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?