Saturday, December 30, 2006

Buying a computer for Dad (part 1)

My father, who is in his 70's, has become a flightsim fan. He has had a lifelong passion for aviation. He took flying lessons as a teen (soloed in an Ercoupe!) but for various reasons was not able to keep up with it. Still, he loves airplanes-- reads books, magazines, takes rolls of pictures at airshows, etc.

For years he had been the recipient (victim?) of his children's old computers, whenever we upgraded. He attempted to get various flight simulators to run on them with less than satisfactory results. Eventually he saw FS9 running on my brother's laptop, and this became the holy grail. I determined that his latest hand-me-down was completely incapable of running FS9, I came up with a plan about a year ago to put together a system for him to run. It was an old Pentium III rig that I got from work, but at least it had a gig of RAM. I put a new 128MB video card into it, and it ran, albeit with pretty poor frame rates. Dad was thrilled nonetheless.

Well, recently the Pentium III's hard drive handed in its dinner pail, so to speak. No point in trying to patch up this old dinosaur any more, so I came up with a plan to get him a replacement computer. Even the low end systems that are selling nowadays should run FS9 with acceptable results, certainly much better than what he was used to. My own system is pretty modest and I am happy with how it runs FS9 (let's not discuss FSX here!)

However, sometime when I wasn't looking they stopped making PC's with AGP slots! Finding a basic CPU with a processor 2.3 GHz or faster, with half a gig of RAM and lots of hard drive space, for under $400 is easy, but they all take PCI-e graphics cards. I have a reasonably good AGP card that I want to reuse, and this is a vital factor in keeping the cost down. I finally did find one system that will work, sold by Microcenter (this one), but they are currently out of stock so I'll have to wait a bit until I can start to work on it.

I can't wait to do this. Compared to what he's used to, this new system will scream. Once I get the new PC I will load up FS9, then do a Golden Wings version, then add all of my favorite freeware planes and scenery. Toss in some must-have utilities like F1 view and the recorder module. I think I might buy another copy of Flight Scenery's Rhode Island package, since that's where Dad lives.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Travelling places

I have been reading (well, listening to the book on tape) Paul Theroux's The Old Patagonian Express, and he mentions an interesting part of Colombia that he describes as the Grand Canyon, except green. Therefore, for last night's sessions I thought I take the Maule there and see what the country looks like. I started off in Armenia, a city he mentions after the green Grand Canyon episode.

Since my flying time is so very scarce (time flies when it's flying time!) I did not do any research on the area or plan the flight in any way except to put my plane at the airport in Armenia (that's Armenia, Colombia, not the Eurasian country), go to top-down view, zoom out, and look for something canyon-like. So the flight plan was essentially "Take off and fly east. Oh, and watch out for the large mountains immediately to the east."

Eventually I got to a canyon-like object, but it was not very Grand. I might have been in the wrong part of the Rio Magdalena (or maybe this was the wrong river!) or maybe Microsoft didn't capture this topography quite right. I think there's a freeware mesh upgrade for this region--I may add that soon. Nevertheless, I had a great time flying, and the scenery felt exotic. It's amazing that this program has a continous representation of the entire earth, with some degree of fidelity. And, it looks so good! I don't think these shots do it justice.

I guess what I am trying to express is the wonder about the fact that you can hear about some not-so-well-know part of the world one day, then just walk over to your computer, and in a few minutes be virtually there.

I had a very convincing sensation of flight during this outing. Near the mountains I hit some turbulence (while using the Fair Weather theme!). Looking downwards past my landing gear at the scenery, as in the second shot here, you see the wheel wobbling in relation to the scenery, and your point of view wobbling in relation to both. I really felt that suspended-on-a-string sensation you sometimes get flying in a light plane.

Friday, December 08, 2006

What it's all about

I came across this remarkable account on Avsim (I'd provide a link rather than this lengthy quote below, except I don't know how to provide a permanent link to their daily articles). This writer, who has much, much more experience than I in both real flying and simming, expresses eloquently how simming can allow our imaginations to soar. Thanks Carl!

By the way, Dave Eckert's Stearman is a must-have freeware for FS9. It also works beautifully in FSX, but requires a manual installation (tip: install to a dummy location, then drag the files to the appropriate spots in your FSX install. You can skip the scenery parts). Thanks Dave!

AVSIM fan Carl Avari-Cooper submits a short piece that I'm sure other readers can relate to, especially those past aviators who can only fly to lofty heights in the virtual world.
"Dear David and Crew (

I wanted to express my sincere thanks for a wonderful experience yesterday. As a kid, aviation fascinated me. Other kids drove pedal cars, I had a pedal bipe. Others dreamed about racing, I only considered flight. Later, I read everything I could get my hands on. Morgan and Baxter became two friends I looked forward to seeing each month. Anyway, I finally got a job as a line boy at our local field. Pumping gas, selling sectionals, the occasional quart of Aeroshell and E6Bs filled my work hours. After work, I washed airplanes, waxed airplanes, pushed airplanes- in short did all I could to bum a ride in anything I could talk my way into. I got my ticket and flew every chance I got.

