07 November, 2016

The life of a Flight Simulator pilot

Come fly with me

A few months ago, I bought Flight Simulator X on Steam. They were having a sale, so they were selling it quite a bit cheaper than normal. I got some extras to go along with it, and later on I bought some other planes. It was at that stage that I realised that if people get into flight simulation seriously, they’re up for some serious costs. Normally, when you buy a game, DLC is minimal, and you usually don’t have to pay exorbitant amounts for it. In the flight simulator world, good planes often cost, though there are some rare exceptions. Scenery usually costs. Special additional features mostly cost. A recent look at just the FSX add-ons for Steam came to a grand total of over NZD$3,000 for 137 items at the time. That’s a whole lot of extra cost.

And anyone else aside from Steam?

That doesn’t take account of the many vendors that sell you everything from a C172 Skyhawk trainer to an Airbus A321 and anything else you might want. In short, if you want a specific well-known plane, odds are that someone makes one available for sale. Then there’s the outlay on additional physical hardware to make the flight simulator feel more realistic. This can be something as simple as a joystick, or something as complicated as a collection of instruments, yoke, throttle and rudder pedals. You could literally spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to do a proper job of just simulating a 737 cockpit, let alone all of the other planes in FSX’s stable. This cost isn’t anywhere near the millions a proper full-motion simulator would cost, but it’s still a significant amount of wedge in anyone’s money.

How does free sound?

If you wanted to reduce the cost, there are planes, software accessories and scenery that are available for free. Most of the free planes aren’t up to the same high quality of standard as their commercial counterparts, obviously. The scenery also has some of the same issues of reliability and fidelity, with the free scenery mostly not having as high a resolution. It’s enough to get by, but often the really good stuff you can only get for a cost, and sometimes that cost is significant.

The version of FSX available from Steam has a couple of wrinkles to it, as Dovetail Games recently gained a licence to redistribute FSX, but only with certain changes. For example, there still isn’t a 64-bit version, and the SDK that used to be supplied with FSX Gold (or FSX Deluxe) is no longer part of the package. Nor did Dovetail get the chance to fix absolutely everything that should have been fixed. If you need the SDK for making more planes, airports and scenery, then you’ll need to go looking for a boxed copy of FSX, and that’s getting harder to find, especially an unopened box with unused codes. However, the Dovetail version has some fixes to it that allow it to run better than FSX Gold on modern machines, even if you’re missing the SDK which you honestly don’t need just to fly a plane. Windows 10 notwithstanding, it’s a nice enough program when you have the machine resources to throw at it, but as it’s still a 32-bit program, it still runs into memory allocation limits fairly rapidly. The data files can be huge too. My loaded-up FSX takes up 70Gb on a drive, though this includes a large number of extra AI aircraft that I added for better multi-player model matching, and some commercial offerings of bigger aircraft such as the Airbus A318-A321 family, the Dash-8 Q400 and Boeing's 757/767/777. My favourite so far is the Q400, though it took a while for me to learn how to land properly without busting my landing gear.

32-bit – say what?

Yes, in this age where most software is now 64-bit and safe as houses, FSX is only available in 32-bit. This wouldn’t ordinarily matter, except that FSX isn’t very good at marshalling that 3.5GB of memory. Addons can rapidly use up all of that and want more besides, resulting in the dreaded VAS error. VAS is the short name for the Virtual Address Space that FSX uses. It’s also the only amount of memory that FSX has access to as a whole, as it’s not spread among multiple processes that each have their own address space. Even 3.5Gb would be enough normally, if modern coding methods were used to hopefully reduce the amount of memory required. However, emulating planes well takes a lot of memory, especially when you consider the terrain they’re flying through. And some of that terrain can run into several gigabytes when installed on drive. Depending on how far out you want your viewpoint to reach, will be how much scenery gets loaded in. So if you have a fancy plane, like the Airbus A321, and you have fancy OrbX scenery especially for an airport, you could run out of memory just by sitting at the airport. Needless to say, this isn’t a good thing, as you can’t fly. So people have come up with strategies for managing the amount of space left in the VAS. This includes reducing the draw distance, reducing the complexity of rendered scenery, removing most or all of the buildings, and in some extreme cases, removing AI aircraft.

What about those AI aircraft?

