Thursday, June 11, 2009

Pretending to Fly

Reader Mark Richards asked me recently about the flight simulator game that I use to practice my instrument procedures with, and I know Sir Lukenwolf is following hopping around the north in a flight simulator, too. Mine is Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002. I know any real sim enthusiast probably has much newer software, but I expect that sim hobbyists hold in fairly high priority the realism of the simulated scenery and audio. I surmise this because I've owned several versions of MSFS and each update has much more detailed scenery than the last. The amount of required processor power also increases with the version, which is why I don't own a more recent version.

Almost every airport I've ever used is in the database. That's improved over the years, too. Unfortunately a lot of Canadian nav aids are missing from my version, but you can download patches (thank you, fanatical Canadian simmers) to add them in. You can also download aircraft to fly, and customized panels, but I just find an airplane that will fly at the normal approach speed I use, and use it, even though the power settings might be different. I don't really need to practice the manipulation of the controls so much as I need to practice the focus and pacing and remembering of all the details of the procedures.

Probably eighty percent of what I use MSFS for could be accomplished with pencil, paper and a FlightSafety poster of the aircraft layout, if I'd just sit down and spend the time concentrating. The simplest advantage of the game is that it's a video game, so holds a person's attention better, because there's the payoff of 'really' intercepting the glideslope. It also has the advantage of showing you your track, so if you got confused in strong winds and ended up outside of protected airspace, you can look at the log afterward and see the point at which you turned at the wrong time and your hockey stick procedure turn became a tennis racket.

Mouse on screen is such an awkward interface for tuning instruments that I just use the keyboard, often pausing the game in order to do so, and at the same time reaching my actual arm to where the real control is in the cockpit. Usually that doesn't really matter, because the instrument adjustment details vary from airplane to airplane anyway. I often trim by turning on the autopilot and then turning it off again, or just fly by telling the autopilot where to go, as I would on a single-pilot IFR ride. I have the throttle and flaps and brakes all programmed into the game controller, which is labelled all over with DYMO tape, but I go for the keyboard if it's not working out. The biggest interface peeve I have is when the same keyboard command does an action and reverses that action, whereas in the airplane the commands are different. The biggest example is the gear. The G-key, or whichever joystick button I map to it, both raises and lowers the gear. That means that if I hit the G, or touch the G-mapped yoke control, a second time, in what to me is a simulation of placing my hand on the gear lever to confirm it is selected down, or if I accidentally double touch the G at first extension, I have the gear up instead of down. I don't know why they did it that way. Why not have a separate command for gear up and gear down?

Another drawback is that because it's not real, you're free to do stupid things, self-vectoring yourself through IMC for an ILS approach instead of doing a procedure turn, continuing a botched approach if the VOR is at full deflection instead of doing the missed, or flying an approach you made up yourself. There's the risk that practicing these things and having them work out will transfer psychologically to the real airplane, making me think I can be an idiot in the air, too. The game is hilariously forgiving about things like landing crooked and runway excursions, and no effort has gone into placing dread in your soul when you crash.

A typical session for me is to start up at or near an airport I'm expecting to work at soon. I set the weather to the lowest minima for the approaches, brief and fly an instrument departure, intercept an airway, fly a hold, then return to the airport for an NDB approach. The weather will be too low, so I'll miss, and then come back for the approach that uses the minima that should get me in if I fly it right. If it's a tricky approach with a dogleg at the beacon, or a circling, I will probably do it first with the scenery turned on, just to see how it works, but then I'll close the scenery window and just do it by the instruments. It's fun to have the weather turned on and watch the raindrops on the windshield. That's fun in real life, too. Some of the scenery is actually good enough to be fun to watch, even though it's only a game. Unfortunately, of an hour I spend with the simulator, ten or fifteen minutes always ends up spent mucking about with the software, just because there are so many options to play with and cool things to look at.

I once paid money for a Twin Otter add on but I found it frustratingly unusable. The designer had tried to make the controls look as much as possible like the actual airplane, which required me to load different pages and wait in order to do something simple like toggle bleed air, which in real life you can do without looking, just by raising your hand. Overdoing the reality detracts from the experience. But you've got to love the "squeak squeak!" tire sound when you touch down on the water in a float plane. I'm sure they've fixed that by now, but it was funny in the first version with float planes.

Once I was flying a simulated winter flight way up north between something like Alert and Cambridge Bay, and I was really startled to see the northern lights. They were done well, not overdone, and it might have taken an hour of night arctic flying for them to appear. I'm still not entirely sure I wasn't making it up. Perhaps someone will confirm that there really are northern lights in the game.