As it often does, life got in the way and my old Champ flew off into the sunset. Raising two children, working and all the other sundries of life pushed airplanes back into the old dark and damp corner of my life. Every now and then, I hear a round engine and strain skyward until I saw the framework of two wings silhouetted against the light. Flight Simulator, has been my sole solace for years now.

All those years ago, every day I walked to the pumps, I would look out of the corner of my eye and see the prettiest airplane in the world. You see, in a corner hanger, very dusty and quiet, sat a white Stearman. She sat there, all alone, for years. I would walk over and eat a sandwich with her, pat her on a wingtip and imagine what I would be like to fly her. I could only think of Baxter saying, “She flies like a grand piano!” Every once in a while I would look around furtively, usually late in the evening, and if no one was watching, I would slip into the cockpit, grab that ball bat and peer through the grime yelling “clear prop”. I never did find out who owned her and I never did get to fly her. She never was quite forgotten though, and even when mooching time in a King Air, Citation or Aero Commander, I would particularly when breaking into severe clear on top, think of the old girl and long to feel her hold me up in the sky.

Yesterday, I came across your download. I was excited when I saw the visuals and decided to have a bit of fun. I turned the lights down low, adjusted the virtual cockpit just so and turned the sound way, way up. Starting at Vandenberg with everything off, I cranked up, watched the smoke bellow out and lost touch with reality. S turning out to runway 36 I did a run up and then was off. Tapping rudder right left right left then right again, I tracked down the runway, let the tail come up all by itself and then with some pressure she was off. I don’t quite know what your FDE is, but all of a sudden I knew what a grand piano felt like at 90 KIAS. With the radial bellowing, wires singing and a smile plastered all over my face, I turned crosswind and then downwind, coming back on the power to about 1800. I don’t know where a real Stearman smiles, but mine (ok, yours) climbs at full throttle, about 2100 and 85 KIAS, cruises at 1850 and 105 KIAS and descends at 1500 and 85 KIAS- all day long! Never in Flight Simulator, and I have flown this software since Apple IIc days, have I ever been so completely captivated by a PC Simulator (I’m just beginning to know Real Flight and PMDG).

Downwind, I broke out at a 45 and pointed her nose towards the Tampa skyline. She climbs and descends like an old New York elevator and cruises majestically, oblivious to any hurried thought. Watching the world slip by so utterly solidly, yet so unbelievable lightly was a transporting experience. Never has any light aircraft been modeled in FS so quintessentially and so perfectly. I could feel her huge and kite like, yet solid and reassuring, all around me; and with the speakers turned up enough- I could feel her when she grunted and growled as well.

All too soon it was time to announce position on Peter O’Knight’s Unicom, and making a left base to runway 21 I came back to 1500. She slowed to about 80 and I left her a bit high. Turning final with the wind whispering to me softly my eyes were moist and streaming. I came back on the power and nudged her nose a bit over, slipping to lose altitude and keep the asphalt in sight. The fence flashed under me and I held her off until she told me I’d better be done with this flying business, or she would be! With a chirp the mains settled and then I did my tap dance holding her straight. Once we were at a walk, I turned off and taxied to the FBO ramp, making the same familiar turns I did so often when ferrying planes over all those years ago.

With a burst of throttle, I swung her around and parked. Switching off was painful! So was the deafening silence after- amazing! After 20 years of wondering, I know what the old girl feels like- thank-you!

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Finding things to do

I think I'm finally getting back into the groove. After tweaking, hardware upgrades, and more tweaking, and exploring the new bits, I'm getting back into just flying. Last night (Wednesday if Flying Night!) I chose to do a progressive cross country flight. For my route I decided to visit the state capitols of New England. I never spend much time planning these things--when I'm retired with nothing better to do I might get around to that.

I started in Hartford, CT in the venerable DC3. Set the time to dawn, and since I had trouble accessing real-world weather, I went for my favorite fall-back for interesting cloudscapes, Cold Fronts. The combination of time, weather, and FSX's drab seasonal textures gave the flight a somber peacefullness.

I got buffeted a great deal en route to Providence, but otherwise enjoyed the flight and made a decent landing (one slight bounce) which was satisfying because I haven't flown this plane much recently.

In Providence (actually, the city is Warwick, which I must mention because that is the city I grew up in!) I switched to the King Air. I've hardly touched this bird in either FS9 or FSX, but I found it took me into Boston in style.

