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Pictorial Flashback Into The History Of MS Flight Simulator



Do You Remember?

A Pictorial Flashback Into The History Of MS Flight Simulator

By Ulrich Klein (16 June 2002)




Recently I thought it would be high time to pay a hearty tribute to a flight simulation software which, to my mind, is the most popular all around flightsim I've ever seen in FSland. Throughout the past 15 years or so, many of us have experienced how Microsoft's flight simulator gradually became more and more realistic to finally almost meet what MS calls "As real as it gets", thus making flight simming an increasingly attractive hobby for most of us avid flight simmers in the world. Yes, I admit there were indeed some rather annoying periods along the way (I promise I won't enter into this here today), but at the time being it has turned out to be nauseatingly realistic. And FS2004 will even do far better I guess. I hope I'll be right :-).


Chance had it that lately I came across some almost forgotten archives containing various screen shots of older versions of FS. One of the first I got hold of was a shot showing the old FS4 panel and scenery probably with a Cessna on final approach to ORD 27R. In comparison to the way this airport had been displayed in 1988's FS3 (there was almost nothing to see at all, apart from the white lines that limited the dark-green confines and runways of Chicago's O'Hare Intl airport), well, I must say FS4 was a bit more abundantly equipped with rare details such as some buildings and, occasionally, a few asphalt runways. So I'd like to open up my article by contrasting one of the earlier stages of flight simulation (FS4) with Microsoft's latest stunning product in this genre (FS2002). We'll also come across the other versions that lay in between them. Anyway, I do not intend to cover all aspects of the technical or historical development of Flight Simulator, I'd just like to focus on a few single and momentary flashbacks that I personally consider worth remembering.







That's what it looked like in the old days: One simple cockpit was nearly all we had for the few default planes that were available in FS4 at that time, that is in October 1989. However, I remember the gauges worked fairly well on slower computers and I spent many hours exploring the flight routes all over the US continent. When the first add-on scenery, the "Western European Tour" Scenery Disk, appeared, we could for the first time stroll all around Europe. The number of airports was severely limited though, and in between two airports there was not really much you could discover. Now, taking a close-up look at the following screen shot, I was immediately dazzled by the impressive contrast between the two versions of Flight Simulator.






The latest panel and scenery displayed during the final approach to ORD 27R, which are almost photographic in appearance, right? With FS2002 MS have simply blown the top off the civilian flight simulation genre with its newest iteration, as Gord Goble had once put it in his review on FS2002. What really strikes me most is the vastly enlarged range of awesome features which then offer an immense diversity of settings to make this PC-based program the finest civilian flight simulation ever to appear, with about 21,000 operative airports all over the world. This time even flying over longer distances never gets boring, which is both due to the stunningly detailed scenery and the increased number of beautifully rendered aircraft.










(I have no clear memory of FS1 and FS2, although I have heard of them, of course. Cover photos of MS FS1-FS4 are by courtesy of Jos Grupping (the blue cover is that of FS2; there were no version numbers on the covers).








Motivated by my first encounter with some old screen shots I decided to try and install the oldest version of FS that I found in my junk box: FS3, which of course was a fully DOS-based program and so installation for me went as easy as pie as it consisted of not much more than copying the 170 files (860KB) onto the hard disk. Gosh! It did work on my 1Ghz machine, basically at least, though there were some hitches. But it was enough to capture some more flight situations to show off what FS3 graphics looked like at that time.


Drat! There's always something wrong. An hour later when I made up my mind to "install" the Western European Scenery Disk, I had to learn that all things must pass some day or other, because my floppy drive would by no means recognize the outdated 720KB formatted disquette. No pictures of Europe then, I am afraid.



