All posts by MarvelPhx

Cockpit Cooling Complete

Using a cockpit flight simulator in a small room can get quite warm. With all the hardware, lighting, and computers putting off heat, it is not uncommon for the air temperature to climb. I always had a plan to install a fan on the sim and control it with the sim hardware. Well, I finally put it in place so I wrote this article to document the process.

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Scenery Exposed

Within FSX/P3D, an interesting operation takes place behind the scenes to display the world’s surface. Using layers of information stacked on top of each other, the scenery below us comes to life. This article aims to explain these layers and how they affect the simulated world we see out the cockpit window.

The comparison images used below are from Prepar3d v4 using a King Air 350 in the Summer afternoon and clear skies, with most sliders maxed. The hardware was an Intel i7-4790k and nVidia 970 GTX. Depending on your PC hardware and settings, your results may vary.

Overview

The first thing to understand is how these layers work together. There are four scenery layers, from bottom to top: Mesh, Landclass, Terrain/Autogen, and Vector. Each layer contains separate data that works together with the other layers. The image below, originally from Orbx, may help visualize this concept:

Scenery Layers in FSX/P3D
Scenery Layers in FSX/P3D, original image by ORBX Simulation Systems.

As we always seem to strive to get the best looking imagery for our sims, add-on companies have greatly enhanced these layers. These software packages, both paid and free, improve and/or replace the default layers included with the base sim software. Let’s look at each layer separately, starting at the bottom and working our way up…

Mesh

The Mesh layer contains elevation data for the land surface itself, from mountains to canyons. There are many add-on mesh products that increase the details over what is included with FSX/P3D. Some mesh add-ons include Pilot’s FS Global Ultimate/2018, FreeMeshX, Toposim, and others.

The biggest difference between these add-ons is usually the area it covers and the LOD (Level of Detail). The LOD value indicates the resolution of the mesh. The higher the LOD, the smaller the sampling size (distance between elevation points), which means more detailed terrain. Typically, the LOD changes depending on the area you are flying in. As such, flat or hilly areas do not need a high LOD, where rocky mountain ranges do.

I use Pilot’s FS Global Ultimate – Next Generation FTX in my sim. It is about $60 USD and covers the entire Earth with more than 500 times the data that the default sim comes with. Be warned, it is a *huge* download at nearly 73 GB. However, a 19-disc DVD version is available at extra cost, and that may be preferable to some as the download sites are very slow. Even with a gigabit connection, it took a couple of days to download it all.

FS Global Ultimate includes detail ranging from LOD 8 to 15, which means the very detailed areas have at least a 1 meter resolution. I chose it based on that detail and also that it seamlessly works with the Orbx’s FTX Global line of products (FTX Base, OpenLC, and Vector).

Here are a few examples showing the increased detail using the mesh from FS Global. From Mount Rainier to the Grand Canyon, to just taking off from Innsbruck, you can see the difference (the sliders move to allow you to compare).

Landclass

The Landclass layer describes the type and shape of surfaces that sit on top of the mesh. These types include ocean, desert, forest, grass, scrub, permafrost, beach, rock, sand, and so on. This layer dictates which visible textures will be used to fill in those shapes.

Most add-on sceneries include landclass and texture data together to create better visuals. Such products include Orbx’s FTX Global Base/OpenLC, Flight1’s Ultimate Terrain X and Ground Environment X, and NL 2000. All of these have more detailed landclass shapes and better matching textures.

Since I use the other FTX products, it made sense to keep everything compatible. Therefore, I use Orbx’s FTX Global Base (covers the entire world) with FTX Global OpenLC for North America and Europe. Each one costs about $45 USD and are managed via Orbx’s FTX Central software easily.

FTX Global Base covers the world with much improved landclass/textures, while OpenLC enhances this even further, in specific regions, with even more detailed information, specific textures, lighting, and more. OpenLC requires Global Base to work correctly and really benefits from FTX Global Vector as well.

Texture/Autogen

The Texture/Autogen layer is the images we actually see on the ground when we fly. This is the data that distinguishes plains from forests, grass from rocks, sand from snow, etc. Our eyes are keen on detecting slight changes in color and patterns, so the better textures used here, the more realistic it becomes. This also helps reduce the checkerboard patterning you sometimes see while flying at higher altitudes.

Autogen is the term used when the simulator program adds automatically created 3-D objects to the surface, such as buildings and trees. This layer dictates areas to be filled with Autogen. However, this layer can also include specific objects such as famous landmarks and ensures they go in the right place.

As mentioned above, the Texture layer is typically included with Landclass data when purchasing sceneries. I use FTX Global Base with OpenLC, so we can see how it looks. These examples now include upgrades to the Mesh, Landclass, and Textures.

FTX also offers even better landclass/texture data for specific regions around the world. Here, you can see a *big* difference to Mount Rainier, and this is because I also run Orbx’s NA Pacific Northwest (PNW) region which adds even more detailing.