After touching down in Boston, I hopped into the Baron, to head for Augusta, ME. After a while I determined that Augusta was not on my New York chart, but much farther away than I was counting on (see Planning, Lack of, above). After consulting the clock and realizing I only had 1 more hour to fly, I decided to bring the Baron down in Beverly, MA and try a mission.

That #@*!$ Amazon mission! I don't know how you are supposed to taxi the Goose in tight quarters. My first attempt a couple of weeks ago ended when I crashed into the dock on the second stop. I got further this time, all the way to the Temple Of Doom, but when the copilot said "Taxi over to that big rock" I must have taxied to the wrong big rock, because nothing happend when I got there. So in attempting to taxi to the next big rock, I had the accident you see here!

Finally, I was curious to check out active volcanoes. After a query on the Flightsim forum I got the following tip, courtesy of "Tomavis" . "Try this.Set the time and date.Dusk.Aug 6,1983.Go to map view.Set N19*25.06 W155*13.50 Alt 4500' HDG 239"

Monday, November 20, 2006

Ok, now what?

Now that the dust is starting to settle from the FSX transition, I find myself at a loss about what do do when I have a spare half hour or so. I like the new planes and like the new views a lot, but find myself hard pressed to think up something new to try. Of course there are endless possibilities, but its hard to choose the Next Thing to Try.

I realize with FS9 my choices were usually dictated by the latest freeware addon that I chanced upon. I have no addons for FSX (apart from the recorder module) so that dynamic is not in play yet.

A large part of my "problem" is lack of time. When I do have a few moments I feel pressure to make the most of it. Maybe I just need to relax and just fly the pattern more, or fly rural areas where I can crank up the autogen and still have smooth flying.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Real flying, in FSX

Last night was the official weekly Flying Night, and I had a very good time flying the Cub over some islands off the coast of Maine. I discovered a trick for great framerates-- fly around small islands where there's nothing but water and trees. I love the dense forests-- my system can handle tress well when that's all there is. I had re-loaded my low settings config file, and started again to bump up selected sliders. The performance I was getting here was really nice, and I felt unrestrained the joy of flight again! I did not worry about the sim's performance, nor was I concious of being scenically deprived. However, I must say that when I flew to the mainland things got a little less smooth.

Just look at all those trees!

I set up my own weather with moderate turbulence and wind gusts, and that Cub kept shaking the whole time (even on the ground!). It was quite immersive, especially seeing the wing struts move in relation to the window frame (due to the pilot's point of view shifting). I really felt like I was inside the airplane, not looking at a two-dimensional representation. I found an ideosyncracy with the display however-- I got microstutters with all of the shaking, which I suspect may be related to the head latency feature. I switched the framerates from unlimited to 24, and that got rid of the stutters (normally, unlimited works much better for me).

I also figured out how to handle the Cub on the ground-- keep the stick back as long as possible to increase the effectiveness of the tail wheel. No ground loops last night!

I tried cranking the GA traffic up to 100%, since I wasn't flying into any large airports. I was quite delighted to see all this (last shot) at KIWI, which is a pretty modest airport as far as I know. A minute later someone came in for a landing.
I don't know this for sure, but I think they've increased the GA traffic in FSX, and I've seen parking spaces at airports that didn't have any in FS9.

Friday, November 10, 2006


WIBFL = What I've been flying lately. Actually, I haven't been flying too much. Life has been busy, and when I do have time to play, it's been mostly tweaking. I just did a serious hardware upgrade, going from a 128 MB Radeon 9600XT to a 512 MB Radeon X1600. This necessitated upgrading my power supply too, which is a fairly basic procedure but a little intimidating the first time you try it.
The new card hasn't made much of a difference in terms of framerates. From what I read on the forums I knew not to expect any noticiable improvement, but I did harbor a hope that maybe my configuration was an exception.
What did improve is what I call texture retention. I was always able to display the highest resolution textures, but they would frequently disappear into blurry land when the going got tough. Now they stay sharp--I have yet to see cockpit textures blur, and when the scenery blurs it is only momentarily.

So here's what I've been flying. The first shot shows my local neighborhood-- looks great with the 1 meter ground resolution. There is an actual golf course pretty close to this spot, though I think it is only a lucky guess on Microsoft's part. Next is another local scenery shot with my first glimpse of traffic (I've got that slider pretty low).

The third shot is from an actual flight (believe it or not). Last night I did some cross country flying, and this is me flying over Manchester, NH on the way from Sterling MA to Laconia NH. This was a "progressive flight", something I like to do from time to time. This means fly to an airport in one airplane, then at the airport hop into another airplane for the next leg.

