Flight Simulator II

Reviewed by John S. Davison

 

Issue 21

May/Jun 86

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JUST LIKE THE REAL THING

Do you believe in magic? If you're a flying enthusiast like me and don't have 2000 to spend on getting your private pilot's licence, then Sublogic's Flight Simulator II (FS2) is like a wish come true. For the price of one flying lesson you can have unlimited flying time in a well equipped, modern light aircraft. Agreed, it's only a simulation, but it's just like the real thing.

EXCELLENT DOCUMENTATION

For around 45 you get a well presented package containing two disks, two manuals, maps and a reference card. One disk holds program code, while the other contains scenery data. This is loaded as required by the program, depending on the area over which you're flying. More about this later.

As with all complex programs, the documentation supplied can make or break the whole package. In this case the documentation is excellent. The Pilot's Operating Handbook explains the many controls needed to fly the aircraft in its 90 pages. It also describes how to position the aircraft at any point and time within the simulated "world" of FS2, which covers an area of some 100 million square miles. The 92 page Flight Physics manual covers the theory of flight, gives eight step by step flying lessons, and explains how to perform many acrobatic manoeuvres. Both manuals include many diagrams and illustrations which are generally quite easy to follow.

The four maps cover the geographical areas included in the basic package, namely, New York, Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles. These are aerial navigation maps, showing airports and radio navigation aids available to the FS2 pilot. They correspond to the four areas on the scenery disk. Note that all scenery details, including airfields, are based on real life, and are not hypothetical items dreamed up by the programmer. "This applies to the radio navigation aids too.

Sublogic have at last begun releasing additional scenery disks. In the USA there are now 12 more disks available, covering the whole of the continental USA. As usual, the Atari enthusiast has been left out, with currently only Commodore and other machines covered. However, I phoned Sublogic and they tell me the Atari version may be available "sometime this summer".

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

What does it do, you ask? Well, it accurately simulates all aspects of flying a light aircraft - not just landings, as with some other simulators. You can taxi along the ground to the end of a runway, take off, climb, turn, do acrobatics (including stalls and spins, very unusual on a simulator), descend, and land. Also, the simulation isn't just of any old aircraft. It's based on a Piper Archer II, and uses 47 of the flight characteristics of that aircraft to reproduce the illusion of flight.

The program requires a minimum of 48K, although it's better with 64K. With 48K you lose certain features, such as the ADF radio navigation aid, some graphics features, and communication with air traffic control. Also "reality mode" is missing, which allows aircraft behaviour to be simulated even more accurately (such as random failure of vital aircraft systems, like the fuel system). Even so, the 48K version is still very complex, and satisfyingly realistic.

Booting up the program disk puts you on the end of the runway at Meigs Field, Chicago, with the engine running ready for take off. The screen shows an excellent representation of your instrument panel, and above it you see a three dimensional view through the windscreen - just like the real thing.

All controls may be operated through the keyboard, requiring you to know about 60 different key combinations! In addition, the main flying controls (ailerons/rudder, elevators and brakes) are available through joystick 1 and throttle and flaps through joystick 2. Personally, I find keyboard and one joystick the best combination for ease of use. Space does not permit me to list all of the controls. Let's just say that if you can find it on a real aircraft, you'll probably find it here, including a generous array of radio communication and navigation aids (which all work). The sheer quantity of controls seems daunting at first, but don't worry - it's surprising how soon you get the hang of them. The manuals explain most things fairly lucidly anyway.

READ THE MANUAL

Don't be tempted to use this simulator without first reading the documentation - you'll get nowhere without it. Even with it, you'll need lots of patience before that magical moment arrives when you complete your first flight successfully, including take off, circuit of an airfield, and landing.

From the moment you begin operating the controls, you start to appreciate the detail that's gone into this program. Let's go through part of a flight, and I'll describe how FS2 reacts to give you an idea of the realism. Imagine we are sitting in the aircraft on the end of the runway at Meigs Field, Chicago, waiting to
take off. As we open the throttle, the noise of the engine increases and the digital rev counter reading builds up to show we are at full power. The aircraft begins to accelerate down the runway, and the air speed indicator needle moves round its dial as the speed builds up. Unlike certain other simulators, these dials have numbers round them, so you get realistic quantitative information from them. The view through the windscreen changes as you accelerate down the runway. You see the runway centreline zipping under you as you gather speed. On reaching flying speed, a few notches of "up elevator" causes the aircraft to leave the ground and begin climbing. At this point the needle on the vertical speed indicator moves round its dial to tell you how fast you are climbing, the altimeter needles begin to move slowly round their dial registering height, and the artificial horizon line drops down showing your aircraft is in a nose high attitude.

Now, look out of the window. You have a true 3D view and are flying "into" the scenery you see. Details on the ground slide past you as you fly over them. You can use the view selector to view this 3D motion. One interesting view is to look directly backwards at the airfield you take off from, and watch the perspective change as you climb away from it. Be careful, though. I don't recommend this until you've got the hang of take offs!

LANDMARKS

Ground detail is generally better than that in many other simulators. There are certain "interesting topographical features", as the manual calls them. These are famous landmarks in the areas concerned, usually represented in the form of "wire frame" graphics. Before you dismiss this as boring and unworthy of the Atari's capabilities, please note that these graphics are fully three dimensional, and fairly true to life - even recognisable, if you know the originals. For instance, New York has the Empire State Building, the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, the Statue of Liberty, and Manhattan Bridge. All are shown in their correct locations and correct scale. As they are three dimensional you can fly round them, between them (in the case of the World Trade Centre towers) and, if you're daring enough, under them (in the case of Manhattan Bridge). As you fly near them, you can view them through the windscreen, or through the side windows, backwards, or at any 45 degree angle, and still get the correct 3D view.

