Sunday, July 30, 2006

This and that

Haven't had much time for flying this weekend. I spent a little time tonight in the Hurricane IId, mentioned in a previous post. I have to make a correction to that post: the sinking-into-the-ground problem I mentioned is not a fault of this most excellent model, but rather that I had duplicate scenery layers that caused interference.

This airplane is a real knuckle whitener. Check out this landing sequence-- I'm not sure exactly what went wrong, but I am lucky to have kept the plane in one piece. As I mentioned before, it is very wobbly on the ground. It needs the long legs to give the big prop clearance from the ground. I guess they could not space the gear any further apart, because that would put too much bending moment where the wings join the fuselage, in other words you'd be more likely to snap the wings off on a hard landing. Bringing this craft to rest after landing is like balancing a wheelbarrow full of bricks across bumpy ground.

This thing goes fast, too! I found I lost the airport a few times when I was flying the pattern, because I underestimated how far I went on each leg. Another factor which makes it easy to lose the airport is that I am flying out of a historically-rendered Hawkinge RAF base, which blends pretty well into the general Golden Wings textures of the surrounding areas. This is of course much more realistic than the default MSFS scenery in which airports stick out from the rest of the scenery like sore thumbs. By the way, I keep mentioning Golden Wings. In case you are unfamiliar with it, you can learn all about it here. It is a must-have if you love the old stuff.

After getting tossed around in the Hurricane I wanted something more gentle. Here is the Sopwith Camel, as modeled by Dave Eckert. In this bird, you will definitely not lose sight of the airfield when flying a small patter. This is a beautiful model, and really fun to fly.

Completely unrelated, except that it involves a simulated world, requires a computer, and is another time sink: Google SketchUp. You can get this for free from Google (there's a pro package if you pay the price). This is my rendition of my humble abode. This program is really easy to learn. I was up and running in no time. I put this scene together a little bit at a time, in between other household chores. Makes me wish I had time to learn scenery or airplane design for Flight Simulator.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Oops, I did it again!

I succumbed to "download-itis" again, that is.

The first set of images comes from an recent and extraordinary freeware offering, the Hawker Hurricane IID by Touch the Sky Simulations. As you can see from the images, the virtual cockpit is extremely detailed, and most of it can be worked with the mouse. The sound set makes the engine roar like its meteorological namesake.

I've been looking for a really good warbird, and have contemplated buying one, but I think this model will fill the need. It's a real challenge to land this thing, so it will be a satisfying accomplishment when I feel really comfortable. Getting it on the ground in one piece is only the beginning-- those high, closely-spaced gear make it pretty wobbly on the ground, so it takes a bit of skill to keep it from scraping a wingtip, or worse. In the second screenshot you can see the stall warning in the lower right just as I am touching down. I guess I did that one ok!

There is one issue I discovered with this model last night, as you can see here. This is not a crash, but an inexplicable sinking into the ground. I'm sure there will be a fix for this soon.

And now for something completely different-- the Pebble Shores Municipal Airport by Kobbe Farwick. I normally resist airport upgrades, since I am concerned about performance hits. However, this is in an out of the way location in Oregon, so I figured there was little risk. This scenery is strictly for fun. There are lots of neat details scattered around the airport as well as the surrounding area. It is more or less realistic, with a few fantasy items thrown in, such as the rainbow and the killer whales that bob out of the water.

I'm flying the ultralight so that I can go slow enough to check out the fine details.

This fly-through barn is stock Microsoft scenery, as anyone who has tried the "kiosk" barnstorming flight knows. Not so hard in the ultralight! This scenery is a nice break from more challenging exercises, such as landing the Hurricane.
OK, that's it. No more downloads for a while. I promise. :-)

P.S. I've installed a site meter on this site, so I can see that people are reading it (don't worry, it doesn't give me any information about who is reading, just the stats). If you have any comments or suggestions, please leave a comment below. You don't have to log in-- there is an anonymous option.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

A good flight

Sometimes everything comes together nicely, and you have a really good flight. The series of images in this post come from such a flight. This is a continuation of a flight that I described in this post.
This leg of my journey departed from Atlin airport (CYSQ) in British Columbia. In the firs shot you can see my departure--Atlin is visible in the far distance. There were some lingering thunderstorms to the east and north, so I heard an occasional rumble of thunder, but I did not run into any ugly weather in the direction I was going. I found this thunder really enhanced the immersion-- there was weather all around me, but some of it was just there on its own accord, and was not the center of attention. What I am trying to say is that when you choose a stormy weather theme for a flight, it is there for your benefit, so to speak. However, these storms were just there, and they didn't care whether or not they would affect my flight.