Finally, I've started to dabble in the Missions. I would do a lot more than dabble, but I usually don't have the time to devote to doing complete missions. What little I've seen is quite impressive. Fascinating weather on the way to the oil platform, and the detail of th platform itself is amazing. I crash landed on the pad just as the well-know surprise was starting.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Odds and ends

Just a quick post to keep my at-least-once-a-week commitment. Still fooling around with FSX settings. I'm finding some success with fairly medium settings, and flying in rural areas. The first shot shows me coming in for a landing at Laconia, where I had my real-life flight this summer. FSX looks prettier in the summer-- it's almost unfortunate that it was released in the fall, when much of the world is painted with that tan latent grass color. For me I get workable framerates in this area, good scenery, and only occasional blurries. Considering the aircraft is much improved, this makes it well worth the switch from FS9. I'd love to crank the textures up a little more, but that causes major blurrie issues.
The second picture is a test of whether you can land on bridges. As you can see, no. The ultralight passed right through the bridge deck. However, it didn't register as a crash either. Did it cause a crash in FS9? I think it did, but I don't remember.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Grand fun

I have literally a whole new world to explore with FSX, so I've been hitting the obvious spots-- the Pyramids at Giza (nicely done!), and last night, the Grand Canyon. It looks really good. To tell you the truth, its been a long time since I was in the G.C. in FS9, so I can't say for sure how much it has been improved. But I was delighted by the sights. Interestly, my nemesis Sudden Onset Blurries did not trouble me during this session. I'm guessing that this was because the textures are fairly limited in this area. It seems textures are what bogs my system down the most-- it handles the complex terrain mesh fairly well.

I started out in the Cub. It was pretty neat to come over the rim of the canyon, cut the throttle, and descend into the maze. The Cub is as good as ever. My only quibble is that the window reflections show the yellow paint scheme, so when you're flying a different paint it looks odd.

Low and slow is great, but eventually I wanted to see more of the canyon more quickly, so I switched the the Extra. A rather abrupt change from slow and stable to fast and twitchy, but I sorted it out eventually. I don't remember if this was the case in FS9, but the FSX extra has a glass bottom! Good for canyon viewing.

Couldn't resist a little inverted flight on my way back to the airfield. I never really enjoyed the Extra in FS9, but this version holds a lot of promise. I actually brought the Extra back in one piece.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

It's here! First impressions

I finally got it! Last night I installed FSX and spent about 3 hours poking around in this new world. I did so with some trepidation because of all of the problems I have heard about on the forums. I ended the evening with a pretty positive feeling.

Now, the first image here is not very impressive. This is with "default" settings. FSX looks at your computer specs and determines a default tailored to your own configuration. I guess it doesn't have a lot of confidence in my system! Anyway, this setting had framerates locked at 15. It hit that target easily, but really, who could stand to look at this barren world and fuzzy airplane?

Fortunately, after nudging the sliders up bit by bit I came up with what you see in the second shot. This looks pretty nice, but there's a performance hit. Frame rates are typically in the low teens (I'm running with framerate set to unlimited for now). The biggest problem is sudden-onset blurries. The textures look a bit drab, but I am using the current date and time so this is pretty accurate.

Here's a suprisingly nice city scene, shot from the Cub flying over Providence. A very sucessful marriage of autogen and ground textures.

The next couple of shots show the heartache of blurries. Feast your eyes on the gorgeous VC of the Grumman Goose! This was shot during actual flight, with flyable frame rates. A few minutes later, the system aparently felt a little overwhelmed, and everything went blurry, as you can see in the second VC shot.

Cars. I love those little cars! They do give quite a performance hit, tho. In my limited experience they tend to increase the blurries quite a bit. Still, they are fun to watch, and I was suprised to see they actually use ramps at major highway intersections. So you get to see them curving around clover-leaf intersections. My last shot shows another delightful suprise: when I changed the weather theme to rainy, the cars put their headlights on!

So, I'm feeling like there's a lot of potential here for some great simming. There's also a lot more work to do in tweaking the settings to find the sweet spot. Stay tuned for more.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


I'm starting to feel pretty silly about how impatient I am to get FSX. I have it on order from Amazon, but they've delayed shipment until the 22nd, due to supply problems. Yesterday I made a flurry of phone calls to local stores to see if I they had any copies (all sold out). Fortunately, family commitments prevent me from considering traveling more than 10 miles out of my way, otherwise I might find myself on a wild goose chase.

I have a lot on my plate right now, so why can't I just sit back and wait? What difference does another week make? If I need to get an FS fix, there's still lots of fun stuff to do with FS9 (including the Golden Wings incarnation).

I think the main reason I am so impatient is that I want to know how well it will run on my sytem. I've heard a lot of horror stories, and also a lot of more positive "I've found the sweet spot" kinds of stories, and I want to know where I'm going to find myself. Based on the demos, I am encouraged, but whether my experience will be similar on the full version remains to be seen.

I have a dream of flying the pattern at my local airport in an improved C172 virtual cockpit, heading for the highway and seeing road traffic, and seeing nice ground textures all around. If I can do this with double-digit framerates I'll be more or less content.

