Saturday, April 16, 2022

Earth Simulator (with Airplanes)

I've resuscitated this blog to write occasionally on my continuing infatuation with Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020. If you've read any of my earlier posts, you will know that I am a lifelong "airplane nut" and that MSFS does a very good job of simulating the experience of flying an airplane, as well as any simulator I have tried that doesn't move. It's actually better in most ways than the few I've tried that did toss me around in a small capsule with a screen in front (I have not yet tried a full motion simulator with VR, which could be great or sickening or possibly both). 

Even after hundreds of hours in the simulator, I am still finding new and wondrous things in the experience, and especially in the beautiful visual world as modeled within the simulator. As I have noted elsewhere, it is the combination of cloud computing, fast internet connections, fast computers, and advanced graphics processing that makes it all possible. Modeling the entire planet requires petabytes of data that can be selected and streamed "on demand" to your PC or XBox. There it is combined with flight modeling, weather modeling, sound modeling, and more to create the 25-60 high-res images per second needed to fool you into believing that you are in control of an airplane moving at extreme speed. One for each eye if you are in VR. 

I sometimes like to fly amphibious planes so I can land in water or on a runway. If I'm using Live Weather or if I decide to crank up some wind at ground level, water operations can be challenging. 

I devoted an earlier post to my amazement at the way light and weather are modeled in the sim, but sometimes I find new surprises. as when I was flying a silver PT-17 Stearman biplane near the Phare de Gatteville on the north coast of France, just after sunset. As I circled low around the lighthouse, the rotating beacon illuminated my wing, and the reflection was blinding! 

Even as I have started to take some real-life refresher lessons in a Cessna 172, I continue to be fascinated by what is really more of a dynamic "Earth simulator" than a "mere" flight simulator. 

Monday, March 28, 2022

Mind the Power Lines!

Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS) continues to provide a range of enjoyable distractions as I explore various corners of the world, usually in VR and often with online friends who share the virtual skies with me while sitting in Australia or Finland or wherever they may be. Recently I did some flying in Wales with my friend "MiGMan." We tried out a new "low and slow" airplane on his flight plan from Cardiff (EGFF) and then went back to our usual Italian jet trainers, this time with a new custom paint job. He has posted excerpt videos from our flights here, here, and here

The Edgley Optica is a slow, rather bug-like airplane with great visibility through its bubble canopy. Quite nice to fly in VR. In lieu of a copilot, it offers animated pets, a dog and a cat. Fortunately these can be turned off with a switch. The image above is a screenshot from one eye of my VR headset. The per-eye field of view is pretty small, but since the left and right eye images are offset and overlapped to produce a 3D stereo view, and since the view continuously updates as I turn my head, the headset gives a convincing illusion of a 360-degree world around me with no sensation of "tunnel vision."

Although VR is great while flying, it doesn't produce the best screen shots and videos, so I often use my wide screen when I want to take pictures. I'm experimenting with offset "GoPro camera" views like the one above, flying low over the Welsh countryside while avoiding terrain, radio towers, and power lines like those shown here. 

Here's another "GoPro" shot from the tail of the aircraft while in a loop over Cardiff. 

Formation flying in multiplayer is an interesting 3D motion problem. While 250 knots is slow for a military jet, you can get separated pretty fast at 4+ miles per minute. So you really need to pay attention to your throttle, trim, and position, making frequent small corrections to stay in sync with the other aircraft. This is a VR frame that was cropped. Fortunately the resolution is high enough to allow this, roughly 3100 pixels square for the HP Reverb G2 headset I use. 

Microsoft Flight Simulator lets you use location-based "Live Weather," or you can choose any weather and time of day you like (you can also choose the date which gives you the proper sun position for seasonal lighting changes). For multiplayer flights, we usually choose decent weather with few clouds and mild winds. But if you're up for an IFR challenge, you can fly in a thunderstorm if you like. We took a look here and went back to mostly blue skies. 

Microsoft continues to update MSFS with new content every couple of months. Just last week they released a big "Iberia" update with new and enhanced scenery for Spain and Portugal. Looks good, but I've been more focused on the UK because of a "special project" coming up in June. I'll write more about this in the coming weeks. 

Sunday, March 06, 2022

Guns, Guns, Guns! (Not Really)

One of the cool things about Microsoft Flight Simulator is the ability to do multiplayer flights with other players over the internet. I have done quite a few of these, most often group flights where we explore some interesting part of the world while we talk about flying or other things, over Discord or Skype. I've also done flights with my Australian friend Pete (a.k.a. "MiGMan"), often testing out routes in his ongoing MiGMan's World Tour (MMWT) Series. This is an enjoyable social aspect of flight simulation, where airplane nerds can talk with other airplane nerds about airplanes as they pretend to fly them!

