• Airliner Pilot

    Just Flight's Airliner Pilot For FS2004

    By Andrew Herd (12 August 2005)

    The front cover of the box says it all - a close-cropped shot of an airline pilot's fist confidently gripping a flight case as he walks away from the unmistakeable shape of a Boeing 747. How many people dream of finding themselves in this position? Every younger simmer who doesn't aspire to a career in military fast jets will crane his or her neck at the skies this week, see the contrail of yet another intercontinental flight punching its way through the thin air of the upper atmosphere and wonder what it is like to be up there looking down.

    Well now you can find out, but I'll warn you, there is a deal of blood, sweat and tears involved. Behind every pilot who eases him or herself into the left hand seat of a long range passenger jet lie the dashed dreams of a thousand hopefuls. The state of the airline industry at the moment is such that there are few openings, no organised career path and the excess of supply over demand is such that the companies can afford to leave aspirant pilots to structure and pay for their own training, limiting the airlines' costs to advertising for posts as and when they need to recruit. What this harsh situation means is with very few exceptions, learners find themselves funding their own Airline Transport Pilot's License (ATPL) and a total 600 hours of flying to 'unfreeze' it. Even in a Cessna 152 six hundred hours ain't cheap, but the gotcha is that recruiters like as much as possible of the time to be in twins, ideally commercial twins - and those sort of hours are ultra expensive and hard to get. This accounts for why many airline pilot hopefuls find themselves dragging around the skies in ageing freighters in the middle of the night, building time on the kind of pay and conditions that most graduates would contemptuously reject - because the competition is so intense that they must take whatever is on offer, however little it might be. Don't underestimate how hard 'do it yourself' training can be; there are horror stories of people who take out $50,000 loans to book ATPL training courses, pay the money over and then lose everything when the company goes bust half way through. And those who do somehow manage to get a license and the hours to unfreeze it find there are a thousand others with identical CVs chasing too few jobs.

    If that hasn't discouraged you, then you might just have the makings of an airline pilot. Just Flight's new addon for FS2004 starts you as a junior first officer in the right-hand seat seat of a turboprop aircraft - do well and you could go all the way to the top, flying trans-Atlantic in a 747, do badly and you will find yourself flogging around the same commuter flights for the rest of your simming life. The addon assumes your virtual pilot has done his time on the hour-building circuit and begun his first day on the bottom rung of a major airline; it is up to you to succeed.

    The package comes on a single DVD-ROM (note it is not a CD) and minimum hardware requirements are a 1.7 GHz PC running Windows XP with 512 Mb RAM, a 32Mb 3D graphics accelerator card and 300 Mb hard drive space. Installation is no more complicated than putting the DVD in the drive and letting the autoinstall routine do its stuff. I tested version 1.0, with the 2.4 Mb update01 applied, which fixes a variety of small but annoying problems - the update is available from the Airliner Pilot website, which has all kinds of other useful stuff on it, so bookmark the page now if you are considering buying the addon. Looking through the box, you get an advert for other Just Flight packages and a good quality English/German/French manual. A new program group is also created, containing links to the all-important Airliner Pilot applet, a manual for the first plane you will fly (a Dash 8) and various tools for importing other planes and third party airports.

    Airliner Pilot lets you work your way through the ranks from junior first oficer, through first officer, senior first officer, captain, and finally to the dizzying heights of training captain. The routes start with regional pax shifting, through short and then medium range international, to inter-continental, depending on which planes you are typed to fly. Promotions depend on you successfully completing a certain number of flights and flying hours, the difficulty being determined by which options you choose in the initial setup. In a nutshell, Airliner Pilot is a virtual airline in a box - instead of a real person assigning routes and planes, the computer does it for you - the other crucial difference being that whereas in most VAs, the management take your word for it that you flew a route OK, Airliner Pilot monitors your progress. Closely.

    Once the software has loaded, the first step is to start the Airliner Pilot app, which loads a graphic of the ops room. This is a place with which you will become extremely familiar, because it is where all player administration, career simulation, flight assignments, flight plans and briefings, debriefing, player performance evaluation, promotions (demotions if you screw up) and type ratings are made. As ops rooms go it is remarkably devoid of paperwork, three day old met printouts and dead coffee cups, but I guess our virtual pilots must work for an extremely tidy airline. Clicking on the filing cabinet allows you to create a new pilot, name him or her, decide what to call the airline and set the difficulty level - for the purposes of the review, I chose the quick career option and the lowest difficulty level. You can select from a small range of liveries for your plane and even have your own name painted on the hull, but there is a choice of regular airlines too, so you can fly for Air France, British Airways, Iberia, Lufthansa, KLM or United.