I've also been going back and forth on planning hardware upgrades. I learned that I could get a 512 MB graphics card for around $150, which I expect will make a big difference in texture handling (not so many blurries). Then I found that the power supply in my PC could not handle this beefier graphics card. Ga! After some more research, I've concluded that I can upgrade the psu for another $50. But this expense must wait for next month.

The shot above is Dave Eckert's FS9 Stearman imported into FSX. I was attempting to capture the atmosphere in this shot. I think FSX has made great advances in lighting and mood. Framerates in this session were in the low teens, which is just acceptable, and I could feel the computer straining. But I can live with this for now.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

More helo fun

Thursday night is my main flying night. I spent this session completely with helicopters, trying to gain some proficiency so that I can explore scenery in FSX when I get it. I'm getting better. I can land the Beta without crashing more often than not, but I still feel woozy afterwards. This post is a mishmash of shots from the evening's adventures.

The first shot is from the FSX demo, and shows something I was thrilled to see: Lake Muffins! This is what I call small tree covered islands (in this case I guess they are Cove Muffins). They never looked good in FS9, becuase you always had a few (or no) trees on these small islands, whereas in reality they usually look like a Chia Pet (warning: sound if you click the link).

The rest of the shots are from FS9. The first shows what can happen if you are not paying attention to ground traffic while practicing hovering! I rotated 180 degrees to see this bearing down on me! The second shows off the wonderful (and free!) Logan Airport by a guy named Grimshaw (sorry, his first name eludes me at the moment).

I figured for honesty's sake I should include one of my less sucessful landings, just in case you were getting the impression that I am a 'copter pro. I was giving the default Jet Ranger a whirl (ha!) and this was my first landing attempt. Don't think I'll be flying this much-- the Beta is so much more fun. If I want to go fast I'll use fixed wings, thank you very much :-)!

But just to show you that I can land the Jet Ranger, here's a landing I did to let a VIP go to Fenway Park. Managed to not snag any light poles. The last shot is a flyover of the park. Hmmm, no game after all. Man, FS9 can be a lot of fun, but I'll be glad to say goodbye to those default lo-res ground textures!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Beta testing

Robinson Beta II, that is :-) I'm giving this chopper a second try. I've never had much luck-- I can usually get up in the air and sort of go where I want, but end up crash landing. Last night, I gave it another shot (in FSX, no less) and found I was able to have some sucess. I have made a number of sucessful (tho not graceful) landings. I think a bit more and I'll get the hang of it.

I figure it's worth investing some time getting proficient at flying the thing. When I get FSX, it will be useful for exploring some of the fun scenery bits. Its pretty cool to just hit the rudder pedals and rotate around in place, rather than waiting for your cub or ultralight to swing through a 180 turn.

The shot above is actually from FS9, featuring the gorgeous KPVD scenery from FlightScenery. Lots of neat stuff to check out.

If you were looking carefully you may have noticed in this post about FSX, that the shots were taken from the cockpit of the Beta II. It looks like this aircraft has not been updated for FSX, BTW.

My parting shot, something completely different, shows Milton Shupes lovely Aero Commander 520, flying in FSX. It imports fine, and gets good framerates. Just the thing for island hopping. I think the prop spinners are not as shiny, but that's ok (may have something to do with the mysterious env.bmp)

Monday, October 09, 2006

Episode IV: A New Hope

After much tweaking of Demo2, flying out of and around Princess Juliana airport, I decided to try a different location. Wow, what a difference! The first two shots here show me flying out of TNCE. (Sorry, my knowledge of Carribean geography is very poor, and I can't remember which island this is). Here you can see a nice amount of autogen, gorgeous ground textures, and quite acceptable frame rates! Click on one of the first two images, and you can see the framerate counter in the upper left. This is on my middle-of-the-road machine (2.2 GHz, 1 meg ram, 128MB Radeon 9600XT AGP card).

Look how nicely the autogen trees line up with the boundaries of the trees. I'm very curious to find out if this is strictly generic autogen or if it has been cleaned up by hand as part of the highly detailed region that it is adjacent to.

This is why I am so impatient to get my hands on the final product. I can't wait to find out if my favorite places to fly will give comparable performance and visuals. If I can tool around New England and have frame rates averaging around 20 (or better) with this kind of autogen, I'll be very happy indeed. If things get choppy and blurry if I fly into Logan International, well, I can live with that.

Just for kicks, I tried the sam location in FS9, with Bill Lyons Challenger ultralight. This final shot shows that. It actually doesn't look as bad as I thought it would, but there is no question that FSX is a great leap forward.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Some hope for FSX

The bad news (for me, that is) is that the Demo version 2 is supposedly what you will see in the final product. The good news is that I have been able to get somewhat tolerable performance by making some compromises. The biggest one is to turn the water effects from 2x to 1x. I lose the cool reflections, but the water still looks much nicer than in FS9.

