Microsoft Flight–My Opinions

As a flight simulator blogger, I use this blog to provide reports to you the reader about my flight simulation adventures, news about the hobby of flight simulation, product reviews and from time to time share my personal opinions about the hobby.  If I’ve mentioned the new flight sim software from Microsoft simply called Flight, it was only briefly.  I do not recall providing any in-depth opinions.  This is mostly due to the fact that the flight simulator community really doesn’t fully understand what MS Flight will be or won’t be. 

Having been active in the hobby for over 25 years, I’ve seen a lot of changes with regards to Microsoft Flight Simulator.  I remember the hype leading up to FS9 and certainly FSX.  I also remember purchasing FSX and really not using it for many months afterwards.  I also believe that a lot can be said of the fact that FS9 still has a very strong following amongst fellow flight sim enthusiasts.  I do see some software developers beginning to phase FS9 out and solely going in the direction of FSX.  This is of course bitter sweet for those who are still running FS9.  The bitter part comes from the fact that they will no longer be able to purchase some add-ons for FS9, but if they have purchased or built a new computer in the past couple of years then it more than likely will run FSX without issue.  But of course there is the cost of re-purchasing add-ons for FSX if they want to exclusively use it.  I fully am aware of the cost it takes to re-purchase add-on software.  Before I took my almost five year sabbatical from the hobby, I was using FS9 for most of my flying.  My PC at that time would run FSX, but there wasn’t a lot available yet in the add-on department.  When I return last Fall, I decided I would build my flight sim PC to run FSX and fully adopted that as my flight sim platform. 

But what about Flight?  I started hearing the rumors of the rumors of the rumors about Microsoft Flight very soon after returning to the hobby.  I read forum threads speculating what Flight was and what Flight wasn’t.  I believe I read more “what it wasn’t gonna be” thoughts than the opposite.  To this day, I’m still not certain we really know much more about it.  Sure Microsoft has a website up dedicated to Flight, but it really doesn’t say much. 

The rumors I mentioned before state (and I quote from several forums) “Microsoft Flight will not be what we have grown to know and love with the long running line of Microsoft Flight Simulator products”.  Another reads, “MS Flight will be more like an arcade game versus a simulator”  On the more positive side, I read this statement “MS Flight will be what FSX should have been with regards to performance”.  I think what this person was trying to say is MS Flight is being developed for today’s technology and not like FSX where most users didn’t own a machine at the time FSX debuted that would run it to its full potential.

But these quotes are just (in my opinion) just rumors, guesses and assumptions (do you know what happens when you assume)?  On the MS Flight website there is an FAQ page and in my opinion it tells me nothing.  Addtionally, PC Pilot and Computer Pilot Magazines have provided some Q&A type details in their magazines over the past 6-8 months.  My opinion about these Q&A sessions is the writer from the magazines isn’t asking the right questions.  Of course you can’t sell future extremely pricey magazines if you divulge everything in one edition. 

However, I must give credit to PC Pilot Magazine as in the May – June edition, they do ask Microsoft if Flight will have an opportunity for third-party developers to produce products.  MS answers by saying they fully know they can’t do the work alone and they are creating the tools for others to develop add-on software. 

At this time I believe “the jury is still out” on just what MS Flight will mean to the flight simulator community.  While I’m just as much in the dark as the rest of you, I can tell you that regardless what MS Flight is or isn’t, worse case scenario it doesn’t mean our hobby is dead or dying. 

As for what I plan to do when MS Flight is made available, well….I’ll probably purchase it just as I did FSX but it’ll more than likely sit on the shelf until (and this is if it works with VATSIM etc.) until enough quality add-on products have been developed. 

Until next time…

Happy Flying!!!

JT

We need a better try before you buy

Please note:  I wrote this blog post approx. 6 months ago and for whatever reason it failed to publish.  I just realized it was stuck in draft mode and while I’ve changed my mind about some aircraft developers and also own a couple of excellent payware models that work flawlessly with my GoFlight hardware, some of the ideas expressed are still very much valid in the grand scheme of things.

I don’t know about you, but I think we need a better “try before you buy” system for flight simulator software add-ons.  Yes I get the whole issue around software piracy.  In the “real-world” I work for a large enterprise software company.  We take software piracy very seriously and so should the creators of flight sim software and add-ons. But in most cases the “trial or evaluation” method in flight simulator add-ons is extremely limiting. 

As many of you who follow my blog know, I’m an avid GoFlight Customer.  I love this hardware and I love that for the most part I can conduct the majority of my flights with limited use of the keyboard and mouse.   I have over a thousand dollars invested in GoFlight gear with the very idea of not needing to click with a mouse during flight.  However, with this comes some restrictions that I’ve only learned about since coming back to the hobby.

