FS2004 - A Century Of Flight Part 1: Weather
By Andrew Herd (30 June 2003)
ot long ago, we took our plane up for a thirty minute flight to get one of the syndicate current. The weather looked fine on take-off, yet twenty minutes later a huge cu-nim had settled over the field and was showing no signs of moving on. Sheets of rain were lashing across the grass and the guy on the radio in the clubhouse told us that the wind strength was varying between 5 and 45 knots and our guess was as good as his which direction it would be in on final. Needless to say, we held off, orbiting for what turned out to be a two hour flight before that cloud finally decided the field had had enough and decided it was going to move on and give someone else a hard time. That sort of thing just doesn't happen to you in Flight Simulator... or at least, it didn't until now.
Weather is the most important consideration most pilots have to take into account after aircraft serviceability and yet Flight Simulator has barely nodded in its direction before now. Although FS2002 and prior releases have introduced wind layers, turbulence, mist, fog, clouds and precipitation, I am willing to bet that the vast majority of simmers fly through blue skies, or perhaps with a single favorite cloud scheme. Sure, FS2002 does let you download 'real' weather, but this only takes effect within a relatively narrow radius of the met station selected, making it virtually useless for anything but the shortest of flights. The alternative is to download the so-called 'global' weather, which avoids that sudden entry into the bluest of blue skies after fifty miles of tough IFR, but leaves you the sure knowledge that whatever weather you have on departure is gonna be the conditions you will have on arrival - hardly typical of the way the real world works. There are many issues with FS2002 weather, including bugs like 'sticky turbulence' which persists from flight to flight and frequent 'billboard' clouds, but the major problem is that there isn't a system linking the weather together and this, ultimately, is why most simmers find it wanting. FS2004 fixes that, and how.
According to Microsoft, the key changes are that Flight Simulator now has a dynamic weather system which is based on realistic atmospheric physics; true three-dimensional clouds that form and dissipate; automatic real-world weather updates from the Internet, which allow for changing weather along the route of a flight; weather “themes”, which are effectively 'canned' weather systems for simmers who want to fly in a particular type of weather; linkage of weather conditions to air traffic control (ATC), so that controllers instructions vary depending on the type of flight plan filed; and lots of other neat stuff, such as the first believable haze I can recall seeing in a sim. And yeah, they couldn't resist adding lens flare as well, but you can always turn it off if you don't like it! What we are talking of is a complete rewrite of the weather system, which now has as much code in it as most games do in their own right, yet somehow manages to run without slowing the system to an absolute crawl - I'm not saying there isn't a speed penalty, just that it isn't as high as you would think it might be. I did quite a few flights on a 1.7 GHz Pentium and found that as long as I wasn't too greedy with the effects sliders, the whole thing ran acceptably well.
Perhaps the best way to describe the weather is to describe a flight or two and what better place to go than Ketchikan International, Alaska, because they have some of the worst weather in the world up there. Just to make it more interesting, I decided to take the Lear from there to Prince Rupert in British Columbia, which runs PAKT a close second for cloudiest place on the planet.
The first sign that you aren't in Kansas any more is the Weather Dialog, which has been given the FS2004 scheme makeover and is looking better for it, but this deceptively simple page hides an stunningly complex engine, which amounts to a simulator in its own right. One of the aims of the development team has been to make the guts of Flight Simulator more accessible and this dialog is a good example of the way they have gone about it. Up top is a list that lets you choose any one of a list of weather themes, varying from clear skies to a major thunderstorm. Not only will the weather engine apply the scheme, but it will tweak it depending on where in the world you happen to be - so for example you can see huge thunderstorms over the Gulf of Mexico, where dry, stable air from the high plains of the Midwest gets undercut by moist air from the Gulf, resulting in the infamous 'Super Cells' and (on a really bad day) tornadoes. If you don't want to fly using a theme, the choices are to define your own weather, or to download some - you make your selections using the radio buttons. Down the bottom there you can see a slider, which alters the rate at which the weather changes, which is useful if you aren't using downloaded weather, because it forces conditions to change; it is up to you to decide at what speed it happens, but my impression is that there is about a four-fold difference between the slowest and fastest rates. Be careful of setting the change rate too high if you are using downloaded weather, because it can lead to weird situations where the weather evolves into some new pattern and then it all gets reset as FS2004 goes back online and updates it with real world data 15 minutes later; but the speed option will be a great favourite for use with user-defined weather.