You can see in the attached shots that the scenery looks pretty good, and if you look closely at the upper left corners you can see frame rates in the teens. In fact, the scenery looks far better than the default FS9 scenery. The only real disappointment is that the first demo version suggested I could get better results.

Another encouraging thing is that 15 fps in FSX feels a lot smoother than 15 fps in FS9.

The bottom line is that after experimenting for an hour I feel more confident that I will find a decent compromise that will make me happy. And of course folks will find great tweaks in the weeks and months after release. And, one of these years I'll be able to swing a computer upgrade!

Waiting on Amazon

Not doing much flying these days, as REAL LIFE is very busy. I did try out the new version of the Demo (they put a version out on Sept. 29-- go visit the forums if you haven't heard). This time the "hardware lottery", as I call it, is working against me. I was getting pretty satisfying performance with Demo1, but not as good with Demo2. Most folks on the forum are saying things are much better with Demo2, so I'm a little envious. Still, maybe I'm just a driver upgrade away from FSX nirvana. But for now I am living in some trepidation that the final version is not going to be as great (performance wise) as Demo1 lead me to believe. We shall see what we shall see.

Also, Amazon is messing with me! They originally said the release date was Oct. 17. Then, they sent me an email saying it will ship sooner than expected, and they were showing an Oct. 6 date! But last friday I get another email saying it will be delayed to pretty much the original date. This would be agonizing, except that REAL LIFE has been full enough to keep this all in perspective.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Real water is really shiny!

Still too busy to do much flying or blogging, but I just wanted to jot down a quick thought. I was running alongside a pond this morning, looking accross the water, and I realized that real water is really shiny! OK, so what? Why am I bringing this up? Well, a lot of people have claimed that the water effects in FSX are too bright and shiny. I have felt that way myself on a few occasions. But the real thing is very bright. Squint your eyes and you can see that in many situations the water is as bright as the sky.

So why are we not so convinced by the FS version, and think it is too bright? I can think of two possible reasons. The first is that we have gotten so used to darker water in FS that the new, brighter version looks too fake. Actually in any visual representation we tend to think of water as a darker blue. Ask a child to draw a sea picture, and he will likely make the sky "sky blue" and the sea something darker.

The second possibility is the old issue with the limited contrast available on the typical computer monitor. Specifically, there is not enough of a range of contrast in the darker end of the contrast curve. I think we might find shiny simulated water too distracting because of the limited depth in the dark terrain detail. I hope my explanation makes sense.

I am looking forward to getting FSX and getting accustomed to the new water paradigm.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Too busy to fly

With work and family and marathon training, I've had practically no time for flying. Site visit statistics suggest I have a few regular readers, so I feel compelled to have an entry at least once a week.

I've been reading all the forums, trying to get more juicy details about FSX. Things have quited down quite a bit now that the demo has been out for a while, and the Beta NDA has been lifted. Still, lots of good info is coming out. It seems the changes "under the hood" are pretty significant, and we will see the fruits of those changes over the next few years. See this thread for example, on Avsim.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Like a tonic

Ok, I know I've written about the joys of flying the pattern before. But I am going to write about it again, because it continues to amaze me. With all the buzz about FSX, it's reassuring to be able to get so much satisfaction doing something basic in FS9.

I have had precious little time for flightsimming now, so what I've been doing when I've had a few spare moments is to get up and fly the pattern at my local airport. You'd think you would get bored of this after a while, but I never do. Since I usually use real world weather (when it is VFR weather, of course) the experience is never exactly the same. That one variation alone is enough to keeps it fresh.

Whenever I make a good landing, I watch the replay from the "tower" (no tower at this airport). I always have a feeling of "this is really cool" when I see myself coming over the trees. After a year and a half of really serious simming, I am stil impressed by the technology which makes this possible. OK, call me easy to please.

For my money, this is the best thing to do when you only have a half hour for simming. Trying out a new download or a location you've never been before can be a lot of fun, but it rarely compares with the contentment I feel after making a few good landings down a the local airport.

Do you have a favorite pattern to fly? If not, I suggest you seek one out. It's good if it has some personal interest--such as being close to your real-life home, or where you grew up, or a favorite vacation spot. It also helps if there is a bit of challenge. The runway should be not much longer than the minimum required for your favorite type of plane, and if there are obstructions nearby, all the better.

Get out there and fly!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

My take on Real vs Sim

OK, now that I have extensive experience in real-world flying I can make some comparisons. Wait a minute-- I only have the half-hour intro flight. But first impressions are very important, and my intro flight was nothing but first impressions, so I can offer this fresh perspective.

I've spent a lot of time wondering how close or far I was from the real thing, when flying the sim. Here are some thoughts.