To make sure you’re not flying through empty skies, FSX has the ability to populate the airport and skies around you with other planes. These planes look great from the outside but only if you’re a bit of a distance away from them. The closer you get, the more you realise that actually, the resolution on the skin is not very good. This is done to reduce resources in the already stretched VAS. If you wish to fly most of the purely-AI aircraft, you probably can’t as they’re not fitted with a working cockpit, and there’s only just enough of the aircraft systems running to make sure it’s going in the right direction, the propellers are spinning (or not) and the lights are flashing. Thankfully there are enough real aircraft for you to fly, as FSX Gold was delivered with over 25 unique flyable aircraft that are also AI, with an additional three purely AI aircraft. FSX standard has fewer flyable planes, the rest are AI only until you add the Acceleration pack, making the Gold pack a bit better for user-flyable craft. As I said earlier, other aircraft are well and truly available for those stepping outside the default FSX models.

How’s the Multiplayer?

Yes there is multiplayer support, in multiple forms. FSX Steam Edition uses Steam to connect with other players, a replacement of the older networking code that FSX Gold had. If you connect up with VATSIM or IVAO, you can run their clients alongside your FSX to allow you to connect to worldwide networks of pilots and controllers, though the chances of striking a controller at every airport you want is minimal. If you choose your times carefully, you can get a controller when they have logged on for a set period of time—often after work or during their weekend. If you want a controller at 3am airport time, you’re unlikely to get one. The voice quality on the simulated VHF radio varies from almost unreadable in some cases with VATSIM’s client to a very clear Teamspeak2-based vocal stream if you use the client for IVAO. It’s probably not a good idea to run both clients simultaneously, as you’ll possibly have to talk to two controllers for the same airport at once, which is not a healthy mix. Other clients are available too, but VATSIM and IVAO are the most well-known.

How about controlling?

If you’ve ever felt like directing pilots through airspace just like real-world controllers do, then you’ll need some other software that doesn’t come with FSX. For VATSIM, you’ll need a client called Euroscope, and a lot of training. For IVAO, you’ll also need their controller client and a lot of training before you’re let loose upon the public at large. Don’t expect to pick up FSX one week and be controlling on VATSIM the next week. It won’t happen; even if you have real world experience as a controller, this will only speed up the process somewhat. You have to have a good head for procedures, and a very good spatial awareness of planes in your vicinity. A clear understanding of the issues pilots face is also an added bonus, and most controllers have usually had some flight time under their belts before they take on the controller’s role. If you want to take your chances on the Steam-based multiplayer network, then you can also control or fly using that, but your likelihood of getting high-quality pilots (or controllers) is reduced if some youtube videos are to be believed.

Other flight simulators

If you wish to address some of the shortcomings that FSX has, you can use other flight simulators. The best known alternatives are Prepar3d and X-Plane. Prepar3d offers a high degree of compatibility with FSX, meaning that models usable in FSX are also often usable in P3D as well, with a few exceptions. To the best of my knowledge, it’s also a 32-bit program, but it runs a bit better and uses memory in a different way. If you just have to have a 64-bit flight simulator, then X-Plane bears looking at. It doesn’t offer the same compatibility with FSX that P3D does, but for that 64-bit you gain the ability to do quite a bit more, as the amount of memory is no longer limited by a 32-bit address. Heck, it even supports Linux! It also offers a far different emulation of the flight model for planes, making their behaviour match the real-world characteristics to a far higher fidelity. Additional planes are also available for X-Plane, though costs may differ from FSX equivalents.

And finally, FlightGear is free and also has support for Linux, and also boasts the additional moniker of Open Source. It appears to be nowhere near as mature, especially for the number of planes and airports available, as these are usually community-provided by people who’ve donated some of their time to making these planes work at least somewhat, even if they might not have the same polish as commercial offerings for FSX. One of the nice touches—if you have the drive space for it—is the freely available terrain database that mostly covers the whole world. There aren’t a whole lot of airports that have their buildings, if you’re unlucky, you’ll only get the runways. At this time, only 145 airports are fully developed enough in FlightGear to at least have taxi signs or buildings, the rest are undeveloped until someone gets them created to a high enough standard.

Final conclusions

Flying on a computer has been possible for quite some time. As the years have progressed, flights have become better looking and better feeling, but we’re still stuck with the fact that you have to look through one or more screens to see what you need to. In addition, if you wish to have enough bells and whistles to reflect a higher fidelity of flight experience, it’s going to cost more than your initial FSX purchase, and in some cases, significantly more. In saying that though, it’s a great way to suck up some time, and if you decide you’re going to go the multiplayer route, you’ll meet up with other want-to-be-pilots and controllers. Of course, you’ll run into some pillocks, but that seems to be the case for any online community. So, when’s your next flight?