Although the recent demise of IFT-Pro might suggest otherwise, the market for computer-based IFR training and practice software is alive and well. Hardly a week goes by without a reader phoning or e-mailing for recommendations.
And have you looked at the prices of these things lately? Capabilities that used to cost several hundred dollars are now available for around a C-note.
Last time we looked at these programs, our focus was on the sort of instrument practice programs the average pilot would find useful and affordable, which eliminated all of the bona fide PCATDs. Well do the same this time. Obviously, weve kicked out a slew of self-proclaimed flight simulators which are basically toys with a dollop of instrument patina brushed on. That said, dont rule out the game-based sims entirely. A realm we had ignored for years as the conceit of acne-riddled wannabees cloistered in darkened garrets has matured into sophisticated programs with a great deal to offer the rated pilot seeking desktop instrument time.
More on those in a second article devoted exclusively to these finds. For now, lets examine the big three, with the assumption that theyll be first on your potential shopping list.
Predictably enough, no program is the hands down winner for instrument procedures practice. For example, Mac users are out of luck completely except for ELITE and the games well discuss next month. Some programs were strong in one area and weak in others and the prices are all over the lot.
What will work best for you depends on what program aspects are critical to your stage in the game, your personal tastes, wallet and computer hardware.
ASAs On Top
Aviation Supplies and Academics On Top sold for $395 but has recently dropped to $99 and change. Aint capitalism grand? And the program has added some capability since we last looked at it.
There are eight aircraft, including the 172P, a straight-leg and RG Skylane, Warrior, Arrow, MSE, a V35 Bo and a Baron. The instruments are well-rendered and quite large for the genre and the available panel can be customized to your set-up, HSI, RMI, and the like.
But those big displays have forced a few compromises that some may find disconcerting. For example, if you dont have an HSI, the nav 1 and nav 2 heads are down at the bottom, under the instrument T, an odd location not conducive to a realistic scan, in our view.
For the same reasons, ASA elected to include several toggle functions. The pitot heat, alternate static and the fuel selector share the same space as the trim and flap controls, which takes a bit of getting used to, as does the necessity of either losing an OBS head or toggling back and forth between the comm display and the ADF or covering up all the engine instruments, just the ticket for a miss to an NDB.
On the other hand, you cant eliminate the autopilot panel, which would be big enough to locate some of the toggle functions that would be more useful in an instrument procedures trainer, unless the objective is to keep George proficient.
Another peculiarity of similar ilk is the method for applying brakes, but well let the manual explain it: Youve landed fast and need to stop….Simply press full forward (their words) on your yoke or joystick once youre on the ground to apply the brakes. Sounds like practice for the perfect wheelbarrow to us.
On Top has a nice manual and all the standard instrument practice functions youd expect in a program of this sort. Weather simulation can be varied as to ceiling, vis, wind and turbulence. Theres also a map-based plan and profile graphic replay and you can specify different weights and fuel loads.
Programmable or variable instrument failures can be selected during set up and it appears that On Top has one of the better selections of failure modes, right down to plain old sticking needles.
A very nice fillip is the ability to click in the middle of the offending instrument at which point a soap holder appears and covers it up for you. If you squawk 7700, a text message will tell what has failed.
Terrain display is much better than either of the other two mainstream programs and so is the depiction of reduced visibility. One interesting feature of the replay function we didnt see elsewhere is the ability to select the heading indicator and CDI (or HSI) to display at the same time. They also depict the lateral and height limits of a full deflection indication as well as the programmed cloud bases. You can click on any given point on the recorded track and it will display an instrument sit rep for that moment. The mag compass lags and leads like its supposed to, but theres no pitch up moment to speak of when adding flaps in the 182 we used, although flipping them off does produce some pitch down. When the vacuum system packs up, the failure depiction is quite realistic.
The general scuttlebutt in the newsgroups is that On Top is somewhat limited in its support of flight control devices and that the flight characteristics arent terribly accurate. We never could get the program to recognize several control button selections, despite the set up screens accepting them. On the other hand, we didnt find On Top any less realistic aerodynamically than Jeppesens FlitePro.
What we did have trouble with was that OBS head tucked six inches away from and under the AI in a non-HSI configuration.
The old FS-100 DOS program from MDM was an early leader in the area of useful computer instrument practice. When Jeppesen bought the FS-100, it added a photorealistic panel and made it a true Windows program which has now been integrated into Jepps FlitePro system.
Were advised that the FS-200 nomenclature will eventually disappear, although different grades of console hardware will remain available. The only available aircraft are two different panel versions of the Bonanza A-36 (raw data or mucho toys) and a new Cessna 172.
