours).  The following landing was a little rough around the edges, but everything held together and the taxi to gate was pleasantly relaxing.

I think I'm getting close to ready to reattempt the Manchester EGCC to Rhodes Diagoras LGRP run, though I might do it in FS9.  At 3-4 hours it's still only officially a medium haul flight, which leaves me wondering how other simmers complete the really long haul flights (like trans-atlantic or transpacific stuff).  I know that both FSX and FS9 allow time compression, but I get an uneasy feeling that might be considered cheating somewhat (I know it's not permitted in VATSIM flying with live ATC controllers.) Leaving the PC unattended during cruise might be an option, but with all the ATC handoffs that MSATC seems to love inflicting on you, I expect you'd come back to find your IFR flight plan cancelled and ATC pouting silently.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

The best things in life are free.. or at Platinum prices.

So here's the thing.  I've been reading on various forums about how a lot of people are still flying FS2004: A Century Of Flight, AKA FS9 and claims that it runs an order of magnitude quicker and smoother than FSX, while looking almost as good.  The killer moment came with an online video showing a split-screen view of a takeoff, half the screen FS9, the other half FSX, with the challenge to Can You Tell? Now while there are clear differences between the two, for much of the video I personally felt it was impossible to say that one was objectively better than the other (up until the aircraft starts to climb and you can see the coastline, something that FSX seems to do a lot better in my opinion.

So inspired by all this, I thought that since FS9 is available for under a tenner it was worth checking out, for curiousity's sake.

I really wish I hadn't done that.

For the simple reason that if I'd tried FS9 first, I'd probably never have spent the money I have on FSX.

Let's start with what for me is the worst feature of FS9 - the multi-screen support.  In FSX it's relatively easy to undock a window and drag it to another screen.  In FS9 when on full-screen mode that's not possible.  You have to ALT-ENTER to go to windowed mode to do so.  When you switch back to full-screen, the windows generally stay on the monitors where they're dragged, but without visible borders it's a little clumsy resizing them, plus sometimes they can drift from one monitor to another.  Worse is that once you've positioned them, ALT-ENTERing back to windowed view re-docks everything back to the main window for some reason, so you have to get the layout right first time or start again from scratch.

Apart from that, I'd say that FS9's visuals are at least 90% as good as FSX, even better in some instances.  Most importantly, where my FS PC was getting frame rates of 30 under FSX, it's getting 200+ under FS9.  Even flying over UK2000's Manchester Xtreme (15 fps on FSX) I had no problems maintaining a locked frame rate of 60, same for GAP's Rhodes Diagoras (which at night turns FSX into a slide show)  I'm able to run with every single graphical detail slider slammed all the way to the right, including extremely dense autogen, which makes things look superb.

So spurred on by this, I thought I'd see how pimped out I could make my FS2004 install without spending any more money.  The only payware I'm using on it are the two aforementioned airports - Manchester and Rhodes, and that purely only because I already have them (and fortunately they're dual compatible).  There is a freeware Rhodes airport that's pretty good, but I also wanted to use a free Rhodes photoscenery which for some reason puts the freeware Diagoras about a hundred yards out to sea.  The GAP version of Diagoras is somehow able to correct for this and appears safely on the photoreal land.  For Manchester the only freeware scenery I could find was the cut-down demo of the UK2000 Xtreme airport.  There is however a freeware Manchester Ringway 1975 airport out there, which represents the airport as it was when I was but a wee sprat, if flying vintage iron is your thing.

So off on a voyage of freeware discovery, I hit the various forums and searched for things like "best freeware FS9".  Funnily enough, the vast majority of posts I found asking this question were generally met with the irate response "This question has been asked so many times before!  Learn to use the forum search function!".  Or other equally helpful posts like "Best is a relative term.  Make your own choice." followed by a link to a freeware site listing thousands of titles.