During the 2001 – 2005 timeframe, most of the aircraft I operated were either the FS default variety or those based on the default variety and shareware type aircraft available from sites likeFlightSim and AVSIM.  Today most of what I have flown have been the same type of aircraft.  However, I did purchase a few Carenado models which I dearly love. 

Part of my on-going frustration with software add-ons and the lack of a decent trial system stems from a PMDG purchase I made a few months ago.  The product in question is the PMDG 747-400X.  I had heard about and seen images of this beautiful aircraft and decided to purchase it.  Once I downloaded and installed the aircraft I discovered it would not work with my GoFlight GF-MCP Advanced auto pilot module.  While I researched and found forums from years ago talking about a software fix available from PMDG to correct the issues, the fix is no longer available.  I essentially spent $54.99 on an aircraft that will sit in my hangar and never be flown.

Initially I didn’t understand why the PMDG 747-400X wouldn’t work.  I had a lot of experience with the default aircraft and the shareware type from Flightsim and AVSIM.  I’ve never run into any issues with the compatibility of my GoFlight equipment and these models.  I even had purchased from Flight1 an MD-80 model and experienced no issues using that aircraft and my GoFlight hardware.  So why is this PMDG model not working?

From what I now understand, the GoFlight GF-MCP Advanced is compatible with all MSFS default aircraft and any freeware/payware aircraft that model their MCP/autopilot functions the way the default aircraft are modeled.  After spending $54.99, I realized PMDG DO NOT model their aircraft autopilot functions the way that MSFS modeled the default aircraft.  This means if I want to fly the PMDG 747-400X that I own, I would need to fly it with my mouse and keyboard to control the autopilot/MCP functions.  Not cool.

To explain the above paragraph differently.  The GoFlight GF-MCP Advanced uses the standard Microsoft FSX keyboard commands to control the aircraft.  When I turn the heading knob on my GF-MCP, it sends the corresponding keyboard commands of Ctrl-Shift-H followed by = or – depending on which direction I’m turning the knob.  The PMDG aircraft uses a completely different keyboard mapping per function setup.  It’s this difference which prevents the PMDG aircraft from working correctly with the GF-MCP. 

Many will argue the PMDG aircraft is far superior to any default and shareware aircraft available today.  I do admit the flight dynamics, the look, the feel of the PMDG models are truly amazing compared to the default and shareware models I own.  My reservation to flying it is simply the lack of support for my GoFlight GF-MCP Advanced. 

Now before I forget, yes I have talked to tech support for both PMDG and GoFlight.  Both sort of point their fingers back to each other as being the responsible party.  However, I will take the side of GoFlight in this argument.  GoFlight creates their hardware to work with the default and shareware models.  GoFlight also makes their SDK available to any aircraft developers free of charge. 

What I’ll admit to not fully understanding is why PMDG (and others) code some of the aircraft functionality different from the default aircraft.  I’m not a software developer….but I would think it would be possible to create an aircraft model just as wonderful as the PMDG 747-400X, yet stay with the basic functional requirements as what the default aircraft uses. 

Now I certainly do not hold PMDG responsible for me spending $54.99 on something that I may never fly.  As a matter of fact, the aircraft isn’t installed any longer.  I should have conducted better research.  However, back to the original subject of this topic, PMDG does not offer any sort of trial process.  But even if they did, I would imagine it would be lacking in the functionality available.

As an example to the lack of functionality available in a demo model.  I looked into the Captain Sim Boeing 757. I downloaded and installed it.  But the demo model is so locked down in functionality, I couldn’t make a conscious decision to buy.  Here is what the Captain Sim website states about their demo model “We hope this Free Demo will help our customers to make more informed purchase decisions and thereby enhance their satisfaction with the 757 Captain product.”  Further down the page, this is how it reads to inform you of what doesn’t work in the demo:

Please note, the following features are not included in the Free Demo:
• Extensive Systems Programming (ADI, HSI, EICAS displays inop)
• Flight Management System (CDU inop)
• Realistic Flight Model (flight controls locked in the Demo)
• Custom system sounds and crew voice messages
• Authentic Sound Set – PW and RR engines (alias to default 737 sounds in the Demo)
• Collins WXR-2100 Weather Radar
• Aeronautical Data including Terminal Procedures
• Repaint Kit

I don’t know about you….but how do you make an “informed purchase” with the above mentioned restrictions?  I couldn’t even find a way to contact the Captain Sim folks to ask if their aircraft would work with my GoFlight hardware as the only way it appears to reach their forum is with an order number.  Sorry….you’re not going to get my money before I can find a way to review your support forum.

