Just Flight Traffic 2005 For FS2004
By Andrew Herd (26 August 2005)
he first time I saw proper AI (artificial intelligence) traffic in Flight Simulator was when I sat down to write the previews for FS2002 for this site nearly four years ago; at the time, it was a revolutionary concept, because before that all we had was dynamic scenery. For those of you who only just tuned in, dynamic scenery was a rigid system which gave scenery designers the ability to make objects follow a specific path on the ground or in the air. The problem with using dynamic scenery for aircraft was that planes were spawned somewhere just before long final and disappeared not long after takeoff and neither was it exactly processor efficient, so AI traffic was born. AI traffic was a huge advance on dynamic scenery in that once an AI plane had been given a flight plan it would go off and fly it - moreover, simmers could encounter other planes in the virtual skies, making the whole experience considerably more realistic. Couple this with virtual Air Traffic Control (ATC) and suddenly a whole new world opened in front of our eyes; in fact, before I forget, I am going to take the opportunity to say how hugely impressive I found it all in 2001. We tend to forget and end up taking these things for granted, so let's give a cheer for the team at Microsoft.
Simmers being the demanding sort of people that they are, it wasn't long before the stars fell from the community's eyes and people started looking critically at the whole ATC/AI traffic thing. The first problem was that there have only ever been ten voices for air traffic, recorded from members of the FS development team and naturally enough, they all have American accents which sound a little out of place in Birmingham, Bangkok and points east. Second, Flight Simulator only shipped with a limited number of AI planes and airlines, so that by the time FS2004 had been out a few months I and a million other simmers didn't care if we never saw another Orbit or Landmark livery again. Third, the amount of traffic was limited and unrepresentative of the patterns at many regional airports; fourth, there were issues with addon scenery; and finally, there was no military traffic or helicopters.
Ungrateful lot that we are, we began to ask for more (-: A trend slowly began for freeware authors to develop and distribute specially designed 'AI planes' which had reduced polygon counts so that it was possible to run AI at more than 10% - one group of these developers banded together to form 'Project AI', with the intention to produce, among other things, complete airline AI packages, including flight plans and repaints in self-installing format. These ventures raised a new problem, which is that the default airports have too few assigned parking spaces for real-world scheduled traffic to fit into them, leading to the disconcerting sight of planes without spaces landing and vanishing at the end of the runway. The whole AI traffic movement would have ground to a halt if Lee Swordy hadn't produced AFCAD and Traffic Tools, freeware utilities which made it possible not only to create AI flight plans, but to modify airport facility data files so that planes could taxi to their correct parking spots. Another cheer for Lee, guys and gals, and let's hear it at the back, this time!
Adding AI traffic using these tools is fun, but very time consuming, so understandably it has always been something of a minority sport, not that it has stopped keen individuals posting thousands of new AI planes, schedules and AFCAD files on FlightSim.Com. If you want to learn more, there are some great tutorials around, starting with this one by Hans Fog, but I think you will agree once you have read it that there have to be easier ways of filling the virtual sky. Mindful of the fact that some of us have day jobs, several commercial products have appeared to fill the gap and today we are taking a look at JustFlight's Traffic 2005, a product which has considerably enhanced since it first appeared and has deservedly become a firm favorite. Traffic 2005 completely replaces FS2004's default AI traffic, adding 63 new AI aircraft and four new helicopters in 500 different liveries, flying more than 280,000 different flight plans. This is a considerable increase on Traffic 2004, which had 170,000 flights and 120 liveries, although it is less than Ultimate Traffic (also sold by JustFlight) which in its current version claims 400,000 flights and 800 liveries, but 2005 Traffic takes a different approach to its Flight1 rival and adds many extras. A lot of users like the way it does things.
2005 Traffic is available on a single DVD ROM (Note: it is NOT on a CD) and will install on a 1.7 Ghz system running Windows 98 or better, as long as it has at least 256 Mb of RAM and 2.8 Gb of hard disk space. Installation is not complex as long as you are capable of finding the DVD drive on your system and then slumping against the kitchen units while you drink an espresso - there are a couple of ads for other JustFlight products that have to be clicked through, but after that the install can be left unattended. While this was going on I tipped the box out on the table to reveal a 36 page English language manual and the usual flyer for JustFlight addons. A new program group appears in the Start Menu, containing links to the 2005 Traffic website and numerous applets, including: AI smooth; a flyable AI aircraft conversion tool; a random flight plan wizard; a repaint assistant; a taxi speed tool; a traffic editor; and an app which restores the default ATC and/or AI traffic. JustFlight describe Traffic 2005 as an 'open system' that can be modified and customised to the user's preferences and no-one could accuse them of failing to provide the tools to do it, although the interfaces of the applets could be refined and the documentation that goes with them is best described as concise, but if you are reasonably experienced with FS2004 and are prepared to do a little extra reading, it is hard to imagine what else you require.
