AVSIM Commercial Utility Review

Aerosoft - Flight Deck Companion Live Cockpit! for FSX

Product Information
Publisher: Aerosoft
Developer: OnCourse Software
Description:  Virtual Co-Pilot voices for Flight Simulator cockpits.
Download Size:

280 MB
Format:

Download & CD
Simulation Type:
FSX (compatible with MSFS 2004, 2002, 2000, 98)
Reviewed by: Jeff Shyluk AVSIM Staff Reviewer - March 15, 2007

FOREWORD:

Flight Deck Companion by OnCourse Software was the very first commercial software add-on I had ever purchased for Flight Simulator, and if memory serves, that would have been back in the year 2002. At the time, I recall that I just did not want to lavish hundreds upon hundreds of dollars upon Flight Simulator, so I was either downloading free stuff from Avsim or else I was reading every review I could find to help me choose just what I wanted for Flight Simulator, given my tight budget.

Based on glowing reviews, I decided to take the plunge with a product called Flight Deck Companion, which promised to put interactive cockpit voices into MSFS. I wired my payment overseas to England, and in two weeks, the CD arrived in the mail. I eagerly popped the disk into my computer and installed the program.

Five years later, a lot has changed concerning Flight Simulator: it's more complex and more immersive, with appealing audio and graphics. On the other hand, some things have stayed the same: it's still a system hog, and it's still expensive, at least for my tastes. Throughout that time, Flight Deck Companion has proved to have lasting power. It's been tweaked and improved many, many times, and now it's ready for FSX.

Now, today, I only have to navigate to the Aerosoft website to find the latest version of Flight Deck Companion Live Cockpit!, I can download it in minutes, and have it set up and registered with a click of the mouse. The question is, how well does Flight Deck Companion stand up with regards to contemporary flight simulation? Running Flight Deck Companion and listening to all of the old voices again was a lot like hearing from old friends with whom I had lost touch. Yet, I was worried that perhaps this add-on from the past was maybe too old-fashioned to run with today's Flight Simulator.

There are some rough edges to Flight Deck Companion, and some of the issues remain that I remember from five years ago, but the developers have added many new tricks to this add-on, and so I will go on to describe all of them to you.

INTRODUCTION: Live Cockpit!

For starters, Flight Deck Companion Live Cockpit! is the full name of the product, complete with the exclamation mark. For ease of reference, I will call the product FDC. The name Live Cockpit! was added when Aerosoft and OnCourse Software created a partnership to distribute FDC, and the Live Cockpit! designation refers to some major improvements to the program.

So this is what the invisible co-pilot looks like...

The aim of FDC is to provide an interactive co-pilot to your MSFS airplane cockpit. The co-pilot exists only in audio, however. If you steal a peek at the right-hand chair, it's still as empty as it ever was, with the seatbelt tucked away eternally unused, so there's no visual co-pilot model (although some third-party aircraft developers do try to include one). Still, an invisible co-pilot is better than none, especially when you are trying to manage the descent of a jumbo-jet on approach, and you're bucking a wicked crosswind while the ATC is clearing you for final. In many cockpit situations, both in the real world and simulated, two heads are better than one. FDC can help automate some cockpit tasks as well as keep you better informed about your flight profile. In a way, I like to think of it as a kind of talking flight management computer.

FDC provides audio interactive checklists for every leg of your flight, from before engine start-up at the departure airport to after engine shutdown at the destination. It will also report on basic systems like flaps and gear, and it has its own built-in audio GPWS (Ground Proximity Warning System). You can choose to delegate some flight tasks, including setting the autopilot, to the FDC co-pilot. The Live Cockpit! version can also display important flight information, such as V-speeds (safe speeds for take-off, landing, and so on) and recommended flap settings.

The most recent version of FDC is intended for FSX on a computer running Vista, but older versions can support MSFS back to FS2002. This review will look at the FSX-compatible FDC, however, I don't run Vista yet, so I can't comment much on that.

HISTORY: Pay Attention, There Will Be An Exam At The End Of This

To understand what FDC is capable of, I think it's a good idea to review how it got started. If you want to get to the part where I say what I think about today's FDC, you can safely jump ahead to the "Installation" section of my review; otherwise, I would be happy if you joined me in recalling some earlier achievements in third-party software for Flight Simulator.

