There are a number of flight planners available on the market for FS 2004. This new addition makes an attempt to offer much more than just flight planning by entering the difficult grounds of flight adventures using speech recognition (SR) for ATC and checklists. A very courageous move indeed, knowing how difficult this technology (still under development) is, to be used with a decent percentage of validation to allow a flawless flight simulation experience.
FSCOM 2004 Version 2 boasts four main features which will
be described separately in more details in this review:
I downloaded this software which is available at the Pointsoft site and at SimMarket. It is a 145 MB file (with SR) sold at €29.95, or 123 MB without SR sold at €24.95.
A registration key will be sent to you via email promptly to activate your product. You will also need to download an update 18.104.22.168. Be careful to choose the relevant one (with or without SR). A few additional ATC sound files are also available (free of charge) should you want to have more choices for the same.
As a note of interest, a demo version is also available at the Pointsoft site and at AVSIM (fsc2k4sr_demo.zip). This is a fully working version but limited to a few airports in Europe.
The installation process is quite straightforward by following the instructions provided on the screen. Don’t forget your update file which will complete your product and add a few fixes.
To avoid any confusion in this review, I will tackle each feature of the product separately to propose an individual evaluation. The attractive statement used in the advertisements and press releases, which attracted my attention was, “The created flights are based on real airline flights”. This was precisely what I was looking for, and here it is, at long last! After a careful reading of the flight planning instructions, I ventured into making my first flight plans.
When starting FSCOM, you are welcome by a large rotating globe which you can populate at will with airports, airways, ADF, VOR, intersections, even lakes and rivers, zoom in and zoom out. You can also turn the globe faster with your left button mouse to gain faster access to the region you are interested in, this is neat and easy to use. You can also change the colours and the fonts used as you like. On the left side are all the flight planning function buttons. Leading you from top to bottom to each stage of your plan, and on the left side, another column in which will appear your routing as proposed by the planner. This allows you to modify and adapt your plan (remove, add waypoints), SIDs, STARs, altitude, rate of descent, etc. This is a very nice and tidy way to centralise all your actions on one screen and never lose sight of your flight map.
The first step will lead you to a window on which you will select your departure and destination airports. That alone can be challenging if you do not know the ICAO codes, and if you happen to choose a city with more than one airport, since the latter names only will be listed. In other words, if you plan to take off from New York Kennedy (an easy one), you will have to type “Kennedy Intl”, not just Kennedy, because there are other Kennedy cities and airports other than New York. Should you wish to land in Vienna, you better remember that the name of the airport is Schwechat. Here, perhaps, an approach with multiple entry choices “country”, “city”, “airport” (similar to FS9) would have been more user friendly, but this is a minor detail. Should you know the ICAO codes of your airports, simply type them in the respective boxes and you’re done. This is the easiest and fastest way like in most planners.
For the purpose of this review, I planned several short-haul flights in Europe, medium-hauls in the US, and Asia, and finally four long-haul international flights and compared them with other flight planning utilities. Let’s take one example: Zurich – Dubai, here is the initial flight planning page as it will appear after entering your selections of airports, airline, flight number and airplane.
The airline .wav file list is essentially limited to North America and Europe, so if you intend to fly on Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, or Varig (to name a few), then ATC won’t have a sound file for any of them. You can add these to your database apparently, but unfortunately, the "Help" page for this feature was not available at the time of this review.
Furthermore, if you don’t speak German, you won’t make much sense of this particular FSCOM 2004 Airlines window, as it is only in this language. The developer informed me that this page will be rectified with the next update to be released soon. As an alternative you can still add an airline code like “SQ” for Singapore in that window.
As for the planes, FSCOM 2004 will recognise and use all your precious add-ons after running the Aircraft database builder. You will find each aircraft with its own page on which you can enter the performance parameters (some values are filled in by default for all aircraft). You can even add screenshots of each aircraft panel and outside view (the method is explained in the help file) as I did for example for this South African RFP 742 as shown below.
Check lists and co-pilot function
On a second page of the aircraft listing, you can create a detailed check list for each individual aircraft which will be read by the co-pilot, with the corresponding answers expected from you. Another interesting feature of this programme, is the possibility to delegate some tasks to your co-pilot (in the second page of your planning window) such as headings, altitudes, check lists etc, so you can practice your CRM skills. One additional note: if you intend to use the co-pilot function, be aware that it may not work with all add-ons if they don’t use the default FS9 commands.
