Aerosoft Flightsim Commander X For FSX And FS2004
By Andrew Herd (4 December 2007)
lightsim Commander is a Swiss army knife of a program the primary function of which is to create, manage and display VFR and IFR flight plans, but which also includes a moving map display, adds TCAS facility, searches for weather data, finds active VATSIM and IVAO controllers, calculates fuel consumption, keeps a log book, does flight analysis and makes the coffee.
Alright, I lied about the coffee - but the rest, it does. Programs of this description have been in demand since Flight Simulator was first released, part of the cure for that frisson of '...now just where in the world do you think we are?' which is so well known to real and simulated pilots everywhere. One of the best things about addons of this type is that they impose hardly any additional load on the system and they can be left to run in the background until needed. Hardware requirements as given on the box are FSX or FS2004, a 2.0 Ghz processor or better, a 64 Mb graphics card, Windows XP SP2 or Windows 2000/NT, 256 Mb of RAM and 500 Mb of free hard disk space. Note that neither the manual nor the box mention compatibility with Vista, although I did the test using FSX SP1 on a 2.66 Ghz Core2Duo running Vista on a 768 Mb GeForce 8800GTX in 4 Gb of RAM. The version of the program I reviewed was given on the CD as 8.1.
You might ask, 'Why do I need any flight planning software when Flight Simulator already provides it?' to which my response is, the FS planner is fine until you want to create more complex plans, or to edit long routes, in which case all the weaknesses of its tiny edit window and clunky display system become apparent. The built in planner hasn't been upgraded since who knows when and although it is just about acceptable for VFR and short IFR planning, it doesn't cut the mustard as far as anything more ambitious is concerned.
The program comes on a single CD in a DVD-style box, which is a shame in a way, because I really liked the old-style Aerosoft cardboard boxes, speaking as they did of the quality of a bygone era; which contains a registration card and an 86 page manual in English. Initial installation is quick and involves no more than putting the disk in the drive, entering the registration code printed on a sticker inside the case and letting things happen. Flightsim Commander requires Pete Dowson's FSUIPC to run and will install a copy if you don't have one on disk already, the good news being that it does not overwrite later versions, like some addons I could mention (-:
The next step takes rather longer, because a database manager must be run, which merges airport data from Flight Simulator with the Aeronautical Information Regulation And Control (AIRAC) data that Flightsim Commander uses to create its flight plans. The database manager must be run once for each version of Flight Simulator you have installed, because differences in the data means that it creates separate databases for FS2004 and FSX, but unless you install any addon scenery later, that is the only time you will have to use the app. The only potential problem users are likely to face is pointing the database app at the FS folder, which has to be done manually; the documentation doesn't give much help on where you ought to be looking and the applet defaults to the Aerosoft folder, but on English language FS installations, both versions of Flight Simulator are found in ...\program files\microsoft games with the FS2004 folder called 'flight simulator 9' and FSX 'microsoft flight simulator x'. There isn't much more to say about database manager except that it can be used to merge in user-created waypoints, the example given in the manual being that you might want to take advantage of a friend's hard work at creating a set of visual reporting points for his area of the world - as long as the file is presented in the correct format, the applet will let you merge it in.
Flightsim Commander is run separately from Flight Simulator, which allows you to flip between the two programs, or to run them side-by-side on a two monitor setup and it is possible to load and run Flightsim Commander on its own for route planning purposes. The program takes a little while to start, because it has to load the AIRAC data and your first task is to select a start position, either using an ICAO code search, or using a set of drop-down boxes to narrow your search by region, country, city or state. Once this is done, the map window opens, centered on your chosen airport and showing all the data you need to start creating a flight plan. You can zoom as close in as 3 nm and as far out as 2000 nm and by making the appropriate menu selections it is possible to view a different part of the world to the one your aircraft is in, although by default the map always shows your current location. Clicking and dragging allows you to zoom in on selected areas and a mouse click centers the map at the selected point. What you see on the map is up to you and you can turn just about anything on and off, including airports, navaids, airways, frequencies, airspace, coastlines and AI planes via an icon strip which pops up when your mouse hovers over the left hand side of the map. Hovering the mouse over an airport pops up a list of runways and frequencies, while clicking on the airport icon brings up a rather more readable dialog containing the same information - rather irritatingly all the dialogs apart from the mouseovers pop up on the master monitor if you use a twin screen setup. I wouldn't exactly define the interface as Vista (or even XP) ready, but it looks neat and does exactly what it says it does on the outside of the tin. The process of creating a flight plan is marginally less intuitive than it is in say FSNavigator, but I soon got used to Flightsim Commander's way of thinking and ultimately it is a much more powerful application.
Flightsim Commander is designed to create individual flight plans and kicking off the process involves selecting an aircraft and clicking on 'flight plan' and 'new' using the menu bar, before opening the flight plan table using a button on the menu bar. The flight plan table is limited to showing five waypoints, which has the advantage that it doesn't obscure much of the map page, but it would be significantly easier to use were it possible to drag the table about and resize it to get a better view of the tabular plan. To get any further you must click the 'select airport' button, which was grayed out before you opened the flight plan panel and use the dialog that pops up to select both your departure and arrival airports - once those are chosen, all the other planning buttons become active and you are ready to rumble. It is recommended that you also select a departure gate from the list which Flightsim Commander presents. At this stage, Flightsim Commander really begins to show its mettle, because by clicking various buttons it can be made to automatically calculate either a high altitude airway route, a low altitude airway route, or a navaid-based plan.
