Anatomy of a Simulation
Getting The Most From Your Flight Simulator II
by Bob Curtin
To those who've not experienced the Atari ST version of subLOGIC's Flight Simulator II, I can only extend my heartfelt condolences. I've had the opportunity to use this program on a variety of machines, including an IBM PCAT which, by the way, runs nearly as briskly as the ST version (Yes, I said nearly), but doesn't compare in the quality of graphics, features or ease of use. Regardless of the machine on which FS2 is run, however, the program has a depth which becomes quite obvious if you do some research into the real thing, or better still, do some actual flying. Since I bought the program in 1984 for my Atari 800, FS2 has gotten literally hundreds of hours of machine time; more than anything else in my software library, with the exception of programming and word processing software.
In that time I've discovered a few things which might just make your own flying time a bit more enjoyable. FS2 is, after all, a simulation, and a very accurate one at that. You can spend countless hours just motoring about the skies, but if you're anything like me, you can only do so much sightseeing before the novelty wears off. Eventually you'll want a challenge, something to sharpen your flying and navigational skills.
Fortunately, FS2 has enough to provide you with challenges for years to come. The following paragraphs contain a few suggestions on how to go about taking advantage of the great depth of the simulation and above all, have some more fun with it.
Need a Co-pilot?
Before we get started, however, a word to those who are stark beginners or are just plain baffled by Flight Simulator II. This article assumes you have at least some familiarity with FS2, but if not, you might be interested in Charles Gulick's Flying Flight Simulator, published by Microsoft Press at a relatively inexpensive $9.95. The book is an excellent tutorial for beginners, as well as a handy reference for experienced FS2 pilots. Mr. Gulick starts from the beginning and gradually leads the student pilot through ever more difficult lessons until, by the end of the book, the simulation is covered in detail. Flying Flight Simulator is a comprehensive compendium of useful information and it's a painless way to learn this complex program.
The same author has written a couple of books entitled 40 (and 40 More) Great Flight Simulator Adventures, published by Compute! Books. Yes, they're exactly what you think they are: a series of situations, complete with objectives, which you can set up on FS2 and play out. Now, on with the show.
How about a section 8?
The single greatest improvement you can make in your simulation flying is to give up navigating by the little maps which come with FS2 and the scenery disks and invest in a set of standard aeronautical sectional charts. You can pick them up at just about any airport or order them through an aviation supply house such as Sporty's Pilot Shop in Batavia, Ohio. A sectional chart is simply a map used by pilots to navigate both by visual flight rules and, in conjunction with other charts, instrument flight rules. There are 37 sectional charts covering the continental United States (not counting Alaska), and the existing scenery disks supplied by sub-LOGIC conform so closely, you can navigate by them remarkably well. Navigating under VFR (Visual Flight Rules) becomes much easier with the sectional charts, especially when using the more detailed scenery disks. Major roads, rivers, lakes, mountains, cities, and even landmarks are accurately represented. (And I'll bet that all this time you thought those roads were randomly set there just for looks; to fill up empty space.)
For example, taking off from runway 26 at Lancaster, PA, you cross over route 322, pick up route 30, fly over the Susquehanna river and run into route 83. If you kick left rudder you can follow the pike south all the way to Baltimore. Each of these features is plainly visible on the Scenery Disk, but without intimate knowledge of the area, or without the use of a chart, you really can't tell what you're looking at. If you've been wondering just what it is you've been seeing down there, they're well worth the modest price.
Although the FS2 Scenery Disks don't contain all of the airports in the real world, each sectional has around 30 of them—all of the major airports and most of the secondary ones. When you're ready for that information, sectional charts will show you the transition areas for instrument approaches, the airport control zones, and federal VOR airways. Scenery Disk #11, for example, contains four sectionals (all of which conform to standard NOAA sectional charts) and sports a grand total of 140 airports. Radio navigational aids are also in abundance, and almost all real-world beacons are represented with their corresponding frequencies. ATIS frequencies (Automatic Terminal Information Service) are present to a limited extent, as well as ILS (Instrument Landing System) at selected airports.
