Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Incredible Freeware Cessna 150

OK, call me a hypocrite if you like. After my little sermon on resisting the twin evils of tweak-itis and download-itis, I go ahead and recommend a scenery tweak, and now I'm going to recommend a download. But didn't I admit I was preaching to myself?

Also, in my defense, the FlightGear ship traffic tweak was really simple--you could do it in ten minutes or less, then get back to flying. As for today's post, the download I am recommending here is extraordinary.

This Cessna 150 model has created a minor buzz on my favorite screenshot sharing forum, and is easily the best freeware airplane I have yet seen. This is high praise, considering I have downloaded and enjoyed the excellent work by such freeware developers as Milton Shupe, Dave Eckert, and Kevin Lemanski (a.k.a Long Island Classics).

To be honest, I have had trouble enjoying FS9 because the FSX default planes have spoiled me. Going back to the default the FS9 Cessnas is a real let down. I have better addons in FS9, but I always find myself wanting to fly the workhorse Cessnas. With this addon, I can see myself spending a lot more time in FS9 world, especially where I can enjoy FlightScenery's excellent RI scenery package.

You may recall a while back I discussed the problem with contrast between the view inside the cockpit versus the view out the window in this post. I don't know if addressing this problem was a conscious objective of the developers, but I think they've made a great progress in this respect. The gauges are darker than in typical FS models. To me this is more convincing, because if your eyes are adapted to view out the window, the interior will appear relatively dark. Additionally, the window interior window reflections and aged glass effect serve to wash out the external view a bit.
Before I go on, I have to say I've only flown with this model for about an hour, last night. I reserve the right to retract some of this enthusiasm in a later post, if I find any glaring bugs. But I really don't expect to, because the thing looks and feels so well crafted.

As you can tell by these shots, the interior is amazingly well detailed. All of the gauges are built from scratch--no recycled bits here. There are some neat touches in the interior, such as a fully functioning E6B computer that pops up when you click on the one in the passenger seat. Another nice touch is the checklist that comes up with one of the shift-number combinations is a facsimile of an old reference sheet.

The exterior model is very nice, but I must admit I spent so much time inside the cabin that I didn't check the exterior out too much. But you can see from these shots that they've given it a convincing aged look. One minor quibble: in the exterior view you can see the passenger (instructor?) waving a chart around and then putting it away. It's a neat little animation, but after a few repetitions is starts to be distracting.

The sounds are aliased from the default 172. One can't complain about this, given that it is freeware, but I hope some other contributor can come up with a replacement sound set because it almost breaks the spell. However, they did replace the default stall horn with one that has a more warbly sound. Not being a pilot, I can't say for sure this is how it should sound, but it seems more convincing.

In addition to the basic 150, they've included the Aerobat model. I only had a few minutes with it last night, but it looks like it will be a lot of fun.

I'm planning on spending most of tonight (Wednesday night is flying night!)taking this plane for an extending Rhode Island tour.

You can get it here.
When you go to that site, note the bit about the password on the left hand side. You'll need to use the one they give you.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

FlightGear ship traffic-- A Dummy to Dummy Guide

Ok, this is probably one of the most useless things you would want to do with FlightGear, but it is kind of fun. A full guide to AI Systems can be found here on the FlightGear Wiki. Here, I will show you exactly what I did to easily add some ships to my local scenery. Using this method you will have boats that travel in slow circles according to their rudder settings, without the need to explicitly define routes.

The first thing to do is to copy the ship_demo.xml file found in your FlightGear\data\AI directory, and rename it. In my case I called it RIship_demo.xml, because I was creating boat traffic for the Naragansett Bay in Rhode Island.

Edit the file in any text editor, such as Wordpad. Below is how I edited the file. (My apologies for giving this with screen shots instead of cut-and-pastable text, but I don't know a simple way to put xml code into this blog without the browser trying to interpret it as code.) My edits are red. Mainly, I just changed the latitude and longitude for the ship. Then I copied it twice, and modified each copy for location and speed. Finally, in the third entry I changed the vessel to the freighter. This required one more modification, which I will explain below. To find the latitude and longitude values, you can go here. Move the map to your desired location, and you will see the lat. and long. in the upper right corner.

But before we set up the freighter, I will show you how to add this traffic file to your preferences. This step is essential or we will not see the ships. Edit the preferences.xml file in your FlightGear\data directory. Search for the text 'scenario' and add a line for your new file, as shown below (use your file name, however). My edits are in red. Also, make sure the boolean value shown in red is set to true.