My destination was Juneau International, but I took the scenic route down Atlin Lake, then over the Llewellyn and Tulsequah Glaciers. It was very peaceful flying over the glaciers. I felt like I was at the top of the world. This is one of the most satisfying flights I have had in a long time. I couldn't plan a very long flight--I needed to turn in early because I had important things to do the next day. This flight took a little more than an hour, but it had so much to offer-- beautiful scenery, interesting weather, pilotage using my sectional. All in all, a good time.

Eventually I reached the Taku Inlet, and decreased my altitude to about 2000 feet to enjoy the scenery. The iage on the left shows me rounding Point Bishop, preparing to head up Gastineau Channel towards Juneau. This still image cannot capture fully capture the experience. You get a very convincing illusion of space when you see the scenery in motion, with the tree covered peaks moving rapidly below.

The last two images show me flying up Gastineau Channel (flying perhaps too closely to the slopes!) and finally safely down at Juneau. In my opinion, this is flight simming at its best.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The hazards of cleaning your windshield

It's the time of year when my morning commute has me driving into the sun most mornings. At some point I notice how dirty my windshield is, so I will clean it. But the problem is that when it gets cleaner, you start to notice the small streaks and smears from the cleaning job. So you wash it again. Still, there are some smudges and streaks. The closer you get to perfection, the more each minor imperfection irritates. You find it hard to focus on traffic because of that fingerprint in the lower left corner.

I got a catalog for high-end audio components the other day (not sure how I got on that mailing list). It's fun to look at the lengths to which folks will go in the quest of sonic perfection. Is a $2500 CD player that much better than my $100 model? But some, maybe most of this stuff is downright ridiculous. For example, look at this, which is a set of wooden blocks to keep your audio cables off the floor. A set of six for only $62. Hmmm, I had no idea that the sound quality of my stereo was being compromised because my cables are touching the floor. Sometimes I wonder if these folks (I almost typed foolks, Freudian slip!) ever hear Music, or if they spend all their listening time wondering if there highs are as clear and crisp, and their lows as thrillingly room-filling as they can possibly be.

So what does this have to do with flight simming? If your an avid flightsimmer, you've probably already guessed where this is going. The more you tweak, with hardware and software, and the more realistic you can make the game, it is all too tempting to get caught up in the quest for perfection. If you improve the sky, the ground looks too simple. If you improve the ground textures, the autogen buildings can look cartoon-y. Then there's planes, AI traffice, etc...

Besides the appearence, you can find yourself obsessing about performance. Are my FPS as high as they can be? Have I eliminated stutters and texture loading delays as much as I possibly can? Would the video driver that came out yesterday be better than the one I installed last week?

All if this is fine if you enjoy the tweaking process (and I do, to an extent). But you shouln't let it distract you from what brought you to the hobby in the first place-- the love of airplanes, the thrill of flight, and the rewards of improving your knowledge and skills. So stop tweaking and go practice those cross wind landings!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

More fun with charts

One can have great fun flying the sim with a real, paper sectional charts. I love having the chart folded on my knee and then looking out of the virtual window to figure out exactly where I am. I ordered a few Alaska sectionals (got 'em cheap on Ebay) and have been studying them for hours. With a good mesh, and preferably with add-on, improved shoreline definitions, you can end up seeing a remarkably accurate representation of the world. (BTW, I'm using a freeware enhancement to this area, by Holger Sandmann. He has a very nice payware package for a larger region, but I've just been to frugal to buy that. Yet :-))

At the top of this post there's a bit from the Juneau sectional, just north of PAJN (Juneau Int'l Airport). In the first aerial you can see "Tee Harbor" that is listed on the chart. Note the highway going past this harbor. Any highway visible on a chart will also be visible in the simulator, more or less accurately. Not only that, but major power lines and railroads are represented.

The second aerial shot is a look up another bay, just north of Dotson's Landing, looking towards Eagle Glacier. On the chart, this is the area where there are a bunch of black squares and the word "bldgs".