If you want to go the whole nine yards, the next step is to click on the SID/STAR button and the program will offer you a choice of departure or arrival procedures, based on which runway and airport you currently have selected. The one piece of hand-holding that Flightsim Commander doesn't do is to tell you which is the most appropriate procedure to select, so common sense has to be applied, but it is possible to delete entire SIDs or STARs if you end up with a screwy flight plan - and it isn't hard to tell when you have goofed, because the route appears as an unmissable red line on the map page. You cannot create new SIDs or STARs, because these are officially approved routes, but you can create and save your own arrival and departure routes, which amounts to the same thing. Waypoints can be inserted in a route by right clicking on the map and deleted by highlighting them in the flight plan window and pressing the delete key, in either case the whole route redraws itself. One trap here is that by default, any new waypoint you select on the map is inserted immediately after the position of the highlight in the flight plan table and if you haven't got any rows selected, the new waypoint will be tacked on the end of the route, resulting in some interesting detours if you aren't careful. In practice, this isn't much of a problem, since you can see what is going on on the map and deleting waypoints is very easy, but an 'undo' button would more instinctive.
The clever stuff begins when you want to create more complex flight plans. For example, it is possible to build the first part of a route manually from VOR to VOR and then, with the last navaid in the list selected, press the 'low alt plan' button and have Flightsim Commander automatically build the rest of the route to your destination. Advanced users will be delighted to hear that one of the other talents of this multi-faceted program is that if you manually enter two intersections on the same airway, Flightsim Commander will automatically fill in all the waypoints in between them. When a flight plan has been finalised, it can be printed in a three page layout and flight plans can be saved in a wide variety of formats, including: standard Flight Simulator; Radar Contact; both the new and the old version of SquawBox; IVAO; FSInn; PMDG 737 and 747; Level D; and Project Magenta. When you save a plan, there is also the facility to choose the folder, which is important as far as some addon aircraft FMCs are concerned.
Other options include the facility to create and save partial routes, aka 'route segments', which are useful if you fly from or to the same airport on a regular basis; downloading of transoceanic Natrack and Pacot routes and calculation of great circle nav; weather download and display; and a five page 'GPS' window, which shows more or less everything you would want to know about your progress, including arrival and ILS pages which show not only the runway heading, but the ILS frequencies associated with them. Since this is the last thing most simmers have on their mind when they plan a flight, it is a real boon. Based on the aircraft you have loaded, the app also calculates the fuel load, allowing for contingencies, diversion and holds - it even figures out an appropriate alternate airport and fuel can be displayed in gallons, pounds, kilos or litres.
I don't want to leave readers with the impression that Flightsim Commander is an IFR only route planner, because it offers better VFR route planning facilities than any other program I have seen, including the ability to check if your track will violate any control zones, something that simmers rarely concern themselves about, but which is a big issue for real pilots, especially near metropolitan areas. If you approach a control zone and haven't disabled the feature on the map, the zone will change color to warn you and it will go red if you enter it without ATC approval. When you couple this with the ability to hover the mouse over nearby airports on the map and read all the frequencies and even inspect the runway layout, you could hardly ask for more.
As soon as you load a plane in FS, Flightsim Commander turns into a moving map showing your progress and the position of any AI traffic. By default, a distance arc is displayed whenever you change altitude, although this can be turned off should you wish to do so. User-defined waypoints are reasonably easy to add, either using direct entry of lat/long coords, or by the simpler method of transferring the current position of your aircraft in FS to Flightsim Commander. A simulated 'black box' gives you the opportunity to analyse completed flights.
The VATSIM and IVAO related features are particularly useful, because one of the things Flightsim Commander will do is display where the active controllers are and it will also display where the nearest pilots using the service are flying, although only within a limited radius, in order not to overburden the servers. The one thing that Flightsim Commander does not do is to display the whereabout of online pilots flying using FS mulitplayer mode, but it can if you download Jose Oliviera's freeware AIBridge.
I did find some bugs, my suspicion being that these are related to running the program under Vista rather than anything else and may well be Vista bugs rather than Flightsim Commander bugs. None of them were show stopping, the most annoying was that once I had done a certain amount of editing on a route, it sometimes wasn't possible to create a new route, as the select airport dialog would not let me display the departure airport and I had to log off the system to cure this. The limited testing I did under XP showed that the program ran fine with FSX on that platform, the downside being all the problems FSX has running under Windows XP.
Verdict? Basically, there isn't much you could do to improve Flightsim Commander. Not only is it the best flight planning tool I have seen to date, it offers a terrific package of facilities and there ain't much that it isn't capable of tackling. The manual is great, the program can export flight plans to a wide variety of formats and, best of all, it is available for FSX. It may need further testing under Windows Vista, but no doubt it will get certified in due course, because a program doesn't get to version 8.1 without someone taking a great deal of interest in it.