    Once you have created a pilot, the next step is to select a 'homebase region' for the airline, which will influence the choice of routes the addon makes for you. In the version I tested, this was restricted to seven areas: Austria/Switzerland; US; UK; Germany; France; Europe South; and Benelux/Scandinavia, but a few enterprising individuals have created new regions and I spotted Japan and Central Europe on the Airliner Pilot website, together with a slew of extra flight plans for France, Scandinavia, the UK, the US and Germany. Once that is done, a click on the map will assign you your first trip from the range of approximately 1500 pre-planned flights included in the default package installation. After a pause while the addon creates the weather (not too challenging for the early flights, but expect worse later), it is time to print the briefing, which includes full route details including navigation aids, fuel load required and weather reports - all the necessary information you need to successfully complete the flight, apart from airport maps, which means that you will either have to get hold of the relevant charts or turn on progressive taxi to make sure you don't get lost. Study the flight plans carefully, check out the waypoints, load the first couple of nav frequencies into the radios and you are almost ready to go.

    Later on in your pilot's career you will get to use FS2004's default Boeings, but your first steed is provided with the addon in the shape of a radically cut-down version of the excellent PSS Dash 8, with a basic autopilot and a nice, if only partially functional 2D panel and a passive VC, which means that you can look, but you can't touch, because none of the controls in it are clickable. To begin with, you get to fly from the right hand seat, which is more excitement than many juniors get in a month of Sundays, the job too often boiling down to handling the checklists and talking to air traffic. One problem with this version of the Dash 8 is that flying it in IAS mode leads to continual engine surging, which can't be great for fuel consumption and another is that the package doesn't include any checklists, so that it is a matter of guesswork figuring out what the approach and V speeds ought to be. Once again, the Airliner Pilot website comes to the rescue, because I notice someone has posted the PSS Dash 8 checklists up there.

    Despite the straightforward nature of the plane, it pays to read the short pdf manual provided with it before you exit the Airliner Pilot applet and FS2004 starts, because once you are in the cockpit, you have to complete the flight for it to count. Incidentally, if you have the full PSS Dash 8 package, you can use the Just Flight's "custom aircraft import tool" to acquaint Airliner Pilot with the plane and the website has a growing list of aircraft import packs which will let you use popular addons like the FeelThere ERJ 145, the MAAM DC-3, the Flight1 ATR 72-500, the Level D 767 and the DreamFleet 727. Be warned that Just Flight don't provide any support for these, so if you run into trouble, you will need to seek help in the forums, but once you understand the process it is simple enough and it does make the routes easier to fly. The import tool is an great idea and turns Airliner Pilot into a package with huge potential, because it potentially allows you to fly your favorite planes on routes assigned by the program; a neat way of adding variety to your virtual life in the skies. One problem is that there is no way of removing a plane from the list once you have added it, which ran me into trouble when the ATR became the only selectable plane for my junior pilot and I couldn't flight test the Dash 8 without uninstalling and then reinstalling the entire program. Hopefully a 'remove aircraft' option will appear in a future upgrade.

    The other applet provided with Airliner Pilot is the 'custom airport location' tool, which lets you import files for addon airports - templates for some of the more popular ones are provided with the program, but otherwise you will have to roll your own, or hope your favorites appear on the website. If you do get assigned a flight which begins or ends at an addon airport and you don't use the custom airport location tool before FS2004 loads, you run the risk of the plane appearing in the wrong place because there are significant alignment problems with many third party sceneries compared with the default airports.

    All the flights begin on the stand with the engines off, but starts can be done with a good old ctrl-e, so you don't have to memorise the way the overhead works, though in practice it doesn't take long as 90% of the functionality of this panel in the full PSS Dash 8 product has been disabled. I would strongly recommend checking that the plane has enough fuel to complete the flight before you get started, because you are responsible for the tankage and the Dash 8 is usually loaded with the bare minimum. The figure you need is on the PLNTOF line in the flight plan and it is given in pounds, so if you have FS set up to use metric amounts, you will either have to do the conversion yourself or bite the bullet and change your setup.