Western European Tour Scenery Disk, released in 1988 by subLogic




Microsoft A&SD disk for FS4, released in 1990



And here is a series of screen shots captured in FS3:



KBDR and cockpit night lighting




KBOS, a deserted urban area




KORD on the green meadow




KSFO, the most detailed area in FS3







Note that there was little specific difference between the Boston and O'Hare final approaches, with the first being displayed in uniform grey color to indicate some urban area, the other one more or less a lonesome airport on the green meadow. However, in spite of this I know for sure that most of us enjoyed flight simming in these deserted areas as we didn't know better. The white bubbles in the screen shot on the far left were not snow flakes but symbolized clouds, a feature that was also available in FS4, with no valuable improvement though. Some other features had been enhanced, first of all the possibility to integrate more scenery areas such as the Sublogic Great Britain Scenery Collection Disk 1-3 (1991), the Mallard Hawaii (1992) and Japan (1993) Sceneries, and last but not least the stupefying Sublogic Scenery sets USA West & East (1993), which largely boosted the number of accessible airports for Flight Simulator.




The Learjet 25 taking off at Meigs 36 in FS4. The clouds look more like snow falling than like clouds. At this stage of development the default aircraft were hardly more than somewhat abstract wire frame models, but in spite of that we were all glad we finally had that at all, weren't we?




By October 1990 MS had already released a major enhancement to FS4, the Microsoft Flight Simulator Aircraft & Scenery Designer, which then offered a more creative use of Flight Simulator than ever before (see screen shot further above).




The cover of the Sublogic Scenery USA West released in 1993



Two separate sets covered the eastern and western sections of the country. Together, USA East and USA West provided a vast comprehensive visual coverage of the entire United States plus every paved public-access airport. A continuous flow of glittering cities, airports, rivers, highways and railroads made flying a more pleasant experience for the first time since the release of FS4. At the same time this scenery software was both compatible with FS4 and its oncoming successor Flight Simulator 5.











1993 finally brought the release of FS5.0 followed by an improved version 5.1 some time later. Both versions made the old FS4 scenery almost obsolete but, on the other hand, provided a tremendous increase of photo-realism as to the default cockpit panels. However, one of the things that tickled me most about FS5 and FSfW95 was that I could do almost nothing to adapt the panels to my liking. I guess such things were only the job of experts at that time. On the positive side we must say that the release of these two versions started an immensely continuous stream of new and excellent panels, all designed by third-party developers and highly talented amateur programmers as well.


If anyone should want to find out more about FSfW95 he might go back to 1995 and read both Peter James' preliminary review and his revised review. As a last reminder of FSfW95 I have added some shots of its cockpit panels that give a clear indication of what graphics could display, and which I used quite a lot at that time.


















The Cessna 182RG panel was a big surprise when we first saw it because for the very first time the primary flight instruments were to some extent photo-realistic. Also, the Sopwith Camel panel was nice to look at in those days. Then comes the new Lear 35 cockpit panel that was almost photographic in appearance, too, and which was a BIG quantum leap from any default panels of earlier FS versions. Shortly afterwards both the Cessna and Learjet panels were functionally enhanced by the add-on MS FSFlight Shop. As a matter of fact, it was FS5 and its successors that brought about a decisive preliminary step forward in panel designing. The photo on the right shows a B737 panel produced by a commercial third-party developer. Considering what graphics could do at that time, I think I had a fairly detailed airliner panel, which I then chose as one of my favorite panels to fly with.







In mid September 1997 Microsoft Flight Simulator 98 went gold, and it was so enjoyable as it was not only an upgrade but had been largely refined. "With the world waiting for you - it's time to explore!", a well-known reviewer had revelled in his article on this long awaited sequel to the world's most popular flight simulation software. A new Cessna C182S, a new Learjet 45, a totally new Bell Jet Ranger Helicopter, and first of all completely new sound effects for all aircraft. The FS98 sounds were really a huge improvement over all previous versions. But for me there was something that turned out to be more important than all this: it was now possible to tweak and configure the cockpit panels to my taste because all the significant settings for the panels were now listed up in ordinary text file format. With MS publishing their SDK for Flight Simulator, we could get the necessary insight into the way FS98 handled panels, aircraft, scenery and APL among others. Those of you with acute eyes (the eagle-eyed readers, I mean) will have noticed that I have changed the default panels in the upper row of screen shots at various points and for several reasons, but make no mistake, eye-candy was not the name of the game here. Call me a "panel nazi", that's O.K., because I have never stopped fiddling with panel configurations since then, right up into FS2002's panels lately. Nowadays, if you are a panel junkie like me, I'm sure you will feel great pleasure to fine tune almost everything within a panel (maximizing effects at lowest possible means is the name of the game).