Flipping through the manual revealed other benefits: you get four additional pilot voices: two British accents, plus one German and one American. Then there is 'Spotty', a special viewing mode which can be opened like a normal plane and allows you to watch traffic come and go; Spotty's functions can be duplicated in a default FS setup, but Traffic 2005 adds variety. You also get an interesting new 'control tower' view boasting a couple of monitors, a drivable 'follow me' vehicle and a 'traffic view' tool that lets you watch traffic in a wide area around your own plane.
The first thing I did was load the follow-me vehicle at a couple of our local airports and take in the sights. The default airlines were gone, replaced by a new set of AI liveries and planes - so I sat and watched them for a while and concluded that it all looked extremely realistic, apart from at night, when the landing lights on most of the planes make it look as if they are pushing floating white triangles before them if you look down from the air. The new AI planes should have the correct liveries for carriers operating from an airport and they fly real routes, but for a variety of reasons quoted in the manual, they don't operate 'real' timetables: first, AI aircraft have a minimum turn-around time between arrival and departure; second, they have either to fly a return route, or a circular tour that ends at the departure airport; third, unexpected headwinds and go-arounds can upset timings. So Traffic 2005's alternative is to operate repetitive cycles of flights, which do a reasonably good job of simulating real traffic. The one time this system breaks down is at regional airports, whose stands tend to be thinly populated except at peak times; because Traffic 2005 averages its flight plans out across the entire day, stand occupancy barely varies and you don't tend see the peaks and troughs you get with 'real timetable' traffic addons.
Another thing you are likely to notice if you know an airport well is that planes don't always park where you expect them to - in other words, normal FS AI parking rules apply. Traffic 2005 modifies the parking at more than 1400 airports to make them more realistic and 50 of the majors have completely accurate parking, but the vast majority of fields have the stands as Microsoft provided them. This can be fixed using AFCAD2, by downloading new facility files from the Traffic 2005 website, or by getting facility files from FlightSim.Com - we must have thousands of 'em. I checked out a selection of addon sceneries with Traffic 2005 and they all worked fine as long as the sceneries included updated AFD files - if you install sceneries which don't have these, you may find aircraft landing parallel to the main runway, taxiing on the grass and parking inside buildings thanks to corrections the scenery developers have made to runway layouts and additional scenery. Incidentally, don't forget that some older sceneries may include static aircraft as an option; make sure these are switched off, or AI traffic will be reduced for lack of parking space.
This is an appropriate moment to talk about flight plans - Traffic 2005 comes with 280,000, which sounds like a lot, until you recall that FS2004 has very nearly 24,000 airports, which gives a global average of a bit less than 12 flights per field (by comparison, the figure for Ultimate Traffic is just under 17). In practice, because Traffic 2005 flights repeat, much of Ultimate Traffic's theoretical advantage is eliminated and the majority of Western airports have plenty of arrivals and departures. However, Kyrgyzstan was deserted when I visited, Monvrovia was best described as quiet and there was absolutely nothing doing at Funafuti International in Tuvalu - but to my amazement, Buyant-Ukhaa in Ulaanbaatar had four Mongolian Airlines 737s in as well as an Asiana plane waiting on the stands when I pitched up. It would be great to see the number of flights expanded, but as it is, the total is adequate and the resulting activity reflects what is happening in the real world fairly accurately, in that I wouldn't expect to find airliners jockeying for position at the hold at Funafuti; it just isn't that kind of place. Suffice it to say that like all AI packages, Traffic 2005 serves some parts of the world better than others, but new flight plans are being added to the Traffic 2005 website all the time, so if your favorite airport isn't served, keep checking. Otherwise, the easiest cure for loneliness is to run Traffic 2005's random flight plan wizard, which not only lets you select which airline and aircraft you want to fly from the place JustFlight forgot, but also where the flights will go and how many planes will fly the route. I had a great deal of fun with this applet, which even lets you generate flights which stop at several different airports before returning back to base - to say it is a no-brainer is an understatment.