As for the question Mark asked about Microsoft ending support for the product, I don't see it really relevant to me. My CD-ROMs of the product won't stop working. If it doesn't run on future versions of the Microsoft OS, I can probably find some clever hack to work around that, like I use for Commander Keen. I don't know its value for money because it was given to me by a friend who is a Microsoft employee. He would give me a more current one, but this one is good enough for what I do.


Paul Tomblin said...

Can you tell me where you got that updated Canadian navaid and waypoint data? I'm using stale DAFIF data for my databases, and I'd love to get something more up to date.

rigpig said...

Ever try the flight sim 'Flight Gear'?...i guess it supports all platforms from MS to OSX to Linux...& it's open source so it's free.

Mark Richards said...


Thanks for the write-up on your setup and procedures. I think it would be fun to try this here. Put the 28" diagonal high-res monitor and fancy video card to work!

Aviatrix said...

Can you tell me where you got that updated Canadian navaid and waypoint data?

I'm afraid I can't. Mine isn't up-to-date either. I only go looking when a whole airport is missing. I have a Simplates CD of worldwide approach plates from 2000 or so and I just use those. I don't memorize approaches, so it doesn't matter that in real life the runway is 07 but in the sim it's still 06.

david said...

I use FlightGear as well, but that's probably because I contributed many hundreds of hours to it a few years back, trying to make it behave like the planes I was learning to fly on.

The scenery isn't so fancy, but the airport and navaid database is good, it works well with slower processors, and most importantly, the instruments are pretty realistic. I spent days getting the mag compass to behave badly in high latitudes, for example. Not only will you see the correct dip, but it will swish back and forth in the alcohol before settling because of its angular momentum -- it's just as frustrating as the real thing.

The ADF needle wobbles and takes time to settle, the DH precesses, the VOR needle flickers if the signal is marginal, the VSI lags badly -- and best of all, you can fail systems as well as individual instruments. There is no "easy mode" like in MSFS: you have to deal with realistic instruments, just like when you take your first flying lesson.

Sir Lukenwolf said...

Hm, somehow my last comment didn't come through or I was just too dense to type the word verification correctly.

Aviatrix, for what you use it for your fs2002 is probably the correct thing. Afterall most of the changes since then have mainly been changes to the visual presentation rather than the flight dynamics.

About the one-key thing for lowering gear and such. Most planes I use have a working gear leaver in the cockpit, so I use that instead of the key, but the reason behind that one-key thing is probably, that there are just not enough keys for each function to have its own.

Roy said... is a great source for add-ons for MS Flight sim.

Also, I think that 2002 had separate assignments for gear up and gear down. you have to hunt for them...I could be thinking of a newer version...

Aluwings said...

"There's the risk that practicing these things and having them work out will transfer psychologically to the real airplane, making me think I can be an idiot in the air, too. "

That is one of the "gotcha's!" in any simulator I've found. I need to make myself very mindful of what MODE I'm using in any flight simulator - but especially ones where I'm doing a ride for my licence.

Sometimes I'll be in a training mode where it is useful and "okay" to give myself latitude to try something and see how it turns out. But NOT on a ride! Or NOT with an instructor who may not realize what I'm doing when I decide not to go around from a lousy approach.

And this works two ways. I've been in many a sim training session where I've been about to break off an exercise and re-do it, but the instructor has said -- "Oh, that's okay - just continue - we're running short on time and we can practice that again tomorrow..." etc..

Sims can be a gold mine of opportunites for Negative Training if we aren't careful.

kbq said...

Aviatrix - something to keep in mind in future years: virualization. This gives you the capability to recreate a PC of almost any earlier vintage that you choose... just keep the install CD and the license key.

Disclosure: I work for a VirtualMachine company. :)

So very very good to see you posting so much again!!!


Seneca said...

Yes, there are definitely northern lights in the game :-) I was startled myself when I first saw them, also overhead northern Canada on a transatlantic flight in a B747-400 ;-)

Great to hear that they are somehwat realistic...wish I could get a chance to see them in reality. Currently planning a (real) flight to northern Norway in July, but I guess summer is the wrong time for northern lights!?

Thanks for your great blog, by the way. Keep it up, it is an excellent read and really stands out!

duckman said...

Main advantage of newer versions over older ones if you're not interested in how it looks like outside the window is the more accurate weather rendition and flight characteristics.
Makes flying an approach in inclement weather that much more like the real thing (including in the latest versions turbulence).

And yes, there are indeed northern lights. They were introduced in FS2002 (which is now nearly 8 years old, the release having been delayed a few months due to 9/11, Microsoft elected to remove the WTC from the scenery first).