The next chart excerpt shows Berners Bay, and the aerial shot following shows the same area. The geography is really interesting, and the flight simulator version is pretty good, but does not capture the full complexity. The many twists of the small rivers leading into the bay are simplified somewhat. Still, it is beautiful scenery and exciting to fly over at low altitude.

If you have not yet tried real sectional charts, I highly encourage you to buy a few and try it out. I find it endlessly fascinating to study them by themselves, and it is fun comparing them against the simulator.

In the final pair of images, I have a chart excerpt and aerial shot over Haines airport, further north from the previous images. Note the yellow region in the chart. This indicates a heavily populated area. You can see the the simulator adds more buildings in this area.

Monday, July 17, 2006

An orderly world

I think a lot about why I can get so absorbed in flight simming--I'm a firm believer in the tenet that the unexamined life is not worth living. I think part of it has to do with being fascinated by airplanes and flying, part of it has to do with the satisfaction of improving on skills, and part of it is just the gee-whiz thrill of how neat everthing looks sometimes. But I believe a major reason is that it allows us to enter into an orderly world over which we have complete control. Call it escapism if you must.

Now, I live a pretty good life, so I can't complain that much. The very fact that I have the resources and leisure time to do this hobby says a lot, especially if you measure your life against how the majority of the people in the world live. But a lot of things happen that are out of my control. Take yesterday afternoon, when it was raining. In the kitchen, that is. I turns out one of the twins had left the water running in the bathroom sink upstairs, and the sink overflow drain was not doing the job. There was an inch of water in the bathroom, and who knows how much water working its way down to the first floor. An hour of cleanup ensued, followed by the worry that there would be a stain in the ceiling. Some things cannot be predicted or controlled.

Other hobbies can offer a controlled world. Sports offer conflict and struggle, but in a limited, usually safe context. Another example: I have a small vegetable garden, and can plant whatever I choose in whatever arrangement I desire. This is a nice refuge from some of the stresses of life. However, I cannot control the weather, and there are certain garden pests that can mock my best efforts.

By contrast, flight simming lets you control everything. Nothing captures this fact more than the ability to control the Weather! In this world you are free to set the time and season to your liking, regardless of the clock or calender. If you like Golden Wings, you can even retreat to an earlier time. The virtual pilot faces no barriers of financial resourse, health, age, or whether a particular aircraft still exists. The virtual airplane is never undergoing maintenance. Your favorite airplane, time, and place is always ready for you.

To me this explains simming is such a relaxing thing to do at the end of a busy day. This also explains the constant interest in enhancing this world through add-ons.

Still, there is a downside to this orderly world. The garden, for all of its disappointments and occasional heartbreaks, sometimes will produce far more than I anticipated, and far more than I feel I deserve, based on the effort I put in. This is an example of grace, and can only be recieved when one has risked something real in the real world. The simulated world we spend so much time in is a wonderful retreat, but it does not grow like a garden, or a relationship, or a community. So let us be on guard about spending too much time in the simulated skies.

What do you think? Leave a comment if you like.

Friday, July 14, 2006

On the charts

I finally obtained some sectional charts for areas of Alaska over which I like to fly. The image above is a small part of the Juneau sectional. I spent a nice time last night flying from Juneau Int'l into more remote regions. It was pretty cool to see features on the chart, then look out the (virtual) window and seem them passing under me. My first stop was at Skagway. This is a neat approach, with mountains rising up on either side. This would make for an interesting challenge in something large, but easy in the Scout I was flying. From Skagway I planned to go to Atlin (CYSQ), in British Columbia. This required passing over some significant mountains, over 7000 feet. You can see my approximate route in the chart above.
I didn't read the contours very carefully, and I thought it wouldn't be too difficult going through this pass. Turned out it required a very steep ascent, and there were some white-knuckle moments. This would have been an incredibly stupid thing to do in real life. I would have been much better off if I had spent time gaining altitude before heading East into the mountains.

Once I cleared the highest peaks, it was lovely flying. As I was getting closer to Atlin, though, I saw thunderstorms ahead. Very interesting whether, especially since I had chose a prefab whether theme (freeware addon) of some sort of cirrus cloud setup, which did not mention the T-storms! It was great, though, to have some unexpected wx to keep me on my toes. I did have to alter may path a little to avoid the storms, but otherwise they did not endanger me. Sorry, I did not snap any good pictures of this part of the flight.