The second step of your flight planning will be to create your routing by pressing “Autoroute”. The bad surprise is that it totally ignores high altitude airways, but you will obtain a neat VOR to VOR (eventually some NDBs and intersections) routing that has nothing to do with “real airlines flights” as advertised. I must admit that the proposed routings are extremely close to the Great Circle navigation tracks in the case of long hauls, hence the shortest possible route between two airports is reproduced.
But FSCOM 2004 can’t be considered a realistic flight planning tool if your purpose is to be close to the actual world routings. We have to turn back to the existing FS flight planning tools or sites and, should you wish to use FSCOM for the other features offered by the product, you would have to manually enter your route since there is no existing export utility yet between FSNAV, or FSBUILD or any other FP utility to FSCOM.
That in itself will not be an easy task either, since geographical coordinates are not shown on the map when you move your mouse (like FSNAV) to help you locate some intersections in a dense area for example. But a “search and locate tool” exists where you type the identification of the navigation facility you need, and it centres the map on it, highlighting the nav facility (except waypoints though). This is very handy for airports, NDBs and VORs. Neither can you enter Airway numbers to fill up a long route quickly (like FSBuild). In short, you have to include each waypoint regardless of its nature one by one, quite a job for long hauls!
I was planning to show both flight plans screenshots made on FSCOM 2004 (the realistic one and the autoroute provided by the planner), but after having to add five waypoints on that route in my FSCOM 2004 database (you can add, edit or remove as many navigational facilities as you wish from the FSCOM nav database) I was still finding many others missing. I decided to give up, and kept the FSCOM route for the purpose of the test. This begs the question about how many intersections are actually missing in the FSCOM database and how it is going to be updated. Secondly, whether all airways are implemented (even if they are ignored by the planner).
Selection of SID and STAR
The last steps of the flight planning will take you to the selection of a SID, which will be identified from a menu shown on the right side of the screen. This implies that you have checked the weather first so as to know which RWY is in use. For our flight, RWY 16 is available for take off from LSZH, so I selected DINAR3URNAV as SID.
Same procedure to determine our STAR, check weather and select your STAR accordingly, in our flight sample 30R. Unfortunately, if the weather at your destination changes during your flight, you would not be able to adapt your arrival since your ABL will be saved and in use already. So as a work around, it is suggested to enter two STARs so as to be able to select the relevant one when contacting Approach. So let’s select RWY 12L at OMDB as well.
FSCOM 2004 has a large database of SIDs and STARs available for quite a number of airports worldwide, which can be further extended with your own. These SIDs and STARs can be visualised on your main route map to check their suitability with your proposed routing, this is a neat feature. On this same window (right side of the screen), select your initial Flight Level, check your descent speed and descent vertical speed or TOD distance to destination.
In the weather window, you will select your environment for those using the FS9 weather themes (they are all available from that window), but it is unnecessary if you use an on-line weather software such as Active Sky.
If you want to practise Holdings, you may add as many as you wish on your flight plan indicating whether it is mandatory or random and the heading desired.
Calculation of fuel needed and fuel loading
Finally, so as to be able to determine your fuel quantity needed, you will want to find the total flight distance somewhere on your flight plan. Well, it is not there yet, but the developer indicated in his response to my queries that it will be available in a future update. You can eventually find this out if you add up all the leg distances shown on the screen, but not in the final flight plan (version reviewed).
Using another flight planner, I know that my total distance will be 2633 NM, plus my alternate to Oman 266 NM, plus security. So I can now calculate the needed quantity in lbs, and load my fuel in FSCOM 2004 using the “Start situation” window and selecting (in percentage) my fuel load. It is obviously not the best way to load fuel accurately (I would have preferred an lbs or kg window), but since we know the full capacity of the tanks in lbs (available on the aircraft file) and the quantity we need for the trip, the percentage is easy to calculate.
Choice of start situation
On that same window, we shall determine the gate where we will be parked. If you have an add-on airport scenery (as is my case for both airports LSZH and OMDB), you are supposed to be able to locate your aircraft using an existing saved situation at that airport. At least that is what the manual says, but it failed to materialise each time. My aircraft was found in a strange environment away from the location where it was to be parked, such as Nantucket when the Zurich situation was loaded. So I reverted to the proposed default location of the programme at LSZH and will slew to my gate from there. Last decisions, the date and time of your situation and you are done with the preplanning.
Flight” and “Save flight” and your
file will be saved as a FSCOM 2004 flight that you will be able to retrieve
in your FS
start menu from:
While your situation loads, let’s backtrack and review what needs to be done before you are able to use the Speech Recognition feature of FSCOM 2004.