All the familiar options for user-defined weather are still there, though thanks to the dynamic nature of the weather system, setting the dew-point takes on an entirely new meaning: if the temperature and dew point are such that precipitation or fog would occur in the real world, there is a chance it will in Flight Simulator too. There is endless fun to be had experimenting with atmospheric conditions and by turning the rate of change to extreme I managed to create a thunderstorm over Diego Garcia that grew so fast that the Lear couldn't outclimb it - somewhere around FL430 I called it quits. For what it is worth, you won't get any icing effects on performance of either the props, the carb or the wings unless you are using the highest realism settings and have the weather dialog configured appropriately; and don't forget that airframe icing only occurs in a relatively narrow band of temperature, so don't go setting the outside temperature too cold, or you won't get any ice at all! Visible icing will have to wait until a later version of FS.
Downloadable weather works much as it ever did, although to better effect. Jeppesen have retained the contract to provide weather station data for Flight Simulator and supply data to a central Microsoft server. By default, the weather you get if you have real weather set in FS is the weather at the reporting station nearest to your location - which can be quite a way away in some parts of the world. But you have a great deal of choice and you can choose a specific station or even a clutch of stations if you want.
Once the weather is set, FS2004 gets along with providing it and you don't have to worry about it any more; yet this is where the fun starts. Because the weather is now dynamic, it changes, and this means that a nice sunny day can go awesomely wrong on you... or stay just fine. I have become a compulsive FS weather tourist, simply because it is so interesting seeing all the different conditions people get to experience. Time it right and you can experience a monsoon in Delhi, the sea breeze at San Diego and a thunderstorm over Darwin - all in the same day. Of course, you can also visit the UK and experience the worst Atlantic Frontal weather can throw at you, but I get enough of that at work (-: Some parts of the world have inherently unpredictible climates and I have developed a deep interest in meteorology simply because I happen to live in one of them, but I am awaiting the release of the weather software development kit (SDK) with particular interest, because in theory, it should be possible to create new themes and I can forsee weather becoming a major source of future FS add-ons.
It is great flying in the sun, but it doesn't always shine and real pilots are obsessed with the weather. I don't care what kind of plane they fly, or where in the world they live, the one thing they have in common is a respect for the atmosphere. If it gets too hot, the plane won't climb; if the vis closes in, they have to consider diverting; if a storm builds enroute, they have to go over or around it; the list of things that affect them is endless and it comes to dominate their lives. If you want to get a better idea of how much the weather affects pilots, I suggest reading any of the 'I Learned About Flying From That' series found in general aviation magazines, because most, if not all the stories have a weather aspect. Flight Simmers are about to be introduced to this courtesy of FS2004 and my prediction is that not only will it will radically change people's experience of the sim; it will also increase their enjoyment of it. All of a sudden that nice, predictible flight from Ketchikan to Rupert becomes an adventure.
I had almost forgotten about that. OK, rewind. Let's go to Alaska, turn on some real weather and talk METARS. The aviation world relies on cryptic one or two line accounts of the weather and these come in two forms: forecast and actual weather. Actuals are known as METARS and look like this in Europe:
TEESSIDE EGNV 221850Z 27010KT 9999 FEW023CB SCT035 20/16 Q1003
And this in the US:
KETCHIKAN PAKT 221853Z 34009KT 10SM FEW023 BKN070 A2994
I'm not proposing to go into the details of how to decode these, but in general they are issued twice an hour and the Teesside one shows a stormy evening with good vis, though Ketchikan looks a better bet for a barbeque. (If you are interested in decoding them, there is a METAR decoder available for download from our file library.) The one thing to note is that the UK METAR uses kilometers/millibars and the US one statute miles/inches of mercury, but when you check that FS dialog and set real weather it can decode them both; though this is nothing new. What is new is that the weather looks more real and I know it is likely to be different at our destination (mostly because I checked the METAR there, which was:
PRINCE RUPERT, B.C. CYPR 230700Z 31005KT 9SM OVC012 OVC025 11/09 A3001 RMK SLP164
So let's go, we may not get a better day.
Now to my mind, one of the great joys of Flight Simulator is that you don't have to do everything the hard way, so we will start with the Lear on the runway and while you explain to the folk in back that in the event of a crash there will be a loud noise and a sudden reduction in the number of wings, I will admire the new virtual cockpit - which is full of working buttons and stuff - and then change to the familiar old 2D panel, because I happen to understand it. FS2004 seems to have taken a fairly liberal view of what 'few' clouds mean; that looks more like broken at 2300 to me. There are any number of reasons why what we are seeing may not exactly match the METAR, not least delays on the server, but I got the actual up there from the Meteorological Office as I loaded the flight. To be honest, I can't say I really mind if the weather in Flight Simulator is out of synch with the real world for some, or even all of the time, just as long as it behaves the way proper weather does.
Welcome to proper clouds, huh? Just look at that one building behind me. Looks like it is going to be bumpy with all this convection; and sure enough, there is a light chop. The Lear breaks out somewhere around 8500 and we set a rough course for Rupert knowing that if we get really lost, we can always slew into the right place, but there isn't much danger of that happening, as long as you can figure out how to use the GPS.