Vector

Finally, the Vector layer contains data about items that are created by lines (vectors). This includes roads, rivers, coastlines, lake edges, railroads, bridges, etc. Add-ons can improve the accuracy and detail for these items. I only know of two that are vector-only: Orbx’s FTX Global Vector and Pilot’s FS Global Vector. However, Flight1’s Ultimate Terrain X includes some vector data as well.

Again, since I am a big fan of compatibility, I stuck with Orbx and use FTX Global Vector. I’m not going to show Mount Rainier here as it has no vectors around it. However, note the differences in the Colorado River, and the many differences in Innsbruck such as the bridges.

Seasons

Finally, let’s talk about seasons. The simulator will use a different set of textures to represent different seasons. While most of the world only has Summer and Winter textures, the add-ons above can include specific textures for every season.

Just for fun, here are comparison examples of the full scenery package between Summer and Winter for Mount Rainier and Innsbruck:

I hope this helps explain how our simulator scenery works and how different products impact what we see. Thank you for visiting and I wish you happy flying!

Prepar3d v4: A New Hope

A small update, but big news!

It has been a long time coming I know, but Lockheed Martin has finally released Prepar3D version 4 with a 64-bit architecture. While this does not solve every problem with the ESP (FSX-based) software, it does make a difference.

I have already purchased and installed P3Dv4 HotFix 1 (version 4.0.28.21686) on my desktop test platform and, so far, it does provide better visual range, smoother operation, and a new interface. And, most importantly, I no longer have to worry about running out of VAS memory on long flights! But, everything is not perfect… yet.

It will take some time for the various third-party add-on developers to update their products for this new 64-bit application. I’ve installed and tested a few that are out already, such as:

So far, they all seem to be working fine. I can definitely turn the graphic sliders in P3Dv4 up higher without the same frame rate hit as with v3. I even have land and & sea traffic at 20%. And, the autogen & LOD radius are larger allowing for much more scenery to be visible without as many issues. And this is all while still running on my i7 4970k with a GTX 970 video card.

Finally, I am currently testing the latest version of ProSim 1.50 on my desktop before moving it to the sim hardware. There will be some firmware upgrades I need to do first to fully support it. More to come!

UPDATE 5-9-2018: P3Dv4 version 4.2 (4.2.21.24048) is installed and pretty much all the add-ons I have work now. ProSim737 is up to version 2.04, and it also works fine. The sim is so much fun!

2016 Recap Update

As 2016 is passing along quickly, it seemed a good time to provide a overall update. Also, a major milestone in my cockpit building adventure has been reached. With the rudder pedal installation, I have finally removed the last piece of non-737 specific hardware in my cockpit. No more GA equipment means a full Boeing commitment.

More importantly, I want to extend a huge THANK YOU to all of my visitors for your continuous support. Maintaining this site motivates me as much as the flying does, so I appreciate all of your comments, feedback, and questions!

So far, I currently have the following hardware installed:

I built a mobile wooden base to mount it all on. This allows me to move the entire simulator to get behind the MIP and access my two computers:

On these computers, I have the following software installed:

I wrote a few articles along the way to explain some processes I went through and resources I discovered:

I also added an External Links page to act as an online directory for the many products and other simmers out there today.

TIP: Don’t forget to check out my Visuals page, it is like a running timeline of my cockpit build!

Back when I decided on building only half of the cockpit (SSTD), this is what I imagined it looking like. Now, it is time to just fly the thing. Perhaps I will finally start using my VATSIM account and look at virtual airlines to join. Either way, I think I have finally earned some time off to just enjoy it.

Of course, this does not mean I am actually finished. Are we ever really done? I do have a list of things I am considering in the near future:

  • A better audio setup with multiple speaker locations
  • SimWorld gauges if they are better than the Flight Illusion ones
  • Motorized Throttle Quadrant
  • Perhaps a more realistic column yoke and/or pedals
  • More scenery/airports

As for the distant future, and if I can find the space, perhaps I will be able to expand. In that case, the list grows even longer:

  • Entire cockpit shell and interior
  • Full dual-seater MIP
  • Linked Yokes/Rudder Pedals (perhaps with feedback)
  • Three projectors and wraparound screen

I know some people may not find this post all that interesting, but it does allow me to keep track of where I was, where I am, and where I want to go with the simulator. I hope it was informative and thank you again for stopping by.

P.S. A keen eye will note the model in the photograph is the new Boeing 737-8 MAX. I am just an avid 737 fan and will be keeping my as it is. Going to the MAX cockpit is not feasible right now, and I like all the buttons, knobs, and switches in the NG!

Fellow Sim Pilot: Gordon

I just returned from a vacation up to Washington state. While I was there, I had a unique opportunity to visit a fellow Sim Pilot, Gordon.

