Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Hercules - the legendary (virtual) journeys.

After the disappointment of todays aborted flight attempts, the delivery man brought an unexpected surprise from Amazon.com.... the bits to build my new i7 based PC for running Flight Simulator (and others).

Strictly speaking, you understand, it's not technically a new PC.  As a former IT professional and hobbyist I kinda accumulated a collection of PCs of various specifications.  Technically these bits were to "repair" an existing machine.  The fact that the only original part left of this particular machine will hopefully be lost on anyone who might criticise the expense of buying a new PC!

Anyway as I type this, I'm in the process of installing FSX + UTX+GEX+TrafficX onto the "new" PC, followed by my latest aquisitions - the UK2000 VFR Airfield UK series and Manchester Xtreme.  I did briefly try these addons on my original Quad 2.4Ghz machine... the results were pretty but.... one... frame... per...second...if... I ...was...lucky....

Why upgrade when I was getting an admittedly acceptable frame rate on my old PC?  Well to be honest it was six years old and about due for an upgrade/replacement.  I knew I was only JUST running FSX acceptably even before I'd bought the UK2000 scenery. While I could have happily bimbled along for a while with default terrain, at some point I knew I was going to hit an add-on that pushed my system too hard.

Straight off the bat with no attempts at optimisation or overclocking I'm getting 15fps while over Manchester Xtreme.  More importantly, it's a buttery smooth 15fps which personally I consider more important than raw framerate.  I'm more than happy with it, and things can only get better once the PC is properly configured and optimised.

Oh and I owe my friend Crazy Eddy for coming up with the name for this new beastie.  I have a history of naming my PCs after cartoon characters - the current box was called Coyote, after Wile E.  The new Flightsim box is now called Hercules.  It qualifies courtesy of the Disney cartoon, but as Edd pointed out, Hercules is also the name of an aircraft.  Not only that, but both the character and the aircraft are known for their heavy lifting ability, and with an i7 3.4GHz proc soon to be modestly overclocked, this box is certainly going to be capable of some heavy work of its own.

A funny thing happened on the way to East Midlands

So not the most successful of flying days here at Vesuvius Airways.

This morning I thought I'd fire up the CRJ for a quick practice run to East Midlands Airport.  After the successful run to Belfast I'm feeling a lot more confident about the mysteries of ILS landings and EMA is a very short hop from Manchester, just enough time to get up to speed and altitude, five minutes of cruising then descend and manoeuvre to slot into the landing approach.

Everything was going swimmingly until I left the end of runway 24R.  Then the autopilot wouldn't engage.

I fumbled around with it for a bit, during which time I failed to notice that it wasn't holding my speed either, and the plane shook itself to pieces somewhere over north Manchester.

Restart and back to the terminal.  This time the taxi-ing was made hilarious by one of the ground controllers having some sort of psychotic episode, constantly repeating over and over "606 hold position, Bombardier CRJ700 on taxiway... 606 resume taxi... 606 hold position, Bombardier CRJ700 on taxiway... 606 resume taxi... 606 hold position (etc)"  What made it even more hilarious was the fact that he kept repeating this right the way up to the runway hold position, despite the fact that there was NOBODY BEHIND ME IN THE QUEUE!

So I was frankly grateful to change freq to the Tower for take-off clearance.  But then as soon as I took off the same damn thing happened again.  The auto-pilot wouldn't engage.  As far as I could tell I'd done everything correctly in the start-up sequence (which worked in the past), it just wouldn't turn on or engage HDG HOLD or ALT HOLD.  Luckily the Autothrottle did seem to work so I didn't overspeed like the previous attempt, so I brought the plane onto the correct altitude and heading manually.

(I should add at this point that I didn't have failures enabled in the sim.  This was FSX "enhancing" the experience off its own bat)

And it was only when I was descending for the base leg of the EMA approach that I realised that my heading indicator had frozen up as well.  I thought I'd push on navigating solely by the VC magnetic compass and verbal directions from ATC and go in for a visual landing.  I managed to get within sight of EMA, but missed the runway by about three miles.  Plus the area was subject to heavy cloud cover at 1000ft, which meant that getting a visual fix meant flying very, very low.  Needless to say, I wound up adding another smouldering CRJ wreck to the impressive collection already decorating the area.

