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

Monday, November 01, 2021

Why Things That Fly Are Cool

I blame my main life obsessions on John Glenn and the Beatles: things that fly and making music. The flying bit started first, in 1962. In February of that year, John Glenn became the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth. I was nine years old and for reasons I don’t fully understand, the whole space thing was immediately very exciting to me. I must have watched the launches on TV and seen the pictures in LIFE Magazine. I started reading everything I could about the astronauts and soon learned that they were first military jet pilots. So I decided that’s what I would be. I’m sure around a million other American kids decided the same thing. The Beatles and making music came a few years later.

I stuck with my Air Force Academy, jet pilot, test pilot, astronaut dream for around three years until it was shattered by myopia. I get that military pilots must have uncorrected 20/20 vision, and even though I was too nearsighted to fly for the Air Force, my interest in space and aviation continued. I decided I would be an aeronautical engineer. I read books and built dozens of model airplanes, and when I was around 12, I joined Civil Air Patrol (CAP). It was something like boy scouts sponsored by the Air Force, but even better – they had airplanes! Cadets could go on demonstration flights in a Piper Cub! They would even let you fly the plane! It was the best thing ever.

CAP faded in high school as I developed other interests (e.g., the Beatles) and my parents got tired of schlepping me to the airport. I still built model airplanes and loved everything about flying, and I still assumed I would study aeronautical engineering and get a private pilot’s license as soon as I could. Of course, “life happened” and I tried a few different majors, quit college for a while to try being a singer-songwriter, and ended up studying physics and optics instead of aerospace engineering. A lot of other stuff happened too of course, like a family and a career.  I eventually did get a private pilot’s license, but not until I was 48 years old. That was great, but for various reasons, I couldn’t fly as much as I had hoped I would.

Which finally brings me to PC flight simulators. I played with a few in the mid-90s, military ones that were fun but not very much like real flying. By 1999 when I started taking real flight lessons, PC flight simulators had improved enough to be useful for some aspects of flight training, e.g., practicing some specific tasks like VOR navigation. But they didn’t look or feel very much like a real airplane, and I only used sims for a few things like preparing for a cross-country flight.

For a couple of years, the flying bug seemed to fade, other than reading my monthly AOPA Pilot Magazine and listening in to the cockpit audio on my United Airlines flights. In 2005, I discovered the free space flight simulator Orbiter, which reawakened my interest in space and in flying, since some of the simulated spacecraft in Orbiter had wings, like the space shuttle. This “space phase” lasted for a few years. It launched this blog and led me to become a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador, a volunteer educational outreach program for space and astronomy. I’m still a sucker for a rocket launch or landing, and I would go on a space flight in a heartbeat if I could manage it.

Flight Sim Renaissance

Throughout the 2000s, flight simulators continued to improve, but I didn’t pay any attention until sometime in 2020 when I heard that an amazing new version of Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS) would be released in August. I started reading articles and watching preview videos, thinking that it might be interesting to play with, since like many people, I was stuck at home due to the pandemic. Early in 2020, I had also started to get heavily involved in orchestral composition with sample libraries, so I decided I would wait a while before trying MSFS 2020. I was working with a composition coach and had started entering some competitions.

But by mid-September, the MSFS videos I was seeing were just too exciting. It was clear that MSFS 2020 was something entirely new and different, using modern cloud computing to model the entire world in incredible detail and with beautiful graphic quality. Not to mention airplanes! So I bought it, and within a month, I had upgraded to a new computer and monitor to run it better. My music took a back seat.

Why Is This Still Interesting?

Human dreams of flight started long before the Wright Brothers, and my personal dreams of flight started early in my life. Since I was also interested in travel and in foreign languages, I guess I hit the jackpot with the job I recently retired from, which would send me on international trips 6-8 times a year over many years. I spent a lot of time over the Atlantic and Pacific. And I spent some 120 hours at the controls of small airplanes (including flight instruction time) – a “low time” pilot for sure, but I’m grateful for the experiences and the memories.