The other day we did some flying on a MMWT flight plan out of Naples, Italy, visiting Mount Vesuvius, the Amalfi Coast, and the lovely island of Capri. Pete captured and posted some pretty cool videos from those flights. Appropriately enough, we were both flying an Italian jet trainer, the Aermacchi MB-339 by IndiaFoxTecho, which is quite a sweet little airplane. 

One of things we work on is formation flight. This is something of a brain challenge since there are many things to keep "happy" if you want to fly two planes close together at 250+ knots. Military pilots do it all the time, but it's harder than it looks, even with VR or head-tracking hardware to simplify looking around. We don't always fly tight but we have some fun moments. 

Of course things do go wrong at times, as when I pulled too hard, stalled and "landed" on Mount Vesuvius. It's a simulator so no harm done.

We also did some simulated ACM ("air combat maneuvers, a.k.a. "dogfighting") over and around the island of Ischia which was really fun. In VR, I can actually look all around and up simply by moving my head, and I try to keep the other plane in sight while maneuvering. As the "host," Pete was setting up the time of day and weather for both of us, but for some reason, mine was considerably more cloudy than his, and when we got above 5000 feet, I could lose him in the clouds. It looked so much like realistic semi-hazy VFR conditions that I didn’t mind. 

There are no weapons in Microsoft Flight Simulator, but you can pretend, as real pilots do in training. I even got to say cool fighter pilot stuff like “fight’s on,” “guns, guns, guns” and “knock it off.” The audio from the MB339 includes the sounds of your virtual pilot breathing hard and grunting to resist the effects of pulling 3 to 5 G’s, while I stayed at a comfortable 1G the whole time (I could have turned on the blackout simulation to force myself to limit the G more realistically).

Is all of this a waste of the beauty of coastal Italy? No, you can still enjoy the Mediterranean and all the beautiful beaches, towns, mountains, and volcanoes. You just have to try to not crash into them. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Exploring Switzerland with MiGMan

I've been virtually exploring many cool areas in Africa and Europe with the help of a new series of VFR flight plans for Microsoft Flight Simulator, MiGMan's World Tour. They include a large number of locations with richly illustrated guides to help you decide where to fly next. The flights are fairly short (depending on the aircraft you choose) with an emphasis on the scenic and the unusual in the huge, detailed world of MSFS.

I made a new video (music by me) from a series of screen captures done on two flights around Lake Lucerne, Switzerland, both based on the same flight plan from MIGMAN'S FLIGHT SIM MUSEUM - EUROPE VISUAL VOL. 4. I first flew the plan in the "wrong" order, crossing icy Lake Lucerne to the east at fairly high altitude, and with Live Weather - lots of snow and frozen lakes in January. Then I flew it again in the published way point order, this time at low level, with "cloudy horizon" weather and with the date set to late fall. So different! Here's another version, full video flown and narrated by MiGMan. 

I was using Bijan's Four Seasons addon to add variety to the vegetation, as well as addons for powerlines and lifts (ski lifts and cable cars are everywhere in Switzerland). You can see those (and avoid them) when flying down low. I was in VR which makes it easy to judge your position when flying low in valleys and around obstacles. I chose a new aircraft I just bought, YSIM's SubSonex JSX-2 “personal jet” which is really fun in VR. A cozy little jet. I might build one! 

MiGMan’s World Tour series has many great flight routes throughout Europe and Africa, so there’s no special need to fly the same one twice. But as you can see from these screenshots and especially in the video, changing the weather, the altitude, and the direction brings out different aspects of the beauty of Switzerland’s mountains, valleys, lakes, and towns. I also enjoy getting familiar with the terrain as I explore an area from different perspectives. So the “replay value” of these flight plans is excellent.

Of course Switzerland is amazing and these flights show that well. But there are hundreds of less famous but still beautiful places all around Europe and Africa, and this series has surprised me many times with unexpected wonders. If you love geography as I do, Microsoft Flight Simulator is the biggest and best playground ever, especially if you also like airplanes (as I apparently do). 

Microsoft points out that you can fly anywhere in the world, but as with real-world travel, it’s helpful to have an experienced guide who can lead you to incredible places you might never think to visit otherwise.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Twelve Planes of Christmas

One of the great things about virtual stuff is that it doesn't take up much room. Take my fleet of airplanes, for example. Microsoft Flight Simulator starts you off with a pretty decent set of flyable airplanes, from the trusty Cessna 152 I used to learn to fly in real life to the Boeing 787. The "Premium Deluxe" edition includes 34 different planes, ranging from ultralights to general aviation standards to business jets and airliners. A recent update even added a jet fighter, the Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet, but there is no air combat support (there are other simulators for those who like to blow stuff up). 