The funniest was the third and I think final attempt of the day to make that simple milk run.  This time the AP kicked in fine just after takeoff, and everything was going swimmingly.  ATC put me on a heading of 105, not quite as the crow flies to EMA, but on previous runs they did tend to steer me wide giving plenty of room to get onto the ILS approach.  But after handing me off to a mysterious controller known only as "Approach" (that's all, no airfield designator) I found myself in the middle of what appeared to be some sort of military exercise.  There were at least three or four military callsigns in the air, and I got a visual of a Eurofighter Typhoon and, unusually for British airspace, a MiG-29.

Vectoring these fast movers seemed to tie up all of the ATC's attention because... well they kinda forgot about me and I sat waiting for the instruction to turn right to intersect with the runway ILS heading.  That instruction just never came.  I only started worrying when I saw the ocean (they call it "Midlands" for a damn good reason).  So I tried giving ATC a kickstart by requesting a new approach, which finally came through just as I was about to go feet wet over The Wash.

They brought me round heading in at least roughly the right direction and I thought I was home free... and then FSX crashed out to desktop.

Count to ten... slowly....

Monday, 30 July 2012

Back to school

So I have to hold my hands up and admit a mistake.  I'd looked at the FSX Missions screen and seen the handful of them labelled "Tutorial" and thought they were the only things Microsoft were offering in terms of a learning curve.  Frankly I was a little disgruntled to see all the basic flight tutorials done in a  microlight, a couple of single prop ones for learning instrumentation then just a single jet tutorial.

Just this morning however I've finally found the proper Lessons bundled into FSX (hidden away in the Learning Centre view).  They seem to do a much better job of covering the things a "serious" simmer would need to know, including the transition from trainers to the heavy tin.  I'm going to start working my way through them, starting at the Private Pilot level.  I've already got a solid handle on everything covered by the Student Pilot level, so I just this second completed the "First Solo" checkride to prove it.

Before I realised that these lessons existed, I'd been working through the "Aviator 90" series of lessons offered free by Angle Of Attack.  This pretty  much parallels the lessons in the Solo and Private Pilot sections of the FSX lessons, and also includes a series of practical cross-country flights, as well as a lot more "inspirational" lessons.  They're very well done, the creator Chris Palmer does a great job of explaining things and really manages to convey a great deal of enthusiasm for virtual flying.  They also use add-on terrain textures from Orbx, so the scenery the lesson videos cover is sometimes quite spectacular.

Angle Of Attack also offer an ongoing advanced series as a subscription service, as well as several video courses covering the flight and operation of various airliners in great detail.

I'd highly recommend Aviator 90 to anyone starting out in any civil aviation simulator (MSFS, X-Plane or Flightgear) as it's entirely generic.  If you're the sort of person who learns better by watching and listening rather than reading, I think they complement the Lessons built-in to FSX rather well.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Irish eyes are definitely smiling

Minutes ago I landed at Belfast International EGAA after a short hop from Manchester EGCC.

(uh, just so we're clear, almost every reference to flights in this blog will be about virtual flights in the sim.  I'm no jet setter in real life - you can count the number of times I've flown without taking your shoes off)

I'm particularly chuffed because this was my first proper and complete IFR flight with ILS landing, with absolutely no cheating - no pauses while I tried to work out the checklist, no missed approaches  and go-arounds, no mulligans or reloading from an earlier save point.  Took off from Manchester, flew over the water and landed at Belfast, with no dramas or whoopwhoopwhoop noises throughout the flight.

Belfast is looking pretty miserable and drizzly right now.  Something tells me we've got rain coming our way later tonight.

Seeing that picture reminds me to mention the three add-ons which I've already purchased for FSX.  I don't want to go too crazy with the payware, but I thought these three were a good initial investment to really give the immersion factor a boost.

The first two are kind of a matched pair - Ultimate Terrain X and Ground Environment X from Flight 1, the Europe editions of each.  UTX has improved map data which makes the view outside your virtual cockpit window better reflect the real world.  Things like the courses of rivers and roads, and how different areas of land are classified.  GEX complements this with a completely new set of textures for the area covered, coupled with improvements on how the 3d terrain objects are generated.  The overall effect of these two is subtle but pleasing - trees and buildings are generated aligned with roads and boundaries in a much more believable way.  Bridges are more accurately generated where roads cross eachother or rivers (though I was miffed to note that it failed to correctly portray Barton Aqueduct, one of the few bridges to carry water over water.)