Now I realize I’ve picked on two aircraft manufactures.  Here’s my thoughts on how some scenery developers handle their trial periods.  I own several FSDreamTeam sceneries.  They offer a try-before-you-buy method.  But the scenery demo only works for the first 5 minutes.  Yes, you can restart the timer, but only if you exit and restart FSX.  5 minutes?  One can’t explore the complex scenery of KDFW in 5 minutes. 

Another small beef I have with some vendors is what appears to be the number of times I can activate a particular product.  I believe if I purchase a software product, I should be able to install this particular software product over and over and over (as long as I’m not running it on multiple systems).  In other words, if I feel the need to rebuild my FSX computer every 6 months, I shouldn’t have to worry in a year or two running out of the number of install/reinstalls I’ve performed.  This appears to be an issue in our hobby.

As I stated near the beginning, I fully understand the issues software vendors (all software vendors) face with software license piracy.  I understand (and appreciate) that a lot of hard work goes into the development of quality software.  While I don’t have the answers, I believe in the examples I’ve provided that a better solution must exist.  There must be equal parts of trust built into the license protection so that honest customers like myself can determine if the product is right for them and the software developers can protect their IP or intellectual property

In closing, I want to make it clear that I do not hold any bad feelings toward PMDG or any developer of Flight Simulator add-ons.  Yes I called out my experiences with PMDG, but I only hold myself responsible for purchasing something that I may never use.  I may never fully understand why PMDG and others develop aircraft add-ons that differ in the primary functional aspects from the default aircraft.  Yes I get the need for better flight dynamics etc.  But why change the autopilot keystroke combinations which is basically why the PMDG doesn’t work with GoFlight?  To me and my flight simming experience, it is more accurate to turn a knob on my GF-MCP to control autopilot functionality than to use my mouse.

Until next time…Happy and Safe Simming…

Jerry

Are you a real Pilot?

This was the question asked of me after I landed my iFly B737NG (FSX version) on 16L at KDEN the other night.

It was a dark and stormy night….no really, it was both dark and somewhat stormy with lightning flashes to the west of KDEN.  I had departed KDFW for a 2 hour flight on the VATSIM network.  I’ve probably logged over 60 hours in the iFly 737, but that isn’t the subject of this blog posting.

I truly love flying on the VATSIM network.  I know there are those who don’t like it because of the sparse ATC controllers typically online.  Of course, with the various traffic programs available like MyTrafficX and Ultimate Traffic 2, you can turn an international airport into a hustling and bustling airport with just a few mouse clicks. However, you won’t hear and get the awesome “atta boy” comments that I received the other night from the FSX default ATC.  More about this in a minute.

True, I’ve been known to nail some real greasers on landing.  This is especially true when I’m in a bit of a hurry and not doing everything by the book. This happens more in the default aircraft since you don’t have the dynamic flight systems of the payware models like the iFly or the LVLD.  But it can also happen in these payware models I just mentioned when you cut corners.  But I digress and for that I’m sorry.

I had departed KDFW with no ATC online, but really wanted to enjoy this flight up to my now home town of Denver, Colorado.  This is one of my favorite flights for many reasons and only second to flying down to St. Maarten and TNCM out of KMIA.  I just love the approach over the beach and hope to visit St. Maarten in real life someday.  The flight to Denver was as uneventful as it can get.  While Ft. Worth Center was not online, I did pickup Kansas City Center and Denver Center.  Denver center was the only ATC on and he controlled me all the way down.

I typically do things just about the same way each and every flight I make.  I check the weather conditions either via FSInn or direct from the NOAA METAR database.   And in the case of Denver Center, he had an updated published ATIS which I pulled down well before entering his airspace and I acknowledged I had information Bravo when I initially checked in with him. 

I don’t think a lot of pilots really bother picking up or at least confirming they have the current information even though that is depicted well within the default FSX ATC.  Even if you don’t bother tuning into the ATIS frequency for the airport you are going to land, there are other ways of getting the info and it certainly helps the ATC guys for you to be that much more prepared.  Anyway….Information Bravo was telling me that KDEN was landing and departing to the East.  Landing runway 7 and departing runway 8.  So I pulled my charts for runway 7 and just quickly familiarized myself with the approach. 

As I was inbound on the Quail Six Arrival and roughly 50nm from KDEN, Denver Center updated the ATIS with updated information.  I quickly listened to the update and realized KDEN was now going to be in South Ops and made the adjustments necessary to plan for a runway 16L approach. 