But finding a few people willing to help and actually express opinions finally got me on the right track.  I found Peter Slater's scenery packs which were excellent.  Peter didn't create them, but he compiled sets of other creator's freeware airports into handy downloads for the virtual airline he was involved with, then posted them online for everyone's benefit.  The airports are an eclectic lot, including the must-have Princess Juliana at St Maarten (complete with sunbathers & planespotters on Maho beach)  He also hosts the work of the defunct Irish Flight Sim Design project, covering several airports & fields in the Emerald Isle.  Since I've added Dublin to my list of regular practice routes, this makes a welcome addition.

This video on Youtube showcases several very good airports, of which I've installed Zurich, Stanstead and Rome.  A comment on that video also led me to EGBBDesign, which is a pretty good Birmingham airport.  For EGNX East Midlands I was only able to find an old FS2002 freeware which, while compatible, really wasn't up to scratch.  Instead I installed the UK2000 free version of their East Midlands product.  It's a considerable improvement over the default, though naturally it's well short of the quality of their full Xtreme airport products.

With regards to the overall eye-candy quality of FS9 I did try a couple of things with mixed success.  A pack that promised a complete overhaul of the FS9 textures failed to deliver, as it made linear terrain items like roads and railways a lot more pixellated, and I honestly couldn't see enough of an improvement in the other textures to justify it.  To improve the seas and coasts I found a freeware add-on called Aquarama, which gave some very nice darkened seas.  Finally to pretty up the skies I found an environment package called HDEv2 which changed the sky colours, enhanced the clouds and with the aid of a third party shader added some really nice light bloom effects.

And last but not least, to boost up the AI traffic I returned to the World of AI, and downloaded a whole bundle of packages (every airline that it lists as calling at EGCC Manchester)  The only annoying feature of this is that some of the AI aircraft have been setup with the model/AI creator listed in the Manufacturer field of the aircraft.cfg, which means that their names show up in the red identifier text appearing above each aircraft model.  But the important thing is my FS9 EGCC is now just as bustling as my FSX EGCC.

For aircraft, while you still get sone of the same unhelpful responses in the various forums, there are a few freewares that people generally agree are above and beyond.  Project Opensky's Boeings, Project Airbus's Airbuses, Project Tupolev's... you see the pattern, right?  There's also the iFly Boeing 747-400, which comes with its own 300+ page manual (for freeware?!!)  I'm discovering the smorgasbord approach to freeware FS aircraft - find a model that you like, pair it up with your preferred panel setup then frankenstein them together in the aircraft.cfg  As someone who generally prefers to fly with a virtual cockpit on a single screen, it's taking a bit of getting used to flicking between 2D panels, but long term I can see how this approach might better suit those looking to create "real" simulators (i.e. physical things that feel like an aircraft cockpit when you sit in them, instead of sitting at a computer desk)

The result of this is that for a day's work, I've got an FS9 setup that looks almost as good as my FSX setup, with 10 times the frame rate, all for a tenner.  (Not including the two payware airports, or MCE which also works on both versions, though I've yet to get it working on FS9).  Compare that with £15 for FSX, £25 each for GEX Europe and UTX Europe and another £17 for TrafficX.

Honestly, if I'd started out with FS9, I probably would have been happy running it on my old 2.4Ghz quad core, which would have saved me the cost of the 4.5Ghz monster I built for FSX.

So if even a tenner is too much for your budget, the Flightgear free open source simulator team squeaked out version 2.8 last week.  I'd previously rejected Flightgear as something looking more like FS95, but some neat looking Youtube vids tempted me into giving it another try.  I have to say I'm very impressed with how much it's improved since 2.6 (the version I tried a month ago).  Generally we're still not up to FSX standards or even FS9, but 2.8 may be nipping at the heels of FS2002.  One area where I think it may even be better than FSX is with the city terrain, more on which below.

