As I settled into the Captain’s seat of the venerable workhorse of our fleet, the King Air 350, I could tell that this wasn’t going to be the low-stress routine flight I had hoped for. Even though this was just a short hop, the low hanging clouds and heavy rain indicated that I would be earning my Captain-level pay today, and my co-pilots comments about the odd sounds emanating from one of our two turboprop engines did nothing to alleviate my gut-feeling that this flight was going to be a doozy. Still, when you fly for a living, you fly when and where you’re told to. Gut feelings don’t feed the bulldog, and they don’t constitute a reason to cancel a revenue generating flight. The FO went ahead with our departure plans, working through the pre-flight tasks of getting our ATC clearance and checking the weather.
Those items completed, we taxied to the runway for departure. Takeoff went well enough, but it sure didn’t take long to get into the fat, wet clouds looming over the airport. It looked like we were in for one of those rides where you see the runway as you take off, see absolutely nothing but the featureless inside of clouds for the entire enroute portion, and (hopefully) break out of the clouds in time to see the runway at the destination. We climbed to our relatively low cruise altitude, and I settled into the monotonous routine of scanning the flight and engine instruments. It wasn’t long before things started heading downhill. My first indication that something was amiss was when I noticed that the attitude indicator was showing a right turn, but none of the other instruments agreed with that mechanical observation. Being heavily ensconced in the clag, this was the worst possible time for a vacuum failure and the resulting loss of my primary flight instruments. Bad timing isn’t unique in aviation, however, and denial really isn’t an attractive response to an impending emergency, especially if you happen to be the pilot in command. My training kicked in and I immediately went to partial panel, using the turn coordinator (an electric gyro not affected by the loss of vacuum) and the ultra reliable pitot-static instruments to provide the clues as to what the airplane was doing in 3D space that I would need to stay alive. “Well,” I thought, “at least it can’t get much worse.” That’s when one of the engines quit. The seat cushion has not been created that could withstand the pucker pressure that was being applied to mine at that moment. Low IFR, partial panel, and one of the two engines no longer carrying its own weight: this is why they pay me the not-quite-big-but-better-than-burger-flipping bucks.
The fact that I’m still around to write this indicates one of two things: I either successfully made the ensuing single-engine emergency landing, or is this simply an utterly transparent hook to lead in to my review of the new Flight Simulator X from Microsoft. Given the nearly certain knowledge that you’re reading this on a game review web site you’ve probably already guessed which of those options is appropriate. My flight in the fault-prone King Air was entirely simulated, but that is not to say that it wasn’t pretty exciting. Microsoft Flight Sim has been pretty good in the last few iterations, but the last couple have leveraged advances in 3D graphics accelerators to provide 3D virtual cockpits that quite capably aid in the “suspension of disbelief” that is so critical to simulators. Sure, at some level you still know that you’re safely seated at a presumably stable desk, but with the lights turned down, the surround sound cranked up, and absent any nagging from the spouse about the deplorable condition of the lawn, you may tend to forget that you’re ground-bound for a few moments and experience some of the joys and terrors that are inherent to aviation.
That King Air flight was one of the 30+ new missions that come with Flight Simulator X. Previous versions of Flight Simulator had canned scenarios that suggested what a flight should be, but the sim itself provided no guidance as to how to complete the flight and there was no feedback as to whether or not you had succeeded in meeting the goals of the scenario, so there was basically no incentive to finish the flight. All of that has changed in FSX. For example, in Flight Sim 2004 you might have chosen to fly an air mail flight in the early 20's, flying a simple, yet often dangerous, biplane. Jumping in to the flight, however, you find yourself at a modern airport in a modern city flying over modern landscape. The incongruity of the environment was shocking and worked against creating the required ambience for the flight. The new missions are designed to negate the incongruity factor by either placing the pilot in either a modern-day scenario and location, or in a remote region of the world where the only scenery is the ageless landscape of mountains or oceans. With the correct environment in place, the suspension of disbelief that is so critical to simulations is easier to attain.