View: the panel (in the 172) sits much higher than a car dashboard, but you can still see the runway very clearly. I've never understood why I always have to "raise my seat" in the sim to get a similar view--why does the default view not have the runway visible? I know what I am supposed to see now. Anyway, I understand why it is so difficult to present all this on a computer monitor that is typically too small, and not tall enough. The ideal monitor for flightsimming would be square, I think.

Ambiance: I have heard people comment how small these planes are. Fortunately I got to fly in the 172, not the smaller 152. Perhaps because I was prepared for small, I thought the 172 felt pretty roomy, all in all. It is more snug than a small car (for example, my Ford Focus feels much larger) but I did not feel cramped. As for the noise, the engine was loud, but it was possible to hold a conversation without the headphones. The cockpit felt spartan but rugged. The airspeed indicator looked less real than the one in the simulator. I mean, the face looked like a piece of carboard! But I trust it did the job.

G effects: After I brought up the subject of turn coordination, my instructor gave a little demonstration of slip and skid, and I finally got the famous "seat of the pants" feeling of which I have read much. But, I was suprised how slight this feeling was. Still, I can imagine that it is enough of a sensation that you could coordinate turns based on it (along with the all-important look out the window). Much more noticible was the feel when a large throttle change was made. I had not previously appreciated this. Though, I must say, this is modeled well in FSX, at least from the demo.

Ease of flying: It seems much easier in the real thing, mostly because of the view. Much easier to know where you are in relation to the airport. I think with all the visibility and other feedback it would be a breeze to do a VFR flight in good weather.

Landing: I often wondered if something is left out of landings in the sim. When I make a good one, there is no real bump. But I was amazed at how smooth it felt in the real thing. No doubt this had something to do with my instructor's skill, but still, there was no bump at all. Those landing gear are very well designed. The wheel noise (also the flaps)is much louder in the sim, but I accept this is a reasonable accomodation.

(I could probably say more if I had time. I have to add on a personal note that I won't have a lot of time for this blog in the next couple of months. I am training for my first marathon (see my other blog) and the training is getting more busy. I will not have much time for the FS blog or even (alas!) FS'ing.)

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Don't wanna be a wanna be (real world flight, part 2)

As the hour of my intro flight lesson approached, I was conscious of a growing fear. Not of flying, of course, but of coming off as a pilot "wanna be", or a simulator dweeb, or whatever. I was afraid my instructor would look at me through his Ray-Bans and say "Look here, computer boy, everything you think you know about flying from that "game" is wrong. Today you're going how it really is." Well, maybe not exactly that--most pilots are very decent and polite folks.

My worry was more about how I could demonstrate that I've learned quite a bit from the simulator, without sounding like a clueless wanna be. I realize that there are many ways in which the real thing differs, but there are conceptual things I have learned from simming that give me a leg up. For instance, I have a good understanding of how power controls climb and descent, and attitude controls speed. I understand how to use the rudders for turn coordination. Does the real aircraft respond to inputs the same way as the sim? Of course not. But I've got the basic ideas in my head.

As it turned out, my instructor was a pleasant young woman named Stacy, not the aloof and intimidating Ray-Ban Man of my fears. She asked me how I got interested in aviation, so I said I have been flight simming for a while. She said "Yeah, that's a great program" but let it drop. I got the impression that she didn't think much of it but was just being polite. I squelched the impulse to rise to FS's defense. I stood by patiently while she explained how the controls work, stuff that was very familiar to me. I mentioned that I probably had hundreds of simulated hours in a 172, but she didn't respond to this. Oh well. But I was ok being the humble student, and spend most of my time just drinking in the sounds and sights and feel of the actual plane.

Once aloft, Stacy must have caught me looking at the panel because she tapped the windshield and said something to the effect of "We mostly fly by looking out here". I knew that. I had heard the criticism before that folks who go from the simulator to the real thing have a tendency to keep their eyes bolted to the panel. But I let it go. However, she was impressed that I used the rudders properly when making a turn!

So, that's how it went. I probably should have been more vocal about how much I have learned from simming-- maybe Stacey would have spent less time explaining the basics, or let me do more. But I did get to try a lot of cool things, and as I said before, the whole experience was a blast.

In the next post, I will focus on how the real thing compares to my sim experience.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

For real! (what I did on my summer vacation)

Last week, during the family summer vacation, I took an actual introductory lesson, in a Cessna 172. I hadn't really planned to do this in advance. Well, to be honest I did research the local airport before we left for the vacation. I have toyed with the idea of doing this for some time, but have resisted. As I said to my wife, it feels a little like kissing another women. By which I mean, why start something you know you can't take the next steps? (Given current financial commitments, e.g. feeding the kids (!), pursuing the PPL is out of the question. Especially since that accomplishment is simply a license (ha!) to spend even more money). However, this was vacation, normal rules of life are suspended, and I used this as an excuse to give it a go.

