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Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002

by Bob "Groucho" Marks

Article Type: Interview
Article Date: August 27, 2001

The Standard Edition box

Well, it's just about that time.

It rolls around every couple of years, an event that causes the hardcore civilian flight sim fan base to spend sweaty, sleepless nights and miss work for no good reason. No, it's not biennial flight reviews, nor is it another Asiatic Flu outbreak; it's Microsoft's release of yet another version of that Methuselah of civilian sims—Flight Simulator 2002 (FS2002).

Nice try, though, and thanks for playing our game.

I'd like to pull some Gs, please...

Having found something in the civilian flight sim world that was able to pierce my near-terminal case of attention deficit disorder, I sent a few questions off to the FS2002 development team. Imagine my surprise when I actually got something back that wasn't drafted by Microsoft's legal team!!

Back in May, FS2002 grabbed my attention at E3 2001 for a couple of reasons. First of all, it didn't glorify, illustrate, or even mention that most boring type of transportation—ahem Choo-choo Trains cough—and second, it just plain flew very nicely. As a pilot, I was truly impressed by the "organic" feeling I got during a jaunt around the pattern in a Cessna 172. No, I didn't get jumped by Zeros, nor did some Gomer take a shot at me from an entrenchment, but the feeling of general aviation flight was better than in just about any other civsim I've seen in a while.

Microsoft's Project Planner of Flight Simulations, Brian Williams, was good enough to take some time out of the controlled chaos that is pre-gold time and brief us on the newest features of FS2002.

Note the reflective skin of this Jet Danger-- er- -Ranger

Robert Marks: Thanks for taking the time out to answer some questions about FS2002, Brian. Can you tell us a little about your involvement with the sim and your experience in general?

Brian Williams: Please note that I’m not the “project lead,” “project manager,” etc. Our team includes program managers; development, art, test, user assistance, and marketing leads; and others, all of whom jointly run and contribute to the product. Each team is led by and/or includes several pilots.

I handle the business side of the project and work directly with our partners in the real world of aviation (e.g., aircraft manufacturers, training organizations, pilot groups, etc.). I have worked on Flight Simulator since Flight Simulator 95. I started flying in the early 1970s. I hold a commercial pilot certificate with single- and multi-engine land and instrument ratings. I’m also a certified flight and instrument flight instructor, and I have a ground instructor certificate with advanced and instrument ratings. I teach part-time at a flight school in Seattle, and I fly a variety of aircraft for recreation and on ferry flights throughout North America.

KORD in her concrete glory, courtesy FS2002

R.M. Realistic, fully interactive ATC is one of the Holy Grails of civilian flight simulation, and is touted as one of the premier features of FS2002. Can you give us an overview on how this feature is implemented in FS2002?

B.W. The interactive ATC feature in FS2002 is based on real-world air traffic control procedures. We use the phraseology and procedures outlined in such references as the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) and the Air Traffic Controller’s Handbook published by the FAA. We also bring in active air traffic controllers, who help us ensure that the procedures are accurate and reflect how the system works in the real world.

The feature itself works through a series of transparent, pop-up menus that are appropriate for the current situation. For example, if you’re on the ground and ready to taxi for takeoff, the ATC menu shows such choices as tuning the ATIS, contacting ground control, and requesting a specific type of departure (e.g., remaining in the pattern for touch-and-goes, departing the area to the north, etc.).

When you select an option, you hear “your voice” transmitting the appropriate request to ATC, and then you hear ATC’s reply. You acknowledge those instructions, and so forth, just as in the real world of aviation. By the way, if you don’t like the voices we supplied, you can create custom “voice packs” that work with our ATC system.

If you have planned an IFR flight and created a flight plan, you can request a clearance, and you’ll get the appropriate instructions from ATC for setting the transponder, contacting departure control, and flying the initial part of your route.

The ATC system also includes such options as requesting a transition through Class D airspace (i.e., the airspace around an airport with an operating control tower), getting flight advisories under VFR (i.e., “flight following”), and other options.

Nicely rendered virtual cockpits- a huge improvement over FS2K

R.M. Are there any plans to incorporate the ability to utilize real-person ATC without using third party software?