There are other new features in the missions, and the sim in general, that will also contribute to the overall environment and liven things up a little. One new feature is the inclusion of dynamic ground-based traffic. Previous versions had airborne traffic to deal with, but with FSX you need to be aware of what’s happening on the ground as well. A perfect example came as I was landing at a small tropical airport: on short final, a cruise liner passed across in front of me, requiring a last minute adjustment to my glide path to ensure I cleared the relatively tall ship. It also adds a touch of realism to see cars and trucks navigating the roads below, although there is a risk of incongruity here: I apparently had my scenery options set low enough to suppress the drawing of bridges, yet had my dynamic scenery level set high enough that cars and trucks were driving across the invisible bridge. Specific to missions, long stretches of enroute flight now have voice acting interspersed to keep your attention on the flight. Some of the conversations are simply window dressing, while others may impact the flight. When your virtual co-pilot mentions an odd sound from one of the engines, for example, it would be in your best interest to pay attention. In the Advanced and Expert level missions, it pays to expect the unexpected and any verbal foreshadowing of impending events should be treated with the utmost respect.
The missions also assume little to no prior knowledge of esoteric things like aerial navigation which were previously left to the user to learn of their own accord. The new missions have an optional (‘on’ by default) waypoint indicator that will enable even a novice pilot to navigate through a mission without having to understand VORs, ADFs, GPS, or any other means of aerial nav. For those that want to go the next step and learn how to do things for themselves, the Rod Machado lessons from Flight Sim 2004 are still available, as are training scenarios created with the new mission tools. The mission-based tutorials allow a higher degree of interactivity in the learning experience.
The missions have completion points in FSX, and the sim is capable of judging whether the mission criteria were satisfied or not. These new features make completing the missions possible for the novice and worth doing correctly for the expert, and will broaden the appeal of the overall sim to a much wider market than previous versions. Because the missions can also include optional branches (“Ok, you found the lost mountain climber. Would you now consider landing on that tiny little field to pick him up?”), there will also be some level of replay value to them. The deluxe version includes the SDK (Software Development Kit) that can be used to develop anything from new panel gauges to complete airplanes to new missions, so I fully expect that there will be additional missions available in the future, either developed for commercial sale or available as free downloads. Even with no additional missions, the collection included does a wonderful job of demonstrating the breadth of modern aviation. From flights in aircraft as simple as an ultralight, to flights in large commercial airliners, just about every aspect of flying is represented.
Playing through the missions will also demonstrate some of the other long-awaited updates that are now in place. One such feature that is long overdue is the ability to use a tow plane to haul your high-performance sailplane aloft. There has been a sailplane included in the Flight Sim hangar for a long, long time, but no means was ever provided for starting a glider flight from the ground. With FSX, you simply attach to a tow plane and follow it up to whatever height you deem appropriate for the inevitable parting of ways. Once released from the tow plane’s tether, you’re free to hunt out thermals that will provide the list you need to stay airborne.
Also new to the hangar are a couple of planes made famous by their yeoman-like efforts in providing trusty mounts for bush pilots. There are many communities around the world that owe their very survival to such workhorses as the deHavilland Beaver, a single engine float plane, and the Grumman Goose, a twin engine amphibian. Both are included in FSX, and both are a treat to fly. Of the two, the Goose is by far my favorite. It’s insanely strong, relatively fast, stable in flight, and fun to fly. There are a couple of missions that utilize the Goose, and they are designed to showcase its strengths. Other new planes included in FSX are an ultralight, a Canadair Regional Jet, and a Maule M7 STOL including optional landing skis. There are, however, planes that were not carried over from Flight Sim 2004 such as the deHavilland Comet, the Remy bomber, the Wright Flyer, and the other classics that were included as part of the Century of Flight theme of Flight Simulator 2004. I tried copying the older planes over from my FS2004 installation to the new FSX installation, but had mixed results. Some worked perfectly, others became very quirky. This is something that might be addressed by Microsoft further down the road, or it might not be. If not, I’m betting that the modders will take care of it for us.