In the beginning, before Microsoft was ever born, there was FS1 from Bruce Artwick, published by subLOGIC. In those olden times, there was the land, there was the sky, and there were some "gauges" to help make sense of the single airplane modelled, ostensibly a Sopwith Camel. After Microsoft started developing FS, the airplanes, sounds, and graphics all improved tremendously. However, for many generations of MSFS, the only "person" in the simulation was the user. The MSFS world was a lonely place, and even today, as we use FSX to simulate an industry whose primary purpose is to move countless people around from place to place, we seldom see very many humans in our airplanes.

I remember a friend of mine had an add-on called "ProFlight98" from AETI, which became "ProFlight2000". What this program could do was to generate the voices of Air Traffic Controllers. To do so, it would pre-render an "Adventure" based on a flight plan the user filed within the program. In older MSFS sims, "Adventures" were included which are similar to "Missions" in FSX. In those days before automated flight simulator ATC, the only way to get a voice to speak to you in the sim was through an Adventure. The user would plug in the intended flight route, and then ProFlight would laboriously churn out a custom-made Adventure, which took around an hour to calculate. Then you could fly that Adventure, provided that you stuck closely to the flight plan. The program wasn't sophisticated enough to handle large deviations, but for simulating the day-to-day routine of passenger flight, I remember that it was pretty good for its time.

In 2001, Dave March, who was not officially affiliated with AETI, released his outstanding freeware S-Combo (short for "Stand-Alone Combination"), which was an add-on for ProFlight2000, but could also be used on its own. S-Combo provided a co-pilot cockpit voice that interacted with how you were controlling your airplane, as well as a GPWS that, in my opinion, was years ahead of its time. The great beauty of the S-Combo system, apart from that it was free, was that it provided interactive voices "on the fly", which would act and react depending on how you were flying your airplane. Put that together with the pre-rendered custom ATC chatter from ProFlight2000, and you had an immersive cockpit audio environment.

S-Combo evolved into Flight Deck Companion, which provided a greater scope of interactivity between the user and the Virtual Co-Pilot or VCP. The original FDC was payware, as FDC simply became too big to offer for free anymore. One of the larger improvements over S-Combo was that the Virtual Co-Pilot became a VCP-X, for "eXtentions", which allows the VCP to behave like a real First Officer by correctly setting flaps, spoilers, and autopilot systems, handling the autobrakes and thrust reversers, as well as making call-outs of speed and altitude when appropriate.

FDC became FDC Live Cockpit! in August 2004. The whole program was overhauled so that the original FDC (version 1) was no longer compatible with the newer FDC Live Cockpit! (version 2). The latest version of FDC Live Cockpit! (version 3.7.9 at this writing) adds even more functions into the program, including more voice call-outs and more user options, and it can run on Windows Vista. A basic flight planner now keeps track of your departure and destinations, and can show you critical information for the various legs of your journey, including runway information and navigation frequencies for the airport at the end of your trip

INSTALLATION: What's In A Name?

My original FDC came on a CD, and the new version can be ordered from Aerosoft on CD-ROM as well. Version 1 users are required to purchase an upgrade to the Live Cockpit! version, however. Version 2 and beyond should be able to be patched right up to v3.7. The difference is in the Live Cockpit! name. If your original program did not have Live Cockpit! in the title, then it is too obsolete to be patched up to date. The current patches can only be applied to Live Cockpit! versions of FDC.

So, because I was to test out the Live Cockpit! version, I chose to download the file from Aerosoft's web page. The download was large but easy, requiring about 280MB of hard disk space. At the end of the process, I got a product registration key. To install FDC, I needed to enter the key, which Aerosoft instantly confirmed, and then the product installed itself.

FDC runs on its own, outside of FSX. It requires Pete Dowson's FSUIPC4, which can be downloaded and run for free. FDC has its own FSUIPC key, so that the user does not have to pay to register FSUIPC to make FDC work. The user configures most of the FDC settings outside of FSX, and then when he or she is ready to fly, FSX can be booted up, so that FDC connects directly into the flight sim.

