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Flight Simulations

Flight Simulations

Moving away from railways, another favourite pastime of mine is flight simulators - over the years I've owned quite a few, though sadly some of the best are now quite old and won't operate on later versions of windows and - so far - I haven't been able to find patches to improve their stability.

At the present time my preferred choice is Microsoft's Flight Simulator 2002, though there is a later version in the shape of FS2004, which seems to be getting good reviews, I've not sampled this myself. Microsoft also produce 'Combat' style versions of flight simulations in the form of the Combat Flight Simulator series if your preference is towards 'shoot 'em up' type games.

If you're interested in looking at more about these, visit Microsoft's web site.

But that's just the start! There is a huge collection of 'add on' programmes available to improve these - additional scenery, airports, more aircraft and voices can all be added to the basic programmes and a great source of these is available from Just Flight.  Their web site is very good - not only can you purchase through it but there is plenty of support offered with hints and tips on getting the best from your simulation.  They also have a related Forum for the real enthusiast!

I know that Flight Sims are very popular, so I'll be more than happy to receive any further information on the topic and I'll try to add more to this in the future.

Screen Shots

The following are as series of screen shots that I've taken to try to give a feel for the simulator.

The chosen aircraft is a Tornado GR.4 and our flight is a quick cross country from RAF Marham to RAF Lyneham. A quick word of warning though - the scenery, airfields and the aircraft I've used are not part of the standard FS2002 program - all are from add on programs, however views taken from the 'core' program are viewable on Microsoft's website here.

Of course, I've had to shrink the shots to about 45% of their original size, or they'd take up far too much space on my server, and an age for you to download, but I think they still give a good feel for the flight!

Ready to Start engines

Ready to taxi

ATC clearance given, afterburners lit - ready to go!

Climbing out of Marham - gear's up and we're gaining speed and altitude

Cruising en route at about 475 knots and 12,500 ft

As we start to approach our destination, we do a quick 'fly by' at RAF Brize Norton

Arriving at RAF Lyneham

The base leg for our visual approach to land

Gear down, flaps down - configured to land

Short finals, though a little above the ideal height!

Down safely and rolling out!

Taxying in

Engines and systems shut down and the aircraft is secure - the end of our flight

System Requirements

As in common with most PC gamers, I find this to be a whole can of worms and I offer the following comments purely from my own experiences.

Everyone's got their own opinion on what's needed to run the simulator and, of course, the software manufacturers have 'Suggested System Requirements'

But, of course, the more effects and complexity you add, the more system resources you need to run it successfully; if you try to run it with the 'minimum' I'm pretty sure you'd be disappointed with the results.

Microsoft's minimum recommendations for system requirements can be viewed here but - I have to say - that I'm pretty dubious that a PC with these specifications would produce all but the most basic results.

In fact all the 'add on' software (which of course increases the demands on the system significantly) seems to suggest the following as the 'recommended' specification:

  • 1.0 GHz or faster processor
  • 512 Mb RAM or more
  • 64 Mb or more 3D Graphics Card

Now, all that's fine - but one thing that is never mentioned is how much Hard Disk space the installation uses! On checking my FS2002 folder I see that the total installation, with the add ons currently installed, is actually in excess of 10 GB, so this does need some thought. As with many games there is of course an option not to do a complete install of the programme. Personally I wouldn't recommend not totally installing the disks to your hard drive and trying to run the basic game from the CD - this will significantly reduce the speed of the game and cause disappointing results because the game will be trying to access files from your CD ROM drive whilst it is running, and this of course will lead to slow results.

My own system has roughly twice the resources that the recommendation makes and I find it all runs very well, though my son's PC conforms almost exactly to the above and the simulation - with add ons - runs satisfactorily.

However, setting up your system is really a matter of trial and error and what personal tastes your are.  On the Just Flight forum there are plenty of hints and tips on the subject - it's well worth searching through the options and trying out different settings until you find what's the optimum for you. Fortunately FS2002 (and I therefore presume the new FS2004) is easily 'tweaked' for these settings and should you get in a complete muddle with what you've changed there is an option to restore the settings to their default with one click of the mouse and you can start all over again!

Graphics cards, processors and system heat!

My current card was installed a little over twelve months ago and I have to say was a nightmare to get up and running correctly! Eventually it did, but only after a lot of effort and even then I was never quite sure why it did start running correctly, which did cause me some concerns!

Subsequently another problem had to be resolved with the replacement of the motherboard. On installation on the new board the graphics card would not work in any form, and after a degree of investigation, consultation with the manufacturer's technical support pages on its web site and finally phone calls, it was agreed that there was a fault with the card itself, and this was promptly replaced by the manufacturer under warranty.