Speech Recognition Engine
Training of the SR engine
The Microsoft Speech Recognition Engine Version 4 is part of the FSCOM 2004 package; do note that no other version will work with this programme. It will be installed automatically with FSCOM with a separate icon on your desktop.
This will lead you to the setup which will be a lengthy but necessary process. I suggest you take all the time needed, if you want to avoid disappointing results during your flights. The recognition level can apparently reach 95%, but a number of conditions must be met. A decent microphone mounted on headphones (to remain hands free), keep noise level in your room as low as possible during the training of your SR system, then practice, practice, and practice again. I would even suggest that you do all the training exercises available to obtain acceptable results while in flight (it took me one hour for the first six exercises).
You ought to be aware that, should your message to ATC not be understood by the SR engine, you might repeat it over and over with the same absence of result and thus find yourself venturing outside the FP with undesired and frustrating consequences. So patience and hard work are needed at this stage.
The second page of your SR menu will install a small “radio” set on the upper left corner of your airplanes which you will select in the list. This small device is needed and will allow you to “communicate” with ATC, your co-pilot and cabin crew. Note that this radio will not appear in the virtual cockpit, thus although you can still communicate, you will not be able to visualise whether your message was understood or not.
Selection of ATC background files
Once you have done this SR training, you are almost ready to fly. The last exercise will be to select (a) the background ATC file you will want to hear while on your various ATC frequencies and (b) the controller voices you feel most comfortable with.
These selections can be made from the ATC window of the FSCOM main screen. More sound files can be downloaded from the Internet at sites like "ATC Monitor" or "Live ATC", for example. My reservation regarding the existing background ATC files is that some may be a little too short in duration, since you will hear the same chat more than once on the same frequency.
Flying at last! Well just not yet…
Assuming you start your flights with a cold and dark cockpit, and having plugged in your batteries and APU, you can now switch on the small radio, load the relevant FSCOM flight plan which will then appear in the window. Now let’s go through the initial check-list with your co-pilot who will read the items for your responses.
To make the usage of the mike easier, I programmed two buttons on my yoke for External and Internal communications. Personally, for the sake of realism, I would have preferred a “push-to-talk” button system instead of a switch “On/Off” as FSCOM chooses. The real purpose of this “radio” to be visible, is for you to check at the end of each of your communications whether it is understood (green OK) or rejected (red ERR) by ATC. In which case you will need to repeat your message until it is understood or you will be in trouble (like in real life). Should you fail to react after an ATC message for more than one minute (or be unable to make yourself intelligible), the ATC message will be repeated automatically.
Your first exchanges with Clearance Delivery will be your first challenge since I have yet (with a number of flights behind me with FSCOM… and a great many more in real life) been able to repeat a clearance the way it is supposed to be comprehended by FSCOM, even though I stick to the written instructions in the correct order.
In case of trouble, ask your co-pilot to answer for you (hit 2) and he will sort it out (yes, like in real life!). To be fair, this is the only difficulty in this phase, all other communications during the flight went smoothly. I suppose this phase can be rectified/improved by the developer. Interesting feature: you have a set of possible answers for each communication, so as to avoid repeating only mandatory sentences. For example when you reply to Ground for your taxi clearance, you have 6 options, out of which only the bold section will be recognised by FSCOM as the correct answer. Make sure it is said in the proper sequence (for example if you reply “Swiss 376, Roger” instead of “Roger, Swiss 376”, ATC won’t accept your message):
My experience was to keep my messages as simple and short as possible, the more you talk, the more challenges for your SR engine and the more chances to hit that dreadful red “ERR” reply.
Your sequence of actions will follow the real cockpit life before start: check-lists, pushback, etc. Should you fly airliners (not reproduced in FSCOM 2004, you can use a separate pushback gauge if you wish), contact Ground for your taxi clearance, and you’re on the way. Before reaching the holding point, Ground will ask you to switch to Tower, which will most likely grant you permission to line up and hold.
Evidently, you will guess that your AI traffic won’t be recognised by FSCOM 2004, it is a pity, but given the complexity of this programming, it is understandable. I am sure time will come when all will be integrated (FSX?). So you can keep your AI traffic, but you will most likely overtake any traffic at the holding point, or take off into a landing plane, compromises you said? The other choice of course is to eliminate whatever flies on your airports, a sad return to FS95 or was it 98?
During all those phases, you will hear in the background, ATC chat recorded in real life. The challenge is to choose one that will fit more or less to your actual flight (but remember that you can download more ATC chat files from various parts of the world as indicated above). The same can be selected in the ATC menu of FSCOM 2004 where several sound files are proposed in various languages. At times they can be quite distractive, even more so when you know that they are not linked to the actual communications you are having on the frequency. Meaning that you can speak when someone else is speaking or vice versa, not realistic at all.