DOCUMENTATION & FEATURES: Persistence Of Revision

There are at least two reasons, in my opinion, why FDC has lasted so long as a third-party add-on for MSFS. The first reason is the strong attention to detail within the program, while the second reason is a dogged persistence to keep making upgrades and adjustments to FDC over time. Let me illustrate my point like this: poring over the entire Version History of FDC dating back to July 2002, I counted 39 product fixes and a whopping 122 different enhancements. There's no way I am going to itemize every one of these points, but I can go over some of the more important ones.

Test System

Intel Core 2 CPU 6600 @2.40GHz x2
2 GB RAM
NVIDIA geForce 7600GS
RealTek AC'97 Audio
Win XP SP2
Thrustmaster Top Gun Afterburner II
Microsoft Intellimouse
MS Digital Media Pro Keyboard
MS Sidewinder Steering Wheel (for the foot pedals).
TrackIR4:PRO
TrackClip PRO

Flying Time:
15 hours

FDC comes with some extensive manuals. For the downloaded version, there is a manual in .PDF format, while the CD-ROM version has a printed manual. I have the downloaded version, so this is the manual I will review. The .PDF manual actually comes in two flavours, one called the "Flight Deck Companion User's Guide", which weighs in at 255 pages of material, while the other document is called "Manual", runs to 92 pages and is written for FSX users. I also have a German-language version of the FDC manual as a bonus.

The User's Guide covers all of the features that are included in FDC, so many of the pages in the Guide relate to some very technical issues. The User's Guide was primarily written with respect to FDC Live Cockpit! 2.0, so it is missing mention of some of the newer features. It does provide a solid grounding on the basic features of FDC, as well as some tutorial material for new users. The Manual updates the User Guide, and features up-to-date information for FSX users. To get the full FDC experience, it could require a lot of reading on behalf of the user. There are literally hundreds of features to sort through.

At the heart of FDC is a comprehensive Help File, which is accessed at any time by pressing F1. The Help File provides a concise, user-searchable document that easily takes you step-by-step through your flights with FDC. The Help File has been updated to the current version of FDC. In addition, just about every feature in the FDC menu system will pull up a context-sensitive help file if you right-click your mouse on it.

So, with all of this very extensive documentation, one might be led to believe that FDC is either a nightmare of options for the novice sim pilot, or the answer to the prayers of the seasoned fly-by-manual aviator. The reality is that FDC is actually quite simple to set up and use, and the challenge lies in increasing the levels of realism within the program.

FDC includes default set-ups for the majority of the fixed-wing aircraft in FSX, as well as support for FS2004 third-party add-ons like the PMDG 737NG, the PIC A320, and the JustFlight A340. For these set-ups, all the user really has to do is choose which airplane he or she would like to fly in FDC, and then load up the corresponding vehicle in FSX, it's about as simple as that. Once FDC is activated in FSX, the Virtual Co-Pilot will start to make comments and call-outs specific to what is happening in your cockpit. You can also enable a series of comprehensive interactive audio checklists, and if you are flying a passenger jet, you can choose to hear your flight attendants and some subtle cabin noises.

There are some default aircraft in FSX that do not yet have direct FDC support, such as the Piper Cub and the Grumman Goose. For these and any other unsupported models, FDC comes with a very powerful Performance Editor that will allow the user to either edit existing set-ups, or create their own from scratch, suitable for just about any fixed-wind aircraft in existence. For that matter, I found that many of the default set-ups were too simple for my liking. Using the Checklist Editor, I was easily able to add and re-arrange checklist calls exactly to my tastes. FDC is not difficult to use, but there is a learning curve in terms of fully understanding the myriad of options.

Let's look at where FDC begins, and that is with the main interface screen. From this panel, we can specify the departure and arrival airports, look for automatic updates to FDC, browse your flight logs, adjust the volume of the voices and sounds in FDC, adjust the options that you want FDC to use, and of course, make a connection to FSX.

The Main FDC Panel. The FDC Options Panel. There are many categories of options from which to choose.

