FSX - Jets And Choppers
By Andrew Herd (15 October 2006)
s I remarked in the last piece in this series, FSX marks a move towards general aviation with a clutch of gleaming new hulls in the hangar, but that doesn't mean to say that there haven't been changes on the commercial aviation side. The big news here, of course, is that the 777 is no more and that the big iron is no longer an exclusively Boeing preserve with the introduction of the A321, but that shouldn't be allowed to overshadow the fact that at long last we have a feeder jet in the shape of the CRJ700. The big jet mix has been re-balanced in FSX, which should suit simmers who want to fly the airways, but whose relationships are unlikely to survive repeated transoceanic voyages in big Boeings - the 777 might have been fun to fly, but it wasn't really cut out for the sort of trips that most of us end up shoehorning in between breakfast, walking the dog and Sunday lunch.
In FSX the jet lineup starts with the Lear, which is celebrating its twentieth birthday, having appeared, as far as I can recall back in 1986 - when Flight Simulator was available for the Amiga, Atari-ST, the Mac and the PC. Then comes the CRJ, as an introduction to scheduled aircraft operations; the A321 and Boeing 737, which are different solutions to the same problem; and the 747 for simmers who can't stay away from the ocean and the poles. In this article I will also cover the DC3, a survivor from the Century of Flight planes, and the choppers.
While the CRJ and the Airbus are welcome, I can't help shedding a tear for the Ford Trimotor - sure, it didn't have the kind of following the DC3 had, but all the same, it was a nice sim of a truly great plane and if the team ever find the time, I am sure there wouldn't be any complaints at all if it turned up as an unsupported package on the download section of the FSX website.
In the final analysis, the changes that have been made to the FS airliners are far less radical than the ones carried out in the GA hangar. Owners of the de Luxe version of FSX get a very fine Garmin G1000 glass panel implementation for three of the aircraft, along with four new planes and complete rebuilds of several others; the jet jocks get two new planes and a rework of the 737, but not the hoped-for Flight Management Computer (FMC), and it has to be said that the passenger jets are less complex than they might be when you compare them to the GA planes. Looking at the light aircraft, I am astounded at how much of a dfference FSX has made - and looking at the big jets, by how little seems to have changed. Even in the humble Cessna 172, the way the G1000 interfaces with the autopilot marks a move away from the 'comfort zone' dumbed-down autopilot and avionics that Flight Simulator has favored until now, while the big jet panels are still stuck in a time warp that goes all the way back to FS2000 and even beyond. Major components of the avionics that drive passenger jets have been edited out, like thrust management systems and the CDU/FMC, which might have the benefit of making the aircraft easier for newcomers to fly around the circuit, but leaves us all dependent on the FS flight planner for anything but the shortest of trips, while it seriously limits the enjoyment of more experienced users, many of whom will see the airliners as falling far short of what they might have been.
The 737-800 and the A321 are fundamentally similar planes in real life - the Boeing typically carries 162 passengers up to 1990 nm, while the Airbus will take 186 passengers 2350 nm (or up to 2650 nm for the -200 version). Both planes are certified for two pilot operation and both boast state-of-the-art glass cockpits, which begs the question why Microsoft didn't take the logical step of passing up on the Airbus and including a big passenger turboprop like an ATR, so that FSX offered a more interesting pathway for simmers to explore as they mastered each aircraft type. As it is, although the 737 and the A321 come from opposite sides of the tracks, the simplified avionics simulation the two aircraft have been allowed makes one seem very like the other and many users will wonder why both have been included - but that being said, all the jet sims are well done and will provide plenty of enjoyment for beginners, particularly when you think that you can fly departures over the Golden Gate like the one shown below left.
