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.