Other major features include the John Hancock Building and Sears Tower in Chicago, and the Space Needle in Seattle. Also near Seattle is the magnificent snow capped Mt. Ranier. The Los Angeles area does not seem to have major architectural features, but it does have a realistic road system, coastline details, and mountain ranges.

Airports, too, are presented in detail. Rather than seeing a simple "inverted V" as the visual representation of a runway from the air, you are given a realistic picture of all the main runways. On the larger airfields you see the taxiways as well. You can land or take off from either end of any runway, and while on the ground you can taxi from any point of the airfield to any other point. One of the airfields has a terminal building (shown in 3D colour filled graphics). You can taxi from here, along various taxiways to the runway of your choice. Major airports even have the runway heading numbers painted on their thresholds, again, just like the real thing. When you take off, you even get an inverted view of this number as you approach it from the opposite end of the runway.

Some airfields, usually the smaller ones, are depicted as black runways with white markings, i.e. colour filled graphics. The larger airfields (such as New York's JFK airport) have a "line drawing" appearance. Presumably, you need a lot more power than an 8 bit computer can deliver to handle 3D manipulation and colour filling something of this complexity. (I wonder how the ST handles it?)

Certain airfields have refuelling facilities. If you land at one of these, and taxi to the refuelling area your fuel tanks get refilled. That's another touch of realism - as you fly you use fuel, and this fact is registered on your fuel gauges. It is possible to run out of fuel after several hours of flying, so you have to keep an eye on those gauges.

SET YOUR OWN PARAMETERS

Yet another great feature of FS2 is its Editor. This gives you access to two screens full of control parameters governing your flight. You can set wind speed and direction at three different heights, also specifying the heights at which the changes in direction occur. You can also set cloud cover and thickness at two different levels. My only minor grouse here is that you can't set partial cloud cover - the sky has to be completely overcast or completely clear. If you're a masochist, these features let you set up difficult weather conditions to fly in. Versions of FS2 on other machines also implement air turbulence, which can toss your aircraft around in realistic manner. I was disappointed to find that Sublogic haven't included this feature in the Atari version. Season of the year and time of day (or night) can also be set. Dusk and dawn occur at different times, depending on the season of the year. When flying at night, you'll find ground detail is replaced by lights, including the rotating beacons found at most airports in the USA.

DIFFERENT SCENARIOS

You can set the aircraft's location based on its world coordinates, height, airspeed, heading, and the position of all relevant controls. The co-ordinates are used to determine which scenery and navigation data to load from the scenery disk. Using these features you can set up virtually any flight scenario. What's more, you can store them, so they're available at any time at the push of a key. For instance, if you want to practice a landing approach into Meigs Field, Chicago without having to take off and fly the circuit first, you simply key in the appropriate values in edit mode, and specify you want them saving. When you exit edit mode, you find yourself in the requested position. If you crash, the system will reset to your parameters. Or, if you want to abort the approach and start again, a simple keystroke will do this for you. You can enter edit mode at any time by pressing the ESC key, so you can check parameter values for use on other occasions whenever you want. There is also a feature called "slewing", which enables you to slide your aircraft around in three dimensions (at high speed, if required) to position it visually at any point.

FS2 comes with starter sets of parameters, called User Modes, which set up 10 different scenarios for you. The default mode sets up the Meigs Field scenario mentioned earlier. You may set up another 15 modes using your own parameters and save them to disk for use anytime. One of the supplied modes is, in fact, a game, known as the World War I Ace game. This involves you flying your WWI biplane to bomb enemy airfields and dogfight with enemy fighters. This is a feature I don't personally like too much, but may be useful for light relief after a tense, serious session with the simulator.

The radio equipment reflects that you'd find in many light aircraft today, covering voice communications and radio navigation aids. If you know what VOR, ADF, DME, and ILS are, you'll be pleased to know they're all here. If not, you'll soon learn what they do and how to use them. Any budding pilot can learn the concepts of radio navigation aids from FS2. It doesn't take long to learn how to fix your position using VOR and ADF, or to navigate from A to B using only your radio aids.

JUST LIKE THE REAL THING

The Instrument Landing System (ILS) is one of the jewels of this simulator. The first time I tried an ILS approach through thick cloud I was amazed. The instruments behaved yes, you guessed it just like the real thing. The localiser and glide slope needles desperately pointed the way back to the right approach path, the marker beacons bleeped as the aircraft passed over them, and the Distance Measuring Equipment readout slowly counted down the distance to the airfield as I wobbled my way towards it. Then, on breaking through the cloud layer, seeing the airfield runway ahead gave me a thrill I've experienced from no other computer simulation.

One final word - because this is a simulation, not a game, it works in real time. If your flight would take 90 minutes in real life, then this is how long your simulated flight takes. To some people, this would quickly bring on boredom. However, if like me, you've a lot of Biggles in you, then you'll find a use for that time as a real pilot would, doing instrument checks, getting navigation fixes, and looking at the scenery. You really can "live" the flight. I can think of no greater compliment for a flight simulation program.

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