Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Blimey, are my flying skills rusty.

Having seen Stockoglaws Air Hauler series on YouTube in which he flys a Cessna Grand Caravan, I thought I'd broaden my flight horizons and try the plane out.

Oh dear.

What little piloting skill I'd built up seems to have deserted me during my break from the flight sim.  Since restarting I've not managed a decent landing in anything other than the Cessna 172.

Practice, practice and more practice, and maybe a return run through of Angle Of Attack's Aviator 90 video series are the order of the day.

In other news, Active Sky is working out fine.  It just sits there in the background happily injecting real-world weather into the sim.  For only a little more effort, if I load up a flight plan into AS2012 before starting FSX, it can install an appropriate texture pack  for the detected weather.  Graphically, the AS2012 clouds look very nice, though I was quite happy with the default FSX weather.  But I have my real-world weather back.

I also spent some time today getting Multi-Crew Experience working again, so I have voice comms with ATC and the services of a copilot.  With the new headset I bought just before taking a break, all the problems I'd had with MCE hearing its own speech and getting into an infinite loop have gone.

The only thing I have left to do in order to restore the sim to its former glory is AI traffic.  I was really not very happy with the Traffic 360 upgrade last year.  While I've just about been persuaded that the volume of flights taking off and landing might be more realistic than the traffic queues I was seeing with its predecessor, I'm convinced there are some fundamental problems with the type of traffic it generates.  For example, in one test I did 90%+ of the traffic I saw in one hour were using Speedbird callsigns, whereas the reality should have featured planes from a dozen different airlines.  Other users have reported problems with the mix of airlines at their local airports too.  Then there's the whole issue of AI planes flying with their doors open... I'm sure we've all done it in the sim at one time or another, but I expect better from the AI.   Right now, I'm seriously considering re-installing its predecessor TrafficX and turning the traffic slider way down to 25% to match T360's "realistic" traffic volume.  Then again, Just Flight are currently working on a service pack for T360 which might... just might... be worth waiting for.  No ETA yet, other than "soon".

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Extreme low level..

So yesterday on the sim rig I did a lot of low level flying.  I mean really, really low level.  Like eight to ten feet altitude.

Maybe this will explain...

Yes, in a somewhat perverse turn of events having finally got the flight sim cockpit set back up, the first thing I've done is use it to play a truck driving game.  Now I'm not a particularly big fan of trucks or trucking, but to be honest the reason I bought ETS2 and the reason I mention it here is that for me at least, it hits a lot of the same buttons as flight simming.  They're both journey-based simulations, where the objective is simply to get from A to B in a timely and safe manner.  They both involve controlling large vehicles that many of us will never get the opportunity to control in real life.  Both have lots of nice simulated scenery to enjoy.

ETS does approach things a little differently, with more focus on giving an enjoyable game rather than a strict simulation.  The simulated world extends across most of western Europe (with an upcoming DLC extending that further into eastern Europe), but at a time and ground scale of about 1:12.  That means that for every five seconds of real time, a minute ticks by in the game world.  But since the scenery is scaled down to match, you're still driving in "real time".  It's a good compromise - I really wouldn't want to be sat simulating a five-hour drive in real time, and the journey and game-world times seem to match reality fairly well.  The road networks are based on reality, though the city streets are greatly simplified to give a good impression of the sort of industrial/commercial zones that trucks might deliver to.

The motorway network (I've only really driven in the UK, both IRL and in the game, so I can't really compare the continental roads) is a decent approximation with a few irritating diversions from reality.  In reality, many if not most motorway junctions in the UK are roundabouts.  If you miss a turn-off, it's usually simply a matter of waiting for the next junction and doubling back on yourself.  That's not possible in ETS, which means a missed turn-off can result in a hundred-mile detour (I missed an exit on a trip from Cambridge to Manchester and wound up crossing the Humber bridge on the resulting detour).  Some of the motorway routes are a little wacky as well - IRL the journey from Manchester to Liverpool is a simple matter of heading straight up the M62, whereas in ETS2 the sat-nav gets you to turn off and take the southbound M6 and then the M56 (which in reality takes you to Runcorn and the Wirral).  Finally motorway service stations are directly next to the motorway carriageway, rather than being set back or concealed by scenery as they almost always are.  This last is probably an artifact of the scaling down factor, but it does break immersion a bit if you're used to driving on motorways.

