Sunday, 28 July 2013

Old school

When not simming, I have been known to appreciate things of the slightly steampunky persuasion.  So I guess this was inevitable...
The Longest Flight In The World.... EVER!!!

Having tore things up in Kitty Hawk in 1903, I jumped into my time machine and skipped forward a half dozen years to 1909.  Louis Bleriot was all set to complete his record breaking crossing of the English Channel.  Outrageous, I say!  Can't let a bally Frenchie have that glory now, can we?  Once one of 'em figures out he can fly across the channel, they'll all be at it!  We'll be over-run... over-run, I say!

So I did the only decent, British thing to do.  I conked sim-Bleriot on the noggin and pinched his flying machine.  England Expects, and all that, donchya know.

More seriously, I had so much fun in the Wright Flyer that I started looking around for other freeware aircraft from the dawn of aviation.  There's not much in the way of pre-WWI aircraft out there, but there are a few, including a half decent Bleriot XI.

Instrumentation was non-existent.  Controls were basic but thankfully the primary flight functions of roll, pitch and yaw were all covered.  Rather than mess about trying to slew the plane to a suitable farmer's field, I took off from Calais airfield, adding a couple of miles to the journey.

Planes of this era really, really did not want to fly.  The Bleriot XI took constant control input to keep it on course and level, lacking any modern niceties like trim controls or autopilot.  The "cockpit" seat, little more than a bucket really, had terrible visibility - the view forward partially obscured by the engine and the view to either side totally obscured by the wings.  There was however an unobstructed view looking straight down, something I didn't want to do too often.  Cruising speed was between 40-45kn.  In real life, Bleriot flew at 250ft, I varied between 500ft and so-low-isn't-the-sea-spray-refreshing heights.

Bleriot flew without a compass but was able to set his course by following the route of a friendly French Navy destroyer (which carried his undoubtedly nervous wife aboard). Not having a spare warship handy, I settled for tracking the flight using Plan-G open on a second monitor.

The crossing was uneventful, apart from a couple of lapses in concentration that nearly led to some wet toes.  When I finally reached the English coast, and the Not The Least Bit White Cliffs Of Dover (heres hoping FTX England remedies that!) I ran into the same problem Bleriot historically did - neither of us had scouted a landing site properly, and both were faced with a sheer cliff face that we'd struggle to climb over.  We both turned west and followed the coastline, looking for a way inland.

Bleriot fortunately had a compatriot waving a French tricolore to show him a safe place to head inland.  I gained enough altitude to at least peek further inland, only to see modern urban development had rendered a safe landing inland problematic at best.  Instead I angled for a strip of green land right on the Dover seafront, open but sloping slightly upwards.

The landing itself was in fact quite anticlimactic.

Bleriot made it another 700 yards just over that hill to an open and gently sloping meadow.  A quick check both on Google Maps and in FSX confirmed there was no way I could have landed there, due to a century or more of changes.  My actual landing site, between Townwall St (pictured) and Marine Drive, is today in fact a Premier Inn.  The flying machine came to rest in what looks like the hotel bar's beer garden.

I don't think I could have planned it any better if I'd tried.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

FTX Global is out...

...and I've been playing around with it for a couple of hours now.  The first thing to realise is that this is just a worldwide texture replacement pack, it doesn't include the hand-drawn landclass or insane details from the full blown FTX regions.  What it does give is much deeper, richer textures and some very subtle tweaks to the way they blend together, plus some improved landclass in certain parts of the world.

Flying in areas that I've already got enhanced by UTX Europe, the results are pretty stunning.

Just after take-off, EIDW Dublin, with FTXG running over UTX
I recreated the flight from my first video, Barton to Liverpool John Lennon, following my old daily commute up the M62.  While before I felt it was a passable "symbolic" representation of the area I used to drive through, now for the first time it finally felt like I was flying over the British countryside.

Outside of UTX enhanced areas, the scenery still suffers from pretty awful coastlines and limited default FSX landclass data.  FTX are promising a range of "OpenLC" landclass add-ons in the coming year at a fairly reasonable price.  It'll work out cheaper than buying all the UTX packages, which at the moment only cover the USA, Canada, Central America and Europe anyway.   My impression though is that these won't be as full-featured as UTX, so I'm going to have to do some comparisons when the Europe OpenLC is released.  I suspect I'm going to wind up sticking with UTX where I can and use OpenLC to fill in the gaps.

So far I've noticed no compatibility problems with the add-on airports & airfields I have.  The UK2000 airports have a slightly lighter grass texture which makes them stand out a little, but nothing too unnatural.  In fact it makes it a little easier to pick out a grass field like Barton from the surrounding countryside.

The key thing, for me, is that FTXG removes the jarring difference between an OrbX scenery region and the rest of the world.  This was a problem I had not just with OrbX, but also photoscenery.  Taking off in one style of terrain, then crossing over a very noticeable border into a different style of terrain always broke my sense of immersion.