For example, I changed the Cessna panel bitmap to enlarge the front view by cutting off part of the upper rim of the panel, to increase readability of the OMI, DME, TEMP gauges in the upper right part of the cockpit panel, adding more gauges such as the parking brake display, changing the color of the pointers of VOR1, VOR2, ADF, adding a red part within the small pointer of the altimeter display, adding some paint peel at the outer rim of the throttle knob to make it easier to see it with the night lighting on, adding a GPS toggle switch. As to changing panels FS98 brought the major break-through. So I also revised the B737 default panel as to the size of the autopilot because the digits were hardly legible. For that it became necessary to completely dislocate the trim control surfaces (pitch, ailerons, rudder) and to shift their position down under the fuel quantity display. These are just a few examples to show how far the range of user-defined interferences had increased with this version of FS. Very enjoyable indeed!



























From left to right you see a winter landscape at KORD, an ILS approach to SFO, a final approach to EDDM, a B767 on Tahiti Faaa, the DC-3 R4D-6 NATS at an unknown location, a B777 JAL. The brown panels were made by Eric Ernst, the very best DC-3 panel and plane were from Bill Rambow, Roy Chaffin, and Jan Visser, who have constantly upgraded this model for FS2000 / FS2002.



One of the most remarkable projects I have ever come across is the development of a Gooney Bird, a DC-3 R4D-6 including a newly designed panel for it, all created by Bill Rambow as the leader of the project, by Roy Chaffin who made the panel and programmed all the gauges, and by Jan Visser who is a top aircraft designer and so contributed the flight model. From the very moment I flew this aircraft given to me by this highly talented group, I have been an ardent admirer of this venerable but ageless Douglas DC-3. As I know that, like me, thousands of other simmers have also enjoyed the benefits of this beautiful creation which has long established its fame as a real treat, I think it is only fair to show the cover of their donation-ware CD-Rom that can be obtained from their web site.



The package was given the FlightSim.com Developers Award May 2001















Outside views in FS98 were not that bad, especially some scenery areas conveyed a pretty realistic feeling when we moved there. The somewhat faster machines ran this sim like a champ so that my Cessna landings like here in Gatwick (EGKK) were very very smooth. So was my B737-400 flying into Male Intl airport on the Maldives. That the outside world had become so much more attractive was by far due to amazing sceneries such as Tahiti (Wilco), Italy98 (Lago), Scandinavia (FlyLogic), and the Europe 1-3 sceneries (Alting Software), released by BAO / Microsoft / Apollo, and which partly had an extensive backward compatibility down to FS5.x. Heck, I still like thinking back of those days because the time I spent with FS98 was the time when I began to experience an increasing number of enjoyable Flightsim Moments.











Inevitably this era would come to an end one day, all too early to be able to make full use of all the abundant add-on software which was being developed for FS98. When FS2000 was finally out, it became evident that it featured a new kind of awesome mesh scenery, a newly-created 3D elevation grid for the scenery data base, which rendered all preceding scenery quite obsolete though. But what looked like a severe drawback at first sight soon turned out to be FS2000's major milestone: real elevation points that made the surrounding terrain rise and fall like the real earth. Airports were particularly detailed, which made quite an amazing difference over previous FS versions. Half a year after its release avid developers had had ample time to create a vast array of excellent aircraft for FS2002. However, I still remember someone echoing "Ugh! SHIFT-Zing became frightening".






Moreover, featuring the popular landing lights was obviously beyond the scope of FS2000, as MS stated themselves. My favorite part of the new FS2000 was that we finally had raindroplets splashing against the cockpit window, which added a little new dimension to flight realism. This was also true of the fabulous FSClouds 2000 add-on by Flight1 Software providing far better cloud formations.