Another area where the game falls down as a simulation is the flight model... sorry I mean driving model.  While it does give a decent impression of driving a heavy goods vehicle, it doesn't do anything to differentiate between the different models of truck available, so a Scania will feel and handle exactly like a Volvo, which will handle just like a Renault etc.   Customisations and different specs do change the handling, so a 700hp engine will have more oomph than a 540hp one, and a six wheeled chassis will have more stability than a four wheeled one.

But where ETS2 scores highly is the career/business side of the simulation.  You create a character representing your driver and build up his or her skills and reputation by taking on contract jobs driving for other companies.  Once you have enough money in the bank you can buy your own truck and drive as an independent operator, then move on to buying more trucks and hiring drivers to work for you.

I never thought that I'd enjoy a truck driving simulator.  But it gives a lot of the same enjoyment that I get from sim-flying, with the added bonus of a compelling career game.  I can see some interesting possibilities for synergy between FSX and ETS - How about shipping goods by road to a city with an airport, flying it out to the continent, then driving the last leg to a final destination?

Back into the air, and on to the issue of FSX's no-longer-functioning real world weather.  After reading an awful lot of reviews and opinions, I've bitten the bullet and picked up ActiveSky 2012 as a replacement weather engine.  From what I've read, while it does offer a lot of features and fancy texture controls, it is possible to use AS2012 transparently, having it sit in the background and inject real-world weather into FSX seamlessly without further intervention.  Since that's really what I want... the ability to jump in the sim and fly a flight today, real time with the weather that's outside my window right now, there doesn't seem to be an awful lot to choose between AS2012 and REX Essentials with Overdrive.  I've just finished the download and am about to install AS2012.  Fingers crossed.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Back in the air!

And we're done!  For the moment.

Everything's where it should be, ergonomically.  With a little creative furniture arrangement I was able to cram in the second monitor after all on top of the side cabinet.  The upper and lower custom keyboards are comfortably placed and there's room next to it for a 10" netbook running Gmap or Plan-G.

Connecting everything back up was the usual headache of swapping USB sockets around until everything mysteriously worked.  My good friend Mark, who'd helped enormously with the practical side of this build, wanted to see the results of our hard work before he left, so I nervously fired up FSX and setup a Cessna 172 on the runway at our local aerodrome (Barton EGCB)  After four months away from the flight yoke I was incredibly rusty, but somehow managed to get into the air, do a circuit and bring the plane back in for a half-decent landing.

Then, with a little coercion, I was able to persuade Mark, a non-flight simmer and self-proclaimed clumsy oaf, to have a try in the pilot seat with the flight model turned down to Easy.  Take-off was a little hairy, just making it into the air over the perimeter fence and clipping a few treetops, but once in the air, he quickly picked things up, and after a bit of flying around tentatively brought the plane back in for an impressively bounce-free landing.  He seemed quite energised by the experience, Even though it was just "a game", he reported a nervous tingling in the hairs on the back of his neck that must be a familiar feeling to most simmers.  I was delighted that after he'd put in so much hard work to help put this project together, he was able to get at least a taste of the flight sim experience for himself.

So what's next?  Well no cockpit project is ever really finished and we've already been thinking about improvements we can make.  I'm going to try and get in a few flights with it as it is for now before investing any more time and money in prettying it up.  After that we might think about covering the top and sides a bit more to give it a more enclosed feel, and obviously at some point it'll be painted.  I certainly need a lot of practice to refresh my flying skills before I can think about getting back to driving the heavy metal.  There's also a little bit of reconfiguring and re-installing of sim components required - things like GSX and MCE which aren't currently installed for some reason.

Reading the various flight-sim forums, I've also discovered that the FSX "real world weather" function is no longer providing up-to-date weather.  This is probably down to Microsoft ending support for FSX at the tail end of last year (I believe that the multi-player functionality is similarly affected, although I don't do multi-player FSX so that's not such a problem.)  Unfortunately, since flying with "real" weather was a big thrill for me, I'm going to have to do something to get around this.  There are several notable weather engines available, REX, ActiveSky, OpusFSX etc.  I've tried the freeware "FSrealWX Lite" but found it completely impossible to figure out.  I'm going to have to bite the bullet and find the money to buy one of the other products.  Right now I'm leaning towards ActiveSky, but all of them seem to have their detractors and supporters in equal numbers, it's a tough choice.

