AVSIM Commercial Utility Review

Activesky Version 6

Rating Guide
Publisher: Hi-Fi Simulation Software
Description:  Real Time and Archival Weather Software
Download Size:
41 MB
Format:
Download
Simulation Type:
FS 2004
Reviewed by: Michael "Mike T" Toussaint AVSIM Staff Reviewer

Introduction

Without a doubt, weather (WX) is the single most dynamic variable of flying. It affects every aspect of the flight from the moment the pilot begins the flight plan to the moment the arrival runway is chosen at the destination airport. Weather affects flight performance, the flight route, the runway in use, and the comfort and safety of the passengers as well as the integrity of the aircraft itself. Weather inspires as many poems as it does obituaries. As pilots / virtual pilots, it is vital that we have a healthy respect for the unpredictable nature and devastating consequences that the inability to understand what the weather can bring.

In flight simulation the decided emphasis has largely been focused on high fidelity flight decks, granular aircraft detail, breathtaking landscapes and hyper real airports. However, a deciding factor which we frequently overlook but can quickly and gruesomely imbed one’s shiny new flight deck into the breathtaking landscape is, after all, the weather.

For real pilots, jet or prop, captain or recreational flyer; before a flight plan is even considered, the meteorological station is consulted to check the three WX components: Departure, Enroute and Destination forecasts. To take that one step further, winds enroute, alternate destination, SIGMETS (Significant Meteorological forecast) and AIRMETS (Airman’s Meteorological information), PIREPS (Pilot’s Reports), are also vital to the safety of any flight. These are all broken down further into a series of aviation map overlays that include water vapor, convection, winds aloft, lightning strike, isobaric lines, icing and turbulence.

When flying for an airline, the pilots do very little of the homework. Airlines have dedicated weather offices with whom the flight dispatchers consult to build the respective flight plans. From the information which is harvested from the WX Office they then chose the route, cruising altitude and build in schedule changes to reflect delays or early arrivals. The captain or first officer needs only consult with the dispatcher prior to the flight to get a full understanding of just about everything within the WX realm that can and will affect the flight.

The vital WX briefing processes is not so cut and dry from a private aviation standpoint. At many well stocked FBOs there is a WX center complete with multiple TV and CRT monitors depicting various aspects of the weather on a regional or national scale but there is usually no flight plan awaiting the pilot upon his / her arrival at the airport. Therefore, it is totally up to the pilot to understand and internalize the myriad of WX information available and build the flight plan from that point. However, at many smaller airports the FBO does not have the money to provide the pilots with a custom weather service; therefore, it is entirely up to the pilot to get the information via DUATS (Direct User Access Terminal Service) or via other sources on the Internet prior to arriving at the airport. Regardless, the key thread here is that proper flight planning takes WX information into large account and is one of the most important considerations in aviation.

With that said, I would guess that a significant majority of the flight simulation community does a poor job, at best, of performing WX planning prior to each flight. And while many can initialize the FMC on a 747-400 in less than five minutes, few have a clue what the winds aloft, or WX enroute will be for a given Flight Level because the prerequisite and proper preparation is simply not done (or is not available). Many will argue, and rightfully so, that the level of planning is simply not necessary within the FS regime, and that may be true. BUT in the same token, to truly be on the cusp of “As Real as it Gets”, detailed WX planning and a high fidelity weather engine are must haves.

Unfortunately, the default weather planning and representative engine within FS 2004 is marginal at best. FS 2004 does represent weather fronts on its default flight planning map and it is fairly representative of what one would see at a FBO or an airline dispatch office. However, basic things such as wind forecasting are conspicuously absent. Additionally, there is at least a 15 minute time lag between the current weather being depicted and the real-time weather available from the Jeppesen WX server.

Within the simulator, the default FS 2004 weather engine only allows the display of very limited layers of diverse weather and cloud types. The display of the weather environment is also rather basic compared to the true capabilities of the simulator and this subtracts from the true beauty and anger that inspires many to look towards the skies. The dynamics of thermals, turbulence, wind shear, up/down drafts, icing, et al are simply not here. Suffice it to say there is MUCH room for improvement. Enter Activesky 6.