The clouds in FS2004 are totally wonderful, there is no other word for them. I will admit that some of them are more wonderful than others and the dark nimbus aren't the best of the bunch, but the ordinary cumulus, castellanus and altocu are very, very good indeed. Best of all, if you watch them, they are changing all the time and they drift with the wind, so no two orbits are the same. The trouble with FS clouds is that they can really soak up processor cycles, so there are sliders to control the proportion of 3D clouds and the distance from the plane at which clouds are visible - which introduces a whole new area of calculations into FS performance tweaking. If you are a dedicated Cub flyer, you won't be able to get high enough to have this worry, but big iron drivers are going to address the obvious problem that from FL330 a cloud radius of only twenty miles is going to look more than a little odd; unless you like the idea of flying above your own personal patch of clouds. On top of all this, there are two types of clouds; 'proper' 3D ones and a 2D type known as 'imposters' which, depending on your settings, start being used about 4 nautical miles from the aircraft. Imposters behave like FS2002 clouds and so save processor cycles, but the downside is that they don't look as good as their 'smart' cousins.
The other issue will only be of interest to long-haul simmers, which is that FS2004 doesn't do oceanic weather. Basically, you don't get weather over the ocean unless you set it yourself, which is easy enough, I guess. There also appears to be a distinct lack of weather in areas far from reporting stations, which means that some coastal (or even inland flights in remote parts of the world) will be weatherless, unless you select the option to take weather from a distant station. While this is mere detail, give it a year and folk will have forgotten how radical the weather system is and have taken to bitching about having to manually set stations in mid-flight.
The shot here shows us breaking out at Rupert, which is having an unusually fine day which solid cloud right down to 1200 feet, but the main thing is that the weather is completely different from our departure point in Alaska. Needless to say, the wind is in the wrong direction for the ILS and we get vectored onto 31, breaking out at 1100 feet and then just after I call the runway in sight, the threshold disappears in the clag, before the lights appeared, but dimly, through mist. Theoretically, I could see just enough to remain visual, but if it gets any worse, we may have had to execute a missed approach, though thanks to some good luck and good airmanship we make it down without any problem at all. Out of interest, I left the plane on the pavement with the Internet connection up and half an hour later it had really clamped down and there would have been no chance of getting in. This is another key difference between FS2002 and FS2004 - in the older version of the sim, once you were visual, there was no chance of the situation changing - now it can. Another feature that spices up ILS approaches is that, as you can see here, the cloud base is liable to be much more uneven in FS2004 than in the previous version, which is considerably more realistic.
If the clouds aren't eye candy enough, the rain is much better. At long last the droplets come in different sizes, run down the screen properly and are visible on the side-screens. In addition, as the screen shot below shows, precipitation fills the screen, as opposed to occuring only in a limited area around the plane, which looked so incredibly silly I always wondered why the developers bothered with the effect at all in the last version. There also appears to be several different densities of rain, at least as far as I can tell. The snow has had the same kind of makeover, but then neither of them lies on the runway; they just vanish when they hit the ground. Yep, I know it isn't right, but I guess that the team had to draw the line somewhere - but having seen what they can do with weather, I would love to see it in the next version!
The addition of believable haze and mist makes a huge difference to the sim. The picture here shows the Lear turning final at CYPR and shows the 'new' mist effect really well, but haze is something entirely different. Haze is the curse of VFR, because it is prone to strike on what would otherwise be beautiful, cloudless flying days. When we get it, the cause is usually descending air which traps pollution under an inversion, so by definition it normally happens when there is high pressure. One peculiarity of haze is that it isn't very noticeable from the ground, although there are clues if you know what you are looking for; one giveaway is a faint purple band extending about ten degrees above the horizon.
Haze can be so bad as to make a day which looks fine from the office completely unflyable with visibility down to less than a couple of nautical miles (four kilometers) - if you do get aloft, you find yourself flying in what feels like a fishbowl with such dirty sides that you can't see out. Climb through the inversion and you can see forever, but descend back down into it and you are back in the murk again. The worst thing about haze is that it is worst when you look up sun and given that the prevailing wind is from the west in Europe, that means that landing around sunset can be seriously challenging, as you squint into the filth. To give you an idea of how bad it can get, there was one occasion this Spring when I only spotted the threshold when I was two hundred yards out and was forced to go around. When I mentioned it to my neighbor at home, he looked up at the apparently clear sky and you could see the disbelief in his face.