But I've flown.  Not far, and not particularly well, but I got the sim-bird up into the air and back down safely again.  I am content.

I'm back!

Aviation Help 5c. The Pilot is: IN

Here's the current state of the Ghetto Flightsim Cockpit.

The original plan of stacking one Laiva desk on top of another was quickly abandoned when it became clear that the TV I plan to use for the main display would not fit.  Instead we've put together a frame for the overhead keyboard to attach to, as well as replacing the desktop with a piece of MDF which extends further out than the original, to provide plenty of room for the flight controls.  The lower of the two custom keyboards will attach to an upright piece of MDF just in front of the screen.  Unfortunately this change has led to a cost overrun of about 400%.  But since the original budget was a modest £20, we're not doing too badly.

Now I'll grant you this project isn't up there with some of the stunning cockpit builds you see on the web, but then again it was never meant to be.  The goal is simply to recreate the setup I had at the end of last year, with the two custom keyboards mounted over and under the main display.  The one thing I won't have at the moment is a second monitor for instruments and the ATC window, but I can get by without that for now (and there are a couple of possible options we can look at later).

Once we get the lower keyboard mount fitted, this'll be basically ready for a test flight or two.  After that we might look at the possibility of boxing in the top and sides to give more of an enclosed cockpit feel, and make it look a little less like Lucy's kiosk in the Peanuts cartoons.

I'm also holding out for a cupholder.

Friday, 8 March 2013

New Project - The Ghetto Flightsim Cockpit

Moves are afoot to get me back into the (virtual) skies.

I have just arrived back from Ikea with a couple of boxes which will, when suitably hacked together, form the basis of a new "cockpit".  It's not going to be anything spectacular, nor do I expect it to be long term, it's just going to be a cheap way to get me back to something comparable to the setup I had last year.

Basically, last year I had a standard 19" widescreen monitor and a computer desk with one custom keyboard mounted below the monitor and another above it.

At the start of the year, my main monitor started playing up, so I replaced it with a "spare" 38" TV.  Using such a large screen for a desktop PC may be unusual, but it's bloody fantastic in practice.  But unfortunately to facilitate this, I had to remove the upper shelving section of the desk (which was a little worn and rickety anyway).  That means nowhere to attach the custom keyboards.

Now I'm not a great handyman, nor do I have a great selection of power tools available (Hot Glue Gun and a sander are about it) so doing it "properly" would represent a major investment.  Plus at the moment I have no money coming in (zero, zilch, nought) so I can't afford to spend much if anything.  But on the other hand, I did invest quite a bit in flightsimming last year which unless I start using it again would just be wasted money.

I was brainstorming this dilemma with a good friend the other day, and after looking at the options from RogerDodger Aviation and Sim Samurai (both do DIY cockpit plans) we started looking at the possibility of repurposing other furniture.  We came up with this...

This is the Laiva desk from IKEA, their bargain basement desk product, selling for the sum of £10 each.

Now visualise this if you can - mount one Laiva on top of the other.  The main screen (probably the 38" TV) will fit on the little shelf at the back of the upper desk.  The lower custom keyboard mounted just below it, the overhead will be fitted to the horizontal bar across the top.  If you're seeing what I'm seeing, then you'll understand why I use the name "Ghetto Flightsim Cockpit".  It's not going to be terribly pretty, but it should be relatively simple to do and be functional, and at the same time if it doesn't work out or I replace it with something better sooner, it's only £20 wasted on firewood.

There are plenty of people who enjoy flightsimming on an entirely regular PC at a desk - some even play on a laptop and fly by keyboard controls.  Others insist that the only way to do it is with a flight yoke and  custom cockpit complete with real instrumentation.  The truth is that we each find our own level of "realism" that we absolutely must have in order to enjoy the experience.  For me, I'd gotten so used to the custom keyboards being placed where they were... reaching up for lights, fuel controls and anti-ice, reaching down for avionics and autopilot stuff... I honestly feel that going back to a single standard keyboard and worrying about what combination of Ctrl-Al-Shift keys I need to do something would spoil the experience for me.  That's where I'm at now, and so that's what I need to reproduce to restart the flightsim hobby.  

Maybe at some point in the future I'll wonder how I could ever go back to "playing" without the full array of physical switches and a rack of Saitek modules in my custom built enclosed cockpit.

But for now, the Ghetto Flightsim Cockpit Project is under way and will hopefully bear fruit in the next month or so.  Watch this space.