The Activesky (AS) title is not new to the FS franchise and I have been using it since Version 4.5. While the AS title has long since been a leading 3rd party weather engine for FS, AS 6 for FS 2004 is truly a new utility that offers much more than any of its preceding versions. Activesky tries to account for the shortcomings in the default FS 2004 weather engine and cloud display by presenting real-time weather information, hi-fidelity winds aloft, more diverse cloud layers and representations, turbulence and thermals and much more. Also, new to AS 6 is the inclusion of a huge amount of new environment textures that bring a greater level of realism and beauty to the representative world of flight simulation.

I cannot remember the last time that I flew without AS, so let’s see what AS 6 brings to the table and if it can bring a new level of WX realism to FS 2004.

Installation, Requirements and Documentation

AS6 is a 41MB file available for purchase and download directly from the HiFi Simulations website. FS 2004 is required along with an Internet connection that must be used for real-time WX updates. Microsoft .NET version 1.1 (or later) is also a requirement and AS6 does work with .NET 2.0 as tested for this review.

Test System

AMD FX-57
1GB Hyper-X PC3200 DDR
X850XT PE Video
Audigy2 5.1 Surround
Insignia 26” 16:9 Monitor
Logitech 5.1 THX Speakers
NGO ATI 1.6.3 Drivers
Reserator Liquid Cooling

Flying Time:
100's of hours

It is also necessary to have at least the free version of FSUIPC but I highly recommend the registered version which allows more granularity over cloud and visibility control, among others.

AS6 is delivered in a self installing executable format that should offer no issues to the end user.

The registration process should be equally easy because it does not include the Fort Knox like encryption keys included with so many other titles. HiFi uses a straight forward registration process that is transparent to the end user…as it should be.

Included with the install is more than adequate documentation. In addition to the documentation explaining how to use the weather and graphics engine, HiFi Simulations took the time to include a very good guide on WX concepts. The guide touches on everything from visibility to mountain waves. From the guide it is easy to glean the differences that the WX will make in various flight regimes and is a must read or refresher to get the most out of AS 6.

AS6 is a complex utility therefore it is HIGHLY recommended that you give the included documentation a once-over to get familiar with the advanced features of the program.

Active Sky 6 Weather Interface

The first thing to greet the user is the streamlined new interface and I am pleased that the trademark thunder clap sound is still there when the program launches.

Once the AS6 interface is loaded, it will seek to download the most current global weather from one of two dedicated WX servers provided by HiFi Simulations. The interface is coded in such a way that if one WX server goes down (and it has), or has too much traffic accessing it at one time, it will switch over to the second server with no intervention needed from the user. The user must wait until the weather download cycle is complete before accessing any of the buttons, but my experience has been that it gets the weather rather quickly and is ready for the user’s input within 30 seconds. Average WX file download sizes are about 390kb and should be of no concern to dial-up users.

 

Once loaded, the user is greeted with the weather at the default AS6 airport KSEA; the WX location will change once the program detects the current airport within FS 2004. The fields are populated with the current WX which will be reflected in the ATIS (Automated Terminal Information System) if one went to the airport right now. In the field below is the TAF (Terminal Area Forecast) which reflects the current WX trend in the area. Finally, in the last field are the current winds aloft as reported by the current observation station from 3,000 feet up to FL 390.

The WX information is displayed in the actual METAR shorthand format which is learned by all pilots and is necessary to read any WX information received from a FBO or dispatch office. The METAR is also translated into plain English for those not familiar with the METAR shorthand. Since METAR shorthand can be cryptic at times, it is great to have the translation as both a learning tool as well as a simple convenience to those not interested in becoming a METAR shorthand expert.

For Instance: KSEA 011856Z 19007KT 10SM -RA FEW008 BKN017 OVC030 07/06 A2989 in plain English is: Winds 190 at 07 kts, 10 miles visibility in light rain. Clouds are broken at 1700 and overcast at 3000. Temperature is 07c, dew point 06c. Altimeter is 29.89 in. METAR shorthand is always formatted by airport, observation time, winds, visibility, clouds, temp and altimeter. If there were any SIGMET or AIRMET remarks it then follows last after the main METAR and is in short hand also.