The Options panel opens up a wealth of information. Options include selecting your aircraft and corresponding custom user profile, if any; choosing the type of audio calls the Pilot-In-Command (you!) and the VCP will make; choosing the operations that the VCP-X will perform under automation, including handling autopilot, flaps, spoilers, and autobrake functions as appropriate; selecting the voices and announcements you want for your cabin crew, if any; setting up the GPWS; choosing from among 16 sets of different voices for your cockpit crew, including male and female voices with American and European accents; and finally, setting up things like automatic flight logging, custom hotkeys, and custom controllers.

One of four VCP-X screens. VCP-X stands for "Virtual Co-Pilot eXtensions"

There are tons and tons of options, perhaps too many for a casual user to keep track of. FDC, of course, runs quite well under its default settings, so the novice user gets a fairly easy entry into this program. It's when you decide to start fiddling with things that FDC can get complicated. You aren't likely to come up with a setting that could actually break FDC or FSX, but there are things that can happen that might put a dent in the realism factor of your flight.

For instance, you might set up a quick hop in a Cessna 172, but forget that this aircraft doesn't have spoilers or autobrakes. If you miss those settings in FDC, the VCP will dutifully make calls to arm the spoilers and set the autobrakes even though the controls don't exist in your cockpit. This kind of behaviour can be common enough in FDC, although it's never a show-stopper. Usually, for me, it strikes at the end of a long flight, as it's easier to trouble-shoot the call-outs at the beginning of a flight. Typically, it's also my fault, as I had missed a setting somewhere when I created a custom user profile. Fixing the problem is easy enough; you simply make the adjustment within the FDC options.

Still, with this many options to look after, I think that an Options Wizard would be a welcome addition to FDC: something that could automate the process of choosing settings, and make sure that none get missed. Some options, like volume, can only be tested in FSX, so it's a bit of a chore to bounce back and forth between FSX and FDC to make changes. Once you have your changes all finalized, then FDC really shines. Fortunately, some flight simmers have shared their custom profiles here at Avsim.com, so you can find some pre-made files to use with your aircraft. Please be aware that 1.x versions of FDC profiles will not run on FDC Live Cockpit! systems.

FDC is definitely a tinkerer's dream. Apart from making changes to the profiles that come with the program, the user can make their own profiles. Typically, this can involve two separate options, namely the Checklist Editor and the Performance Editor. Both editors are easy to use, and have lots of help files to explain every step of the way.

Use the Performance Editor when you wish to add a new airplane that is not originally supported by FDC, or if you want to edit an existing airplane’s profile. For the most part, you are editing how the VCP will use the flaps, gear, and speedbrakes or spoilers, and at what point the VCP will make V-speed call-outs. You can set whether your aircraft has retractable gear or not, what type of autopilot it uses, and whether it is a general aviation aircraft or a passenger jet. Tables are included so that you can edit your flap actions and V-speed call-outs based on the aircraft weight for take-off, cruise, and landing. It's an easy-to-use system, but it does require some knowledge of flight models and performance envelopes to be used effectively.

The Checklist Editor allows you to choose precisely which call-outs you want the Pilot-In-Command and the Co-Pilot to say during each checklist. There are hundreds of call-outs from which you may select. You can then arrange your checklist items into any order you please, and specify which items are interactive: either the VCP will correct any missed settings, or else he or she will wait for you to make the correct setting. This editor is quite powerful and easy to use. However, the layout of the screens is such that I found that I was doing a lot of clicking. I would have liked to have seen this part of FDC get modernized, with click-and-drag functionality for the call-outs, so that you can just use the mouse to point to the calls and set them into place. The current old system is functional though, so I would have to agree with the maxim, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." I found experimenting with realistic checklist call-outs a pleasant way to spend the afternoon. Again, some knowledge of how real-world checklists work can help this process, and you can find such checklists for free to download in the Avsim file library.

A page from the Performance Editor. You can use this to edit how your VCP-X handles a default MSFS plane, or an add-on. The Checklist Editor. Now with more call-outs than ever before! Configuring a joystick for extra commands.

Since I haven't mentioned it yet, FDC provides many options for customizing your controls. My own preference is to have FDC run as much as possible in a fully automated state so that I don't have to assign a lot of extra controls. There are 24 different commands in FDC that expect to use hotkeys to activate them. I typically only use two or three of them, so there is an option to disable any hotkeys you feel you do not want to use. As well, you can configure your controller buttons to perform hotkey functions within FDC.