    The most realistic approach is to fly the routes under FS2004 ATC guidance - letting Airliner Pilot monitor your progress using Route Tracker, a gauge which shows useful info like next waypoint; distance, heading and ETA for the waypoint; and the destination ETA. Just Flight describe this widget as looking and working like a mini Flight Management Computer, but useful though the information it presents may be, the only function it really has is to let you check where you should be headed and how you are doing timewise. Whatever you do, make sure you turn the Route Tracker on when the plane first loads and do not close its window until you have completely shut the engines down and set the parking brake, or you will have wasted the flight. One problem with using FS ATC is that if the controllers really send you around the houses, it can cause Airliner Pilot to mark you down for deviating from your assigned route, but applying update 01 mostly fixes this. Without FS2004 ATC, the flights are less challenging and boil down to setting the nav radios correctly, watching the airspeed and trying not to get lost, but the choice is up to you and the waypoint accuracy constraints mean that inexperienced simmers will find it hard enough to make the grade without ATC bawling at them all the time.

    The Airliner Pilot Dash 8 lacks the FMC from the full version, which means that you have to depend on the nav radios and the heading mode on the autopilot; raising the immediate issue of how to fly some of the routes, which are built almost entirely from intersections. The obvious solution would be to fly a series of go-tos using the FS2004 GPS, but this can't be accessed from the panel of the Dash 8. Theoretically, you can fly to an intersection by working out which VOR radials it is created from, but this is not an easy task when the only tool available for the purpose is the FS flight planner - all of which would put simmers who can't import addon planes with good nav instrumentation at a serious disadvantage, were it not for the Route Tracker gauge. Route Tracker always gives the bearing to the next waypoint, even if it is an intersection, which means that it is possible to fly headings from one intersection to another. Instrument gladiators will already have noted the big snag about doing this, which is that if there is any wind at all (and at flight levels, there always is), you can't fly a bearing by setting it as the aircraft's heading, because the wind will push you off course, with the result that you either end up having to make continual corrections and fly a curved track, or make a guess at how much correction to make, adding or subtracting the result from the bearing to arrive at a heading to fly. So be aware that Route Tracker's advice has to be used with a certain amount of caution.

    At the end of the flight, the first thing to do after shutting down FS2004 is to visit the Ops Room and see how you did. If everything went well, you will have accumulated some hours and some points towards the next promotion, if not, depending on the setup options you chose, you could end up having to fly the route again, or even face demotion. Route Tracker evaluates parameters such as departure, arrival and shut down time; waypoint accuracy - the plane must pass within 4 nm; altitude holding; any 'abnormal flight envelope departures' (read stalls, vertically banked turns and excessive sink rate on touchdown); and passes the results to the Flight Ops program for your assessment. You also lose points for using accelerated time mode and for slewing, so the program more or less forces you to make the flights in real time, a potential problem for simmers who reach the higher levels and find themselves on transatlantic routes. Regardless of the difficulty level you choose, the higher up the rankings you get, the tougher it is to complete each flight - which means you will learn to pay close attention to airspeed and the climb/descent figures quoted in your plan. And whatever you do, don't forget to taxi to the gate and shut down the engines, or the applet won't think you have arrived.

    Flying with Airliner Pilot will definitely bring changes to your simming. At a stroke, it takes away those awful moments of indecision when you stare at the screen wondering which aircraft to load and where to take it today; replacing them with a structured series of flights, completion of which brings a definite sense of achievement. Although I flew nowhere near a full career, in testing, the Airliner Pilot program worked extremely well and one of its best features is the way it encourages you fly more accurately. Even as a junior first officer, 60 to 90 minute stages are the rule, which given all the preparation involved beforehand, is the kind of investment you don't want to throw away with the sort of botched approach and bounced landing you might tolerate if Big Brother wasn't watching. Just to give an example, when FS ATC brought me in slightly above the glideslope on one of my early flights into Geneva, I took a rapid decision to fly the approach by hand in order to avoid an autopilot-driven rollercoaster descent that could cost me points. This is the sort of change Airliner Pilot brings about in your simming and I am sure a lot of readers will find it brings a new and enjoyable dimension into their flying. Sure, the cut-down Dash 8 is only a so-so sim compared to the full product and promotion to the default Boeings can hardly be counted a privilege since you can fly 'em anyway, but the custom aircraft import tool means you can add any plane you like, provided you have a copy installed on your hard disk.

    If you want to do more than bore holes in the virtual sky, but don't want the commitment of being in a VA, Airliner Pilot is worth serious consideration. The VAs themselves would line up to buy copies if a single enhancement was made, which is the ability to upload completed flight assesssments by email, as it would allow their management to monitor offline flying much more closely than they can at present. For simmers looking for the next challenge, the package is irresistible - and at long last wannabee airline pilots can try their hand at the big time without paying big bucks.

    Andrew Herd
    [email protected]

    Learn more here
    Visit Just Flight's web site

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