The main AS6 interface also allows the user to input the ICAO code for any airport and have that weather displayed too. This is extremely useful for getting the destination airport METAR and TAF which can give the pilot a clue as to the conditions that are likely to greet him upon arrival. It is also great to have when flight planning to help make STAR and runway decisions.

Other menus accessible from the main interface are:
• Activesky Graphics – Accesses the cloud graphics engine
• New Route – Allows the user to input a FS2004 flight plan for a detailed enroute WX briefing
• NAV Log - Displays the WX briefing once the New Route has been generated
• Refresh – Updates the current weather areas within the sim by downloading the most current WX file
• Download – Downloads historical WX data from the WX servers
• Load WX – Loads a saved historical WX file
• Save WX – Allows the user to save any interesting WX phenomena for playback at a later date.
• Options – Accesses the WX engine customization page
• WX Configuration – Allows for granular customization of a WX file
• Create a Thermal – Creates thermals for a given area that can be used for glider soaring
• Refresh AI – Refreshes AI traffic to use the most current ATIS information, e.g. runway direction
• Hide – Minimizes the AS 6 interface to the taskbar
• Quit – Self explanatory

For the most part, once AS6 has been set up to the users liking it will only be necessary to launch the program, input a flight plan, launch FS 2004 and it will do the rest automatically. Adding a route of flight when there is a flight plan to AS6 is recommended by HiFi because it tends to smooth out the weather and less WX “jumping” will be encountered. Additionally, it provides the virtual pilot with a decent WX briefing.

 

The AS6 options page allows the user to customize some of the default variables within the weather engine, for instance: the ability to use VATSIM weather vs. the default WX from the servers. This is very important to online ATC users because there can be a time lag between weather uploads to the servers which can cause discrepancies in weather reporting and observation.

Most of the important variables that should be used by AS6 are checked by default. Unchecking any of these may cause weather anomalies and in this case I think that HiFi should hard-code these options so that they cannot be changed by the user. Many of the options also allow for smoother WX transitions within the simulator and make a big difference over the large and annoying WX transitions we are used to experiencing.

All of the options are self explanatory however some of the options and features with which I have played are:
• Wake Turbulence Simulation: AI aircraft will generate wing tip vortices which can cause serious turbulence when in close proximity.
• Increased Wake Effects: Hang onto your hat!
• Overcast Enhancement: This doubles the layer of overcast clouds to allow for true overcast conditions. This will affect frame rates!
• Extend Thunderstorm Layers: Causes FS to represent towering cumulous clouds that can reach 60,000 feet!
• Favor Cumulous vs. Stratus: Within FS stratus clouds are flat and checking here will enhance the environment with more 3D cumulous clouds.

Trial and error will be the order of the day when selecting options. I have no doubt that one will change various options several times before settling in the “comfort zone”.

Active Sky 6 Graphics

Activesky 6 is actually two separate programs that have been combined to operate flawlessly together. Many of you may know of the FSSKYWORLD freeware project that brought beautiful realistically textured cloud graphics to FS 2002 and 2004; this has been updated and integrated into AS6. The integration of the two programs has been deftly accomplished by HiFi and each program now compliments the other because the WX engine takes advantage of the various clouds included in the graphics package to display a highly realistic weather-scape.

The sky environment within the AS 6 graphics engine is categorized and selectable by type. From the graphics menu one can select from literally scores of variables such as cloud type, sky color, environment type (snow, sun, lighting, rain, etc.). To narrow down the selection, the user can also select from predefined “sky themes” while just having to decide on the other graphics changes. Under each category are myriads of choices according to user's taste. The selection is so extensive however, that at times it becomes actually frustrating because there are so many choices which makes it is really hard to decide on a single type of cloud graphic or sky color. Every time I think that I’ve found the perfect cloud, I find another one I like better!

