Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The
Value of
Simulated
Realism


I have written before that I'm an X-Plane flyer, and have never launched into the Wild Blue Yonder via Microsoft Flight Simulator. I say that because I am not sure if that other program has the following capability:
X-Plane's application package comes with something called Planemaker, which allows a sim pilot 100% access to the code behind the aircraft that comes with the program. This includes every aspect of every system, and offers major tweaking opportunities. You can move the gear two inches to the rear, make a two-blade aluminum prop into a three-blade composite model, convert a normally-aspirated Cessna into one that is fuel injected, or modify every square inch of the wing. Planemaker gives you complete control over your flying machine, and brings out the aerospace engineer in all of us.
So what happens when you turn an aviation fanatic like me loose on powerful software like that? Well, you get some pretty far out birds:
After learning the basics of Planemaker doing simple mods to a Cessna 172, I thought I would stretch my envelope, just a bit. So I took a Douglas DC-3 that I had downloaded from x-plane.org and yanked those troublesome radial engines of the wings. In their place, I put two turbine engines, each spinning five blade constant-speed props. Oh, did I mention I also bumped up the shaft horsepower on each P & W to 2,000? With four thousand ponies pushing the Gooney along, it got off the runway in about the length of a big Cadillac, and blasted through the sky at speeds that sent the airspeed indicator spinning wildly.
O.K., I had a little fun, no harm, no foul. But what happened next defies description, but I will try:
Not satisfied with the nutz factor of the turbo-Gooney, I downloaded a Cessna Agcat cropduster and immediate pulled its radial off the nose. Up on the top wing, I welded a gargantuan GE turbojet pumping out 8,000 pounds of takeoff thrust. This Frankenplane was just barely controllable, and would accelerate so fast, the graphics card in my rather fast dual processor Macintosh couldn't even keep up. Unless I flew the Jet Agcat at 25% power or less, X-Plane would freeze and crash.
But with all that computing power in Planemaker, there MUST be a good use for it, right? Oh yeah, baby:
This week, I found out that the background panels in X-plane are just rather simple .bmp files, easily editable in Photoshop. So I took the panel of the plane I've been using to practice during my IFR training and modified it to match the exact – and very much non-standard – configuration on my 1964 Cherokee 235. In Planemaker, I moved the avionics around to match my real panel. Now, when I practice on the sim, I am scanning a panel that is an identical replica of my actual plane. In the first few minutes with this new set-up, I quickly realized that my scan was vastly improved.
So when people tell you flight simulators are toys, mere games that are more fun than function, it will be instantly obvious that they've never flown X-plane. Because if they had, and spent any time under the hood, they'd know as I do that this wonderful (and extremely affordable) creation of Austin Meyer and his team can improve any licensed or student pilot's skills greatly.

Even when it's snowing outside and the freezing level is zero feet AGL.