The second was TrafficX from Just Flight.  With default FSX I tried setting traffic at 50% and got maybe two, three other planes at Manchester International.  I looked into the various options available for AI traffic - WorldOfAI was my first choice, being free, but after working out the install process for one airline I noticed absolutely no difference so my confidence in it fell.  I read a few reviews and forum discussions over the options available and determined that TrafficX was very much the man in the middle.  Other AI packages have better graphics & models, are more up to date, have a lighter or heavier load on the PC.  But TrafficX seemed to be the compromise on all counts - the graphics are neither the best nor the worst and while it does place an extra load on the box, it's not too bad.  What I also liked was the fact that it was an all-in-one package.  No building up an AI traffic picture from dozens of different airline installs as with WorldOfAI.  The price was also very, very reasonable indeed.  And by reasonable I mean cheap.

Firing up FSX now, Manchester International is positively teeming with aircraft of all shapes and sizes.  At 50% traffic I know that when I taxi to the runway, there'll usually be one or two aircraft in front of me and one or two behind.  When I briefly tried firing traffic up to 100%, the taxiway queue quickly built up to over 10 aircraft waiting to take off, with 2 or three in the air on final approach.  While I'm after some verisimilitude, sitting for an hour in a taxiway traffic jam is just a little too much like hard work, and besides with the traffic set that high I found I could barely find a gap in the ATC and Ground chatter to request clearances.

So those are my current collection of add-ons.  I thought about getting Just Flight's VFR Real photo-scenery for the UK, but it's my understanding that it works best with autogen turned off and personally I like seeing the 3d rendered terrain objects when coming in to landings.  Once I have a beefier PC to run  FSX I'm tempted to look into UK2000's Mega Manchester airport and possibly the VFR Airfields pack to improve the experience of UK flying, and maybe the Rhodes Diagoras add-on from the Greek Airports Project.  Rhodes is my first "target" destination that I'd like to fly to once I've got a bit more confidence. The last time I flew there - for once, I'm talking about Real Life (tm) - the pilot was a little heavy handed with his landing flare and we dropped quite heavily onto the runway in what I'm guessing was a mini-stall.

But for now please forgive me if I just do a little jig and go treat myself to a virtual Guinness.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Any landing you can walk away from...

Today I celebrate my first successful ILS landing.  Sadly this was after leaving at least three blazing wrecks in the countryside around EGNX East Midlands Airport and at least 3 missed approaches.

Really it shouldn't be that difficult.  But things aren't helped by (a) YouTube "tutorial" videos that do so using addons that most other simpilots won't have (b) MS's piss-poor "tutorial missions" that don't cover half the things you need to know and (c) FSX's inconsistencies

Anyway,  I finally managed it with the help of the CRJ-700 checklists from Roger Dodger Aviation, but even that was annoyingly vague on the translation from pilot speak ("App hold when established on localizer and glide slope") to actual keypresses required to make it happen (using their Airliner keyboard mod, hit Loc Hold and toggle Appr Mode until G/S shows above the attitude indicator, then turn Alt Hold off)

I also managed to work out my first mini "hack" to get around one of FSX's inconsistencies.

Here's the thing... using the airliner autopilot you tend to have two buttons per function, with one button enabling it and the second "bug" button allowing you to set the target parameter using the generic Increase and Decrease button/key.  For example, if you want the autopilot to follow a particular heading, you'd hit (again using the RD Airline keyboard) HDG HOLD to enable the autopilot altitude control and the HDG BUG key would then let you set the heading using the increase/decrease buttons.  Similarly you've got the ALT HOLD and ALT BUG keys, and even a VSI HOLD and VSI BUG key.

But for speed, you've just got Speed Hold.

When, at various unimportant times during your flight such as, ooh I dunno let's say.. final approach for landing, you need to drop your autopilot controlled speed, sometimes in quite quick succession.  The only way to do this is by mouse-clicking a knob on the virtual cockpit panel or 2D panel.  In FSX there just isn't a key control assignment option for "Speed Bug".

Well actually there is, it's just hidden.

To get to it, you have to directly hack the Standard.xml file located in your user profile (in Win7 it's in Users\<username>\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\FSX\Controls).  You'll need to open it in a non-formatting text editor - which basically means that the ones that come with Windows just won't do and you'll need to download either Notepad++ or Textpad, both free and highly recommended - and  search for "AIRSPEED_BUG_SELECT"  This is the Speed Bug command, which for some reason does not show up in the list of possible keyboard commands you can assign to keys within FSX.  It is set by default to CTRL+SHIFT+R.  You can either use that key combo, or change it manually in the text editor, though be careful to get the correct format.