I noticed there was a freighter in the same directory as the sailboat model. However, it did not have a corresponding xml file. Acting on a guess, I copied the sailboat.xml, edited as shown below, and saved it as freighter.xml. It worked!

Once you've modified and saved these files, load up a flight in the appropriate area, and go look for your boats!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Your flightsimming stuff isn't going anywhere

Please note: if this sounds at all preachy, please be aware that I am speaking to myself as much as anyone else. Also, at, Chip Barber's most recent installment"The Corner" deals with some similar themes, albeit in a lighthearted manner. I wrote this before seeing his column.

Remember: Your flightsimming stuff isn't going anywhere!

Many of us are fairly obsessed with flying, and flight simulation in particular. We squeeze in a flying session whenever we get a chance, and when we can't we read the forums, or read flying books, or study sectional charts. I know I am not alone on this, as I read many of the flightsim forums. It's not a bad hobby to be obsessed with. It is relatively inexpensive, safe, and doesn't require you to spend a lot of time away from home (physically, that is). On the positive side, besides learning about airplanes and how to use the program, we are also learning about more general subjects like geography, weather, physics, and maybe even a little history. Not the least benefit is relaxation it provides, or the aesthetic pleasure derived from a well-rendered scene.

Still, it can become a serious preoccupation, and let’s be honest: we’ve probably all shortchanged a few worthy activities due to the time and attention we’ve given to simming. It is worthwhile to examine the time and attention we give to this hobby. How much is too much? In the worst case, we could find ourselves so wrapped up in this that it affects our personal relationships and harms our health due to sedentary behavior and/or lack of sleep.

For me, one sign of an unhealthy obsession is 'download-itis' and 'chronic tweaking disease', subjects I have discussed before. Now these activities are part of the fun of flight simming, and in fact some tweaking is necessary to get the most out of the game. But this kind of behavior can bring us dangerously close to that of the compulsive gambler, who thrives on the rush that each new attempt brings, all the while squandering his capital. Much of the time, after the initial excitement, we find that the result is less than we hoped for, and we walk away unsatisfied. Then the search is on for the next great solution, but this is really just our next fix. In other words, this is the obsession feeding on itself.

But even if our obsession falls far short of the pathological, it is good to remind ourselves that there are other things to do. Regardless of where we think our involvement with simming falls on the hobby/addiction spectrum, we can keep it all in perspective with the simple thought that the flight simulator will be happy to wait for us if we spend time on something else. Can the same be said for the activities that we have neglected?

So why not get out and enjoy the spring weather, tend the garden, go for a walk or a run? Reconnect with a neglected hobby, or read a good book. Play a board game with the kids. We don't have to devote every scrap of free time to checking out the latest and greatest hope for the flight simulator.

Remember: your flightsimming stuff isn't going anywhere!

Monday, May 21, 2007

SP1 second impressions, and more FlightGear

Having had SP1 for, oh, five days I guess, I'm finding it's not quite as good for me as originally seemed, but still it's pretty good and definitely an improvement over the original experience. But I have not yet tried any config file tweaks, so more improvement may be on the way.

The airport shot is from Logan Airport, with about 33% traffic. I assure you that 20 FPS indication is not typical. Usually I get around around 11 FPS. While not ideal, it is definitely possible to fly at this rate. This is one of the first situations I tried, in order to give the patch a good test, and I was very impressed at how well it handled everything in this very busy scenery.

I typically fly suburban and rural areas, and found that the FPS increase, while appreciable, was not as high as I had hoped. I think the trees, in the quantities I need, might be more demanding than a lot of the urban scenery. Also, the more I fly, the more I notice intermittent blurries. This seems to be the most common complaint on the forums, and my single-core system is running into this more often than I'd like. You can see the blurries in the second shot. I'm also noticing and occasionally being annoyed by autogen popping. Aces' Phil Taylor's blog mentions that they implemented some kind of batch processing for autogen, and acknowledged that scenery popping may occur.

As I mentioned in my last post, the one improvement that has really made me happy is the fluid panning with either the hat switch or mouse, and instant view changes using the number pad preset views. It was the lagging view changes that caused me the most grief before the patch, and after a few hours I have not had any poor performance. For me, this one big improvement makes the other minor issues easy to swallow.

My third FSX shot shows a goof that perhaps might have been there before SP1, but I only just noticed it. The cargo doors on this jet remain open, even when it takes off. I don't get incensed by this kind of thing the way some people do, but rather find it mildly amusing.

I have gone back to FlightGear a few times since SP1, just to see if my earlier enthusiasm for this product was more than a flash in the pan. I'm convinced FG is the genuine article. I continue have lots of fun and look forward to the new version, whenever that gets out. This morning I tried a back-to-back flight around the pattern in FSX and FG. Besides the obvious differences (FG loads in a fraction of the time, FSX looks much prettier) I have to say the flying enjoyment (Flug Vergnugen?) is about equal.

The last shot shows my first attempt at a carrier landing in FG. It was a sucess! However, you'll have to take my word for it. The screenshot here is from a replay, and I discovered that the AI carrier continues along its path during replay, so by the time you reach the original landing spot you've missed the boat.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

SP1 first impressions

I'm not the kind of person that lines up outside a store in order to be among the first to get a new product. I even had the self discipline to use the slower Super Saver Shipping option on my FSX preorder. Nevertheless, Tuesday evening found me hitting the refresh button on my browser again and again, waiting for the SP1 download to appear. The truth is, I just wanted to fire off the download before going to bed. Still, it was a little exciting : first, the announcement that it would soon be available. Then, the download link on FSInsider (alas, it lead to a 404 error). Then the update to the FSInsider front page, with a link (still 404'd). The forums were buzzing with each development. Finally, the link worked! The download was in progress!

But I was good. Even after I realized that the download was going very quickly, and would probably be done in about 20 minutes, I walked away from the computer to go to bed.

The next morning, I scanned the forums an saw that most people were very happy with this patch. This inspired me to do a hasty install and a quick flight before going to work. First impression: looks good.

Last night I had a quite a while to try it out. It is a noticable improvement. I didn't do the calculations, but informally I can say that a I believe I have at least the promised 20% improvement in FPS. What is even better, is that I see a dramatic improvement in panning response. Finally, "real-time panning" is possible. Previously, there was a delay in using the number keys for side views, etc, and using the hat or mouse to pan was painful. Often there was such a lag that I would over-pan, and find myself looking at the tail. Now it is very smooth and natural. It is a little ironic that the feature which most excited me about FlightGear the smooth panning, is what has been most improved in FSX.

I flew around the highly-detailed Logan Airport, with about 33% traffic and airport vehicles, and FPS averaged in the mid teens. I kept waiting for it to get bogged down, but it didn't happen. I did have a few short pauses, but I can live with that as long as it only happens in the busiest areas.

It's not perfect--I've had a few hangs, and there are a few glitches, such as the scary-looking blank message window (see below). This is the loading progress indicator, and it usually is blank for a few seconds before the progress bar appears. Also, the dusk textures have been improved, but look at the night landing shot-- why are the skyscrapers on the left unlit? Looks like a power outage. Also, you may notice this shot shows a case of the blurries. I almost never see them, but they are not yet extinct.

I'm looking forward to re-exploring FSX.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Some more FG shots

Here's some more FG screenshots, as promised in an earlier post. I collected these in a hurry, having already spent too much time on this blog lately.

If you're a regular visitor to this blog, you may have noticed I'm posting more frequently than normal. There are two reasons for this. First, I'm very excited about FlightGear, and I want to help make it better know in the larger flightsim community. The other reason is that as of last week it became clear that the FSX SP1 is going to be released some time this week (see Phil Taylor's blog.) Therefore, I wanted to get the FlightGear posts out before the collective attention of most of the flightsimming community is focused on trying out SP1. Incidently, I'll be one of the first in line for SP1, and will let you know how it goes for me, as soon as time permits.

However, for the moment we're still considering FG. As I said before, I will keep coming back to FG, and this is true even if SP1 exceeds my wildest expectations. FG is great fun, and the ongoing development will be interesting to keep up with. For a project that expressly does not have its primary focus on visuals, it can look pretty nice at times. If I had a spare hour or two I'm sure I could come up with even better shots than these.

This is not so say that FG always looks this good. There are times when it can look not-so-good (visit a major city, for example, and fly low). Also, take a look at the last shot. Are those Gateway computer boxes? I do hope this was done tongue in cheek.

I do hope I've inspired a few people to try out FG. If you're not running FSX, why not try FG now? If you are running FSX and axiously awaiting SP1, don't forget about FG. Maybe you should add a bookmark for

Sunday, May 13, 2007

FlightGear saved flights-- A Dummy to Dummy Guide

This is the first in a possible series of Dummy to Dummy Guides. I use this term not because I think you or I are a dummies, but because for my part I don’t claim any expert backgrond, and for your part I assume no special knowledge of the topic at hand. The solution provided works for me, and I expect it will work for you, thats all I promise. I is quite possible there are smarter ways to solve the problem.

Today, I show you a way to "save" a flight in FlightGear and get a clickable shortcut to your desired flight. Using this method I find I can go from desktop to tarmac in 30-40 seconds.

A note to those still considering whether to install FG: if all this sounds too complicated, don't let it scare you away from FG. You can forget about this stuff and just to use the wizard, which is very easy to use, to set up your flights.

The approach is straightforward:

  1. When launched from the command line, FG uses the preferences.xml file in the FlightGear/data directory to determine setup for the flight. This file contains default settings.
  2. We're going to make a copy of this file, and hand edit it to create our desired starting conditions for a flight.
  3. We can do a switcheroo between our custom preferences and the default, and launch FG from the command line.
  4. We can create a batch file to do this automatically, and give us a double-click way to start our favorite flight.
  5. Repeat as necessary for each alternate scenario.

If you've never written a batch file before, don't worry. A batch file is basically a text file containing commands you could enter at a command prompt. You should be able to just cut and paste the text below into a text file (use simple text editor such as Wordpad, not Word), and then save the file with the .bat extension. When you double-click on it it will run the commands. You will only need to edit this text if your installation is not in the normal place, or you decide to name your custom file something different. Note that this script will make a backup copy of the default preferences before copying your custom one over, and then restore the original afterwards.

If you're not familiar with xml files, they are simply text files written in the xml format. An xml file doesn't do anything, it just presents information in a way that other applications can easily parse, while remaining human readable. You can edit the xml file in any standard text editor, but it will be a lot easier to get around large xml files if you use an xml-specific editor, such as Xmlpad (free! Google it if you want to try), as shown in the screenshot. This image demonstrates how you can navigate through sections on the left panel, and make edits on the right side.

As for the actual edits to the xml file, I will leave that to you to figure out. Most of the tags you will want to edit are self-explanatory. For the airplane, you will need to know the correct name the simulator uses for that plane. For starting airport, you will need to know its ICAO name. For these and some other values, you can check by calling up the wizard, making your selections, then checking the "show command line" option. Many of the options you set in the wizard can be turned on or off by using either "true" or "false" in the property value. Have fun experimenting with options. Just make sure you backup the original version before you start, and work with a file that you have saved a different name, such as my_preferences.xml (this is the name to use if you want to use my batch script as is).

I suggest you work on one custom file for a while until you get all the options the way you want them. Then, you can copy this for other versions for different options (plane, airport, etc). Create a separate batch file for each custom preferences file.

Here's my batch file (cut and paste between the -------'s):
SET FG_HOME=c:\Program Files\FlightGear
SET FG_ROOT=c:\Program Files\FlightGear\data
SET FG_SCENERY=C:\Program Files\FlightGear\data\Scenery;C:\Program Files\FlightGear\data\WorldScenery;
cd "c:\Program Files\FlightGear\data"
copy /Y preferences.xml bac_preferences.xml
REM edit the next line of you custom preferences file has a diffferent name
copy /Y my_preferences.xml preferences.xml

"c:\Program Files\FlightGear\bin\win32\fgfs.exe"
copy /Y bac_preferences.xml preferences.xml

Drop me a comment if you try this and run into any trouble. Also, if you know of a more clever way to do this let me know.

Finally, a few fun pictures. The first two show the trees I've added to 9B1, using the process described in the previous post. As I've mentioned before, this is true-to-life and keeps you on your toes when landing. FG trees can be flown through without harm, though. Another odd thing is that these trees are one sided and appear transparent from the "back". I ended up copying a bunch of them and specifying a rotation of 180 degrees.

The last shot shows a neat effect that MSFS has not been able to accomplish: the airplane shadow correctly projects on scenery objects. I hope this doesn't go away with the next version of FG.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Whoa! FlightGear scenery design!

The more time I spend with FlightGear the more I love it. I've spent the last week flying nothing but FlightGear. I got some neat screenshots I hope I get a chance to share soon. I'm sure I will go back to MSFS after the novelty of FG starts to wear off (or FSX SP1 is released, whichever comes sooner), but I know I will continue to fly FG. I'm working on a kludge that will let me sort of save favorite flights (this is not built into FG, suprisingly). When that is done I will be a double-click and about 45 seconds away from my favorite flying situations any time I'm at the computer. If my kludge works, I will share it here.

The above shot (by the way) shows my first attempt at scenery design, adding a few buildings around my local airport. Sure, the buildings are kind of cheesy, but cheesy rhymes with easy. The whole project, from never-having-done-it-before to flying with the new scenery took all of 5 minutes.

What makes it work is that the UFO "plane" in the FlightGear 0.9.10 is actually an object placement tool that allows you to place scenery objects with a mouse click. You can read the whole procedure on the FG Wiki here, but in brief, what you do is fly the UFO to the desired location (the UFO flies like skew mode). Then call up the airplane help ('?' key) and that will tell you the commands you use to place objects. There is a command to output the information to the terminal, and then you paste that gobbledegookto the appropriate scenery file, as explained in the wiki article.

You can only add from the included scenery objects, which is a pretty limited collection. There's probably a way to get more, but that may require getting deep into the developer's world. Anyhow, there's enough generic hangars and buildings so that you can make your airport look less like they've bulldozed the place and are about to rip up the runway and put in a subdivision.

Maybe (probably) you're not very impressed with this scenery. But it does help a little with the suspension of disbelief when the airport has some features vaguely reminiscent of its real-world component. I was lucky to find a quonset hut, because this airport really has one (see photo, a few posts back). I will go back and add a few trees in front of the runway.

Anyhow, the crudeness of the objects has one advantage, and that is I will not be tempted by the desire to tweak it to perfection.

Now that I've gotten a glimpse of how scenery works in FG, I'm going to look into whether I can get rid of that fictitious tower, and adjust the location used for the tower view. If I figure that out I'll share it here.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

FlightGear Mini Review

I'm a great fan of open source software. Some of my favorite of these programs are the Gimp (Photoshop alternative), Inkscape (drawing), Audacity (digital recording and editing). These products are the efforts of many people over a long period of time, and reflect a lot of hard work and pride in what they do. For us mortals, they give us a chance to dabble in things like image editing without having to spend a lot of money on a professional grade software package. Plus, the open source ethos is refreshing and inspiring in its own right.

For a while I have known of an open source flight simulator, but until now I hesitated to give it a try. I finally gave into the itch to click the download link. Now I wish I had not waited so long.

The simulator is called FlightGear, and you can get information about it and links to downloads here. You can tell from these screenshots that no, it will not replace MSFS for most people, but it still looks pretty decent. I should emphasize the fact that this is a work in progress. In fact, it is not even up to version 1.0, the latest being version 0.9.10. If you visit the web site don't be scared away by talk of compiling source code and such. There is an automatic installer for windows that works well, and there is a GUI for launching the simulator, as well as a menu driven interface within the sim. There are also installers for other platforms, but I have not tried them.

Why should you consider FlightGear? One reason is if you like open source software. Another is if you just like to tinker. Perhaps a more compelling reason is performance. Your mileage may vary, but I find that it flies extremely smooth, compared to MSFS. There is absolutely no hesitation when I pan the view around. I have noticed microstutters on a few occasions, but overall I don't give a second thought to frame rates. Still another reason: if you have an older, slower computer in addition to your flightsim computer, why not see how FlightGear will run on it? It won't cost you anything beyond the inconvenience of a large download.

The graphics both inside and outside the plane do not measure up to FS2004 (certainly not FSX), but given to performance gain, it's not a bad trade off. The airplane models vary greatly. I've found a few with pretty decent virtual cockpits, such as the Cub, the 172, and the Beaver, and the Warthog. The scenery also varies in quality. Some rural textures look pretty nice at altitude (the haze effect helps a lot), but some of it looks a bit cheesy. The autogen trees are o.k., but the buildings will make you feel nostalgiac for FS98. In fact, I've been keeping an old installation of FS98 on my hard drive, because I like to occasionally run with really fast framerates. However, its probably time to uninstall FS98, because FlightGear runs just as fast, but looks so much better. (I leapfrogged from FS98 to FS2004, so I can't say how it compares to FS2000 or 2002.)

Another interesting feature is that there are several approaches to flight modelling to choose from. I haven't experimented with this much, but it is intriguing.

So I encourage everyone to give it a try. A word of warning, though: to get the most out of this you'll need at least two propellers: one for your hat, as well as one for your plane. Still, if one is able to accept limitations (such as not being able to assign joystick buttons) you can use it out of the box. If you want to stick that propeller on your cap, then you can customize your joystick or just about anything else in this sim.

1. Fast, smooth performance (YMMV)
2. Instant change of time of day or weather.
3. True overcast, convincing from above or below
4. True sloped runways.
5. Aircraft self-shadowing.
6. Chase plane spot view, where the chase plane banks with your plane.
7. Quick start up.
8. It's free!

(I don’t like being negative about free software, but I offer this for those who are deciding whether to download this software)
1. Poor landing effects (sounds are weak, no visual effects like smoke puffs or splashes)
2. Only one season, as far as I can tell
3. Can’t change airplane without restart
4. Not as easy to save and reload flights
5. Sparse autogen, and sparse AI.