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.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

A sense of depth

The other night I flew to a small grass airstrip in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. I decided to leave Alaska for a bit to fly in my own region of the world. I watched the landing in replay (as is usual), and was simply amazed at the sense of depth that the simulator provides. This still shot give a little bit of it, but it really needs be experienced in full motion, where you can see the bits of scenery passing by at rates relative the the distance from the viewer. This greatly enhances the immersion-- the sense that you are really in the landscape, and not merely watching a pretty painting. One of these days I'll figure out how to capture videos, and post links here.

Here are the components that I used in this shot (all are FREE!).
1. Golden Wings. This is a comprehensive texture replacement package. Most users will create an entirely new FS installation, then upgrade it to these textures, so that they will have in essence two FS installs-- standard, and Golden Wings version. This is why the ground textures look so rich and green.
2. Terrain mesh by FSGenesis. They sell a lot of good stuff, but also have free mesh data for some regions. The one I am using is available from major flightsim sites, and is called This is probably the most important component, because it is the small rolling hills that best create the sense of depth for low and slow flying.
3. A good location. Here you have to be creative and fine a place with interesting topography. The White Mountains of New Hampshire are great, but there are so many others, perhaps near where you live.
4. I also use the Freeflow New England by the Freeflow Scenery group, though this is not evident in the above shot. This makes the shorelines of lakes, major rivers, and ocean much, much more detailed. Highly recommened. This is available from major sites as the file

Get out there and enjoy the scenery!