HiFi included a setting called “Weather Influenced”. In this mode, the type of skyscapes is determined by the METAR and the weather engine chooses the best clouds for a given situation with no user intervention. Additionally, there is a setting which allows the user to randomize the cloud-scapes so that the chance that one would encounter the same sky-scape in dozens of flights is slim to none.

There is no one right way to use the AS6 graphics interface and at the end of the day, each will find his / her own preference by much trial and error. For me, setting up the graphics for AS to fit my “retentive” tastes took over a week of switching back and forth between AS and FS for any given weather scenario before I was able to settle on a single setting. The good news is that once you have decided on a setting that knocks your socks off the power of the AS6 graphics engine will bring many oohs and ahhs to your lips as you explore your flight sim world.

The interface to AS 6 graphics, while a large improvement over the free FSSKYWORLD menu system, is still overly complex. It seems that there are multiple ways to accomplish the same tasks and navigating the large amounts of choices in addition to the selection menu system is cumbersome.

AS 6 in FS 2004

My preferred way of using AS6 has been to load the program prior to launching FS 2004. AS 6 will require a minute or two to download and extract the current weather and stabilize itself. I have found that if I launch MSFS afterward it seamlessly detects my current saved location and begins the weather setting process in the background as I am setting up my flight. By the time I am ready to jump into the cockpit, AS 6 is ready to go.

When flying from areas with many airports in close proximity, AS 6 can take a few minutes to process the METAR from many of the surrounding stations. I’ve noticed that if I start in a crowded terminal corridor such as New York, AS6 processes whether reports from airports from as far away as Canada. This process helps to smooth and seamlessly combine the weather areas to prevent the annoying jump from clear skies to overcast but it can take some time. While AS 6 has done a tremendous job of smoothing out the FS weather, there will be times where it cannot be avoided.

After AS has finished processing the weather and is ready to go it will also automatically refresh the AI on the ground and in the air for the given airport to ensure that they are in keeping with the current ATIS and runway information. Prior to this feature being implemented it was not uncommon for AI traffic to land and takeoff from the wrong runway.

 

HiFi Simulations recommends that the user load a flight plan into AS 6 when possible especially when using the Weather Influenced graphics engine. AS 6 assimilates the flight plan and decides what the weather-scapes should look like enroute. Additionally, the AS 6 weather engine can provide a smoother weather experience when it does not have to keep updating the WX variables on the fly while enroute. Loading a flight plan into AS 6 is as easy as selecting it from the default FS 9 plan directory and the program recognizes the departure, destination and cruising altitude. It is only necessary to enter airspeed and an alternate airport. Once the plan has been processed by AS 6 it provides detailed winds aloft and NAV reports which is extremely useful for entering waypoint and average winds into a Flight Management Computer.

While there may be a few more steps than many “jump in and fly” programs sim pilots are used to, it is more than worth it as it translates directly into more WX realism within the simulator and transitioning from the default FS WX engine to Activesky the difference can be simply breathtaking. It is instantly obvious that the sky is now far more realistic with many more diverse layers. The cloud formations are more diverse and closely mimic that of the real world. If you have chosen to use the AS graphics engine, the differences will be even more palpable. It should be noted that use of the included AS 6 graphics is not at all necessary. If one is already pleased with the graphics currently displayed within FS 2004 then by all means feel free to keep things as they are, although, in my opinion, that would be a cardinal sin.

Frame rates with the new clouds can vary. Initially AS 6 was delivered with 512x512 clouds but since that time cloud texture sizes have been reduced greatly all the way down to 64x64 resolution. I recommend that you select the lowest texture size with which you find a comfortable balance between performance and appearance.

Simply put, the inclusion of AS 6 to the FS 2004 environment is simply night and day. The differences range from the subtle to the dramatic and everything in between. From the very first flight with AS 6 controlling the weather it is easy to ascertain the increased weather dynamics. There will be far less amounts of “glass smooth” flights while turbulence generated by clouds, thermals or even clear air become a part of your flight sim reality. There will be palpable differences between flying in the mountains vs. flying over flat plains. This is all thanks to the revamped weather engine within AS 6.