Now I can fly anywhere within FTX's Europe region and get the full features of the full regions I buy (currently Scotland, soon to be joined by England and Wales) and flying to a non-FTX area still looks like part of the same, cohesive world.  And with the Global Hybrid mode, you can fly seamlessly between FTX regions in different continents and with only a slight compromise in quality.

Does FTX Global make the whole world instantly totally awesome?  I think not.  But in the areas I predominantly fly (Europe) that are already partially enhanced by UTX, it's the final piece in the puzzle that turns FSX into a whole new sim for me, which makes it well worth the pricetag.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Just installed Orbx Scotland this morning...

...six hours later, I've just realised I kinda missed lunch and the whole of the afternoon.


Till now I've not honestly found GA flying to be that satisfying.  The FSX scenery for the UK, even enhanced by UTX and GEX, is OK at best, as a sorta-almost-kinda-right approximation.  Photoscenery is great, but only as long as you stay above 2000ft.

But flying over the OrbX version of Scotland felt, for the first time, like I was actually flying over a part of Britain.  The coastline looked like a real coastline, the landclass areas flowed into eachother in a plausible way, and the little enhancements made the world of difference, like having moving vehicles on all roads, not just the major routes.

A couple of times I saw things that I thought must be graphical glitches, only to zoom in to find them to be genuine terrain details that would never have shown up in default FSX,.  A cluster of whitish circles in the middle of the sea in the Shetland Islands turned out to be ocean fish farms, a thin white strip that looked like a texture seam turned out to be a very slender radio antenna, and some mysterious yellow splotches in the middle of a grassland turned out to be the bunkers of a golf course.

I can't swear to the pin-point accuracy for the terrain as a whole, but I was able to easily identify one quite minor road that I did know well from real life, the B7201 that branches off the A7 and leads to the village of Canonbie, where I've holidayed a couple of times.  The landscape around the area seemed to broadly match my memories of it, making allowances for the limitations of the FSX engine, of course.

Looking at the airport enhancements, Edinburgh didn't seem to be a massive improvement, maybe up to the standard of a good freeware.  But OrbX is all about the small fields and strips, and they were absolutely stunning, giving the UK2000 VFR airfields a run for their money.  Plus they had the bonus of OrbX's "PeopleFlow", animated human figures who move around the airfield buildings and vehicles, giving them a bit more life than UK2000's static billboard figures.

Strangely, all this extra detail didn't seem to have much of a FPS loss, if any.

I also spent an hour or so pottering around some of the remotest airfields up in the Shetland Isles.  Like I said, I don't generally do a lot of basic GA "bush" flying normally, but I could certainly see myself spending many more hours exploring that area from the air.

I have OrbX England and Wales on order.  The Australia-based FSPilotShop had these at such a ridiculously low price that even shipping both of them from the other side of the world still worked out cheaper than buying either one individually from any of the UK stockists I saw.

I decided to take the plunge and buy these particular OrbX sceneries for a potential flightsim project/adventure that I have in mind.  Money's tight right now, and any expenditure has to be justified by a big return on the investment.  I'm confident that these sceneries are going to revolutionise my GA flightsimming in the UK and thus be worth it.

The big drawback with OrbX scenery though is what happens when you move out of an OrbX area.  Apart from the jarring effect of the not-quite-as-pretty textures and landclass, I've read plenty of horror stories of people claiming that OrbX's non-standard implementation has screwed up the default scenery elsewhere (though I haven't seen any of that today first hand).  Even OrbX recommend turning off their regions when flying in other parts of the world.  But what happens if you want to fly from an OrbX region to a non-OrbX one, or even from one OrbX region to another, since you can't change your settings mid-flight?

Previously that's meant saving your flight partway through, dropping out of FSX to make the change then restarting and reloading mid-flight.  But any day now should see the release of FTX Global, the package that applies OrbX textures to the whole of the world.  This will include a "hybrid mode" which lets you have all OrbX regions active at the same time, alongside the enhanced FTXG "new default" scenery.  That seems to offer the best of both worlds - much greater detail in the areas that the OrbX regions cover, while the rest of the world at least looks like it's been painted with the same palette, all blending together seamlessly.

Last year I kept seeing posts from some overenthusiastic souls claiming you could grow your own "FS11" or FS2012 by upgrading FSX with a particular set of add-ons, including all the regions that OrbX covered (at the time, basically Australia and parts of the US).  While I think they may have been reaching a bit at the time, this time next week we might be looking at FSX in a whole new light.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Flying down to Rio

This week's flight had an interesting origin.  I was looking at the stats I get from YouTube showing where in the world people are watching my videos and interestingly how long on average they watch them for.  If ten people follow the link to one of my videos, but half of them only watch for a few minutes before deciding it's not to their liking, that still counts as ten views, but the average viewing time will be a lot less.  For most of the views I'm getting, from the UK and US, I'm seeing average view times of five to ten minutes, for videos that are between 20 minutes and an hour.

But with as few subscribers as I have, it means you might only have one viewer in a particular country, and so you can see that person's viewing habits.  And it turned out I kept seeing one viewer from Brazil, who seemed to reliably be watching all the flight-sim videos in full.  So I figured why not make the next video flight a Brazilian one, by way of saying thankyou.