However, this wasn't entirely the end of the tale! Despite having updated the card's drivers to the latest version (something that is worth keeping up to date - it can address known 'issues') I was still encountering 'crashes' whilst running a variety of games which put high demands on the system - this generates an incredible amount of heat, not only on the graphics card, but also the main processor too.  Again a visit to the manufacturers web site knowledge base confirmed that heat does seem to be a bit of a weakness with this particular card.

Fortunately, there are a number of manufacturers whose speciality is addressing this type of problem, and I found that there was a kit available at reasonable cost to not only replace the cooling fan installed on the card and its associated heat sink with a far more effective item, but that it also supplied items to fit to the installed RAM modules too. I have to say that on installation of the 'after market' parts, I was quite shocked at how poor the heat sink on the original unit was - it was poorly manufactured and I suspect that the connection between the heat sink and the processor was - to say the least - marginal.

This resolved my problems and since installation I've experienced no other 'crashes'. So, if you experience games crashing, this could be an area worth investigating before chucking an otherwise perfectly good card in the bin and spending quite a bit of money on a new card when it may be possible to resolve the problem for less than about 10% of the cost of a new card!

On the same theme of heat, many CPU's benefit from improved cooling - again the fans included with processors as shipped are not great and an improvement in this area may improve the performance of your PC. I've upgraded both the CPU and case fans on my machine and certainly the diagnostics included with my motherboard have shown quite a dramatic fall in both the CPU and internal temperatures since this was done.

Generally when the PC is running under 'stress' (that is, there's a lot of demand being put on it) the CPU temperature now never exceeds about 56c (this is about 15/20% lower than it had been before I did the changes), which is well below Athlon's recommendation of about an 80c maximum. 

The down side of all this (and, of course, there has to be one!) is that the amount of noise generated by the various fans now installed is greater than it used to be, though not intrusively so.  I'd rather put up with a bit more noise from the PC than the possible alternative of overheated and thus failed components!  My own machine runs an Athlon XP processor, and I've now been using Athlon products in both my own and my son's machine for about four years, but I believe Intel processors are just as sensitive to the problem.

The company who manufacture the products I've installed is called Thermaltake - their web site can be visited here.  Although the site does suggest that you can find out where to buy their products the page only seems to take you to an enquiry form, but I've found no problem in sourcing the products from both shops and on-line retailers in the UK.

Of course there are many other companies who manufacture and market such products, but I am writing only from my experiences which I pass on to you!  If you are thinking of looking into such things I'd urge you to do your own research and to take such professional advice as is appropriate to you and to your needs and requirements.

I would also add that if you're not familiar with the internal workings of a PC you should not start delving around inside the case - you can easily do irreparable damage and you do so at your own risk.  If you're in doubt, don't do it and take it to a specialist who can.  Many specialist shops will install upgrades that you buy from them, and many do so free of charge.  It's far better to be safe than sorry!  I can accept no responsibility for any alterations and adjustments that you make to or components you instal in your PC - you do so entirely at your own risk!

Another method of speeding up a PC's performance is the 'over clocking' of the processors - that is getting them to run at higher speeds than they were designed to operate at - installed both in the main CPU and the Graphics Card's CPU.  I have to say I've never tinkered with this (it's all done in the settings); I just have a suspicion that most manufacturers have built a processor to a specification for a purpose, and although there may be tolerances within the design they are there for a reason! However, you will find masses of stuff on the web about this, but personally I've never tried it. Read up on it by all means, but I'd want to be very convinced that it's entirely safe to do and that I won't cause irreparable damage to my PC, and I'm far from sure this is the case.

Flight Sim Links

My thanks go to Solidbond - a fellow Flight Sim enthusiast - for providing several of the following links. I've now used all of them and all are a useful source of details, help and general information.

www.avsim.com

This site offers a file library where free downloads can be found, amongst many other useful articles and features.

www.flightsim.com

Similar to avsim. You need to register with this site, but there are files to download - if you can get in!

www.simflight.com

This is mainly news - similar to avsim

 www.lagosim.com

Commercial vendor, but some excellent products - useful for latest news and upgrades, patches and fixes too.

 www.phoenix-simulation.co.uk

Another commercial vendor - again some excellent products.

Just Flight

Another developer and vendor of a wide range of simulation products. The site also has a dedicated form which offers a great deal of help and advice for getting the best out of not only the products developed by the company, but many other products as well.

Precision Manuals Development Group

Another developer, with an excellent range of products.  The levels of realism of some of their aircraft is extremely good.

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