First, I have to say I don’t as a general rule play games on computers; it’s not my thing, but as I was requested to evaluate FlightGear, I’ll do my best to give a fair impression of what I found.
I installed FlightGear on an AMD 64×2 4200+ machine, using 2GB of RAM and a GeForce 6200 graphics card with 256MB of on board RAM (as I said, I don’t play games!) All this review is based on flying the simulator from the keyboard, as I have no joystick to use and configure.
I tried it in both Kubuntu Gutsy Gibbon and Debian etch.
In both cases, the installation was easy. FlightGear is already in both distro repositories and all that was required was to use the appropriate package manager to install the application.
In Kubuntu, FlightGear installed a menu item in ”games”, but in Debian it didn’t. Having said that, it’s easy enough to create an entry of your choice if you so wish, but that is outside the scope of this appraisal.
There are many things to like about FlightGear, but also, there are things that (in my view) need attention.
In Kubuntu, clicking the menu item loaded FlightGear without any drama. In fact, if you’ve been used to loading other flight simulators and going and have a cup of tea while they load, you’ll be very pleasantly surprised. Loading is fast and places you on the end of San Francisco Airport runway 28R, with the engine running, ready for take off in a Cessna 172.
Clicking on the help menu, gives a small page of default keyboard controls. b for example, toggles the brakes on and off; 9 and 3 control the throttle and so on and in many respects, a lot of the initial leaning curve, is remembering which button to press for the required effect. In order to keep straight on the runway for take-off, you need to steer the rudder, and for some reason, the developers have chosen Insert for left rudder and Enter for right. I would have far preferred two adjacent buttons (left and right arrow keys for example), as steering with such an odd combination is not easy! A right click on the program screen, will pass control of the control column, to your mouse and I found this the best method for flying if you can’t configure a joystick. A further right click will allow you to see around the cockpit and all around the aircraft. One more right click will take you back to the start of the sequence.
Anyway, after the obligatory few crashes, I got airborne and as you can see here, in a right hand turn.
Now where this application really shines, is the subtlety of the flying. For example, going back to take off, in a piston engined aircraft (normally) due to the torque effect of the engine/propeller combination, the aircraft will try and wander off to the left. This is faithfully represented by FlightGear. If you don’t feed in the rudder, you will go off the edge of the runway. Even when first initiating on the runway, you can watch the magnetic compass settle down, just as a real one would. When in the air, there is a lag in the VSI (Vertical Speed Indicator); it’s there in the simulator and beautifully incorporated. The aircraft responds to control inputs, just as the real one would, it is quite astonishing the quality of the flying produced in this simulator. To be honest, in this respect it’s so polished, I could write page after page on it, but I’m sure by now you get the idea.
I’ve included some more screen shots to illustrate some more of the detail represented by this application and moving on to Final Approach, you may be able to see in the following shots, the PAPI (Precision Approach Path Indicators); two red and two white lights situated to the left of the runway threshold. They are used by aircraft pilots as an approach aid to determine you are on the correct vertical path as well as the horizontal one. These lights change if you go too high or low on the approach. Slightly high and you will see three whites and one red; too high, four whites and the reverse is true. Three reds, slightly low, Four reds; Oh ***! Again, this subtle presentation is superbly incorporated into the application.
Notice in the above screen shots, the DME (Distance Measuring Equipment) at the lower right of the picture. In the sequence of pictures above, it’s counting down from 2.2nm, 1.2nm, 0.9nm (nautical miles from touchdown). Such is the quality of FlightGear.
So far, I’ve concentrated on the default C172, but of course, there are many other aircraft available, either in the default installation, or via download. This sadly is where the not so good comes in.
At first, I was totally puzzled on how to change aircraft types. A search on the web revealed, you have to do this via the command line and if you want a permanent change, edit a script! Now to me, for such a competent, polished application, this was a huge let-down and one I believe the developers should address as soon as possible. Surely with this level of program sophistication, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility to have a drop down list to select the aircraft type. This one issue for a lot of people will be a real turn off.
As I was licensed on the 737-300, this was my next port of call and I have to report, it wasn’t a good one. The aircraft (simulator) crashed repeatedly, making flying the 73′ impossible. In all fairness to the developers, it is listed as early production, so perhaps as yet, shouldn’t be included in the default available types.
In order to test the ability to download and fly a different type, I downloaded the 747-400. Again, while the system works, it does seem an archaic way of doing things. The download is a zipped file that has to be decompressed. That’s the easy bit. You now have to find where on your particular distro, the Aircraft folder is and move the decompressed file(s) into it. On my particular system, it was: usr/share/games/FlightGear/Aircraft, so the only practical way to move the file was once again via the command line.
This accomplished, and using the command line yet again, I loaded the 747 to attempt a flight.
You are presented with an EFIS (Electronic Flight Information System) which like the analogue display on the C172, runs beautifully smoothly in all aspects. Once airborne, you immediately notice the lag in the controls as you attempt to manoeuvre this juggernaut of the sky. FlightGear faithfully reproduces the feeling of flying a heavy, with all the sedateness you would expect.
However, that’s not the end of the story. All is not well, as at the time of writing, the 747 lacks any form of engine instrumentation, flap position or indeed anything but what you see in the screen shots. So while the aircraft does fly well, setting up a manual approach is a nightmare, as you have no idea what power is set, what flaps are down and so on. It truly is a “suck it and see” job, but not impossible, as the next screen shot shows me safely landed about 75% down the length of the runway.
It seems these last few paragraphs have been focusing on the negative, but there are some nice features included with the program. For example, when flying the simulator in the evening here in the UK, San Francisco was in broad daylight. If I changed the airport to London Stansted, it immediately turned to night. So the program is linked to a world timebase (I guess) to compensate for time of day. The graphics are of an acceptable quality, and frankly, if it’s a choice between having a simulator that will fly well or photographic landscapes, I’d go for the former.
Of course, you can also have a little fun. The CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) get very twitchy when trying out prohibited manoeuvres, but of course, FlightGear allows you a fantasy world, where flying under bridges and suchlike can be contemplated! Here’s a screen shot of me about to fly under a bridge at San Francisco,
and safely out the other side!
Gotta be done!!
FlightGear, without question, can be a great flight simulator. Out of the (minimal) aircraft I tried, the C172 is the most complete and one might say the jewel in the crown, with the others needing further development.
But one can’t argue with the price; it’s free, but you can make a donation if you wish.