With all that, you might think a flight simulator would pale in comparison. It’s definitely not the same as real flight but it still holds my interest for a few reasons:

  • It exercises the same “muscle memory” as real flight – the simulation is accurate enough to follow similar flight procedures and see similar results, both good and bad.
  • The simulated world and systems are accurate enough to allow for realistic flight planning, including “Live Weather” based on real-world data.
  • If I choose to navigate visually (VFR) in a familiar area, my real-world knowledge applies directly, which is quite satisfying. So I can navigate by "IFR" (“I follow roads”).
  • I never learned to use advanced GPS flight navigation systems that have become widespread in recent years, but now I have – and the simulated systems are very close to the real ones, which is fun to experience. So I can navigate by IFR (“instrument flight rules”).
  • Using multiplayer features and communication software, I can fly and talk with other sim pilots from anywhere in the (real) world. On many group flights, I have toured national parks and various international destinations, adding some of them to my “must visit” list for future real travel. New Zealand is at the top of my list once it opens for international visitors. 
  • I can learn what it’s like to fly airplanes I could never experience in real life, from a Stearman biplane to an F-14 Tomcat to a Boeing 787. Is it exactly the same? Of course not, but the better models highlight the critical flight characteristics and flight systems, rewarding you for handling them correctly, and "punishing" you for mistakes (RTFM to minimize this).
  • The childhood model airplane builder in me appreciates that I can easily acquire a collection of visually stunning airplane models that I can also fly in the simulator, unlike the plastic models from years past (though I still have a few die cast models of favorite airplanes).
  • As I mentioned in an earlier post, virtual travel is also a big attraction for me. It’s especially fun to fly around cities I know well from years of business travel, especially Tokyo, Paris, Seoul, and London. I like to recognize familiar sights and discover new ones I plan to visit.

Finally there is VR, a totally different way to experience simulated flight, where you feel like you are inside a cockpit and where clouds and buildings look 3D and startlingly real and massive mountains truly look massive.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Joys of Virtual Travel

Is this thing on? This blog I mean. Since I haven’t written a post since 2018, I thought maybe the whole blog thing was over and nobody told me. We certainly seem to have passed the heyday of blogs if there ever was one. It was sort of cool back in 2005 when I was excited about Orbiter, a new space flight simulator I had discovered, and I decided to share my fascination with real and virtual space flight with anyone who cared to read those early posts. Cool to me anyway. I met a few other space bloggers and Orbiter fans and there was even a small online community of sorts for a while. Woo-hoo! If there are still any blog readers or old space blog colleagues around, welcome! Leave a comment! All my old posts seem to still be out there and we’ll soon see if this one joins them.

Of course, now it’s late 2021 and things have changed. You know what many of them are, but in addition, I retired from my job a few months ago, and between that and COVID, my travel has been sharply curtailed. But things have come full circle in a way. Last year I rediscovered an old interest, non-space flight simulators, and specifically Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 (MSFS). I had played with various flight sims from 1994 to 2004, and between 1999 and 2004, I got my real private pilot’s license (2001). I didn’t fly as much as I hoped I would, but I feel lucky that I got to fly at all. For more information on that, please visit my other moribund blog, Flight SchoolRetrojournal.

When I say I didn’t fly much, I meant only as a pilot. As a passenger I flew constantly from 1983 until late 2019, just before COVID started. Hundreds of international business trips and a few cool vacations. I do miss that part of my working life, going places, seeing things, meeting people, doing things. It was great. In retirement, my wife and I plan to do some fun domestic and international travel once things settle down with COVID and a few other issues. Maybe next year.

