By Tony Dillon (31 May 2010)
A little bit of personal history to kick the proceedings off today. I've never been a big fan of "flying the heavies" in FS. I understand that they can be an involved and exciting experience but, for me, the sluggishness of response added to the fact that the "correct" way to fly them is via the autopilot, I've never really seen much point in loading up a 747 for a fly around. However, that all changed when Just Flight released Airliner Pilot for FS2004 - a simple program that aimed to provide a career mode for FS, where the application decided what you were going to fly and where you were going to fly it, promoting you from class-to-class as your flying improved, measured on simple things like how well you flew the flight plan, how close to an on-time arrival you were and whether you had breached any of a number of simple rules (too much G in turns, overspeed situations, etc). It was simple and I loved it, and was mightily dismayed when it wouldn't work with FSX, nor were there any plans to release it for FSX.
So it was back to GA flight for me--until now. FS Captain is an extraordinary add-on for both FS2004 and FSX that aims to take the simple premise laid down by Airliner Pilot and build on it into levels previously unseen in this kind of add-on. Without wanting to spoil this review for readers, I love it.
So what is it, exactly?
FS Captain is not a direct replacement for the other products on the market, one of which I've already named, which is apparent from the subtle (and not so subtle) digs in the marketing copy. What it aims to do is provide a realistic career management solution for pilots, carrying passengers or cargo on both scheduled routes and charter aircraft. Unlike other solutions, you aren't expected to manage manifests, select routes or worry about the finances of your airline. Your job is to fly the planes you are asked to, to the destinations provided, in a safe and timely manner while providing a safe, comfortable and enjoyable flight for your passengers. The application will critique you on every aspect of your trip, from the initial passenger load to disembarkation, extending the FS experience well outside the normal flight dynamics.
Installation is straightforward enough. The modest download installs two base applications onto your computer - a flight administration tool, where you can define airline and aircraft parameters, as well as setup schedules and select your flight, and an installer tool that adds a custom gauge to the cockpit of any aircraft you want, which provides the communication point between FS and FSCaptain.
Post installation, the first thing you need to do is get the FCOM gauge installed (and you can install it in anything, from a King Air up to the largest of heavies - the tool is clever enough to work out a realistic set of flights based on the aircraft you're flying) and then get your pilot created. Setting up a pilot is as simple as entering a name and selecting an airline to fly with. FSCaptain uses all the standard generic airlines in Flight Simulator (Landmark, Global, etc.) so there are no additional ATC sounds to install, but interestingly the airline you choose allows you to set the difficulty level. Landmark, for example, are very forgiving of mistakes and will provide the least criticism (read: penalties). Other airlines get progressively more demanding in terms of your flight performance. Once that's done, the last stage is to setup your flight and get going.
There are two methods to instigating a flight - you can either select and load your flight through the desktop administrator tool or, my preferred route, fire up the FCOM once you're already sat in your cockpit and see what's available. Depending on the type of aircraft, your location, any time constraints you want to enter (if you only have an hour to fly, you can enter that and FSC will only find you flights of under an hour) and the time of day, the FCOM will provide a short selection of flights for you to choose from. After selecting one using the simple push-button interface, the fun really begins.
The first thing that surprised me in the most pleasant way was the greeting I was given by my First Officer, whose voice is set over to the right on the stereo spectrum so it really does sound like he's sat next to you. After selecting a flight and starting the passenger load, the effort that has gone into creating a truly atmospheric experience really starts to show. The sounds are just incredible - "plinky" cabin music in the background, the constant chatter of passengers boarding the plane and being directed to their seats by cabin crew, radio communication with the pushback crew, pre-flight safety briefings - it's all here. It really does feel like you are about to fly a plane full of passengers, not just a big empty tin.
After setting up the flight plan and following the usual ATC for departure, the flight remains as engaging as pre-flight. As Captain, not only are you flying the plane, you are issuing instructions to crew for cabin service, controlling the seat-belt signs when approaching turbulence, monitoring the weather ahead and planning accordingly and radioing your position back to the airline where required. It truly is an involving experience, made even more so by the little comments added by your First Officer when you do something slightly wrong ("Have we got our flaps down?", he'll ask, when he knows they are still up).
The true indication of how well you have flown comes when the passengers leave the plane. Do they sound happy? Are the cabin crew waving them goodbye with a smile or are they, as happened after one particularly heavy landing, apologising profusely and almost begging the passengers to fly with you again?
After each flight you are also shown your "score" for the flight, which is made up of a number of factors around the flight. If you want to know more, both the FCOM and the administrator tool let you drill down into each flight and see where you did well, where the airline thinks you are lacking and any overall concerns the airline has. You are going to have to be a very good heavy pilot to pass with flying colours every time.
Is It Worth Having?
A resounding, 100% yes. This is a fantastic add-on for FS in every sense of the word. It's kept me away from GA for a couple of weeks - which is a real achievement - and I found myself in marathon sessions of flight-after-flight, fully enjoying the entire experience. If you've never flown the bigger jets because, like me, it's hard to see the point in them sometimes, then you have to get this. If you love flying jumbos, you have to get this. A spectacular, deep and highly impressive piece of kit.
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