Surely 34 airplanes is more than anyone can fly, right? Perhaps, but that doesn't stop third party developers from creating even more. I have bought quite a few of them and downloaded even more from freeware developers, some of whom do amazing work. I do like to fly a few of the standard planes, though I am not much into airliners and business jets. I tend to favor general aviation planes, bush planes, warbirds (older military planes, mostly props), and military jets. So in no particular order, here are twelve of my favorite planes for Microsoft Flight Simulator.

1. Cessna 172: The 172 is a classic, essentially a four-seat version of the Cessna 152 I used to really fly. It's quite easy to operate, and I usually choose the "glass cockpit" version with the big color screens of the Garmin 1000 navigation system in place of the classic "round dials" for airspeed, altitude, etc. The Bushtalk Radio livery is promoting a cool free add-on that provides audio narration for thousands of points of interest around the world as you fly near them.

2. Cub Crafters XCub: The XCub is an updated version of the classic Piper Cub which I first flew as a Civil Air Patrol cadet back in 1967. I like the screenshot above which reminds me of how we would fly the Cub with the door open on warm days. My mother didn't like that but she still let me fly. The image at the top of this post is the XCub fitted with amphibious floats, flying near the Golden Gate Bridge. 

3. PT-17 Stearman: The Stearman is a true classic, a tail-dragger open-cockpit biplane that first flew in 1936. It was a standard trainer for the US Army and Navy in WWII and was used for many years as a crop duster. It is capable of aerobatics, and I was fortunate enough to experience this myself on a flight in Chino, California in 1996, before I had started my flight training. The DC Designs model in Flight Simulator feels pretty real and has great sounds, including the creaking sound you get from the wing braces when you pull G's. Two silver PT-17's are also pictured above flying near Key West, Florida. 

4. Aermacchi MB-339A: This Italian-made jet trainer by IndiaFoxTecho was the first paid add-on I got for FS2020 and it's still one of my favorites. It's got old-style "round dials" and support for traditional navigation methods like VOR (but no screens). It's not the fastest jet but it's very maneuverable and has been used by the flight demonstration team of the Italian Air Force as shown in the screenshot above, flying in the Swiss Alps. 

5. Beechcraft Bonanza G36: The Bonanza G36 is a modern version of a low-wing general aviation plane popular for many years. It's got the same avionics system as the Cessna 172 (Garmin G1000) but it has a more powerful engine and retractable landing gear, making it a lot more speedy. I would love to have a real one! 

6. Supermarine Spitfire Mk. IX: The Spitfire is one of those airplanes that can justifiably be called iconic. First flown in 1936, it was one of the heroes of the Battle of Britain in 1940, alongside the Hawker Hurricane. I don't fly the Spitfire in the sim as much as many other planes, in part because it is realistically tricky to land and handle on the ground. But every time I fly it I realize it's one of the most beautiful machines ever made, and Flying Iron has recreated it in fine detail. 

7. Top Rudder 103 Ultralight: I have never flown an ultralight in real life and I'm not sure I would. I bet it would be great fun, but I like the feeling of a fuselage and windows around me, not just a lawn chair with a seatbelt and a bunch of metal tubing. But in the sim it's great for when you want to get low and slow and explore the scenery. Here I was flying over the Cerne Abbas Chalk Giant in Dorset, England. 

8. Daher Kodiak 100: This is my latest toy, a single-turbine-engine, short-takeoff-and-landing utility plane that I first learned about from the great YouTube videos of Missionary Bush Pilot in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Ryan flies passengers and cargo to remote jungle airstrips in all sorts of conditions while calmly explaining it all to his YouTube fans. So I was very excited when this plane was announced for FS2020, and SimWorks Studios has done an amazing job simulating the many details and the flight characteristics. The interior is pretty nice too (see image at end below). 

9. General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon: The F-16 is one of my all-time favorite airplanes and was the very first one I ever experienced in a flight sim, way back in 1994 with Falcon 3. I also spent time with the much more detailed Falcon 4.0 late in the 1990's. Those were combat flight sims and though I wasn't all that great at air-to-air or air-to-ground, it sure was fun. This version of the F-16 by SC Designs is visually amazing and flies very smoothly. It can carry weapons but they are for visual effect only. In the screenshot above, a two-seat F-16D is making an uncomfortably low pass over the mountaintop Haleakalā Observatory in Maui, Hawaii.