I would have thought that when you switch On your mike, the background chat should be disabled until you switch Off. Try concentrating on your flying and on the answers the programme wants to hear, not necessarily what you would say if you were in the real airplane (real life experience is no help there, to the contrary), it won’t work. Furthermore, if you can ask ATC to repeat a message as often as you wish, it will be repeated exactly the same way it was initially said. Hence, you better make sure you understand easily the controller voices you have selected in your FSCOM ATC setup.
If their speech rhythm is quite slow (a little too slow at times) their English pronunciation - like in the real world - may not always be perfect, so there again, practice will determine what works for you and what does not. If you get in trouble, remember just hit your co-pilot, I mean hit 2 of course (!), he will reply for you.
A piece of advice to the beginners, if you wish to make this learning experience fruitful and not too frustrating, make sure you select an airplane you know and fly well, so that you can focus on your FSCOM phraseology. Use the A/P as soon as possible, especially if you are in IFR conditions. As a help if you have difficulty understanding ATC messages, you can opt to have them on the screen, similar to FS9. You may also resort to keyboard commands but that would really defeat the purpose of the SR system.
Coming back to our cockpit and flight, we are now cleared for take off on RWY 16 and to maintain runway heading to 1500 feet. When airborne, Tower switches us to Departure and there the real hell begins! Even though you filled in and were granted clearance to fly a SID, should you fiddle too much with your SR phraseology you will overshoot the first fix. Departure will vector you unfailingly in an awful and totally unrealistic zigzagging exercise to return on the SID as published from that first fix, and that too is at your initial altitude of 6000 feet, for example, so beware, if you fly heavies, you’re in for a tough disciplinary process that will make you stick to each individual fix and altitude of your SID.
That is the way it should be. However, the fault may not be yours. I could verify on a number of flights that my actual position was not the same as the one perceived by the FSCOM controller. For example when using the ND and a programmed SID on a FMC – the same of course to the one selected with FSCOM in my planning -, I was right above a fix and the controller would send me on a strange heading to come back on what he “saw” as being the actual fix.
Some refining seems to be needed on this to avoid a very frustrating departure. For example, in case of such perceived “discrepancies” between your FMC SID and the FSCOM ones, ATC could vector you to the next fix instead of the previous one it “thinks” you busted!
More disturbing, there were occurrences when, even though I was smack on the SID trajectory, Departure would vector me out and forget me with no further message s for a long period of time. But when feeling ignored or forgotten after my calls, I tried to climb to my cruising altitude. I was immediately reminded to descend to my initial assigned altitude on my stupid diverging heading, throwing me miles away from my route and SID.
On one flight out of Nice Côte d’Azur to Roma, I followed the vectors indicated by ATC scrupulously and was on my way to the third fix of the SID on a heading given by ATC after passing fix 2, when I was suddenly asked to make a 180 to come back on fix 2.
Now that we are finally on track and at cruise level, ATC will not leave you in peace and will remind you of each single leg, with headings, name of next nav facility, eventually a radial for it, well, anything and everything that controllers would never find the time to do. Fortunately both for pilots and controllers alike. This is fine if you want to practice ATC for training purpose, but not realistic at all if you fly long hauls for example on heavies. The developer promised to offer a choice for future updates.
You can ask for a higher or lower altitude or flight level at any time during the flight. So step climbs are possible on long hauls, and so is the welcome break if you fly a 12 hour trip on your favourite airliner. Just hit CTRL+8 and the co-pilot is in command, the Captain can now leave the cockpit. When you feel like returning for your step climbs or starting your descent, hit the same command again and you’re in charge to complete your flight.
No special remarks about the Approach and landing phases, all steps are there. But I was less than impressed by the approach paths provided and the corresponding altitudes. On one occasion I was cleared for ILS shortly after receiving my descent clearance from my Flight Level 260 (my parameters such as VS and TOD distance in the flight planner were correct). After landing, I was happy to note that you are not “pushed off” the runway by an impatient controller like in FS9 “… turn next taxiway”. Of course you are alone in the pattern for FSCOM.
Whereas I find this package extremely appealing for the features it offers and its overall brilliant concept, none of these – bar one perhaps - come close (presently) to the “reality” it claims to accomplish in its advertising. If we try to summarise what FSCOM 2004 really achieves versus the expectations of two categories of potential customers, we could draw the following table:
Support from the developer was swift in most cases and helpful, the present product limitations are being reviewed by Pointsoft for a future update.
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