If you already have this one, download from the Website the new 172 model which corrects the pitch dynamics of the product as shipped. A version including a light twin is in the works. We wish Jepp had devoted a little more effort to making operation of all the whistles and bells accessible. The handbook includes only five pages of hard copy post-installation reference, exactly the same number of pages devoted to other available Jeppesen toys.
In most programs, that would be fine. You just hit Help and Contents and motor on. Unfortunately, we found the contents section almost as underwhelming as the handbook and had to fiddle around loading the Index file entirely too much for our tastes.
Programmable features are about average for the mainstream flight sims. The selectable weather fields are day/night, turbulence, wind direction and speed and ceiling and vis, with variable as an option on all of the last four.
Individual instruments (and the engine) can be set to fail at random, immediately, never, or during a preselected period. Or you can let the program select them at random.
Jepps product comes with a sampling of individual approaches from each of their five add-on ATC scenarios ($49.95 each). Some scenarios have random components, which should increase their practice utility, but if you wander off the intended path, the program doesnt tell you to call the tower. It just stops talking to you at all.
Make sure you read all of the ATC and SEM help materials first. Theyve buried the needed scenario info and freqs there. To check it out, we tried the only random script included in the package, an ILS into Martin State in Baltimore. It was supposed to be the ILS 33, ident IMTN. The opposite direction ILS (same freq) IBQG, came wafting through the speakers when we idented, however. You cant tell a script to throw the toggle and thats a bit too random for our tastes.
Jepps Website also advises that ATC scenarios may not function accurately as the navigation database changes from the situation extant when the script was created. After your flight, you can see your path superimposed on the chart (or plate, if you happened to pick one of the 30 or so in the database). FlitePros sectional really does put everyone elses map function in the shade. (FS-200 users are out of luck on this one, however. That version of the program retains the primitive but still useful map function.)
Because its a vector graphic instead of a bitmap, the display can be zoomed practically to the atomic level and it remains crisp. The map page can also be customized to show or hide every map feature there, including snow fields and sand.
The panel is the prettiest of all, right down to the shadows in the screw heads. But the itsy bitsy knobs for power, gear and flap controls look like an afterthought stuck in for those who dont spring for one of the hardware consoles that started Jepp down the flight sim road in the first place. Random ILS/localizer approaches are easily initialized without even dragging out the plate.
You zoom in until the destination airport is distinct, click on it to create a focus dot, right click on that dot, then select Properties from the menu that appears. A list of runway info, comm and localizer frequencies is then displayed. FlitePros attitude indicator assumes the vacuum system has an inop flag. When the vac fails, a big red flag pops out, you get an annunciator and the AI rolls over almost immediately, which isnt useful for the more insidious failures which occur in most GA set ups.
Jepps program insists on at least 2MB of unpartitioned video RAM, 1024×768 high color 16-bit resolution capability and DirectX as the primary display driver.
Carping about FlitePro in the newsgroups has centered around Spartan documentation, lockups when printing practice approach plates and during other operations, yoke calibration, needing a relatively good video card with on board memory, sound card errors and the fidelity of some flight dynamics.
We had our share of problems with sound card lockups and other GPFs on exit but as we went to press, Jepp had just come out with a major patch for FlitePro. The time available to check it out was somewhat limited, but several of the well known problems appear to have been addressed. Saving a situation for later practice or review (what they call a SimState) no longer locks up the program and we didnt have several other of the prior bugs recur post-patch. Control device support is significantly improved and the calibration doesnt lose its brains for no good reason any more. Also, button and device support is more comprehensive.
Youd think with the video requirements and the attention to detail on the panel display, weather depiction would be correspondingly improved. Yet the outside view is primitive and the worst of the lot, if you care about such things. (We do.)
Basic (software only) FlitePro lists for $99.95, but check around. Weve seen it discounted on line for $60. The regular panel and maps are beautiful and the after action replay is fine, but accurate modeling of the visual transition to landing is essentially nonexistent. Also, FlitePro also needs more aircraft and aircraft configuration flexibility, in our view.
Aviation Teachware ELITE
Price competition for IFR trainers hasnt made it to Aviation Teachware Technologies, the makers of ELITE. At $689, ELITEs high end version, Personal Simulator Prop v5.3, is the most expensive personal instrument procedures trainer by far. If you want ELITE on the cheap-relatively speaking-and you dont care about access to multiple aircraft-stick with ProTrainer.
Its exactly the same program, with all the features and functions and at $349, its nearly half the price. Youre simply limited to a Cessna 172. Unlike the other basic flight sims, ELITE Personal Simulator has a proprietary hardware interface. If you dont have a gameport, this takes its place.