Approaching KDEN from the South, the Quail Six arrival brings you just south of the airfield and makes for an easy transition when KDEN is under North Ops with easy access to runway 35L.  However, KDEN was not in North Ops and this would mean flying downwind to the east of the field for vectors to 16L. 

Now back to the dark and stormy night comment.  Weather conditions in the area was a typical summer evening in the mile high city with storm cells erupting out on the eastern plains. A few of these cells had moved in closer to the city and both myself and my virtual PAX were treated to a nice light show of cloud to cloud and cloud to ground lightning strikes.  The combination of ActiveSky X and Real Environment Extreme make for some truly impressive eye candy at times and this particular night was no different. 

As I completed the roll-out from the vectors given by Denver Center, KDEN airport and runway 16L was in clear visibility so a visual landing was certainly in order for the evening.  Along with FS2Crew (the iFly version) my FO and I readied the beautiful Boeing 737-800 for her landing and had a smooth landing with no complaints from the virtual PAX.  As I turned the B738 onto the high-speed taxiway and gave the “OK to Clean-up” order to the FO I received a private message from the VATSIM ATC Controller simply asking me “Are you a real pilot”? 

Now if you’ve read my recent blog post where I state I’m not a real pilot, you would know (or will know if you kindly read it) that I’m not a real pilot.  But of course the gentleman working VATSIM ATC doesn’t know I routinely blog about my flight sim hobby.  But I answered him by saying Negative….why do you ask?  His response simply was “you do a very good job”. 

I have no VATSIM ATC experience.  I also have no desire to gain any other than from a pilots perspective.  So I’m not 100% certain what the VATSIM controllers really can see and what they really can’t see.  I’ve been told by several VATSIM controllers that I know very well, that what they can see is very limited.  They of course can tell if you turn the wrong direction and they can also tell if you land on the wrong runway.  But they can’t really tell how hard or how soft of a landing a virtual pilot makes. 

So what is so special about his comments and why blog about them?  This is a very good question and the reason why I chose to blog about it was to one, share the experience and two to turn it into a learning experience for all.  As I stated in the opening paragraphs of this blog post, I’ve truly experienced some real greaser landings.  I call those controlled crashes.  While I’ve never mistaken a taxi-way for an active runway, I’ve certainly had my share of off center touchdowns and some of those where you hit just before the touchdown zone and some where you hit well past it.  This flight and this landing was textbook and the comments from the VATSIM ATC Controller sort of showed me that it is worth doing everything somewhat by the book.  Of course, having over 25 years of computer sim experience doesn’t hurt. 

In closing, You’ll never hear me make claims that I could fly a real plane….but I think my virtual PAX can rest easily knowing I at least know how to operate my iFly 737NG to get positive feedback from VATSIM ATC.  I hope you too will take your virtual flight simulation to the next level and work harder to improve your skills.  One day a VATSIM ATC controller might ask you, “Are you a Real Pilot”?

Until next time….

Jerry

Caution–Hard Hat Area

I recently read a blog article which I can easily relate titled “Banging my Head Against the Desk” by fellow blogger and flight sim developer, Bill Womack.  Bill describes some of his frustrations with getting his brand new 737 off the hard ground and into the beautiful skies.  Bill fully recognizes the differences between complex airliners and GA aircraft and his blog post asks some questions which I believe are questions I too have wanted to be answered.  Now before I continue…I’ll add there is a big difference between Bill Womack and Jerry Taylor with regards to flight.  Bill has accumulated over 50 hours in a Cessna 172 and is working his way towards his private pilots license.

Within the flight sim community (at least over the last decade) there’s been dialog on the various forums (and there’s a lot of them) regarding virtual pilots who fly the more complex and realistic aircraft models such as Sublogic_Flight_Simulator_II-300x205PMDG and the default or freeware models such as POSKY.    I’ve experienced it myself even over a VATSIM personal message once.  I was holding short of an active runway and number two for take off.  I had another pilot behind me.  I believe I was in a 767 and he asked me if it was the LevelD.  I said no, it was a POSKY.  He went on to add that he felt the POSKY was inferior to the LevelD and stated a few reasons why.  It was interesting that his reasons were never around the flight dynamics or the differences and difficulties of getting the LevelD 767 ready for flight, but more around how much more realistic the panel was.  It is interesting to note that this individual is about 15-16 years old.  Heck I have a pair of tennis shoes older than that.  I felt like telling him “look kid, I remember when all we had to flight simulator was flat graphics and aircraft choices was only one and I still had to walk to school up hill both directions (I grew up in Texas so there wasn’t a lot of snow)”.