Gordon also owns a Boeing 737 home cockpit, found me via the website and even based his build on much of the information he found here. It is flattering that I am able to help others in this way! He is a licensed private pilot, retired a few years ago, and lives on 5 acres out in the beautiful rural countryside. I truly love the scenic Pacific Northwest and views like this explain why I go up there so much.

A view of the Washington countryside.
A view of the Washington countryside.

Gordon has been an avid HAM radio operator for decades and it is quite obvious he takes it very seriously by the look of his setup. I was blown away by the wall of transceivers, computers, monitors, and specialized equipment he uses to communicate with people around the world.

He has dedicated a portion of it to real aviation such as multiple ATC and airline company radio scanners along with visual flight monitoring from FlightAware and FlightRadar24. He even has his own ADS-B monitoring station to track airborne aircraft transponders within about 80 miles of his home. It is a fantastic work of love!

Gordon's home communication headquarters.
Gordon’s home communication headquarters.

Sharing the same room opposite the radio wall, is his cockpit. Built on a similar platform to mine, he has the JetMax SKTQ with the new JetMax MX Series MCP/EFIS, JetMax Forward Overhead, and a real 737 avionics pedestal holding the JetMax MultiComm radio and JetMax transponder.

Gordon's JetMax 737 setup.
Gordon’s JetMax 737 setup.

His yoke and pedals are from Precision Flight Controls (PFC) while the chair is a real 737 first officer’s seat. The beamer is an Optima projector and he uses a monitor on the side for things such as the Sim-Avionics (Sim-A) avionics suite interface, Navigraph Charts, and more. Running it all is two dedicated PCs, one for P3D v3 and flight control inputs, and the other for the avionics, displays, etc.

Another shot of Gordon's home 737 cockpit setup.
Another shot of Gordon’s home 737 cockpit setup.

Gordon was curious about my thoughts on his sim’s operation, so I sat down and we set up a short flight from KSEA (Seattle) to Portland (KPDX). However, we couldn’t get any bleed air pressure from the APU to get the engines started. He was having to start the engines using the Ctrl+E keyboard shortcut, which ruins the fun.

Turns out, there is a “Force Systems On” option in Sim-A that had mistakenly been enabled by a recent software upgrade. This is only supposed to be enabled if you do not have a hardware overhead panel. After disabling the option, the engines and JetMax overhead operated normally.

Right off the bat, I really enjoyed the PFC Yoke. It feels very smooth with great switches and static feedback resistance, although the center pivot point is in the wrong place. The PFC pedals have very good toe brakes, but the rudder travel is somewhat limited. This would take some getting used to as it was quite easy for me to over-correct (you would have enjoyed watching my landing when I rolled it over trying to side-slip down to the runway).

Interestingly, Gordon’s JetMax SKTQ was a little different than mine; he was missing the Yaw Damper gauge. Apparently, JetMax decided to stop including it as Boeing also stopped putting it in newer 737s. This also slightly changed the layout of the AFDS and nearby switches/annunciators.

I did feel that his JetMax thrust levers had little resistance to movement. You could flick them and they would easily move a couple inches. In comparison, my own JetMax thrust levers are quite firm and do not move without meaningful effort, as in the real plane. This may just be a loosened fastener within the throttle quadrant and may be readily fixed.

In the short time I spent with it, I did notice a few subtle differences between the ProSim737 and Sim-Avionics avionics suites. Sim-Avionics puts tiny clocks at the bottom of the PFD and displays the airspeed tape indicators in a different way. The airspeed also jumps around quite a bit, especially on takeoff. Sim-A does support a fully coupled passive-operational autoland, but the LAND 3 indication was removed since it is reportedly no longer displayed on the real airplane.

I also saw that the ISFD in Sim-A looks a little different, along with the lower DEU display readouts for trim settings. Lastly, I saw that there were no indicators for N1 “thrust lever position” (which is handy for those of us without motorized throttles), but this is a user-configurable option in ProSim737 and may also exist in Sim-A somewhere. None of these are terribly bad things, just things I noticed while using Sim-A.

I then described my ProSim737 Instructor Station and what it can do and asked if he had the same feature in Sim-A. He was not aware of it, however, there is a Dispatch function within Sim-A that allows you to prepare the aircraft before a flight.

Overall, Gordon’s home cockpit is excellent and pretty much all you need to get the most of the 737 flight sim experience. It felt good in the air and was easy to feel right at home. However, with all the issues he has had with Sim-A and their support, I suggested he try the 30-day free trial of ProSim737 and see if it works better for his needs. Unfortunately, both suites are very expensive and I would hate to think he has lost his investment in Sim-A.

Gordon at the controls of his 737 sim.
Gordon at the controls of his 737 sim.

In the end, I want to extend a gracious thank you to Gordon for letting us into his home and even feeding us! It was an honor to have one of my visitors reach out and extend such an offer. If all flight simulation enthusiasts are this friendly, we really do have a great community and I am proud to be part of it!

Disclaimer: The content written here is purely my own observations and opinions and in no way is a representation of Gordon or his own views.