With a little extra effort, you can even download freeware AI planes, drop them into the Traffic 2005 AI folders and generate flight plans for them and last time I looked there were 37 pages of additional freeware liveries on the Traffic 2005 website, so unless your tastes are particularly off the wall, your favorite airline is likely to be in there - though the drop down list for aircraft type selection on the website had not been populated at the time I did the review. If you seriously get into this addictive program, the flight plan editor lets you create custom flights, routing via waypoints you specify, and there is even a basic aircraft editor that can be used to make 'foreign' AI planes behave themselves.
Before moving on to the other extras, I should warn you that airports take ten minutes or so to get going, this being a problem that curses all AI packages. So when you first load your plane at Buyant-Ukhaa, the Boeings do nothing but sit and wait, but after a few minutes, one of them will push back and start taxiing and if you are patient, the rest will eventually follow. Even at a regional hub, it can take time for activity to establish itself, so if you are the kind of simmer who likes to load a plane, taxi out as fast as possible and roar off into the wide blue yonder, your investment will be wasted, other than a few passing blips on your TCAS, until you arrive at your destination; by that time, assuming your flight is more than a short hop, Traffic 2005 should be in full swing.
One of the ways I checked out the AI in Traffic 2005 was to load a 'spotter' plane at an airport, switch to spot plane view, pan around until I had a good view and then leave the PC running, dropping back into the office periodically to see how things were going - I know it sounds tough, but someone has to do it. During the review I managed to cut the grass, drive my wife's horse around some cones without having an accident and have a beer, so I can tell you I worked damned hard. Watching the AI planes go about their business is absorbing in a funny kind of a way and I gather that some simmers actually use AI traffic on Flight Simulator as a screensaver - if you do this, my advice is not to choose Buyant-Ukhaa as not much happens there (-:
The AISmooth app must be run before FS2004 starts and it is a clever attempt to fix the well-known problem of go-arounds at busy airports; doing this by using a set of rules to put selected aircraft into holds. In most places this works well, although you have to live with the fact that holding planes don't retract their gear if the diversion to hold occurs after their gear has been lowered, and that AISmooth isn't smart enough to work out where mountains are, so using it for flights into places like Aspen or Innsbruck is asking for trouble.
Traffic 2005 offers several different ways of viewing its AI planes at work, all of which are accessed from the 'JustFlight Traffic 2005' item on FS2004's 'Select Aircraft' menu. The first is 'tower view' which loads a control tower with you inside at the selected airport, which can be moved using the slew command, JustFlight having thoughtfully provided a set of icons on the tower's desk so the building to be slewed around the airport and rotated to face as you wish - just make sure that you disable all the joystick assigned slew commands before you use this option as many joysticks 'chatter' at rest. Chatter can produce some interesting results when the tower is being slewed; for example, my CH Products yoke fed in a spurious signal which made the tower fall slowly end over end until I disabled joystick slew. The tower desk has two monitors on it, one showing the area around the airport and the other a selection of met information, but you can also pop up the ATC window and even a top down view of the airport to see where all the planes are, as shown in the top right screenshot. One of the really neat things about Traffic 2005 is that there is a choice of four control towers, ranging from an 'airfield' sized one to a spindly 'international' job - admittedly the all look the same, apart from their height, but I enjoyed using them. Not often that you get to drive a control tower around an airport.
The second way you can view the traffic is to enable 'Spotty', the virtual aircraft spotter, from the select aircraft menu. Spotty's interface is a bag stuffed with a pair of binoculars, a chart and a GPS; there are eleven different click spots on the bag and Spotty can be slewed around just like the tower, except that selecting him as your viewing option brings you down to earth with a bump as he is, naturally enough, at ground level. Finally, there is the yellow 'follow me' van, which can be driven around the field to view hot-spots like the queue building up at Gatwick (EGKK). Whichever method you use to admire them, the AI planes are designed to a very acceptable standard and the liveries are fine - bearing in mind that the one thing that you do not want in an AI traffic addon is beautifully complex AI planes with 32 bit liveries as that sort of combination slows FS down to a crawl unless you are running it on a supercomputer. The 'flyable aircraft tool' will convert your choice of AI planes to flyable versions, but to be honest, I wouldn't hold your breath.