Anyway, this dialog while not often spelled out can sometimes certainly read between the lines that if you don’t fly the PMDG whatever you are not a real pilot.  HELLO???  For most of us we are not real pilots.  Some may be in the process of obtaining their private pilots license and some may already hold one.  Some are retired or ex-military who flew missions in Korea, Vietnam or Desert Storm.  While each of those examples may know the aircraft they have flown (or fly) in real life, most couldn’t get a real modern jetliner off the ground if their life depended on it, let alone land one.

I suppose in recent years I could have referred to myself as a purist.  Until just a few weeks ago I only flew freeware aircraft which for the most part are modeled along the lines of the default aircraft that comes part of MSFS.  Fire up FSX and pull down a flight plan into FSCommander and Ctrl-E and off you go.  I truly supported these freeware developers for their efforts in giving something back to the hobby.  A POSKY (or now called FreeSky Project) may not have the same flight dynamics as the PMDG, but they look great for what they cost (zero cost freeware) and handle equally well.  But yes, to the dark side I went a few weeks ago after learning about the iFly 737NGX and it’s out of the box compatibility with GoFlight hardware.  I couldn’t resist the true beauty of this aircraft from the outside in.  I got her downloaded and took a brief test flight around DFW.  I was hooked.  A few days later this led to the purchase of the LevelD 767 which again is fully compatible with my GoFlight hardware. 

Now back to Bill’s blog post.  Bill discusses how he likes to learn something.  He states “My favorite way to learn something complex is to first learn the bare-bones essentials. Once I’ve mastered them to the point of feeling semi-proficient, I like to add on layers of depth, exploring each new concept until I’ve drilled it permanently into my brain.”  I fully agree with what he says here and will admit that I’m the same way.  For the most part I’m a self-taught IT Professional.  I studied at the school of hard knocks.  But I very much learned the basics and progressively built onto that.  After all, what makes a giant skyscraper capable of standing?  It’s not the spire on top, it’s the solid foundation often not even visible.  I believe this is the point Bill was trying to make.

There is another point Bill makes in his blog post which gave me a good laugh, “Give me a stack of manuals and I’ll be stuck inside them for days. Show me a video of what I’m supposed to do, and I’m doing it like a pro in an hour. It seems that most airliners developers are just the opposite type.They spin out reams of paper about this or that system, when all I really want in the beginning is to get in, familiarize myself with the plane, and get it in the air.”     It was the “They spin out reams of paper” comment that gave me the chuckle.  The iFly 737NGX manual is over 500 pages and while LevelD is only 175 pages I still find that a bit much…especially when talking about first experiences with the aircraft. 

Now before you get all excited and want to post those comments about realism and tell me I’m not a real pilot (I already know I’m not a real pilot), let me say this.  I’m enjoying (I’ll say it again), I’m enjoying learning more about how both the iFly and the LVLD aircraft operate.  I’ve completely changed my flying style, meaning I don’t just run down to my basement and fire up FSX and take off.  I enjoy running through the pre-flight checklists, programming the FMC (even purchased the VRInsight external CDU for added realism).  I enjoy the 20-30 minutes I spend before I ever start to taxi. 

Each of us have our own reasons for participating in this hobby.  My reasons might be the same as your reasons and they might not be.  Over the past decade I’ve learned a lot about flight.  Prior to getting started flying on line, I didn’t know what a STAR or SID was, nor did I understand how to read and follow them.  Now I do.  Until just a few weeks ago I didn’t really understand how VNAV and LNAV functioned, nor did I use the functionality.  Now I do.

I fully support what Bill Womack is talking about in his blog post.  If someone…anyone…wants to shell out $30, $40, $50 or more on a pay-ware aircraft and spend hours and hours and hours reading the manual that is fine.  Likewise, if the same individual wants to spend the same amount of money and gradually ease into the more complex procedures that is also fine. 

Now…having said all that.  I applaud iFly for at the very least incorporating various panel states that one can start out with.  I’ll admit that there are times I begin “cold and dark” and there are other times I begin “before engine start”.  iFly and other developers could take this one step further and create a “fully automatic” or “basic flight” mode.  This will allow those of us to get the aircraft off the ground and then build on the knowledge as we go along.  Again….it’s my $$ and how I want to spend it is my business. 

In closing, while I’ve found a payware 737 and 767 for my virtual hangar and currently looking to expand into a 757 and 777 payware models, I hope people like the folks at FreeSky Project(formerly POSKY) will continue to develop awesome freeware models.  The hobby still needs quality freeware add-ons and individuals willing to develop them.

Please leave your comments.  If you agree or disagree, this is fine. 

Until next time,

Jerry

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