Flight Simulator 2004: A  part-time pilot's perspective


posted 8/5/2003 by Charles Husemann
other articles by Charles Husemann
This is the first in a three part series of looks at Microsoft's Flight Simulator 2004: A Century in Flight. Each article will be from a different aspect, a full time pilot, a part time pilot, and a guy who should probably never be allowed to touch the controls of a plane.

Today's perspective is from our friend Dave. Dave is a part time pilot and owns his own plane (Tampico). Below are his comments on the latest installment of Flight Simulator 2004: A Century in Flight.

Overall: for the most part, this version is simply a more complete version than 2002. We've been able to download additional planes and scenery for quite awhile now. The problem was filtering out the 99% of add-ons that were crap to get at the few nuggets. This has been done for us in this new version. Better weather graphics, excellent new airplanes, and more 'adventure' scripts are included.

These are the new features promised on Microsoft's web site, and my response to each:

Dynamic weather system. We've overhauled the entire weather system, from the user interface to the raindrops on the windscreen. In Century of Flight, weather develops dynamically ? you can see wispy clouds with real volume build and dissipate and watch fronts move across the sky.

You can create custom weather by selecting themes (e.g., a foggy, drizzly morning or a hazy summer day) to create interesting, challenging weather instantly. And we've improved the Real World Weather feature to include automatic updating as you fly.

- This is pretty cool. Real world flying is almost all about dealing with weather. FS2002 had the ability to download real world forecasts. FS2004 has a somewhat better interface to that, and will periodically update the forecast if you select that option. The weather graphics are awesome, and quite believable. Still, it seems like the transitions from one weather area to another can be somewhat abrupt. That's a very minor point. On the plus side, I actually turned around and headed back on a flight because I got into such severe turbulence that I was getting close to being unable to control the plane. On the minus side, there is still no weather avoidance gear (Storm Scope, Radar, NEXRAD datalink) in the airplanes. This makes weather avoidance particularly difficult. In thereal world, if you didn't have any of this equipment (I don't) you would call Flight Watch on 122.2 periodically for updated reports.

- I really liked the weather themes. So much easier than setting it all up by hand. You would want this if you were doing instrument practice, for example, and your real world weather was clear and sunny.

- Instrument practice has been made easier by allowing us to request a different approach than the one assigned. For example, in FS2002 if Air Traffic Control (ATC) assigned the ILS 32 approach, but you wanted to practice the VOR 16 approach, you were out of luck. In FS2004 you simply request the VOR 16 approach and the controller will assign it. Anyone that has done any instrument training or recurrency work will recognize the huge improvement from this relatively simple addition.

- They also mention the ability to change IFR destination in flight. Yes, this is a good thing, and goes back to what I said before about real world flying being mostly about managing the weather. There's times when you just can't get where you're going, so you change your destination. In this case, great idea but poor implementation. Requesting an IFR destination change stops your flight and takes you back to the flight planning screen. You have to change the destination and re-compute the flight route. When you close the flight planner, it will ask you if you want to move the airplane to the departure airport. Well, no, I want it to stay in the air with me in it. Duh. On the plus side, the request to change altitude is much more seamless.

Interactive 3D virtual cockpits. The three-dimensional pilot's perspective (virtual cockpits with working gauges) persists in Century of Flight, with a major improvement: interactivity. Now you can operate aircraft controls, tune radios, and flip switches without leaving the virtual cockpit view.

- Well, yes you can, but you need a much higher resolution than my machine will deliver. It's kind of hard to see and click on the hot spots for the radios, etc. I like the virtual cockpits though, and it's nice that you don't have to toggle back to the 2D view for every task.

Improved scenery and visual effects. We've added taxiway and runway signs at airports, expanded and improved autogen scenery, included more visual effects, and added detail and other enhancements to the entire scenery system. You'll also notice more high-detailed modern airports.

- The taxiway and runway signs are hugely important. At some airports, it is harder to navigate from the gate to the runway than it was to find the airport in the first place. Just take a look at the taxiway diagram for O'Hare and you'll see what I mean. The ability to navigate the taxiways without using the kludgy progressive taxi line is a huge realism improvement.

3D hardware acceleration in multiple windows. Multiple windows and monitors are part of the Flight Simulator experience. But now with DirectX 9, you can set up multiple windows and monitors, each with full 3D hardware acceleration.

- Using the 2D cockpit, a second monitor is almost mandatory. I have to keep opening and closing the throttle, GPS, and Radio screens because on a single monitor they sit on top of the primary flight instruments. The windows resize pretty well, but having a second monitor to hold the secondary windows would be a much cleaner solution.

- Framerates on my 1ghz Celeron/Geforce4 board we very good, although I was only running 1024x768 and had quite a bit of detail turned off.

Rich multimedia content. Traditional help, briefings, and lessons come to you in a new format. All of the content for this version of Flight Simulator is being created in HTML. Rich, interactive media tell the stories behind each of the historical aircraft and the pilots who made them famous.

- These are incredible. These are more focussed on the Newbie pilot, but that is a necessary audience for the long-term viability of this product. The big names (John & Martha King, Lane Wallace, Rod Machado) are well known to just about every private pilot, and add a great deal of authenticity to the sim. The inline intergration with Jeppeson SimCharts (now shown during the briefing) is a big help.

- the Century of Flight aspect (classic airplanes and adventures) is pretty cool, but I think Microsoft stopped one step short of 'Way COOL' on this. It's a great idea to re-create some of the historically important flights using the original airplanes, but I think it detracts from the experience if you have to take off from someplace ultra-modern like Denver International. I think Microsoft should model the scenery for the era as well. So, when flying a Ford tri-motor from Bakersfield to LA, you're seeing circa 1922 scenery for those cities.

Other Stuff:
- The new Garmin GPS's are awesome! These are becoming more and more common in the general aviation fleet, and it's great to be able to practice with them in the sim. They seem pretty accurate: I was flying a holding pattern with one minute legs. I was flying at 90 knots, and following the GPS guidance the legs were right around one minute. I increased speed to 140 knots and measured again: the pattern automatically enlarged to provide one minute legs! The real Garmin units do this, but I was surprised to find that level of detail in the sim.

- Some of the airplanes have annoying bugs that still have not been fixed in this version. Example: tuning the ADF on the Mooney Bravo still hasto be done a tenth at a time. What should happen is the outer knob changes the hundreds, the inner knob changes the tens, and pulling out the inner knob and turning it changes the ones. No one uses tenths anymore. in the Mooney, the outer and inner knobs do the same thing: increment or decrement by a tenth. If a pilot designed this, he should have his ticket pulled. It's a HUGE pain in the ass. Say I want to dial in the BOUTN marker at Bolton Field. Its freq is 230. The ADF is set to 960. It's going to take about a month to get that down to 230 going .1 at a time. This should be easy to fix, I hust doubt if they've ever looked at it.
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