I had to fight a pretty strong crosswind at Atlin. This picture does not do full justice to the challenge. My touchdown point was pretty much where I wanted it to be, in spite of the crosswind, and I kicked the rudder to straighten out (mostly) before touchdown. I know that in the real world the most dangerous things about a crosswind landing are the possibility of laterally overstressing the landing gear, and of having the upwind wing lift up, possibly flipping you over, and, for taildraggers, ground looping. None of these things happened to me, but I wonder how well they are modeled in the sim, and whether I would have been as satisfied with the landing had it been the real thing.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


Today's topic is one most flightsimmers can relate to: dowload-itis. OK, the term is not to be interpreted literally, i.e. inflamation of the download (you need antivirus software for that). I'm talking about the habit of downloading every cool-looking addon that you come across, until you have so many things that you never have time to use them well. Fortunately for my bank account, I manage to resist nearly all payware addons, and concentrate on the vast ocean of freeware stuff.

What you see in these images are two recent downloads, a Cessna L-19 "Bird Dog" (credits in the readme: "Visual Model V2.0 by Massimo Taccoli. Textures By Massimo Taccoli with support from Chris Coarse. Flight Dynamics by D.G. Seeley. New gauges by Dennis Seeley"). It it parked at CYTH, Thompson, in Manitoba (by By Adam Bentley and David Madge.) The airplane is fun to fly (a tail-dragger Cessna!), and the scenery is quite detailed, realistic, and framerate-friendly.

Chances are I'll never visit the scenery ever again, because there's just too much else on my to-do list. I may fly the 'Dog a bit, since it is good for low-and-slow flying, my favorite kind.

What a situation-- too much of a good thing! There is a downside, however. Besides taking up hard drive space, and potentially slowing up performance, I find too many downloads can have a draining effect on the psyche. The most satisifaction I get out of flighsimming comes from mastery of something, and that only comes from spending time on one thing for a while. Which reminds me, I'm supposed to be mastering the DC-3 right now, aren't I? Ooops.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Juneau, I really like this place.

Last night's flying session was a blast. I flew from Ketchikan to Juneau, tracking VOR's. I was challenged at one point by a VOR failure. Don't know if it was a FS bug, or simulated failure, or if there was some mistake on my part, but I couldn't get a directional reading. Fortunately the DME still operated, so I kept my heading and intercepted the next VOR when I got close to the first one. It added some satisfaction to the flight, having to work around a problem.

I also cut the fuel pretty close. OK, I admit it, I didn't really properly calculate how much fuel I should need, and plan accordingly. So in mid flight I started to get a little concerned. But it turns out I had enough to finish the journey (but not much in reserve, as you can see in the second screenshot if you look closely at the fuel gauge). As usually, I started my descent too late, and had to use full flaps to burn off a lot of altitude. Not too bright, especially considering the fuel concerns. I guess I have a lot to learn!

Anyway, the scenery was beautiful, as mentioned in yesterday's post. Once I got to Juneau, I decided to play a bit so I jumped into the Bellanca Scout, with tundra tires, and landed on a glacier! Interestingly, I could not come to a full stop. I don't know if the glacier is set up to mimic slippery ice, or whether the grade was too steep for the brakes to overcome. So, I throttled up and returned to Juneau Int'l.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

I [heart] Alaska!

Just a quick note here. I have fallen in love with Alaska. I have spent a fair amount of time around Anchorage over the past year, but I have discovered whole new worlds in the Alaskan "panhandle". I found these in the best possible way (for a flightsimmer), i.e. by flying there.
I thought it might be interesting to fly from Seattle to Anchorage (over many evenings) so that's what I've been doing on my dedicated flying nights. What I didn't expect is that the further up I got the more amazing the scenery gets. Every time I stop somewhere I think "I should make this my new favorite place to fly". But then I get to the next place...
So, I thought Ketchikan was the place to be, but now I am all excited about Glacier Bay. Actually, I cheated a little here by downloading and previewing the G. B. scenery before actually flying there (my Aero Commander is still in Ketchikan). I got a nice freeware scenery improvement by Holger Sandmann. He has made an amazing payware enhancement for this region, which I have not broken down and bought yet, but this freeware stuff is pretty good by itself. The above picture does not show any of the nifty glaciers or shorelines, but captures a little of the natural beauty. I may stay here a while.

Oh, you want to see a glacier? Here's one: