JSG Universal FMC Flight Panel
By Don Filer (12 October 2008)
You just can't go wrong with a $15 flight management computer you can install in any of your FSX aircraft. If you're a purest, this probably isn't the FMC for you. If you refuse to pay for anything, ditto and if you have no experience with a FMC, you may be in for some serious study and experimentation.
The saying "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" has some relevance here. I have come to appreciate there are toy-like Flight Simulator add-ons and add-ons that are very realistic and challenging to master. The Universal FMC from JSG is somewhere in the middle on this scale. That isn't a judgment made from loads of previous FMC experience either. I had none with a FMC before reviewing this product. After a month of research here's what I discovered.
Two Basic Types
There are two basic types of FMCs for Microsoft Flight Simulator. Those that automatically load themselves with parameters right from Flight Simulator's flight plans and others that must have their data imported from external programs like FSBuild, or entered painstakingly by hand. Thankfully, JSG's product loads its parameters after selecting a departure and arrival airport and adding any waypoints you choose in Flight Simulator's flight planner. It can also import flight plans from other programs and accept changes entered using the FMC keypad. In order to add waypoints or change your destination however, you have to go back into the flight planner and make changes there. You can't just add waypoints or delete them from the FMC panel, the way you do in some FMCs.
Installation of JSG's Universal FMC was smooth and easy however the panel is only automatically added to the standard Airbus A321. It can also be installed in any of the FSX aircraft by editing the appropriate panel.cfg file. Practically speaking, an FMC is normally used in large jet aircraft for long distance flights.
What You Get In The Package
You get a very well designed FMC with VNAV, LNAV, HOLD and FIX functions. The pages include: ATC - flight number and aircraft ident; LEGS - displaying for each leg the waypoint, heading, distance and altitude; PROGRESS - the actual position, the previous and next waypoints and the Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA) at the destination airport as well as remaining fuel; APPROACH SPEED - useful information on the flap settings and corresponding speed limits required during an approach, speed and aircraft weight; NAV displaying radios, both active and standby, OBS and radials. The FMC searches and retrieves the NAV ILS and COMM codes when you enter the ICAO name directly in the FMC. The Universal FMC includes COMM - radios, both active and standby, transponder and ADF; POSITION - the current position of the aircraft at the departure.
You also get a sound package which adds a French co-pilot's voice for checklists, takeoffs, approaches, anti-ice activation and landings. A digitized voice announces anomalies that may occur during flight like wind shear, bank angle, glide slope or flaps alert. The documentation consists of a 48 page pdf file explaining each page in the FMC and a brief summary on how to set it up and how to add it to other aircraft in your hangar. You get a 747 sound package, a spreadsheet list of VORs and a checklist for the Boeing 747. The additional sounds are noteworthy since they add an element of realism when the co-pilot announces the flap positions, parking brake, spoilers, gear up and down, lights and autopilot on or off. A 4-bell gong alerts you when you arrive less than four miles from the next waypoint and a 1-bell gong sounds when the aircraft changes to the next waypoint. The 747 sound package may be something you want to add to your stock Boeing 747 which by default, is aliased to the 737 sounds. If you prefer a quieter 747, you'll like this free addition and it's easy enough to install and remove them if you care to.
In my attempt to figure out how to use the FMC I discovered an 8-part FMC tutorial on YouTube that does a very good job explaining how to use the PMDG 747 computer on a flight from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. I read a very useful article by Hans Fog on How to Program the FMC in the how-to section here on FlightSim.Com. I found quite a few articles and reviews of other products that include flight management computers, which led me to download and try the iFly 747 aircraft for FSX. Its FMC is quite authentic and may be more to your liking if you favor realism and have some experience with the FMC. I also purchased the Friendly-Panels add-on FMC which is comparable to JSG's at $15. I discovered a $29 manual by Captain Mike Ray on the Boeing 700 series
How To Master The FMC? Practice!
I sympathize with others who have come before with the challenge of explaining how to effectively use a FMC without previous training or experience. The best way to learn is to practice.
If you are an experienced FMC user you could tell if this one fell short or was adequate based on what you know. I on the other hand, just kept crashing, dusting myself off and trying again.
SIDs, STARs, and VORs
If you have an aversion to charts and acronyms you probably aren't a candidate for a flight management computer. On the other hand, if you want to learn what all those charts are and how they're used the FMC may be just the excuse you need to find out. A Standard Instrument Departure is a SID and a Standard Terminal Arrival Route is a STAR. These navigation aids are stored in a database and updated on a regular basis. VOR stands for VHF Omni-directional Radio Range. I spent another $30 at Navigraph downloading charts and routes and updated databases.
This was unnecessary because there are several internet sites where you can get much if not all the information free. Flight Aware for instance, has a pilot resource section where you can download airport diagrams and RFinder provides routes after inputting departure and arrival destinations. Terminal procedures and route paths are available at PlanePath for several specific Flight Simulator aircraft makers and AirNav also provides free navigation aids as well.
After many test flights and lots of experimentation, I was finally able to fly from Travis Air Force base in Fairfield, California and land safely on runway 28R at San Francisco using the JSG FMC. I used it in the default Airbus A321, Learjet 45 and Boeing 747 successfully.
Some Things I Learned Along The Way
Waypoints are not always saved in flight plans - at least not the way I intuitively expected. I found that on first loading, my previously saved flight plans loaded without waypoints. Upon clearing the plan and loading from within the flight planner, they appeared! I'm not sure where that bit of information is explained but I never saw it before. Since the JSG FMC relies on getting this data from the flight planner, I was somewhat confused that Flight Simulator saves the plans the way it does.
While VNAV (Vertical Navigation) may be great for saving fuel and adjusting altitude for efficiency sake, I had problems with it. On short flights it really wasn't practical and it had the tendency of increasing the speed to the point of over speed, took its sweet time getting up to cruise altitude, and decided to begin the descent long before the ATC gave me permission; so I climbed to 10,000 feet max and gradually descended to arrive lined up with the runway at 1800 feet and after completing all the waypoints, selected Approach hold on the autopilot and that worked. The autopilot would take off immediately after touching down however, so I found by switching to manual thrust at 1000 feet and disconnecting the autopilot at 500 feet made everything work successfully. From the videos I've seen, airline pilots don't land using the autopilot anyway.
The ATC was too distracting when trying to get the FMC to work so I didn't use it as I normally would. I wasn't sure if the changes I made at the Air Traffic Controller's request were making things work incorrectly. I also don't normally fly in the GPS mode and the FMC switches to that mode whenever the route is activated.
With more experimentation I was able to land without switching to Approach hold. I chose the approach suggested by the Air Traffic Controller, made sure my NAV1 radios were tuned to the correct ILS frequency, activated vectors and the FMC took it from there. The timing of selecting and activating the approach with the FMC made a difference too.
Some other unexpected results happened when I installed the latest A2A/ShockWave 3D runway lights. The installation program overwrote the panel.cfg files so the Universal FMC disappeared from my Learjet and 747 and I had to re-edit those files to get the FMC back.
I found Captain Mike Ray's Boeing 700 Series manual to be an invaluable tool I would recommend to anyone who wants the straight scoop from a commercial pilot with more than 37 years experience. His manuals present very technical subjects in a light-hearted way with plenty of graphics and humor. He points out the stock airplanes in Flight Simulator do not have the required instrumentation to facilitate an accurate simulation with a FMC. If a more robust flight panel is what you wish for, you might consider JSG's 747 or 777 panels which include the FMC.
Mike's flight tutorials will not only get you up to speed using the FMC; it will also have you rolling in the aisles with laughter.
The Navigation log found in the flight planner provides some useful information regarding altitude, heading and distances on our route. The only waypoint from the flight planner I chose by hand that matches the "real" map plate for San Francisco is DARNE - 4.3 miles from the airport.
Likes And Dislikes
One of the things I really like about the Universal FMC is it leaves the Garmin GPS available to use in conjunction with it. The other FMCs I tried eliminate the GPS using the primary flight display for a map view. The navigation display on some versions is an adequate substitute but for many stock FSX aircraft panels it isn't. The GPS icon would display and hide the FMC panel instead of the GPS.
Graphically speaking, the JSG FMC artwork is all right but most of the others I tried were even better. Feature-wise the JSG Universal FMC is fine. I also like the way the JSG model retrieves the flight plan in about 8 seconds. While it isn't as flexible for adding or changing waypoints from the keypad, it takes less setup time than the others. The push back feature is one I like a lot too allowing you to program the FMC from the gateway instead of sitting on the runway before takeoff. The additional sounds are a real plus and make the universal FMC fun to use.
You just can't go wrong with a $15 universal FMC you can install in any of your FSX aircraft. A definite must have to add to your aircraft and a critical piece of equipment to outfit your Boeing fleet. One thing this FMC could use is a comprehensive guide on how to use it. (The same can be said for the other FMCs too.) Answers to questions like: how to use the FMC on a visual versus a GPS or ILS approach would be helpful. Is VNAV a useful tool for takeoffs and landings? Alas, I am still figuring it out.