In the meantime, MSFS allows me to experience some of the joys of flying and “virtual travel” from the comfort of my own office chair, with or without a VR headset. I’ll spare you the details you can learn from any number of websites or YouTube videos, but MSFS takes full advantage of the power of fast PC’s, graphical accelerators, and cloud computing to create a highly detailed simulation of the entire world, complete with “Live Weather” and stunning depictions of terrain, human-built structures, many different airplanes, and even other simulator pilots sharing the skies with you over the internet. It’s an amazing experience with a large high-res monitor, but even better with a modern virtual reality headset. I have the Hewlett-Packard Reverb G2 which works great with MSFS.

Where Have I Been?

I have spent some simulator time in a Cessna 152 flying around Central Massachusetts as I did in real life 15-22 years ago, and it’s fun to see how well Asobo has done recreating airports, towns, and terrain familiar to me (Asobo are the French makers of Microsoft’s current flight simulator). It is detailed enough to navigate “VFR” using familiar landmarks. You can usually even find your house! But with the whole world at my fingertips, and with a stable full of airplanes from ultralights to business jets to a Boeing 747, I’m not usually so close to home. When not flying a Beech Bonanza G36 or a tail-wheel XCub, I tend to favor an old Stearman biplane or the Aermacchi MB-339, an Italian-built jet trainer, both bought from third-party developers. 

Human and Robot Tour Guides

One thing I have enjoyed is a weekly group flight organized by Jules Altis, who happens to be an active private pilot as well as a simulator enthusiast. For months he focused on US National Parks of which there are many worth touring from the air. He would research the history and special features of each park and share those presentations and videos along with the flight plan for all of us to follow in the simulator and on Twitch or Discord. Olympia National Park, Washington, was my personal favorite. More recently he switched to a more informal format with international destinations like the Amalfi Coast of Italy, the Great Rift Valley of Africa, and the Tokaido Road in Japan. He makes use of a great free add-on developed by others called Bushtalk Radio which provides computer-narrated tours within the simulator of over twelve-thousand points of interest around the world. I’ve helped in small ways with Bushtalk Radio, especially with this brief trailer video that introduces it in the same synthetic “English lady” voice used for the actual tours (the music is mine).

Favorite Places

In addition to the “standards” like the Grand Canyon, Mount Fuji, and New York City, there are so many lesser-known mountains, lakes, cities, bridges, and dams, not to mention so many great airports. If you love airplanes you’ve got to love airports! Many of these sights are beautiful right out of the box, but there is also a facility for “add-ons,” both free and paid. In addition to an expanded air fleet (fancy a Spitfire or F-14 Tomcat?), you can find hundreds of airports with added details. Duxford Airfield, England is a current (free) favorite of mine. Scenery enhancements are also popular, many free, but many great commercial ones that are well worth a few dollars, like this improved version of Seoul, Korea which reminds me of my many visits there over the years.

I have created many videos which are usually short flights in some cool area I’ve discovered. I’ve experimented with adding my own music to a few, like this one of a Spitfire (White Cliffs of Dover, of course) or this flight around Tokyo. One of my favorite videos is this one (not mine) of many beauty spots, set to an instrumental version of “What a Wonderful World.”

This is already a long post so I will end here. I’ll probably write another one talking about what it is that makes the Microsoft Flight Simulator experience so engaging for me.

MSFS screenshots above, from the top (* add-on aircraft):

1. Stearman* over north Australia; 2. Dorand AR.1* (WWI) over Minnesota; 3. Stearman* passing through Tower Bridge, London; 4. Diamond DA-40NG over Sphinx Observatory, Jungfrau, Switzerland; 5. Cubcrafters XCub, Milford Sound, New Zealand; 6. Cessna 208 on a group flight in Iceland; 7. XCub on floats, Nahuel Huapi National Park, Argentina; 8. Beechcraft G36 near Lotte World Tower, Seoul, Korea; 9. Nieuport 17* (WWI) over Duxford Airfield, England; 10. Aermacchi MB-339* somewhere over Ireland

Here's a link to a shared Google Photos album with a few other screenshots from Microsoft Flight Simulator.