These controller options can be made context sensitive, so that a specific one might have one function when your aircraft is at the gate, and another function when your plane is on the runway, in the air, or on final descent. This feature can greatly magnify the number of controls at your disposal. As for me, I've spent many hours honing my MSFS controls exactly to the point where I like them just the way they are, so I only played with the additional controls as far as I felt was appropriate for testing purposes only.

Finally, FDC supports two levels of automatic flight logs. I personally do not prefer to log my MSFS flight time, as I am happy to jump from cockpit to cockpit as my mood suits me. However, for people who enjoy flying in virtual airlines, a flight log is essential. The FDC flight log will keep track of your flying time and log all of the major events, while the Black Box recorder is more for use in diagnosing problems with FDC itself. If you should run into serious problems with FDC, the Black Box report can help you figure out exactly where the problem lies.

PERFORMANCE & AUDIO: Checkride!

FDC runs on its own as a separate program to FSX. As I mentioned earlier, the bridge that connects FDC and FSX is a free copy of FSUIPC. FDC running on its own required few resources out of my test system, and should function well even on modest rigs. Certainly, if you can run FSX, you can run FDC as well. FDC running on its own should have no problems, even on Vista. I can't recall ever seeing FDC crash, all the way back to FDC version 1 or even S-Combo, although back in those days, I recall it could hang if you dropped out of MSFS before quitting FDC. Those days are long gone, so that the new FDC Live Cockpit! remains stable no matter what you do in FSX. As far as I can tell, it does not reduce frame rates in any way.

What can we expect from a routine flight with FDC? There are some Tutorial flights to try out. They don't currently ship with FDC for FSX, but can be downloaded separately. I opted to try one of my own custom flights that I am used to both as a passenger and as a sim pilot: the run across Western Canada from Vancouver (CYVR) to Calgary (CYYC). The first thing I need to do is tell FDC that I want to fly the default Boeing 737-800. Then, I load up FSX. A menu option allows me to connect with FDC from within FSX.

FDC is connected to FSX. This can be accomplished on the main FDC panel, or in the cockpit in FSX. I've entered Vancouver as my departure airport, and Calgary as my destination (Canada).

Once FDC lets me know it has made the connection, the flight attendant tells the boarding passengers to be seated and prepare for take-off. I enable the pre-start checklist, the VCP reads out the settings, and I confirm them. Checklists can be highly automated or fully manual, or somewhere in between. I prefer a semi-automatic checklist that runs through most of the settings and corrects most of my mistakes on its own. I can still control the flow of the checklist, so that I can definitely see that every point is correct.

The FDC display pop-up. I've altered the image to highlight the pop-up-screen - FDC actually does not change the look of FSX apart from its pop-ups.

Then, I retract the jetway, make sure the main doors are sealed, listen to ATIS, and contact ATC to file my IFR flight plan. My VCP runs a pushback and a pre-start checklist. He catches that I've nudged the throttles, and I fix that, and he corrects that I did not turn on the strobe light as per the checklist. It's a good idea to either run through these pre-start checklists as fast as you can, or else to make your own custom checklist and trim out some of the calls, because at this point, you are racing against your battery running out of juice. Yes, the same old issue with the MSFS battery going flat much too quickly got me as I was taking my time with my checks and writing down notes for this review. It's not an insurmountable problem, but it is an old and most stubborn issue that needs a software fix.

" Loose Objects and Equipment... Check."
" Seat Textures Reversed... Uh, oh, Microsoft, we have a problem..."
I found this error in the default 737 during a routine cabin check.

With engine start-up, the VCP watches the gauges and makes sure that the engines are stable. Here, I ran into a difficulty. I would not consider myself a hard-core passenger jet pilot, so I would have to admit that I have learned some bad habits that probably need to be unlearned. Somewhere along the way, I got it into my head that the starter switch will snap back into its neutral "Gen" setting after you crank it to start. It didn't in my FSX Boeing, and so began a most annoying sound loop of the VCP saying, "Engine Two started... Engine Two stable..." over and over again. It seems that FDC wants to report that the switch is in the start position, and then it will report when the engine is running properly. If the engine is already running, and the switch remains in the start position, then your VCP performs this endless loop. I am still pondering whether this shows a weakness in FDC, a shortcoming of FSX, or my lack of skill in the 737 cockpit: most likely a portion of all three.