Now haze is hard to do in a sim. Below the inversion, it is a horrible brownish tinged mist, but the top of a haze layer is a rather attractive milky color, often studded with cumulus, which float in it looking for all the world like aerial icebergs. FS2004 has pretty good haze and I expect it to be a revalation to simmers who fly regularly in Europe, where we are prone to get it on a regular basis, but it affects pilots all over the world and on a really bad day can create IFR conditions with an otherwise clear sky.
At first sight, the wind and turbulence seem much as they did before, though turbulence is obviously linked with the type of cloud present. This means that turbulence is more common in cumulus than it is in stratus and thunderstorms generate exciting wind shear, if that is the proper word for it. However, if you use the sim for a while, you will realise that the turbulence effects have been completely rewritten, with light chop being particularly realistic. The developers deserve a pat on the back for this, because the turbulence in previous versions was a joke, the standard effect being a quick yaw from one side to the other, rather than the bumpy road effect that goes with the real thing.
There is better lightning, though it won't strike the plane. One area where improvements could be made is the inside of cu-nims, which is the nearest thing to hell on earth you can imagine, but they are pussycats in the sim. FS2006, perhaps?
Sailplane fans will be pleased by FS2004 because there are hints that the SDKs might make it pretty easy to create thermals and ridge soaring. We are still stuck with the Schweizer rather than a more modern glider, but I guess you can't win them all.
And that is pretty much that, though there is one other thing before we move on. You will notice that I have used the Lear in all the shots and it isn't just because of the new visual model. Microsoft appear to have rewritten it from the ground up and the only legacy code left in it seems to be the 2D panel - and even that has changed, with the autothrottles separated from the autopilot. Best of all, the flight model has been fixed and it flies like it should. The FS2002 version was so bad I rarely used it, but in FS2004, particularly if you are a fan of the new working virtual cockpits, it is a great plane for touring the weather.
There is one last thing. The improvements in FS2004 suddenly make sense of the whole idea of downloadable weather, but they introduce a new problem for flight simmers: weather forecasting. Yeah, I am being serious. If you want to make Flight Simulator as real as it gets, then developing an understanding of what the weather might do next will add hugely to your enjoyment. To get this into perspective, I'm not suggesting that if the downloaded weather is bad you should cancel your flight, but you might fly IFR instead of VFR and change to a plane capable of getting you there and back in one piece. There are many sources of free aviation weather data available around the world and if you take a little time to learn how to read forecasts and actuals, then those storm cells won't take you by surprise. We will look at bringing you a piece on how to go about it - but meantime, if you want to see the worst the atmosphere can do, try this link.Andrew Herd
Visit our FS2004 message forum.
Visit the official Microsoft web site.
Andrew's previous FS2004 preview article.
Dell Dimension 8300
By Nels Anderson
Here's the Dell 8300 system both inside and out.
The flights for this article were made on a Dell Dimension 8300. This system currently holds the sweet spot in top end price-performance for a flight simulation screamer. It has all the power and performance features we have always wanted for realistic flight simulation (at a price we can easily afford). What's even more important, the Dimension 8300 is widely available around the world, unlike the Dell Dimension XPS which is only available in the United States at this time. Although we have extensively tested FS2004 on other systems and include such data to help readers make purchasing decisions, the Dimension 8300 allows the reviewing team to run A Century of Flight at the highest possible settings in order to demonstrate every feature.
Dell engineers combined the very best in high performance with economical design to bring us the power of advanced technology at a very affordable cost. They built a multimedia machine that answers nearly every item on a flightsimmer's wish list with:
- Extreme performance using an ultra-fast 3 GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor with Hyper-Threading Technology, 800 MHz front side bus and the Intel(r) 875P chipset.
- Blazing fast 8X AGP port (with full 8X bandwidth) and DirectX 9 graphics support.
- Dual channel DDR 400 MHz SDRAM memory for extreme performance with memory-intensive applications such as Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002, FS2004: A Century of Flight and Combat Flight Simulator 3.
- The awesome 128MB ATI Radeon 9800 Pro video card.
- The Sound Blaster Audigy 2 card for premium sound and extreme
high-definition audio performance that rivals high-end home stereo
and home theater systems.
The Dell 8300 system installed and in use running FS2004 at FlightSim.Com world HQ.
- Built-in 10/100 Ethernet port for instant network connections and broadband peripherals.
- 250W power supply.
- Quiet chassis with excellent cooling and heat dissipation.
- Plenty of room for expansion with:
- 2 - internal 3.5" bays
- 2 - external 5.25" bays
- 2 - external 3.5" bays
- 4 - PCI, 1 -AGP slot
- 8 - USB 2.0 ports,
- 17" Dell UltraSharp Flat Panel Display set to 1280x1024 resolution and 32-bit color depth with all the graphics and effects sliders in FS2002 and FS2004: A Century of Flight set to their maximum positions.