As a result of this teensy bit of XML hacking, I now have a working Speed Bug key which makes bringing the airspeed down during landing approach a lot easier than having to line up the virtual cockpit view so you can see both the Speed knob and the air speed indicator, fumbling with the mouse then clicking on the right hotspot to raise or lower the bug.

Unfortunately as soon as the victory celebrations for that one were over, I ran head first into another little "quirk" in the interface.  FSX has a "Master Ignition Toggle (ON)" key command.  As the name suggests it doesn't function as a proper toggle switch but only turns the ignition on, and FSX does not have an equivalent (OFF) key.  From an initial hack into the Standard.xml file and a look at the list of possible commands supported by FSUIPC it looks like it was originally intended to act as a true toggle switch but for some reason it didn't work properly.  So some bright Microsoft technical writer "fixed" the bug by simply adding the word "On" to the command description within FSX.  Which as far as I can tell leaves us with no option but to drop out of the simulation immersion and reach for the mouse every time we want to turn master ignition off.

Sloppy, Microsoft, very sloppy.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Angels One Five... Feet.

Hello and welcome to the Couch Aviator's Diary.

Let me start by introducing myself.  I'm Doctor Vesuvius, though there are those that call me.... Chris.

No, not Tim.  Tim would be a silly name.

Anyway I have only recently been bitten by the flight sim bug.  I've been a gamer for years, mostly tabletop roleplaying and wargaming, so I'm no stranger to more advanced forms of "let's pretend".  Things started when I got a bunch of friends together for a day playing the Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator.  Following on from that, I started looking into the possibility of building portable or semi-permanent spaceship bridge stations, nothing fancy just something a little more sexy than just having a keyboard mouse and screen on a tabletop.  That led me into the world of homebuilt flight simulators, and the wonderful videos online from people like Sim Samurai, Roger Dodger Aviation, Captain Anton, Piromoretta and Shamrock Cockpit Services (or as his ma calls him, "Nigel").

Now I'm not a complete stranger to flight sim games - My first experience was a Commodore 64 game called "747" I think, whose gameplay consisted solely of taking off, climbing over a mountain range and coming in to land on the other side.  Graphics were pretty much limited to the cockpit dials and a view consisting of a blue block for the sky and a green block for the ground, possibly with a grey stripe in the middle when you got close enough to the runway to see it.  After that there was a bootleg copy of MS Flight Simulator 1 or 2 that was doing the rounds when I was at university.  Proper 3D this time, in all it's wireframe glory.

In later years I played quite a few combat flight simulators, of which Strike Commander will always hold a place in my heart - I loved the way those F16s flew.  I went through a rotor-wing phase with Apache Longbow and its sister title covering the Hind, yet neither was as much fun as a budget title I found simulating the Kamov KA50 Hokum which simply gave you a helicopter, an island full of bad guys and a full load of munitions.  I also spent many hours in a 1930s that never was, playing the PC version of Crimson Skies, which modelled just enough real-world aviation physics to count as a simulator rather than an arcade game (unlike the later console game).  That led me, ironically to the Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator game and back to the then-current version of MS Flight Simulator (98 or 2000 I think).

While I did spend some time with the Few battling Jerry over the white cliffs of Dover, or the Japs over Midway, the civilian game just didn't grab me.  I really appreciated how it had progressed since the version I'd been familiar with, it still didn't give me enough of a feeling of being in an actual world, and the complete lack of any sort of plot or real mission structure held me back from putting the time in to learn to fly it properly.  With all my previous experience and knowledge of flight principles, I could get the default Cessna into the air on a wing and a prayer and barnstorm it around the immediate area.  But anything more advanced or, gods help us, one of the jets?  Life's too short, pal.  Let's fire up Crimson Skies and go strafe some Zepps!

So fast forward to a month or so ago when I'm brought up to date on the current Flight Sim hobby.  I was blown away by some of the cockpit videos out there, and suddenly something clicked.  I was beginning to see the appeal of the thing, taking a simulated airliner from starting gate through full ATC procedures through the whole take-off, flight and landing process.  So I decided to dip my toe in the water.

