Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Zombie Flight Sim

...as in back from the dead.

...as 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.

Fail.

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 Flightsim.com, 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 www.flightaware.com, 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?