One place where the jet and GA part company in FSX is in terms of ease of use of the virtual cockpit (VC) - readers who have stayed with me through this whistle-stop tour will know how impressed I am with the VC in the light aircraft - but I have mixed feelings where the jets are concerned. There are two reasons for my ambivalence: first, the jet cockpits are less convincing than the GA ones; and second, the FSX VC works well as long as the cockpit being simulated isn't too wide, but as the rotation of the POV increases, it becomes progressively harder to select click spots with the mouse, until the only solution is to slide the POV sideways so that you are face on to the panel again. Mouse look (hold down the spacebar and 'look' with the mouse cursor) only works to a certain angle before you have to move the POV and selecting controls and switches on the right hand side even of the Lear and the CRJ can be challenging. In the end I dealt with this by assigning the 'move eyepoint right' and 'move eyepoint left' keys to the rocker on the right handle of my CH Products yoke, but if you use a joystick, it might be easier to use the 2D panels to fly the jets. Microsoft have obviously considered this issue, because limited ovehead panels have appeared in the planes and as you can see from the A321 2D panel above right, the cockpits look great.
The Lear is an old friend that has had looks similar externally, but has had a thorough face lift internally. In FSX it gets a new 2D panel with much better graphics although the gauges will still be familiar. The VC has been tidied up, but isn't in the class of DHC2 or the Extra, which is interesting, because there is no particular reason why a jet VC should be any more difficult to create than a light aircraft. That being said, it is plenty good enough and if the Beaver and the Extra weren't there to distract us, the Lear would seem very fine. Microsoft finally got the flight model right in FS2004 and in FSX it handles just as well, so this king of bizjets is likely to retain its popularity.
The CRJ is a very welcome addition to Flight Simulator - the real thing being a feederliner based on the Canadair Challenger, a corporate jet design by none other than Bill Lear. Originally known as the LearStar 600, the design was purchased by Canadair and almost ran onto the rocks when one of the prototypes crashed after finding its way into a deep stall. A major development program rescued an outstanding design from the wreckage and in the process the CRJ was born. Depending on which flavor you get, the CRJ can carry anywhere from 44 to 86 passengers and more than 1400 hulls have been built, with many more to come.
The FSX CRJ simulates the 700 series, which seats 70 - 78 depending on layout and entered service in 2001; essentially it is a stretched version of the 50 seat -200 with a slightly wider cabin and 2 m extra wingspan. The flight deck shown above right features six Collins Pro Line displays and the real aircraft is fitted with a Flight Dynamics HGS 4200 HUD and a Rockwell Collins digital weather radar, neither of which are simulated in the FSX plane, which is a shame, because the 4200 allows the plane to execute CAT III approaches with runway visual ranges (RVRs) right down to 200 m. The CRJ is exceptionally quiet and has good low speed handling thanks to the leading edge slats with which it is fitted and in FSX you can fly it in four different liveries, including Orbit and Pacifica. The slat operation is nicely done on the visual model in FSX and if you swap to spot plane view early in the take-off roll you will be able to spot the slats extending as the center of pressure moves forward. Apart from having a very good VC, the CRJ flies well and I am sure it will prove very popular with simmers - and we are going to see a ton of repaints, because although Microsoft have come up with new liveries for all the default airlines, users will get bored with them pretty quickly.
The 747 gets more than its fair share of liveries, compared to the CRJ and I count seven, including all four default airlines (World Travel, Orbit, Pacifica and Global Freightways), the Boeing livery shown above, a 'decomissioned' scheme, and the usual all white paint. The decomissioned livery is an inspired choice, because loading it presents you with a freighter that has had its former operator's name roughly painted out and which carries few markings other than its registration and a few tantalising glimpses of an earlier scheme - it speaks to me of freight charters to dodgy airfields in the heart of Africa, but you may have other ideas for it. In common with the other big airliners, the 747 comes with a right hand over-wing view that gives great views on takeoff and although the 2D panel has been hardly altered from FS2004, the VC is much better and features a very fine mode control panel (MCP, that's the big box running across the top of the panel under the glareshield) and overhead. But while the VC overhead looks great, it is hard to get the POV into the right position to operate some of the switches. The MCP is cursed by the same problem of having to slew the POV around to operate half the controls and the even greater frustration that the extreme left and right hand sides are no more than eye-candy, but apart from that the 747 has one of the better airliner panels in FSX and one that looks well worn enough to have lived a little.