Three of the legacy planes have seen a significant upgrade, albeit one that will only be available in the Deluxe version: the Cessna 172, the Beech Baron, and the Mooney Bravo now have the option of using the relatively new Garmin G1000 avionic package. The G1000 is a state-of-the-art glass flight system, including integral nav/comm radios and GPS. The G1000 in FSX seems reasonably accurate when compared to the real-world kit, but I’m not familiar enough with the operation of a real G1000 to make a definitive comment one way or the other regarding the simulated version’s fidelity to the actual equipment. I can say that it does what I need it to do, and any weaknesses in the simulation have yet to crop up. Even if it provides just 75 – 80% of the real world functionality, it will be enormously useful for pilots transitioning into the more modern cockpits that are starting to appear at FBOs across the country. Actual airplanes make for a lousy learning environment, and being able to sit down at your desk with a copy of the G1000 Operators Handbook and practice using the equipment in a safe, low-stress environment is a fantastic opportunity.
I wasn’t able to test the new multiplayer aspects, but based on the descriptions provided by Microsoft, they seem as if they will be very popular with the online crowd. Previous versions allowed quite a bit of online interaction in the Flight Sim virtual world, and things like virtual scheduled airlines and virtual ATC facilities have emerged and become quite common. In fact, I participated in what may have been the first Flight Sim online fly-in way back in 1990 when a group of sim pilots on Compuserve’s AVSIM forum arranged to “meet” at Indiana’s Bloomington airport. New to FSX, however, is a concept that Microsoft calls “Shared Skies.” There are two major components to this: the ability to share an airplane and the ability to man a control tower.
In addition to providing online training opportunities, sharing an airplane will also more than likely enable players to act in the roles of Captain and First Officer, with each performing the duties defined in the Crew Resource Management policies of a virtual airline. CRM separates the duties between the pilot that is focused solely on flying the plane and the non-flying pilot who is responsible for managing ATC communications, navigation, and the management of the aircraft systems. This is intended to avoid accidents where both pilots become distracted by a systems issue or something similar, and in their mutually distracted state fly the airplane into something solid.
Manning a control tower means just that: the player will occupy a control tower cab and have a radar control showing him the locations of the airplanes attempting to land at his airport, and will be able to transmit directives to the pilots of those planes. Both of these Shared Skies features will be enhanced by VOIP technology, allowing the flying and/or controlling players to communicate quickly and naturally with voice commands and responses.
While the new feature set of FSX is poised to raise simulated flying to yet another level, there are a few technical issues to be aware of. First, the installation disks will require a DVD unit to install. The deluxe version arrived on a set of two DVDs, and the installation took quite a bit of time. Once the installation is complete, the system will try to contact Microsoft via online connection to register the serial number on the disks. Without the online connection, activation has to be done via telephone. Interestingly, the activation policy is such that if you don’t do it, you will be limited to 30 minutes of flight before having to restart the simulator. Based on my observation, though, once you do complete the online activation you no longer need to have one of the installation disks in the drive for the simulator to work. That’s a nice feature – I sure get sick of having to swap disks back and forth depending on what I want to do on any given day.
It’s also important to note that increased graphics and dynamic ground traffic come at a cost in frame rate. Flight Sim has always pushed the boundaries of hardware performance with each new iteration and this upgrade is no exception. You’ll need all the computational horsepower you can get if you want to benefit from all of the newly enhanced graphics and dynamic objects. With my aging system and its GeForce 6800, I found the sweet spot to be somewhere around a ‘medium’ setting on the various display options.
It’s somewhat impressive and quite gratifying that even after more than twenty years of development, Microsoft is still finding ways to push the envelope with their Flight Simulator. Flight Simulator X has something new to benefit every sim pilot, whether it be a complete neophyte that will use it to begin the long path to understanding all of the arcane details of aviation or the seasoned professional looking for a broader exposure to other facets of flying. As both a long-time user of Microsoft Flight Sim (my first version was the SubLogic Flight Sim for the TRS-80) and a software developer, it amazes me how much capability has been built into a title that carries a suggested retail price of $69, which is less than the cost of a single hour of flying in a simple plane like a Cessna 172.