There's still a long way to go though.  Pretty much any setup required means delving under the hood and tinkering with XML files, including configuring a joystick.  Someone described Flightgear as "A flight simulator by people who enjoy creating flight simulators, for people who enjoy creating flight simulators."  It's a fair enough comment, though given how much tweaking and tinkering a lot of MS FS users have to do, not as damning as you would think.  It was a relatively easy hack to convince Flightgear to recognise my generic "USB Game Controllers" as a Speedlink Black Widow (for that's what it is) and from then it was able to use all the buttons and axes correctly.  I also experienced a problem with Flightgear insisting on starting fullscreen on one of my smaller secondary monitors.  While FG does claim multi-monitor support, the online documentation immediately takes you into the arcane world of editing camera views in XML files, rather than the simple fix needed for getting the default window to open on a particular screen.

Once up and running I still found the default Cessna 172 to be annoyingly twitchy compared to its FS9 and FSX cousin, but then I didn't know the keys to adjust any of the trims in FG.  The appearence of the cockpit was definitely the visually weakest part of Flightgear, looking very computer-y.  Defenders of Flightgear say that quality varies widely from aircraft to aircraft, but frankly folks the aircraft you bundle with your application ought to showcase the very best you have, especially something like the Cessna 172 which is almost certainly going to be most users' first choice for getting to grips with the sim.

To give FG a fair shake I downloaded its version of the Bombardier CRJ family, since I'd been doing most of my jet flying in the FSX version of the CRJ700.  For the most part the cockpit layout was comparable, with things generally in the same positions, so I was able to find most things in the startup sequence.  The EICAS however cannot be switched between views.  The cockpit designers have gotten around this to an extent by displaying a different view on the copilot's screen.  The Flightgear version does however have a functional FMC, unlike the FSX version.  The Flightgear CRJ did have a virtual cockpit view, but it was entirely non-functional and untextured.

I got about halfway through the aircraft start-up sequence based on my FSX experiences, but then hit a brick wall when I couldn't find the equivalent of the Fuel Flow switch.  Since I couldn't view the fuel system in the EICAS, I have no idea whether this step is even necessary, but the engines steadfastly refused to spool up.  In the end I relented and hit the Auto Start option, which brought everything in the aircraft up and online automagically.

From there getting the CRJ into the air wasn't too difficult.  The cockpit view seemed strangely close to the runway surface  Once airborne I was able to get the Autopilot engaged using the controls in the cockpit.  But I couldn't work out how to adjust the speed, altitude or heading bugs manually - the knobs in the cockpit appeared non-functional and I couldn't find it in the onscreen help.  In the end I took back manual control and just barnstormed around San Francisco for a little bit.

One thing that might not be obvious from this picture I took with the Cessna.  All of those buildings are in 3d relief.  Every... Last... One... I believe the effect is produced by a process called Displacement Mapping. Instead of seperate 3d models, there is a texture that says "this part of the ground texture  should be elevated X pixels"  This is a lot faster for the graphics engine to process than hundreds of tiny building models.  The downside is that side-on those raised bits have no side textures, so it looks terrible if you want to recreate the Death Star Trench Run down Main Street.  But once you're over a thousand feet or so the effect is spectacular.  It really looks like a proper city down there, unlike the "leafy Manhattan suburbia" that MSFS always seems to generate.

In addition, the SFX airport scenery visible in the background is the default model that comes with Flightgear.  It's certainly as good as any of the detailed freeware models I downloaded for FS9, and streets ahead of the default FSX airport models.

All in all I'd have to say that Flightgear isn't ready for primetime.  It has however progressed from public-access TV and is all over the daytime cable schedules.  What I'm saying is that in a few years this may well be a viable competitor for FSX and XPlane.  If you were looking to create an airliner type sim cockpit for a particular aircraft and are prepared to put in the time and effort required to get under Flightgear's technical hood, then I think it would make a quite acceptable engine for a "serious" sim.  I might keep it around to tinker with in times to come, maybe fly the odd unusual aircraft from its collection, but for eye candy, immersion and the sheer fun of casual flying it's not quite there yet.  But given how big an improvement 2.8 is over 2.6, Flightgear is definitely worth keeping an eye on.