Sadly FSX will be the last version, Microsoft decided to close down the development group and fire the entire team on the spot as a cost cutting measure (the MSFS franchise was never very profitable, with sales of only a million or so units worldwide a year for a cost of running the franchise in the order of $10+ million a year).

Flightgear doesn't come close to MSFS. For a free product it's not bad, but that's about it.
A better alternative would be X-Plane, but that one has system requirements even higher than MSFS while being generally less appealing (both when it comes to looks and operation).

LemonJelly said...

3 years ago my wife (Then girlfriend) surprised me with a new laptop for my birthday. One of the first things I did was go out and purchase a copy of FS 2004 (Also called FS9). The game was already on clearance, and I only paid $30.00 for it. After 8 months of obsessively playing it, I signed up for flying lessons. So in the end, that $30.00 purchase ended up costing me a lot more (My PPL probably cost me around $9000), because it sparked my serious interest in flying airplanes. Having said that, in the real world I'm limited to the single engine Cessnas I trained on, so I still use flight simulator to play with the Continent crossers, but also to simulate any real flight I might be planning.

Long story short, flight simulator drove me to the real thing, but it also compliments the real thing. I love doing both (and FS is a LOT cheaper than renting a real aircraft!)

The is a difference though, in the lack of consequences. Flight Sim is so very forgiving, even when set to 'hard'

John Lennerton said...

Like lemonjelly, my PPL came about because of a simulator. At the time, back in the early 80's, I was the test department manager for a company called Aviation Simulation Technology, in Burlington, MA (I think they're in OK, now). By "learning to fly" the simulator, my interest was raised, and I pursued my PPL. It was great fun, but I was a victim of over instrumentation; my CFI finally put rubber suction cups on almost all of my trainer's instruments to force me to look out the window!

As always, I enjoy reading your life as a pro. Keep it going.

Sir Lukenwolf said...

quite interesting to see some people who went PPL after the sim. I was pondering that thought for quite a while, but due to my bloody fear of (real) flying I'm afraid to waste some poor instructors time by freaking out in the air.

Johns comment about over instrumentation sounds interesting, I guess I'm the opposite. Currently hopping about in siberia, I seem to rely way too much on my eyeballs when trying to judge a glidescope to land. Most russian airfields have no visual aids, like PAPI or VASI. In fact I'm now near Irkutsk, some 2.200 nm from Anchorage and in the 8 landings conducted in russia, I had ONE with a primitive VASI-2. All others were "guess your way down" and with me being utterly useless at that, the approaches were less than stellar. But I'm getting better at it. Thankfully most russian airfields were built to accomodate the runway-hungry TU-95's and TU-114's so they're over 10.000ft, so no harm when I come it 500ft too high again :-)

Buzzoff said...

I sometimes use Google Earth's flight simulator mode to familiarize myself with airports.

duckman said...

A lot of people end up getting their PPL after enjoying flight sims.
A lot of others loose their license (medical...) and pick up simulators as a substitute.

Myself, I'm a bit of both. Got started with sims almost 20 years ago. When I had the money to start thinking seriously about flight training ($9000 would not cover it here, €15000 ($20000) come first) my medical condition was already marginal (especially my eyes, and I've since added chronic back problems) and getting worse so making that massive investment with the very real chance I'd not pass the medical to be allowed to even solo was just not a sensible thing to do.
Good thing too, as the year after that I lost my job and all the money I'd saved up went to paying the bills until I found another job. Life's even more expensive than flying...

Rhonda said...

Sir Lukenwolf: just let the instructor know... they're paid by the hour :-)

Doug said...

Loved your comments and I can certainly identify with you regarding practicing instrument approaches. I have designed scenery for canada in all the fs versions since fs98. It's amazing the accuracy that fsx has when combined with scenery based on google earth data and with an add-ons like "ultimate terrain Canada". And as Capt. Mike Ray says, it's important to purchase good aircraft like those from Carenado, PMDG, Level-D etc. and don't expect the default aircraft to be too realistic.

LemonJelly said...

Sir Lukenwolf - never say never. I would try a few lessons and see how it goes.

I have never really had a fear of airplanes, in fact, before I learned to fly Cessnas, I was jumping out of them on a fairly regular basis. Having said that, the first few moments of my first lesson scared the crap out of me. A gust of wind slammed into us right on takeoff. The motion had me dreading the rest of the flight, and I realized at that moment that I did not have the guts to fly on my own. I overcame that belief quickly.

Things change. You won't know till you try, and as another commenter pointed out, those instructors DO get paid by the hour. :)