" Engine Two started... Engine Two stable."
You need to manually return the start switch to Gen position, or else your VCP will be stuck in an audio loop. Also, Microsoft probably doesn't want you to look too closely at that tractor. I know there's a fix for the sunken vehicle in the Avsim library.

Once I get past that hurdle, I inform the ATC that I am ready to taxi, and the VCP and I run through after-start checks. Following pushback from the Vancouver terminal, the VCP and I check that everything is clear for taxi, and we start to roll. The flight attendant lectures the passengers on how to use their oxygen masks in case of an emergency, and the VCP offers a taxi checklist.

" Taxi checklist, please"
The FDC pop-up displays very useful V-speeds and flap settings.

Rolling up to the departure runway, the VCP and I run through a lengthy pre-take-off checklist. Note to self: trim this list down as well. The flight attendants are warned to prepare for departure, and we get ATC clearance to take off. The VCP starts calling out speeds as the engines roar and we gain momentum down the runway. I glance at the airspeed tape to make sure the instruments are accurate, and I trust his judgement when he tells me to rotate. After we achieve a positive climb, there's the usual scramble to get things done. The VCP retracts flaps in a professional manner and brings up the landing gear. He activates the autopilot, and we climb out along our GPS-mapped path. In the meantime, I am negotiating with ATC to find our proper radio frequencies, and I make sure that we are on course, climbing properly, and at our speed limit, given the altitude restrictions.

" We will soon be offering you your choice of refreshments..."
The flight attendant sees to the passengers while the VCP and I spend some time in the front office.

Soon, the flight attendant announces that refreshments will be served, and the rest of the climb is easy. There are climb and cruise checks to perform, and then we spend just under an hour of flight time at flight level 310. Over where the mighty Rocky Mountains fence in an extensive herd of foothills near Calgary, the ATC gives me clearance to descend. We receive vectors for the runway, and as we carefully make our approach, the flight attendant is advising the passengers that we are nearing the destination. The VCP and I run through descent checks. As we approach Calgary, we see the airport sprawled north and east of downtown. I slow the 737 with a nudge from the spoilers. Then, as we capture the localizer and match the glide path, the VCP is handling the flaps. We decelerate to approach speed, and the VCP lowers the gear. Visibility is over twenty kilometers, so I decide to disconnect the autopilot and fly this bird myself, and so I am concentrating on bringing us in safely over the landing threshold.

" Localizer is alive... Roger."
The FDC pop-up displays the approach speeds with flap settings; the VCP will automatically lower flaps and gear at the correct time.

The GPWS is giving me altitude call-outs: "One hundred... fifty... forty... thirty...". My descent rate seems a little steep, so I adjust it. I am going to glide past my landing mark, but on the other hand, the touchdown should be smooth. "...Twenty... ten...". I brace for the jolt of wheels striking the runway, which is gentle, thank goodness. Right after touchdown, the VCP is handling the spoilers, autobrakes and thrust reversers. We decelerate smoothly, and the Tower vectors us to our gate. The VCP performs after-landing checks, and as we roll up to our berth, I nearly have the 737 squared away for shutdown. Then, it's time to lock the parking brake and turn everything off.

" After Landing checks, please."

I haven't logged that many hours in a default MSFS 737 in a long while. With my frame rates in FSX hovering around 20-30 fps, I am not eager to climb into any jet that's going to drop my frame rates below that threshold. So, in a way, I do miss my old PMDG 737NG on FS2004. FDC does support this jetliner and some others, but right now commenting on them is beyond the scope of my review. I think I can briefly mention that FDC is in some ways similar to another innovator in cockpit audio, FS2Crew. Both programs will do a good job of helping a sim pilot run through checklists and automate some flight chores. FS2Crew modules are written with one particular aircraft in mind, i.e. a PMDG 737NG, and so provides an interface that is tailored to that specific cockpit. FDC, on the other hand, supports a wide range of cockpits, both default and some third-party add-ons, and offers the user the ability to edit custom profiles for unsupported aircraft.

