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.

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