I have a lot to say about this experience, which I hope to spread out over a few blog entries. My overall reaction? It was a blast, and I would recommend this to any serious sim pilot who has not had any real world experience. Most places offer this kind of thing for about $60, which is money well spent in my opinion. This was not my first-ever flight in a light aircraft--I had a couple of rides as a kid, when I was too young to appreciate it. About 7 years ago, a friend took me up in a Tripacer, which was really nice, but again I was not knowledgable enough then to get as much out of it as I would now. I would give my eye teeth now for a chance like that!

Anyway, it was a lot of fun and very informing. The strongest impression is that real flying is easier than sim flying, since you are getting feedback from all over, and not just through that little monitor.

Stay tuned. More on this tomorrow, I hope...

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Exactly overwhelmed

Well, maybe overwhelmed is too strong-- more like very pleased. I just feel like I want to respond to folks who are saying they are "not exactly overwhelmed" by the FSX demo. Just take a look at these trees-- if you don't see a vast improvement over FS9 trees, you're not looking very carefully.

I'm still suprised by the level of animosity of some folks on the forums towards this release. I think part of this is what I think of as the "hardware lottery". By this I mean that there's an almost random chance whether or not you will get satisfactory performance with your configuration. I lucked out, it seems. My system is pretty middling, as I described in a previous post, but I get frame rates in the 20's most of the time with many of the sliders in the middle, or higher. Some folks with better specs than mine are struggling. Still, those poor folks should take heart that others are getting good results, and trust that with the final release, and maybe a driver update, they'll be just as happy.

I think another reason for the "I'm not impressed" attitude is that perhaps people feel a little powerless against the FS monopoly. We all long to see our favorite game improved, but we are completely dependent on one company to do it (I'm talking major structural improvements-- we always have payware designers to improve the parts). We have high hopes, which in this dynamic become demands, and we don't want to let them off too easily. It reminds of how some folks feel like they have to complain about cafeteria food, even in the cases when its not too bad. If your stuck with it, that lowers the appeal by a few points.

This final shot in this post is the result of importing a FS9 add-on, Bill Lyon's Travel Air, into FSX. It's a fun shot, and I've gotten compliments on it, so I thought I'd share it.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Curious reactions to the FSX demo release

If you are an avid flightsimmer (and who else would be reading this?), then you already know about the demo release of FSX (the next generation of Microsoft Flight Simulator). If you haven't heard, you can get it here. I will not review it here, except to say that I am quite impressed. I meant to blog about it sooner, but frankly I have been spending too much time playing with the demo.

What really suprises me is some of the reactions I have been reading in the forums. Some people are quite hostile. The criticism seems to fall along two lines. The first says "Is this the best they could do? This doesn't look any better than the current FS, with all the latest add-ons." The second criticism is that it is way too demanding on their computer hardware.

It is the first criticism that I find most interesting. I think many people feel the need to strike a posture of being hard to impress. Perhaps it is because they have invested a lot of money and/or time to get their FS9 world to look really good. Perhaps they just feel the need to act cool, using the ultimate cool put down, "been there, done that".

My own reaction has been that the more time I spend in this new virtual environment, the more I am impressed. There are a lot of things that deserve a closer look. The virtual cockpits are obviously much better than in FS9. But spend some time really looking around, and you'll see how nice they really are. The textures, and the way the contours interact with the ambient light, are awefully well done.

Look at the way the clouds are reflected in the sea, in my second image. Before I snapped the shot, I first noticed that the weather had turned threatening by seeing the sea change color (a "sea change"?). Only then did I look up at the sky. A new level of immersion.

I don't know whether these nay-sayers have spent the time to get to know this demo. My guess is that many have not. Why are they so quick to sneer?

Part of the negative reaction may just be human nature. I have found in other areas of art, where something is issued serially, I often feel a little bit of disappointment with the latest offering the first time I experience it. It somehow falls short of my expectations. But with more exposure it grows on me, until ultimately it ranks with the best. The creative artist fails to follow through with all of what I had hoped to see. What you appreciate over time is that the artist had their own vision that was persued, and that vision was equally worthwhile.

Finally, on the issue of performance. Everyone's mileage will vary, of course, but I have been pleasantly suprised how well it runs on my middle-of-the-road setup. I have a 2.2 GHz AMD Athalon 3200+ processor with 1.0 GB of RAM, and a 128MB ATI RADEON 9600 AGP card. Basically, that's a $400 computer with $50 of added ram, and ~$90 for the added card. And look at the framerates in the last image! Admittedly, for that shot I had most of the sliders turned down. But still, between that number and the magic 24 FPS number (many people believe anything above 24 FPS is not noticable) there's a lot of room for moving sliders. With a bit of expermentation I'm sure I'll find a good compromise. And in a few years when it is time to upgrade the family computer, I'll be in great shape.