When reading the list of improvements over the previous versions of Activesky some of the features are absolutely astonishing. Some of the features that stood out to me were:
• Over 1,000,000 unique 3D cloud texture results are possible
• Vertical air simulation that accurately portrays updrafts and downdrafts
• High resolution winds aloft that allows accurate portrayal of winds even over the ocean

Active Radar is included with AS 6 which is a result of the merger between HiFi Simulations and Activesky. I’ve honestly never used the radar in earnest since it detracts from my 3D flight deck enjoyment because it is not “dockable”. None-the-less, it does work and is a great feature to have if you are using a 2D flight deck without a weather radar or have no interest in purchasing a separate solution. I believe that the Active Radar will eventually fade away as more high fidelity cockpits include a working weather radar as part of the EFIS. Additionally, far more elegant solutions are available that can be permanently integrated into 2D and 3D flight decks.

The Sky's The Limit

During my official review of AS6 I flew from KEWR to VHHH and back in hopes of experiencing some diverse weather phenomena. After 32 hours of flying I was not disappointed! If a picture is worth a thousand words…

 

 

This shot was taken at KEWR. METAR referenced virga in the vicinity and it is accurately portrayed as seen in this screenshot

Conclusion

Active Sky has been a leader in weather for the Flight Simulator franchise for many years now and the newest version of Activesky does not disappoint. Loaded with new features never before seen in Flight Simulator along with many others simply aimed at smoothing out the FS 2004 weather, AS6 brings much more to the table than ever before. The inclusion of integrated graphics makes AS6 a stand alone program and offers the end user the best of everything right out of the box.

Many who have purchased AS6 also own the masterful Flight Environment (FE) product from Flight 1. Where the two overlap is in the availability of environmental graphics because FE does not offer a weather engine. For me, when I find the “perfect” sky-scape I stay with it and am not interested in randomizing from that point. To this end, I must admit that my perfect sky-scape comes from a combination of AS6 and Flight Environment. If possible I encourage and HIGHLY endorse both products because while there is some overlap, FE takes FS graphics a step further with other features and AS6 provides the best weather engine available for FS 9 at this time.

Undoubtedly AS6 has taken the FS 2004 weather envelope and pushed it about as far as it can go. While I can envision other WX titles being as good, I can’t imagine them bringing anything to the table that is not already included in AS6.

From the standpoint of accurate weather briefings within AS6 there is room for improvement. For what it does, AS6 does it ALL very well. I think that AS6 would benefit from a more substantial weather briefing engine that included maps and visual depictions of weather phenomena. I think that all the parts are in place for AS6 to provide weather briefings that rival those in the real world.

The crew at Hi-Fi is a very active part of their product. From a support standpoint they are second to none and any questions asked directly or in their forums are answered quickly. Additionally, AS6 is always in a state of improvement with constant optional upgrades being released to the users. Interestingly enough, many of these upgrades are not released because there are errors; rather, the team has found a new capability and allows the end user to benefit from these constant breakthroughs. This wonderful attitude at Hi-Fi flies in the face of many developers who claim that since their product was not designed to include a specific feature it will not be included. HiFi listens to their users’ feedback and it is reflected in their product.

Activesky 6 is a MUST HAVE utility for FS 2004 but when taken with HiFi’s stellar support, dedication and constant improvements it is not only a must have, but also a pleasure to own. At the end of the day, AS6 brings so much to the table and never disappoints, therefore, Active Sky 6 is worthy of an Avsim Gold Star Award.

 

What I Like About Active Sky 6
  • Clean new interface
  • Feature rich
  • Allows granular control over FS weather
  • Addition of Graphics Engine
  • Ability to change many graphical aspects of FS 2004
  • Makes a clear and obvious difference to FS weather
  • Constantly being enhanced
  • Fills many gaps in the default FS weather engine
  • Refreshes AI traffic in keeping with current ATIS
  • Great support and constant feature upgrades

 
What I Don't Like About Active Sky 6
  • Some selectable options can cause undesired effects – they should be hard coded to prevent confusion
  • Overly complex graphic selection menu is confusing
  • Weather briefing features have room for improvement

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