FDC can display the active runways at your destination while you are in flight. ATC has vectored me to Runway 34 for an ILS approach. FDC is missing the ILS frequency for this runway! No problem: I just use the handy Runway Database Editor and fix the missing frequency myself.

FDC provides 16 different voices, each recorded with hundreds of cockpit call-outs. The call-outs can refer to general conditions, such as "Checked and set", to items specific to a phase of your flight, like "Taxi checks, please", to items specific to particular aircraft, such as "Prop Sync on", "Cowl Flaps closed", "Afterburners off", and so on. The voices sound appealing, but they are recorded at 11,025 Hz 8-bit mono format, so they do not sound as polished as the Mission voices in FSX.

By comparison, CD-quality audio is recorded at 44,100 Hz, while a household telephone normally samples audio at around 8,000 Hz. There is an option to "compress" the voices even further, so that your checklists run smoother and faster, but when I used that option, I found the voices to be harsh and full of audio artifacts. FDC comes with an easy "undo" feature, so if you don't like the compression (which is customizable), you can revert to the original voices without penalty.

As well, I had issues with setting the volumes on my voices. I can't really say if this was a problem with FDC or with my sound card, but I suspect the latter. Sometimes, the voices would be quiet, but during some calls, especially for autobrake settings, the voices would be terribly loud. For the most part though, the voices sounded natural in the cockpit environment.

One last note on the voice sets: the actors who provide the voices are different from the ones hired by Microsoft to provide the voices for ATC and the Missions. So, your own "pilot voice" will probably sound different depending if FSX or FDC is doing the talking. I have absolutely no problem with this, and it sounds natural enough just to have some talk between the pilot-in-command and the VCP. True flight sim die-hards can record their own voice into FDC and make their own custom voice set, but again, this is beyond the scope of my review.

OUTSTANDING ISSUES: The Bug List

A program like FDC, that has been worked over for years with dozens of enhancements is likely enough to run smoothly, and my copy ran very well. From version to revision, there have been a number of issues that have come up, but the developer has always been keen to solve them in a timely manner. Still, the double whammy of a new Flight Simulator, FSX, and a new Windows operating system, Vista, has kept the FDC team busy.

Some users are having difficulties with FDC connecting to FSX, due to an issue with SimConnect, which is FSX's internal version of FSUIPC. Others have problems getting FDC to work in Vista. Dave March, who is in command of FDC development, seems tireless in the task of helping people with these issues. He has released patches to get us to FDC 3.7.9, which should help most people solve their problems. You can reach Mr. March though the Flight Deck Companion User Forum here at Avsim, and read what issues users are having with this product.

There exist a few rough edges to FDC however, but these issues tend to be small. For instance, the default profile for the Learjet 45 includes propeller call-outs in the checklist. There are six different choices for the flight attendant voice, but the one marked "Spanish (English Accent)" is really spoken in English with a Spanish accent. I sometimes get an "Autobrakes set to RTO" call even though the aircraft I am flying has no autobrake switch. I have yet to find out how to disable the cabin ambience sounds that start when I pull the parking brake at the destination gate, regardless of which airplane I am using (i.e. a DeHavilland Beaver), and despite that I turned off cabin ambience in the FDC settings menu.

If there is a problem with the checklist, and I am tuning in the ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service), the FDC warning pop-up will overwrite the ATIS pop-up for a time. And finally, I have run into problems with the volume controls where the voices become too quiet regardless of their setting. I am not totally convinced that this last issue is the fault of FDC, though, as it may have something to do with how Flight Simulator uses sound channels, or it might be that my sound card needs upgrading.

