The IFR Game

Forget ELITE and On Top, X-Plane may represent the best deal in IFR computer sims, even if it is just a game.

Last month, we reviewed the three big name IFR flight sims,Aviation Teachwares ELITE, ASAs On Top and Jeppesens FlitePro. Among these, no hands down winner emerged, at least for buyers shopping for a sim program for IFR brush up.

Each had distinct advantages and disadvantages, depending on your budget, training preferences and hardware. Hearing some favorable comments about some impressive game programs-thats right, games-we decided to take a look.

Despite being spring loaded to the dismissive position because ofthe toy connection, we came away convinced that, for some buyers, these are a solid, cost effective choice. Youll need a heavy duty machine, however, including a high-end 3D accelerator video card (ours was a Diamond Viper 550 with 16MB on the card), a good chip and lots of RAM. Check the system requirements or your upgrade budget before ordering. On the other hand, if youre into games (or have a teenage boy in the house), you may already have what you need.

The game offerings vary wildly in both intended audience andexecution, from folks who just want to putter around San Francisco Bay in a Cessna 172 to breathtakingly varied capabilities you couldnt exhaust in a thousand hours of armchair aviating.

AviatorPro 98 functions as an add- on to Microsoft Flight Simulator 98, which is soon to become Flight Sim 2000 in October, when Microsoft anticipates releasing the final version. We saw demos at Oshkosh but no betas are available yet. We do know it will include the entire Jepp worldwide database and have interactive, real-time ATC and voice weather. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, AviatorPro98 is not included with FS98; youll have to buy both. For that reason, it has all the flaws of MSFS 98 for these purposes and adds in a few of its own for good measure.

For example, in the core program, Flight Simulators view outside is substantially larger than the mainstream IFR sims. Consequently, the individual instrument displays are smaller. On our 17-inch monitor, the instrument-T was only 4-inches across, which means you dont scan so much as you simply focus on one instrument after another in the same core field of view and the gradations in instrument indications were difficult to set or follow with precision.

Its likely to be even worse on a smaller display. We also have a problem taking seriously an instrument procedures trainer with an attitude indicator that seems to be set permanently for about 5 degrees nose up.

AviatorPro 98 is set up around five pre-programmed IFR adventures, supposedly complete with ATC instructions as well as comm and instrument failures. Each adventure runs from clearance through landing. Youre scored for each deviation from their pre-programmed norm.

As far as realism goes, the final grade for AviatorPro 98 is NeedsImprovement. It deals with the small panel acreage by making the radios an optional display which must be selected and then moved around to obscure either some of the standard panel or about a third of the outside view. In addition, we found AviatorPro 98 entirely too arbitrary and unrealistically workload intensive.

Follow everything like it says and the program will go off on a frolic and detour of its own. It will terminate the lesson or castigate you for doing something that would be right in the real world. The original Microsoft program already includes a variety of practice scenarios, including failures, IFR flights and the like and you might do just about as well with that alone.

At $29.95 for the download ($34.95 for the shipped and hardcopyversion), AviatorPro would seem enticing. With full-bore desktop sims down in the $100 range, however, we think the entry fee for a twitchy and inherently limited program probably would be better spent elsewhere. Skip this one.

Laminar Research- X-Plane
X-Plane from Laminar Research is an intriguing and well thought out product, as we noted in last months review. It comes with a variety of pre-loaded aircraft, from Glasairs to helos to the Aerospace plane.

If your flivver isnt in the inventory, however, not to worry. One of the program components is an aircraft design function which allows you to create any aircraft. Theres a bit of a cottage industry for aircraft design among X-Plane devotees and its likely theres already a downloadable file for whatever other aircraft you want.

You can even give it your own N-number, which the ATC function will then use. For these purposes, we stuck with one of the pre-loaded aircraft, a Cessna 172. You can orient the sim by airport name or otherwise just about anywhere you want and get an instant menu of all airports and approaches in that lat/long sector.