It can also provide a convenient connection point for other peripherals such as throttle quadrants if you eventually go the PCATD route. Otherwise, it mostly keeps people from copying the program successfully.
ELITE can digest just about any video configuration, depending on the aircraft selected, but dont be deceived by the apparent variety of practice airplanes available. The program includes old and new 172s, an Arrow, Mooney J-model, Bonanza A-36, Trinidad and Tobago, but the latter two arent available in the upscale video configurations and some versions are intended for use with the external power quadrants hardware or keyboard control for prop and mixture.
Depending on the selection and resolution mode, the panel is chock-a-block with just about everything the real machine would have, including circuit breakers, carb heat, cowl flaps and placards. There are type specific add-on models for the Seneca III and Baron 58, priced at $299 each. Individual navigation data is available for $129 and you can have the world at your fingertips for $299.
ELITE includes more secondary functions than either of the other two mainstream sims, including OAT with the comparable effect on aircraft performance. Its the only one of the big three with an operable sun that progresses with the clock as opposed to being either day or night.
Depending on the aircraft selected, the panel displays a variety of switches and features not generally available among the other contenders, including pitot heat, boost pump, moving map and the like.
Aviation Teachwares product is appreciably more realistic as far as out-of-the-box flight characteristics (no user programmed damping) than either of the other two big name products. Application of flaps pitched the 172 up, roll and power change response were spot on, as was mag compass response.
On the other hand, our 172 didnt respond to aerodynamic braking on rollout the way it would in the real world. Sadly, ELITEs weather and environment depiction is almost as primitive as FlitePros and not nearly as good as On Tops.
Given the seven-fold premium, we would have hoped for more. For the price tag, the program should be able to accept more changes to the program presets for the various buttons and switches on the yoke, including gear and flaps, and additional failure modes such as stuck needles.
Speaking of failures, dont expect to practice a subtle vacuum failure. When the pump dies, theres a yellow annunciator message and a big red flag pops out on the AI. The program comes with three sample interactive ATC voice scenarios. An add-on set of 28 ATC scenarios for Southern California is $49. They appear quite well done and the one module should be sufficient to keep you entertained for the foreseeable future.
Our only quibble was that the program fusses at you from time to time about heading or altitude a bit unrealistically. Then again, perfect practice makes perfect. An aging database is readily remedied on the Modification screen, a nice capability which includes the ability to amend facility IDs, navaids, add holding patterns or modify runway lighting. Another nice touch is the ability to modify the N-number of the sim aircraft.
Newsgroup chit-chat about ELITE was favorable, focusing on accurate flight characteristics (although we saw some carping about the Arrow) and the ability to work properly on lower-resource systems.
ELITE is a more capable and complete instrument program than either ASA or FlitePro in several aspects, but at the price, it oughta be. If youre in the market for a full-bore PCATD, it might be different, but strictly for personal practice, we just dont think its seven times more useful than either FlitePro orASAs On Top.
In a perfect IFR sim world, you could set up any aircraft, with realistic flight and control characteristics, a modifiable panel and accurate ATC response and practice guided or free flight procedures with or without realistic potential failures and with real world atmospheric and runway conditions. Oh, and for a pittance, too.
As with most things, its not a perfect world. What wed really like to do is cross FlitePros maps with On Tops failure modes and throw in ELITEs flight fidelity and panels and ATC function and youd have a winner. (X-Plane, a game well examine in the next issue, has better weather depiction.)
Not gonna happen, of course. Assuming here you want to pick from the big three established programs and not the game market, heres our take: A twin driver will want either On Tops Baron or ELITEs Seneca III or Baron 58 (with add-on software and hardware). On Top is the better value, overall, since it costs a fraction of ELITEs price tag. On Top has more warts but not $500 worth, in our view.
If price is the absolute concern for a simple single-engine set-up, Jeppesens FlitePro v. ASAs On Top is a toss up, in our estimation. ELITE would be a contender, but its simply not price competitive at the moment.
Jepp appears to have addressed the error modes we noted. If thats true, the issue is whether you want more airplanes and better weather modeling-On Top-or a prettier panel and superior after-action mapping-FlitePro. If On Tops bottom-of-the-panel nav heads make you nuts, stick with FlitePro.
Also With This Article
Click here to view the Sims Checklist.
Click here to view “Hardware.”
Click here to view “Not Just Practice, Training Too.”
Click here to view “The X-Plane Factor.”
Click here to view the Sims Addresses & Contacts.
-by Jane Garvey
Jane Garvey is an Aviation Consumer contributing editor. She prefers flying her Cessna 182 to hacking PCs.