Another thing the sectionals show you is prohibited airspace and restricted areas. The airspace around military bases, for instance, and around major airports have certain requirements which must be met before private aircraft may enter. For some areas it's as simple as contacting Air Traffic Control before you enter, while for others, entry is strictly prohibited. I grant you that the long arm of the FAA is not about to pop out of the screen in front of you and bend your floppy in two for violating prohibited airspace, but just for kicks, try doing some cross-country flying while observing the FAA altitude restrictions and avoiding restricted areas. You'll find it adds a whole new dimension to cross-country flying on FS2. No longer do you feel as if you're the only pilot in the sky, but part of an enormously intricate air traffic control system and one who's expected to observe the rules.
And speaking of rules, I'll bet there aren't too many of you out there who ever enter into a standard traffic pattern when approaching an airport. Yes, I know, it's hard enough to get the beast onto the runway in one piece without having to worry about being neat about it. Guaranteed, however, that once you get the hang of it, it'll make landing much easier. Flying a traffic pattern correctly automatically lines you up with the runway at the right altitude for a nice, safe, uneventful landing. When you think you've got it down pat, try the same approach with a good, stiff crosswind. Then add some turbulence. Keep making things difficult for yourself until you hone your skill to a fine edge.
What's a standard traffic pattern, you ask? Before you leave the pilots' supply house with that fist full of sectional charts, think about buying yourself a pilot's handbook. It'll tell you all you need to know about traffic patterns.
And I do recommend that you buy a good pilot's training manual; subLOGIC provides a list of appropriate publications in the front of their documentation that will definitely fit the bill. A good manual contains information on aerodynamics, meteorology, communications, aeronautical charts, navigation, airports, air traffic control, instruments, ILS, radio navigation, using a flight computer, and more. Also, invariably, there's a section containing the Federal Aviation Regulations. A lot of the material you'll find in these manuals won't be applicable to the Flight Simulator II, but you'll be surprised at just how much is.
Weather to Fly or Not?
Chugging around the clear, still, friendly skies is one thing. Taking off, flying, and landing in stiff winds, limited visibility and teeth-crunching turbulence is quite another.
FS2 gives you full control over your environment, and what better way to add challenge to your flying than to conjure up some nice, hostile weather? High winds are great for creating havoc with your instrument flights, especially long flights in which you're using radio beacons to triangulate your position and set your course.
For this kind of flying, you'll need to make another trip to your pilot's supply house to pick up a flight computer; either electronic (wimpy) or an inexpensive mechanical flight computer (which you should learn to use even if you do have an electronic computer). The mechanical computers are slip-sticklike affairs costing about five bucks for the cardboard and plastic kind. You'll need one of these computers for figuring true heading, (i.e. your actual heading taking into account airspeed, wind speed and direction, and compass heading), groundspeed, fuel consumption, and other useful information necessary to keeping your bearings in foul weather and avoiding becoming an unwilling and quite sudden part of the landscape. Again, the pilot's handbook which you dutifully purchased will instruct you in the use of your new computer. And yes, it really does work. You can compute true heading, ETA, groundspeed and so forth, and apply the numbers to your simulation flying. Believe me, it's an education in itself.
Crossing That Line.
Now, what about when you want to fly from one sectional to another? Well, as long as both sectionals are on the same disk, there's no problem; you get no sensation of crossing a boundary. However, if the sectionals reside on different disks, there's a couple of minor problems. I must specify that although I've used FS2 on other machines, I've not had the opportunity to test their reaction to scenery disk manipulation, so this section I can only guarantee to ST users.
First, the original scenery, that is, the scenery which comes supplied on the FS2 disk itself, is not as accurate as the scenery disks which are sold separately. I don't mean in terms of what they portray, but only in their scope.
For instance, the New York sectional is missing almost 40,000 square miles on the west side; a giant rectangle from just west of New York City north to Tupper Lake, west to Prince Edward Bay in Lake Ontario, and then south again to a point just south of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Obviously, flying west from the New York sectional to the Detroit sectional is impossible with any degree of realism. And all of the sectionals supplied with the FS2 disk have similar problems. It seems that we'll just have to wait for the revised scenery disks for those areas to arrive.