CONCLUSION: Executive Summary

Flight Deck Companion Live Cockpit! (FDC) is a third-party add-on that provides a Virtual Co-Pilot (VCP) for just about any fixed-wing aircraft in your FSX hangar. The VCP will provide interactive audio checklists that will help you as the Pilot-In-Command to manage all of your cockpit chores. The VCP will also automatically perform many cockpit tasks such as correctly setting flaps, gear, spoilers, speedbrakes, reverse thrusters, and the autopilot, leaving you to concentrate on flying. FDC is flexible enough to provide cockpit support for many of the existing FSX aircraft, and can be configured to accept most, if not all, third-party fixed-wing aircraft, including jets, turboprops, and general aviation aircraft. In fact, FDC is open to a great deal of user customization, as you can adjust how the VCP performs his or her tasks, you can specify exactly which call-outs you want to hear in your interactive checklists (and even which call-outs are to be interactive), you can choose from 16 different cockpit crew voice sets and 6 different flight attendant voices (or you can record your own custom voice sets), and you can set up over twenty hotkeys, including customizing functions that use the buttons on your flight controllers.

In a typical flight, you choose which aircraft you wish to fly, and then connect FDC, which runs outside of FSX into your flight sim. You and your VCP will run through checklists where the VCP reads out items and you interactively respond to them. The VCP is capable of making many settings on his or her own, and can correct your mistakes. FDC monitors your flight progress from departure to arrival. All along the way, the VCP will give you helpful audio cues as you master your checklists. In addition, FDC can create a log of your flight that you can save and review after your journey is complete.

FDC was originally released in 2002, and since then, has been revised and improved in many ways. Some features seem a little rough by today's standards, in my mind, so I feel the low-resolution audio and the menu system need to be updated. Although FDC has a slightly anachronous feel to it, as if it's from a different era, all of its parts still work well with MSFS. So, if it isn't broken, don't fix it, right? With the advent of FSX and Vista, FDC had some major compatibility issues with newer systems. The developer is confident that these issues have now been solved, given the limitations of the Microsoft software.

What FDC does best is to provide an immersive audio environment for your cockpit. If you are used to flying all by yourself, it's something different and special to have a virtual Co-Pilot helping you handle the cockpit workload. FDC is simple enough for a novice to use, but can also provide challenge to more hard-core users as well. The real trick to FDC is in finding the most realistic settings possible for your flight profile. This can actually be quite a large task, as there are literally hundreds of interactive options to look at. New users might actually be put off by the sheer volume of choices that can be made; fortunately, FDC has a well-written on-line help file that can be accessed at any time to help the user make informed choices about their options. I found that once I got past the learning curve, I enjoyed being able to tinker with the checklists.

Back in 2002, FDC got some very good reviews. Five years later, it's still a quality product, although I feel that MSFS and other developers have caught up somewhat to the high level that FDC enjoyed in the beginning. That being said, FDC gives good value for the money in 2005, and Dave March, the lead developer, promises some exciting new developments for FDC in the future!

I will leave the last word to Dave March himself, who says, “I am delighted that Avsim decided to write a review on FDC version 3.7+. Since Avsim's Aidan Williams first review back in 2002, FDC has undergone so many changes, even I cannot remember them all. Users really should take the time to read the version history which details all such changes, as I believe they could learn about some features they never knew existed. I know I do!"

POSTSCRIPT:

Well, Dave March almost gets the last word. I've mentioned some downloadables and Internet links in my review, so I will include them here, if you want them:

FSUIPC: the latest version can be found here: http://www.schiratti.com/dowson.html
FSX_BAGCART_FIX: fsx_bagcart_fix_200068.zip fixes the issue with the tractor in one of my pictures. It can be found in the Avsim library.
DAVE MARCH'S FDC FORUM ON AVSIM: Dave March has been a friend to Avsim for years. His Flight Deck Companion Forum is accessed through the Avsim forums.

Be sure to check for updates!

 

What I Like About Flight Deck Companion
  • Adds to the ambience and realism of the cockpit!
  • Hundreds of interactive cockpit call-outs, and many automated co-pilot tasks
  • Many, many user-configurable options
  • Can be used in a very wide range of simulated fixed-wing aircraft
  • Excellent product support
  • Low system requirements, and runs stable
  • Help File is very helpful
  • Easy to gain basic flight information, such as V-Speeds and flap settings

 
What I Don't Like About Flight Deck Companion
  • Interface looks old-fashioned, some parts require a lot of mouse clicking
  • Sounds are recorded in low resolution
  • Some difficulty in having some sounds cue up properly under some conditions
  • Some difficulty with the audio levels

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