Taking a brief look at the other options, the traffic map and traffic explorer (both accessible off a new 'tools' menu that appear in FS2004) are variations of the same thing - traffic map gives you a kind of radar screen showing the relative position of the AI traffic for a hundred miles around you, together with a table identifying the traffic, while traffic explorer gives you the table without the map. Opening either in spot view mode with the follow me vehicle at the threshold of a busy aircraft reduced FS2004 to a slideshow, but AI traffic developers will find them very useful tools.
Traffic 2005 worked well for me, apart from at the busier airports when AI traffic levels were set to 65% or above in the FS menus. Under these conditions, if I didn't run AISmooth, a long queue of traffic tended to build up at the threshold because incoming planes were getting priority - with AISmooth enabled, the reverse tended to be the case, although some planes did make it in from time to time and the queue was still pretty long. The queues settle down eventually, but it takes a long time for it to happen. To be fair, all non-timetable based AI traffic packages tend to exhibit this kind of behavior, but the modified traffic.bgl that Traffic 2005 installs creates the occasional problem, for example it isn't uncommon to see a single runway being used for both landings and takeoffs even when others are available - London Gatwick being a good example of this. I spent a long time fooling around trying to even out arrivals and departures situation before coming to the conclusion that the only practical method was to pull the AI traffic level slider back until the problem went away - but this isn't necessarily the best solution if you are flying from a busy airport to a quieter one, as your destination can end up being too quiet unless you adjust the sliders again. An interesting general point about AI traffic is that if significant queues do occur on taxiways, there is a chance that you will see the occasional plane disappear. This isn't a bug in Traffic 2005 - it is caused by FS2004 deleting any aircraft that halts for too long to aid traffic flow - the feature apparently being hard encoded into FS2004, so that it cannot be changed and as far as I know the only solution is to lower the traffic percentage slider. One other point of interest was that at the larger airports it isn't uncommon to get three or four planes from the same carrier one behind the other in a queue if taxiways fill up soon after FS has loaded, but the one significant bug I came across only occurred with AISmooth in operation and was that planes very occasionally flew in inverted. There are said to be a few planes with missing textures, but if so, I didn't see any.
Even with AISmooth enabled, you will get occasional go-arounds at busy airports with 65%+ traffic levels, usually because an aircraft is slow to clear the runway, but the problem can be fixed to a large extent, because JustFlight (these guys just don't give up, do they?) have included a taxi speed adjustment tool. This tool can be used to set runway and taxiway taxi speeds separately, its chief use being to make AI planes enter and clear the runway faster. If AISmooth could be enhanced to limit queuing on the taxiways, or had a 'balance arrivals and departures' option, and a 'use different runways for landings and takeoffs' checkbox, realistic looking traffic flows would be achievable even at international airports. I strongly advise you to uncheck the 'enable ATC voice' in the main AISmooth window and the 'display ATC messages' in the settings box (see the screenshot above right) before you start FS, or the announcements will drive you insane, but having used the app for a while, it is clear that AISmooth has considerable potential and I await the next version with interest.
One of the best things about Traffic 2005 is that, as I mentioned earlier, it adds four more pilot voices, a couple of British English ones, a German English one and another US voice. After so many years of hearing the same voices over and over again on FS ATC, the new voices alone make the package worth the asking price - given the huge amount of work that I know went into recording all the thousands of words and phrases necessary to create this pack. I have long been convinced that someone could make good money selling a package with extra ATC voices, but the last place I expected to find my dream was in an AI traffic package; thanks, JustFlight. The final feature that might tip you into a purchase is that Traffic 2005 includes some helicopter traffic, but while this is a terrific feature, it isn't unique to this package - in fact as far as I can recall, the first addon to have chopper AI was My Traffic Military.
Verdict? There is a wide choice of AI traffic packs available now, ranging from the freeware discussed at the beginning of this article, through the very expensive, but bang up-to-the-minute timetable-based FS Live Traffic and the seasonally updated timetable-based Ultimate Traffic, to the timetable-simulating My Traffic and Traffic 2005. The two approaches have their pros and cons: the limitations of FS2004 mean that it can't reflect what real world traffic is doing with total accuracy, but real world timetable-based AI undeniably gets pretty close. The key question is whether you actually need to see real-world traffic - we could argue about this all day, but personally, since I don't carry airline timetables in my head, I don't mind how AI traffic is generated as long as it looks realistic. If you are fed up with the default traffic and aren't a timetable fanatic, then Traffic 2005 is well worth considering, not least because it comes with such a stack of tools and goodies thrown in - the random flight plan wizard being worthy of particular mention, since it lets you create new flights with such ease.Andrew Herd