However, you can fly from the New York to the Washington sectionals (and Los Angeles to San Francisco) after spending about 40 miles or so in a featureless limbo. Just be sure you change the disks before the simulator goes looking for new data.
Going from one scenery disk to another is no problem if you know exactly where you are. Each NOAA sectional chart has an overlapping area which matches up with adjoining charts. When you hit one of those areas on a sectional disk, change the disk to the one you're flying to. As soon as you leave the overlapping area, press "E" on your keyboard and the new scenery disk will take over. Of course, if you don't know exactly where you are, you're likely to end up with the same kind of problem which befalls a pilot flying from New York to Washington—a side trip to the Twilight Zone.
Can You Play An Instrument?
When you've mastered the nuts and bolts of your simulator; that is, takeoffs, flying and landing, VFR navigation, and so on, the next logical step is instrument flying, including using the Instrument Landing System at a number of airports on the FS2 disk and the scenery disks.
Before you tackle instrument flying in bad weather, I suggest that you practice radio navigation in fair weather until it becomes second nature. Start off flying directly from beacon to beacon, and then graduate to using two beacons to triangulate your position. Once you master that, you're freed from "beacon hopping," and you'll gain a lot more skill in instrument navigation. With practice, and using a combination of radio navigation, experience, and a little dead-reckoning thrown in for good measure, you should become quite proficient at droning around the countryside, knowing exactly where you are at all times. When you get to that point, try an instrument landing. First try it in clear, calm weather and just kill your main window. (It's a lot easier to reactivate your main window if you get into trouble than it is to reset the cloud cover.)
Instrument landing approaches are probably the most difficult aspect of the flight simulator to master. It requires a combination of "flying" skill, proficiency at reading and interpreting instruments, navigational skills, and nerves of steel. Once you do a number of successful approaches under ideal conditions, toughen the environment slightly and do it all over again. Keep trying to make things difficult for yourself, and don't give up. As with anything else, constant practice and diligence will beat raw talent any day. (You've got to watch out for the talented ones who constantly practice, though.)
Deja Vu City
For a long time, I've been nursing this nagging curiosity about FS2. Just how close to reality is the simulator, and just how much of what I've learned by using FS2 would help me to fly and navigate a real, honest-to-goodness Cessna? Aside from a short stint at the stick of a Blanec Sailplane (I hope I've got the spelling right) back in the early 70's, I've never flown an aircraft before. So I took my curiosity to a nearby flight school and arranged for a short flight. I had originally planned on giving you a detailed comparison of FS2 and the real thing, but the flight, in it's essence, was simply a reflection of the simulator. VFR and radio navigation were identical, at least as far as the mechanics of it. Tuning in a VOR-TAC was a bit different than it's done in the simulator, in fact, most of the differences between the simulator and actual flying are either those imposed because of the limitations inherent in the medium, or in the stylized or simplified representation of parts of the world of flight.
The instrument panel of the Cessna 172 was virtually identical to the panel depicted in FS2. There were some minor variations, of course, such as the position of the fuel gauges and the compass, and the position indicators, which didn't exist at all. But the panel looked nice and familiar.
The actual flying of the plane was drastically different. Obviously, it would be, and I expected as much. In this respect the simulator is as close to reality as the driving simulators you find in an automobile driving school. The tactile feedback, and the "seat of the pants" feel for the aircraft is something that can't be experienced in the simulation. The results of physical forces acting on the aircraft are something which are seen in the simulation, and felt in the real thing. And finally, of course, the controls in the Cessna were infinately more sensitive than the simulator's. Although my head knew what had to be done (and in that one respect the simulation did help), the actual execution of a few simple maneuvers bore no relationship at all to the computer simulation.
Also, there are a myriad of details which must be attended to in the course of a real flight which are not reflected in the simulator, such as radio communications and air traffic control.
All in all, however, Flight Simulator II is a remarkable piece of work. With a little imagination and some homework, you can get a real close idea of what it's like to fly a small plane. But watch out. It's addictive.