10. Grumman Goose: Although I am not big into water sports or boating, I've discovered an unexpected love for amphibious float planes since FS2020 came out. Several of my smaller single-engine favorites such as XCub and Cessna 172 have float options, as does the recently added Pilatus PC-6 Porter turbine single. But I also love this freeware version of the classic twin-engine Grumman Goose which first flew in 1937. Sure it looks like a cartoon airplane, but it's really fun to fly. 

11. Lockheed-Martin F-22 Raptor: This is another surprisingly good freeware airplane. It's very fast and easy to fly. The real one is also supposed to be easy to fly, which it should be at something like $300 million per plane. It's also pretty in menacing predatory reptile sort of way. 

12. Nieuport 17: Number 12 already? How can I leave out the P-38? The P-40? The Long-EZ? The T-45C? The Hawk T.1? All the beautiful Diamond airplanes? All the business jets and airliners? The truth is I rarely fly biz jets or airliners. I'm more a VFR-fun-flying kinda guy, though I do enjoy planning a longer IFR flight now and then. But my final entry is a French sesquiplane (one-and-a-half wings) that first flew 105 years ago, in  January 1916. Only replicas of this classic WWI fighter exist today, but Big Radials made a very nice virtual model that's quite fun to fly, especially in VR. 

Interior view of the Kodiak 100 parked at the airport at Milford Sound, New Zealand.

Tuesday, November 09, 2021

Light and Weather in Microsoft Flight Simulator

Fans of flight simulators often talk about how “immersive” a sim is. It’s about how much the sim experience makes you feel like you’re flying a real airplane. Visuals are obviously a key component, and VR can take this to a higher level in terms of feeling truly surrounded by a 3D environment made up of the structures of your aircraft as well as all the natural and human-built objects in the simulated world around you. Sound is also very important, as are physical controls like yokes and rudder pedals (controlling an airplane with a keyboard is definitely an immersion killer). Realistic ATC (Air Traffic Control) communications are important especially for airliners and military flight sims.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 addresses all these components, but to me, lighting and weather are the pieces that really pull it all together. Things we take for granted in real life like shadows, reflections, transparency, refraction, and color shifts are all well-simulated in MSFS. Making things look real also requires careful attention to materials and to how light interacts with them, including their colors and how shiny or rough they appear to be, which also affects color.

MSFS uses techniques called PBR (physically based rendering) to pull this off. Notice how the yellow features in this Stearman paint scheme (above) are reflected and distorted in the shiny blue fabric panels of the wings. The colors are shifted by these reflections as well as by shadows and by the angle from the sun at which you are viewing the surface. PBR techniques are also used to make buildings, runways, and other surface objects appear more realistic, often in combination with photogrammetry. 

Photogrammetry uses photographic imagery for measurement purposes, and in MSFS, this real-world data allows many cities to appear nearly photorealistic. Based on the resolution of the captured data, objects as small as signs on buildings may be readable, depending on your position and altitude. Technologies such as radar and lidar can also be used to accurately measure the height of terrain, and such data is often available to simulation modelers. Although MSFS recreates the entire surface of the Earth, the level of available detail varies by location, with many major cities covered by detailed photogrammetry (like New York City, shown in a VR stereo pair below), while many others depend on AI-based “autogeneration” of 3D objects including buildings, mountains, trees, etc. 

The appearance of objects in a simulation naturally depends on light sources, and MSFS incorporates multiple light sources starting with the sun and the moon (both accurately positioned based on the location, date, and time of day). I believe starlight is also modeled. Human-made light sources include streetlights, vehicle lights, light from building interiors, airport lighting, etc., and what amazes me is  when light sources interact with surface properties (reflecting or scattering) as well as with atmospheric properties like clouds, mist, rain, and snow. The resulting scenes can be uncannily realistic.

Speaking of rain and snow, weather is the other big piece of “immersiveness” I wanted to briefly discuss here. It’s a critical subject in real life aviation and in the sim. Microsoft and Asobo and their partners have placed huge emphasis on making weather look and feel right, and the system they developed is incredibly detailed, flexible, and easy to control.

Not only can you adjust any location's time and weather to your choosing - from clear skies to heavy clouds, to snow and storms – with “Live Weather,” you can even set it to match real conditions taking place in that part of the world. But if you don’t like the time of day, the wind, the height of the clouds, the height of the waves, or the depth of the snow cover, you can change any of that without even stopping your flight, using the interface shown above. 

Rather than drone on and on about this, allow me to recommend two brief developer videos that clearly explain how they managed to make the weather so real, it can get scary at times. Fortunately I can switch to clear skies anytime and (usually) not hit the mountain that was behind that cloud!

Feature Discovery Series, Episode 2: Weather 

Partnership Series: Meteoblue - Weather Forecast System