Additional data files covering much of the world can be downloaded on line. You can even try out your orienteering skills by telling the program to get you lost in that sector. Wanna try out LAXs 25R in 200 and 1/2? The visual rendering and attention to detail are remarkable, even in minimal resolution mode, right down to the rubber appliques in the touchdown zone and flashing beacons of crossing aircraft. We found the weather modeling very useful. Transition in and out of cloud isnt quite as realistic as it could be, but low visibility is quite convincing. For weather visuals, X-Plane beats the pants off the mainstream sims.

No sim can be everything to everybody, of course, but this one has some nice touches. Select light snow as the precip before taxi and it skitters across the outside view in accordance with the wind variations youve programmed. Forget to engage the 172s carb heat at low power and the RPMs may fade-along with a visual annunciation of suspected carb ice.

Time of day progresses as it would in the real world as opposed to being set-and-forget. Start out in the late afternoon and you had better be night current upon arrival. X-Plane alters the climb rate and available power based on density altitude. Set the appropriate OAT (which varies with altitude) and you might pick up structural ice as well.

You can also specify whether the runway will be dry, wet or icy. System, engine and instrument reliability can be set to perfect, bumped up to Flaming Paranoiac or to model the likelihood of failure found in the real world. Compass error indications appear to be spot on and you get a significant pitch up moment with application of flaps, instead of just slowing down.

If the vacuum packs up, the AI dies slowly and insidiously. The airplane even slows down accurately from aerodynamic braking if you haul back on the yoke during rollout.

Another interesting feature is the Briefer function in the X-Planedirectory, which allows you to download NWS weather reports from the Internet and then get a briefing for your proposed flight plan thats for real. Theres even a capability with a free add-on download program to utilize real time weather for your practice flight. The panel is not a pretty as FlitePros or as elaborate as ELITEs, but its more than adequate and each digit has its own knob, which makes changing frequencies easier. Unfortunately, X-Plane wont let you modify the core instruments inside the program to a significant degree in the current version and we dont remember the last time we saw a C172 with an HSI. Its also badly in need of a compass rose instead of a drum indicator on the OBS head.

However, the base program does let you install a Stormscope or a weather radar and set up a convective scenario to fly. You can set the program for either improving or deteriorating (gradually or rapidly) conditions and it appears that some variability is built in as a constant.

X-Plane will display your recorded flight either graphically, according to the parameters you specify, on a map or it will replay the cockpit display in simulator mode.

The map plan view replay isnt nearly as good as the mainstream PC sims, however. On the other hand, the programmer appears heavily involved in the evolution of his product (two downloadable updates came out just while we were doing this review) and hes amenable to suggestions, so we expect some of these nitpicks will resolve themselves.

The ATC function will give you the ATIS around the environmental parameters you set. How ATC works depends on whether you have a specific Microsoft sound program that you can download for free. If so, youll get instructions audibly. With sound enabled, the controllers syntax and pronunciation can be a bit strange and it sounds like a more pleasant version of those Digital Dan ATISs, but its not bad.

Because ATC is generated by artificial intelligence rather than prerecorded wav files, you can request clearance, vectors, a specific approach or landing clearance for any place in its massive nav database, rather than being restricted to whatever script is hardwired into the program. All things considered, well take the flexibility.

Since its aimed in part at the game community, there are lots ofgeewhiz aspects to X-Plane you can play around with when you get tired of serious practice. Want to do a gravel runway takeoff? Carrier cat shot or landing? Its all there. Austin Meyer, X-Planes creator, advises that his clientele is about half pilot and half gamer. Were sure hell be picking up more pilots.

All this capability and sophistication comes at a much lower premium than you might think. Originally $199, normal retail currently is $149, but weve seen it on sale on the X-Plane web site for $20 off and at least one online vendor lists it for $119.

If youre just too serious to consider a flight sim arising fromthe game community, by all means pick whichever of the mainstream IFR programs discussed last month thats suited to your wallet and preferences.

On the other hand, if you want a decent panel in a normal configuration, acceptable and comprehensive weather modeling, an on-demand (if eccentric) ATC function, unlimited aircraft, and you have or are willing to spring for a good 3D video card and enough RAM, X-Plane gets the nod. Despite being a game, we think it represents at least as good a value as the mainstream selections.

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-by Jane Garvey
Jane Garvey is an Aviation Consumer contributing editor. She owns a Cessna 182.