B.W. I’m not sure what you mean by “real-person ATC.” But several add-on developers have created products that use the multiplayer feature in Flight Simulator and various “chat” software that enables voice communication over the Internet, and FS2002 will work with those add-ons. The new Flight Instructor Station in FS2002 Professional Edition could also serve as a virtual ATC system. It has a built-in, text-based chat feature, but you could also use Game Voice to communicate as the “student” flies around under the watchful eye of the “instructor.” Note that the Flight Instructor Station supports only one pilot and one instructor, however.

R.M. The auto-generated buildings and air traffic looks intriguing. Is collision-detection implemented with these objects, or are they simply window dressing?

B.W. Everything except “shrubs” is “collision-enabled.” So, if you run into buildings, trees, towers, etc., you’ll know it.

The Professional Edition box

R.M. Once again, Flight Simulator is offered in both Standard and Professional versions. Apart from the inclusion of four additional aircraft in the Pro version, are there any other additional features that one gets for plopping down the extra $20US?

B.W. FS2002 Professional Edition includes many features aimed at enthusiasts who like to expand their experience and pilots (real or virtual) who want to use FS for proficiency and training. In addition to the Grand Caravan and Baron 58, Professional Edition includes gmax, a consumer version of the 3D Studio object-editing tool developed by Discreet. This new feature gives users much more powerful tools for creating and modify aircraft and other 3D objects for use with Flight Simulator. As noted above, the Professional Edition also includes the Flight Instructor Station that links two users via a LAN or the Internet. We also include special IFR training panels for pilots who want to learn or practice IFR procedures.

R.M. During a conversation with one of the FS2002 booth attendants at E3 2001, I learned that one of your team's goals was to trim some of the legacy code out in an effort to make the new version a leaner, more efficient program. Could you elaborate on this?

B.W. One of our top goals for FS2002 is improving overall performance—I think that’s what our staff meant at E3. We’ve looked very hard at the simulation engine, the graphics engine, and all other parts of the product to make FS2002 run more smoothly on a wide range of systems.

R.M. Does your improved flight planning feature benefit from Microsoft's partnering with Boeing/Jeppesen? Specifically, does the new flight planning module incorporate the look & feel of Jeppesen's FlightMap software?

B.W. We’ve made some improvements to the flight planner, but it’s not based on Jeppesen’s product.

More virtual cockpit eye candy, courtesy Bill Gates (His airplane is nicer, though)

R.M. Do the interactive 3D cockpits remain interactive regardless of the view you are in?

B.W. The “virtual cockpits” feature working instruments, moving control yokes and rudder pedals, moving power levers, etc. They are not completely interactive, however. But as long as you remain in the virtual cockpit view, you’ll see all the features noted above.

R.M. Are aircraft systems modeled deeper than in previous versions?

B.W. We’ve added some depth to the systems modeling (and to the associated systems failures). But if you’re asking if we’ve included an FMS, a complete hydraulics system, etc., the answer is “no.” We continue to make incremental changes in all areas of the simulation, however, so you’ll see more detail and depth in the future.

R.M. Is high-altitude flight (or atmospheric modeling in general) modeled more realistically than in previous versions?

B.W. We have not made major changes in how we model the atmosphere, but, as always, we continue to make improvements to the flight models. And we’ve added several cool new visual effects, such as contrails generated by jets at high altitude.

Scaring off the fish in style

R.M. The new inclusion of floatplanes sounds intriguing. Are sea-states (i.e., choppy or glass-smooth water) modeled as a function of the weather? Are reflections rendered in the water?

B.W. When the airplane is on the water, it rocks, and as you accelerate for takeoff, you see spray and a wake behind the floats. If you set certain scenery options, you can see whitecaps on lakes and the ocean near the shoreline. But the height of the waves isn’t directly linked to the wind speed.

*** Interview End ***

And there you have it. Hopefully, the folks in Redmond have what it takes to deliver a bleeding-edge civilian flight sim that will make up for Terminal Reality's buggy and basically unfinished Fly!2. It looked (and felt) very impressive at E3 2001, so I have a warm fuzzy about the latest in a long line of sims based in not-so-hostile skies. Look for it sometime in October, 2001.

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