If there is a snag with the 747, it is that it is a resource hog and gobbles an extra 25-30% more frames than the other big jets. I can't quite figure out why this should be, because there isn't anything particularly special about the Jumbo other than its size, but there you go. Incidentally, in my quest to find out where the frames were going, I took a peek behind the cockpit door to see if there was a virtual cabin and there isn't one; none of the other jets have one either, so if you were expecting virtual stewardesses, you are going to have to look elsewhere.
Stepping back a few years, we have the DC-3, a welcome sight in FSX and may it remain in Flight Simulator for many versions to come. As you can see, the plane appears to be a straight port over from FS2004, but in common with most of the 'legacy' planes, it has been given several new liveries, some of which are going to be real crowd pleasers, although I would like to speak to whoever specced the shade of green that has been used for Emerald Harbor Air - bilious being the word that springs to mind. There are six liveries in total, the others being World Travel Airlines as shown above; a silver, white and blue cargo scheme, an in-your-face red and yellow paint, a bare metal scheme and a camouflaged 'military surplus' plane that looks like it might be just the job to meet the decomissioned 747 at that shady rendezvous in Africa, just don't tell me what is in all those packing cases.
Before we get onto the helicopters, I have had a ton of email, most of which I have been unable to answer as a result of lack of hours in the day (bear in mind I have to run a medical practice, not to mention a wife and child who are inclined to complain if I don't talk to them reasonably often). Two recurring themes - apart from the eternal question 'will this system spec run FSX to my satisfaction?' I aim to cover both these questions in the next piece, but for what it is worth, the major limitation to installing addons is the automatic installation systems that many publishers prefer. If an auto-install doesn't recognise FSX, then an addon isn't likely to load unless you do a lot of hacking or the publisher releases a patch, the situation being complicated by Microsoft's decision to change the folder structure, so that the aircraft folder now lies in ...\Microsoft Flight Simulator X\SimObjects\Airplanes, although \gauges and \sound are both in the root FS folder just like they have always been. So just pointing an FS2004 vintage auto-install routine to the MSFSX folder and hittiing OK is liable to result in a mess.
Helicopter fans are going to love FSX, because at long last, fixing the choppers has made it to the top of the list and while the Bell 206 and the Robbo haven't had quite the level of makeover that the Extra has, the Bell looks very different and sports no less than 13 different liveries, which is amazing, considering the total of one texture set we were allowed in FS2004. While I am on the subject, the helicopters have been moved out of the \aircraft folder and now have a home of their own in ...\Microsoft Flight Simulator X\SimObjects\Rotorcraft, which gives you some idea of how much has been changed. The R22 only has three liveries in FSX, one of which is high on my list of awards for in-your-face metallic green effects, but again, it has clearly had work done on it and is better as a result.
But the headline news about the choppers is that someone has sat down and attended to the flight models at long last and it is actually possible for normal human beings to fly them. If you tried the FS2004 helicopters and wondered what essential skill you were lacking, you are a member of a very large club - FS choppers have always been notoriously difficult to handle and anyone who can regularly land the FS2004 models in one piece can count themselves an expert. Yes, I know that real helicopters are tricky to fly, but you don't have to cope with the fact that half the controls are missing. FS helicopters must inevitably be a simplification and it is great to find they are easier to control, to the extent that I successfully pulled off landings in places I would never have considered before. Armed with the Bell, I toured as many as I could of the detailed airports and that takes me to the answer of the last question I posed up there, which is the one about ATC.
ATC is really going to be part of the next piece, but for those of you who can't wait, the on-screen dialog has been changed, but apart from the ability to run your own tower in the de Luxe version, it doesn't look like much else has, bar the fact that with the slider at 100% there is a lot less traffic at any given airport than I would expect to see in a default FS2004 install. KLAX only had about fifteen planes at the central terminals, which leads me to believe that the frame rate hit sustained from having similar numbers of AI planes to FS2004 was too great for comfort and the solution was to cut the numbers. This judgement could be wrong, because I haven't had time to visit that many airports, but it makes it difficult to establish if the AI engine works any better than it did in FS2004.
Anyway, we'll talk about that in the next piece.Andrew Herd