Simulator 2004 Brings the Old Birds out of the Hangar!
The thought of doing a software review is not the most exciting idea in the
world and contemplating doing one on Microsoft’s latest version of its long
running flight simulation software didn’t strike me any differently. After all,
if you’ve already the pilot’s license, why would you be thrilled with flying
a fake Cessna when there’s a real one for use just up the road?
But this version of Flight Simulator is different. And the rest of the product’s
title tells why. Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004—A Century of Flight is
a celebration of 100th anniversary of the Wright Brother’s
successful first controlled, powered flight in 1903.
For this version,
Microsoft has added more airplane models than in any past version and all are
of the vintage variety. The original Wright Flyer, the Curtiss JN-4 Jenny, Ford’s
Tri-Motor, the Lockheed Vega, DeHavilland Comet (not the airliner, but the
mid-30’s racer), the Vickers Vimy, the Ryan NYP (of Lindbergh fame), the
Douglas DC-3 and, for all you out there who’ve been begging for years,
the Piper J-3 Cub. Added to the existing 15 aircraft models already in the Flight
Simulator line, the product has gathered both ends of aircraft history to date.
There are still glaring gaps in the line up. For instance, The Sopwith Camel
remains the only WWI entry and there are no famous machine types from WWII or
the early jet years. But then, most of those aircraft have received plenty of
exposure in combat simulators over the years.
Now, adding these types may not seem all that big a feat until you consider
how completely Microsoft’s developers went at the task of adding them. In the
case of each type, Microsoft spent its time flying replicas (or the real thing),
recording aircraft sounds in a variety of the operating regimes of the machine
from both in the aircraft and out. Differential braking characteristics, changes
in attitude and control match changes in the aircraft configuration…the simulations
are as complete and accurate as I’ve ever experienced. You’ll start to understand
when you consider the Curtiss Jenny. This airplane had no airspeed indicator
but it did have wires between the wings…so much so that it was joked that if
a pigeon survived a flight between the wings there had to be a wire broken.
Those wires make noise in the wind and pilots used that wind noise to tell whether
the aircraft was about to stall. In Flight Simulator 2004, so can you because
you still don’t have an airspeed indicator and your only hint of the aircraft’s
speed comes from the ingenious mapping of wind noise to aircraft velocity. It’s
masterful work they did on this one!
To stay with the
history theme, a number of new, historical flights have been created. From the
routes of the TAT (Transcontinental Air Transport) to some of the barnstorming
routes of the old days, early air mail routes, and the trans-Atlantic crossing
by Lindbergh, all have been reproduced and plotted for you on kneeboard flight
plans to which you may refer as you fly. I found myself fascinated with the
Ford Tri-Motor flights under TAT since they started from the city in which I
was born and flew so many more along a route I *do*
fly today. Also, the first airplane I ever flew in was a Ford Tri-Motor owned
and operated by Island Airlines in Port Clinton, Ohio. Island Airlines used
to claim it was the world’s smallest airline since it serviced only the
cluster of islands just off Port Clinton in Lake Erie. As a young fellow of 15, my aunt gave my brother and I that
first ride and, even then, those airplanes were old! To my surprise, Microsoft
took notice of Island Airlines and reproduced their tiny flight plan over the
Lake. I damned near puddled up out of sentiment as I sat
there rattling that old airplane through the rain with a marginal VFR horizon.
It’s a real shame when a simulator can make a grown man sniffle instead
of cussing at the crappy software like he’s supposed to. Nope, this is
and isn’t your father’s Flight Simulator.
flight included in this version is the first trans-continental navigation of
the United States. A young man named Cal Rodgers performed
the feat originally in a Wright Model EX. A remarkable thing about Cal Rodgers;
he was hearing impaired to some degree. Years later, a man whom later became
an acquaintance of mine threw away convention in his middle age and decided
to pursue his pilot’s license and then reflew Rogers’ original flight.
Henry Kisor is deaf, too, and it was quite an accomplishment! He wrote a book
about the flight called “Flight
of the Gin Fizz—Midlife at 4,500 Feet, which eventually helped me
overcome some of my training issues. Henry might even find this version of Flight
Simulator stimulating just for that flight and every time I see it in the list
of flights it makes me think of him.
Microsoft easily could have stopped with these additions but, no, there was
more to do. Features like the real time weather system introduced in the last
version have been updated to update meteorological conditions as you fly (for
some impressive effects, choose the weather flights and watch from the ground
as cumulonimbus clouds form from a clear sky over Lake Michigan. It’s
so real, it’s frightening (especially if you’re a pilot and have
learned to dread that pattern of weather development). The artificial intelligence
engine has been updated to provide more simulated aircraft traffic
with whom you must contend as you fly. The IFR system in Flight Simulator, while
still not meeting the FAA’s requirements for PCATD devices, has been greatly
improved and is almost usable in a way consistent with real IFR flying.
Interactive Air Traffic Control has also come along way. It’s even possible
to do a ‘pop-up’ filing of an IFR flight plan! And, finally, the GPS systems
in Flight Simulator have been modified to keep up with the times. The Garmin
GPS 295 and GPS 500 systems have been added to the system and they work much,
much better than the old GPS system in previous versions.
There are some problems in this version that have been with Flight Simulator
for a long time. For instance, aerobatic maneuvers are nearly impossible to
do (I’ve yet to see someone perform a loop in this program). And there are the
occasional crashes due to frail video drivers. But if you’ve been balking at
the idea of upgrading your Flight Simulator, stop now! This, of all the versions
to own, is the one!