Last year, during a sale, I bought the TropicalSim bumper airport bundle, which had something silly like 32 FSX airports included at a greatly discounted price.  And it so happened that they included two airports for Rio De Janeiro and two for Sao Paolo.  On the day I decided to do the flight, I picked Santos-Dumont International (named after the turn of the 20th century aviation pioneer) and fired up FlightAware to have a look at outgoing flights.  It was obvious that the airline TAM was running regular shuttle flights to Congonhas several times a day, using Airbus A319s.  It was then about another half-hour's work to track down a good quality freeware A319 (Project Airbus FTW!) with a TAM livery. and I was all ready to fly TAM 3925.

Episode 09 - Blame it on Rio

Episode 10 - Runway Thirty-Five-Wrong

I know some "serious simmers" pick a single aircraft and sometimes even a single airline/carrier and fly them exclusively.  I can see how that can help build up verisimilitude.  In real life, you don't turn up at the airport and say "Now, who am I going to work for today?"  Flying a single airliner, even routinely flying a particular route, is going to be more like "real life" for a pilot.

But I'm not quite ready to settle down like that just yet.  While I want to fly jetliners as properly and procedurally as I can, I enjoy the variety of possibilities available too much.  And there's something inherently cool about picking a real-world flight at random and trying to emulate it as close as possible.

Does that bar me from calling myself a "serious simmer", condemning me to the ranks of "filthy casuals" who are simply playing a video game?  I'll hold my hands up and admit that when I'm in a miljet tickling the mach while flying inverted at FL 1, I'd be pushed to claim that I'm doing anything other than mindless fun.  But if I'm in a tubeliner, (albeit a default or freeware one), flying according to set procedures (albeit "scale model" ones that are simplified from real life) trying to do so as well as FSX's limitations will permit, I'm not sure it's so clear cut.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Video Killed the Blogging.... erm

...well I can't really call myself a star with only two subscribers now, can I?

But while I have been doing a bit of flight-simming in the last couple of months, instead of documenting it here I've made the leap to the multi-media world and been doing a video series on YouTube

(in case that video link doesn't work, click here.)

Last year, I noticed that while there are dozens and dozens of FSX videos being uploaded every day, most were either of the "As Real As It Gets!!!!1!one1!" variety, or very artistically filmed and choreographed "movies". Now there's nothing wrong with either of that style (though personally I don't see the appeal in yet another night-time wing-view video).  Nobody seemed to be doing "Let's Play" style videos with commentary for flight simulators, at least not in English.  It seemed to be an obvious gap in the "market".

Of course when I finally got around to publishing my first video, I found two other YouTubers who'd just started Let's Plays of FSX within the previous few days.   Fortunately instead of being bitter rivals, we've formed an alliance of sorts, helping promote each other's channels and covering complementary topics (Infin8Lives is playing a career in FSPassengers, AShadowBoxsFSX is doing the same for cargo with AirHauler and while both are flying some excellent payware, I'm fooling around with mostly stock and freeware aircraft.)

Trying to commentate while flying adds another level of complexity to the exercise, but it's something I'm getting the hang of.

Rather than "moving on" from blogging to video, as a friend put it (prompting this post, in fact!) I'm going to make a determined effort to run the blog and video series in parallel from now on.  So watch this space!

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Best of British

Managed to cram in a little more flying on the new flightsim rig this morning, and can happily report that the number of successful landings equalled the number of take-offs.  This was a particular pleasure since the second flight I did was in this little beauty...

That's the Just Flight Supermarine Spitfire Mk IV prototype.  JF do other Spits, but I received this one free as part of a promotional sale earlier in the year.  I have exactly four "payware" aircraft, of which three were free for one reason or another.  The one I paid for was the Just Flight F-Lite A318, which I have yet to try and bought purely so I could get this Spitfire.

Anyway this Spitfire Mk IV is currently £12.99 and isn't too bad if you're not too fussy about flying a variant that was never operational.  It's far from perfect - I couldn't get the engine to start following the documented start procedure to the letter, then when I gave up and hit Ctrl-E to auto-start, the engine didn't make any noises until I switched to the external view, at which point I heard it cough into life after which the sound remained in sync with the controls.  On landing I noticed that the tail wheel wasn't quite in contact with the ground, but about 2 inches above it. That's probably easy to fix with some config hacking, but since I rarely use external view anyway, it's not a big deal.

There's something about sim-flying these classic tail-draggers.  Even though nothing is real, when coming in to land you still find yourself thinking "Good heavens, this is a priceless historical airplane.  I'd better not crack it up!"

By the way, the airport in the background is Leeds Bradford, from UK2000's VFR Airfield packs.  These are fantastic value and an absolute must have for anyone flying in the UK, giving you greatly improved versions of both small airfields and the big airports.  The latter aren't quite up to the same standard as their full price Xtreme airport range, but I'd say they're better than the free versions and a whole world away from the default FSX airports.  I can't recommend them highly enough.

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".