I'd been vaguely aware that Microsoft had dropped their Flight Simulator line after FSX, after all it had made headlines in most of the geek news sources I read.   I also knew their current "MS Flight" wasn't doing the business for the serious simulation buffs.  So being a big fan of Linux and open-source (or free) software I decided to try FlightGear.

First impressions were not great.  The graphics were, at best 90s vintage quality, but that could be forgiven if the gameplay was great.  Again, getting the default Cessna aloft wasn't too difficult, but this time had the added thrill of being able to fly from my local aerodrome at Barton (EGCB).  Things were a little iffy however - on a couple of flights I had some weird control problems manifest themselves, with the aircraft gradually becoming more and more nose light, so that after ten minutes or so I couldn't level it off even with full forward stick & trim.  Then came the "Time Machine" flight, where the system clock went crazy and the simulated day got shorter and shorter to the point where things went dark for night time every two or three seconds.

Then finally, after several false starts, I managed to complete a flight from Barton to Liverpool John Lennon Airport (EGGP).  A real place that I know, to another real place that I know (sorta).  More significantly, I'd done it VFR by following a route that I knew intimately from real life, albeit from a lower angle (the good old M62).

Somewhere in the back of my mind, something went "DING!"  There was fun to be had here, as much as when flying the Lave-Tionisla run in Elite (or Oolite as it is these days).

Unfortunately, next I decided to see what it was like to swim with the whales at Manchester International Airport (EGCC)  The first thing I saw was a 767 floating up the taxiway at an altitude of about 15 feet.

Sorry guys, I'm big on open source and I'd like a sim I could run on Linux, but crazy controls, time machines and VTOL airliners are just too many bugs to invest some serious time in.

Next I looked at the lush gorgeousness that is the X-Plane 10 demo.  Hmmm very pretty and there's a Linux version, but it's £40, with much less add-on support than FSX or FlightGear and you won't let me assign keys to the rudder controls?  (I only had a 3- axis joystick at the time).

So finally I looked to the gold standard in flight sims, Microsoft's offering.  The forums were abuzz with talk along the lines of "You can't run FSX properly unless you have an I7 processor overclocked past 4Gb."  This worried me a little, as my rig is a now venerable Core 2 Quad 2.4Ghz.  It was built primarily with high-end hobbyist 3D graphics applications in mind, which turns out to double as a fairly decent games machine.  Most games I play run smoothly with most graphics options pushed towards the right, and it would have been pretty much the top end of what was available when FSX was published in 2006.  How can it not be enough to run the game properly?

But FSX Gold is only a measly £15 from Amazon so I thought it was worth a risk.

A few days later, the disks arrived.  I fed them one by one into the DVD drive, fired up the program and  re-flew the Barton to Liverpool John Lennon run in a Cessna 172.


Contrary to what the hardcore forumites were saying, the game ran quite acceptably on my venerable rig.  Maybe not the 60 frames per second they were saying were mandatory to enjoy the game, but I was more than happy with the limiter set to 20 and most of the graphics options pushed towards the right.  Everything I enjoyed about the trial run with FlightGear, I enjoyed as much if not more with FSX.  And the graphics were a generation ahead (though not quite up to X-Plane standards).

Later that night, I fired up the Cessna again and this time took it on an impomptu VFR flight south.  No destination in mind, just flying for the fun of it.  This time though I talked to ATC and got clearance, and went through all the procedures being handed off from controller to controller.  In the end I wound up setting down at Lydd airport in Kent, about two and a half hours later.


So that's how I got hooked.  I'm totally aware that I'm at the very beginning of my journey into the world of Flight Simulator hobbydom.  I'm hoping to move past the barnstorming, VFR flying stage and master instrument flight with the heavy tin.  At the time of writing, I've been littering the countryside around East Midlands Airport (EGNX) with the burned out hulks of CRJ700s as I work on my ILS landings.  I can only gaze with envious eyes on the likes of Captain Anton with their fully immersive sim-pits, but already I've started the path to upgrade my FSX experience - more on which later.

This blog is going to be a diary, as much for my own amusement as anything else, following my progress in the hobby.  It's very much a "n00bs tale", so don't expect much in the way of useful hints and tips, apart from a long list of what NOT to do.   But please, I do welcome feedback both from veteran flightsimmers and fellow novice aviators.  If you'd like to follow along on this journey of discovery into flightsimming, then please fasten your safety belts, observe the no smoking signs and follow the flight attendants directions as they demonstrate how to use the life vests.