In the interest of not turning this into a book I will now concentrate on a series of screen shots captured in FS2000 and reflecting kind of a pictorial flashback into a sim that was not that bad after all, at least not on faster machines. A year after the release of FS2k aircraft design had reached an astoundingly high performance level because by that time avid developers had had ample time to create a vast array of really excellent aircraft for FS2000. Airports, too, were far more detailed, which made an amazing difference over previous FS versions. I remember that I spent many hours not only flying but creating plenty of screen shots. Here are only some of many others I found in my junk archives.






































Look at the two 747 jumbos (BA, Condor) and the DC-3 R4D NATS. They are dang near perfect! Do you remember who produced them, and first of all, who put them online for everybody to download, just for free? If not, and if you should have any particular interest in finding it out, feel free to ask me via email. I myself would like to thank all these developers who have spent hundreds of hours to make our simming even more enjoyable. Their dedication alone is worth considering. A BIG THANKS TO ALL OF THEM! Whew, they have given us so much pleasure in the past few years.



From time to time FS2000's occasional inconsistencies allowed for screen shots which established a new innovative kind of abstract flightsim art :-).























The current version of the granddaddy flightsim of all time is FS2002, either Professional or Standard Edition. It is an amazingly massive product which puts every earlier version to shame and has therefore gained widespread praise and approval by thousands of flightsimmers around the world. It's certainly the biggest version so far and astoundingly ahead of what past versions were like. From the very beginning of the beta versions, that is long before the average user could get hold of it, FS2002 promised to be absolutely mind-blowing. We have a largely improved photorealistic terrain that rivals anything we've ever seen before, and the wholesome realism of flight is untouched so far in any PC-based sim. And Wow, SHIFT-Zing is no longer frightening. Gosh, with volumetric clouds and fancy shadowing FS2002 is the most exciting and realistic "seat-of-your-pants" flightsim I have ever used to date. Moreover, basically, FS2002 is even a much better .0 version than the somewhat troublesome FS2000 was when it was first shipped in October 1999.


Well, since half a year I am a believer again because with the latest edition of Microsoft's Flight Simulator FS2002 Pro at hand, I am fully convinced that this version is the future again. Honestly, never before have I enjoyed so many "flightsim moments" in such a short time after release as in FS2002, and it wasn't only once that my eyes almost popped out of my head. Really stunning! Especially at dawn or sunset flying is a fine cinema indeed. Watching dynamic planes arrive at and depart from airports during nighttime is truly a sight to behold, not to speak of all the fine special effects (rolling wheels, opening doors and hatches, flexing struts, animated fan blades, touchdown wheel smoke, working landing lights, visible pull-back of reversers, both damage and water effects), they are all simply amazing effects that add so much to the whole effect. With all default aircraft I enjoyed a realistic feeling of truly flying through thin air. The overall impression was: almost perfect, but there's always something (You remember I promised not to enter into that today? Grin!).


I must not forget to insert links to P. James' early preview in April 2001 and, first of all, to Andrew Herd's final review of FS2002 on December 3, 2001, for readers who want to obtain further detailed and sound information. Go and get them, they're absolutely worth it.



And here's what you might have been waiting for: a collection of screen shots, some of them really true flightsim moments. But that's my personal opinion only. If there is one that catches your eye, feel free to click on it to enlarge its size. It'll look much better then, giving way to many more details you might overlook in the small size format. I really guess you'll enjoy them. I did. Several times, not only once. There were so many other special moments I have eagerly captured so far that I didn't know which of them to select for you. I hope my choice was all right, and so I am here to share with you some big blow-up pictures of just how awesome these moments look. Wow, wow, and triple wow, here we have certainly some of that FS2002 Pro version eye-candy to show off in all its glory.







































































This time it was the pictures that should speak for themselves. I hope they did. I didn't fiddle with them to make them look better than they were. Most of them have been captured from real flight scenes, without manipulating them in any way. I hope it worked. They are just as real as it gets, and some of them had been true Flightsim Moments.


Enjoy your flights and hopefully safe landings!


Ulrich Klein

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