Reviewed by Maury Pratt - AVSIM Bd of Dir Member
This review will likely interest mainly those who are new to FS2Crew, as users of previous versions will already be familiar with its structure and realistic ambiance, and so I won't repeat many of those details here (see, for example, David Smith's Level D 767 Voice Commanderor Paul Middleton's earlier FS2Crew for 747 review). What I wanted to do here is to share why FS2Crew makes flying PMDG's arguably far more complex 737 NGX easier and certainly more satisfying--an experience not to be missed by anyone interested in air transport simulation at its best.
As Bryan York, FS2Crews's developer remarked, "You don't need to 'master' the NGX (to fly it with FS2Crew), but you should know how to program the FMC, which isn't hard because there are a million tutorials out there explaining how to do it. The FO does most of the work in the plane anyway, so if anything it will help the NGX newbies."
As we all know, a two-person crew is required to fly a commercial transport aircraft. Given the PMDG 737NGX's highly realistic implementation (see Chase Kreznor's review), ideally it would be flown in FSX by two "persons" as well. But there you are, handling everything yourself. You're flipping switches and pushing buttons--not to mention controlling the aircraft while watching for opposing traffic (and perhaps responding to ATC instructions)--without help from anyone. And if in your role as Captain you wanted your own actions to be as realistic as possible, you would follow prescribed flight crew flows and respond silently to (written) checklists. Of necessity many have been handling the First Officer's duties as well as their own, but now there's a long-anticipated alternative:
Enter the virtual first officer. With FS2Crew you have a partner, the PNF--or pilot not flying--who not only performs many tasks at your command (along with his other assigned responsibilities), but talks you through a number of checklists--challenges requiring confirming responses from you.
The Flight Deck Environment
The underlying add-on aircraft is, of course, any of PMDG's Boeing's 737 NGX (for FSX) -600/700 and/or -800/900 variants) with Service Pack 1C installed. In this review, FS2Crew (originally released March 8) is the V1.2 version released April 13, 2012. I had previously installed two other add-on products, EZdok's EZCA camera add-on for FSX, and fsdreamteam's ground services application Ground Services X (GSX) to further enhance the flight deck environment. I'll comment on their role with respect to FS2Crew further in the review. It often seems a chore to sort out "Are utility add-ons easy to use together? Is their software integrated one to another in some sense? Or do they conflict hopelessly?"
A first for the FS2Crew product line, the NGX-based add-on comes in two versions, voice activated and button control together in a single file download. Choosing the voice control option truly adds to your sense of immersion while flying the 737NGX. The commands you speak cause events to be initiated or specific actions to occur. And your virtual first officer responds to you in kind. In other words the dimension of conversation is added, and with FS2Crew these conversations are true to real world airline operating practices. And not only are you spared conducting many tasks yourself--from starting up a 'cold and dark' cabin through final shut down--you no longer need to program control device buttons and keys for many of those functions. I find this vastly simplifies control device settings, at least for this plane.
So how is this magic implemented? The essential element for voice control is the Speech Recognition system built into Microsoft Windows, both XP and Vista/Win 7. Once you've set up your microphone and run through Window's spoken training profile, it's on to FS2Crew's FSX environment once your NGX is loaded and a panel state selected. And the key to FS2Crew's operational capabilities is the Software Development Kit (SDK) that PMDG released with NGX SP 1C, which FS2Crew uses to communicate physically with the aircraft. What's more--and this is big, I was able to make complete FS2Crew-based flights without leaving the virtual cockpit.
The product allows 2D panel-based operations, but for me and many others, that is a thing of the past. When I need to set the parking brake, set the fuel cutoff levers to 'idle', move the trim wheel to set the calculated T/O trim, or arm the spoilers for landing, I simply touch a hat switch to view the pedestal and click on the 3-D control itself--not my keyboard.
So the tradeoff entailed in learning FS2Crew’s voice commands, flows and checklist responses is amply offset, in my opinion, by enabling a highly simplified controls configuration setup--that is, your yoke, flight stick and/or throttle with their buttons, hat switches, sliders, etc. To cite a simple example, instead of programming a device button for 'gear up' and 'gear down' you'll just speak those words into your mike. Now multiply that by the dozens of functions needed to control a commercial transport aircraft--see what I mean?
You'll especially appreciate this during your flight's very busy takeoff and landing phases. Once the FO voices "V2, rotate" and you've briefly waited for him to announce "positive rate" you can focus on the flight director bars while speaking "GEAR UP" "FLAPS ONE" "FLAPS UP" then "SELECT COMMAND A" (to engage the autopilot), and finally calling for the 'after takeoff' checklist.
I found I could watch the flight instruments--the flap retraction marks on the speed tape in particular--instead of thinking about which button needed to be pressed or scanning the MCP to look for something. Note too that given PMDG's true-to-life implementation LNAV and VNAV will engage on their own, assuming you had fully programmed the CDU and activated your FMS settings.
Landings are similarly simplified as your FO handles gear and flap chores while you focus on controlling the aircraft's approach speed. Watching your approach map on the ND, you can command ARM LOCALIZER; ARM APPROACH; SELECT COMMAND B (for autoland) avoiding having to "reach" across to the MCP's right-hand side, for example. When making a conventional ILS landing you're not likely to forget to say SELECT AUTOPILOT OFF just before touchdown, either. Then there are the little but welcome conveniences, such as setting MCP data values by voice as well; SET FLIGHT LEVEL XXX (when above transition level), SET ALTITUDE XXXX (when below transition level), SET SPEED XXX, SET HEADING XXX, etc. And you can speak each digit individually, or say, for example, "three two thousand" and the like.
I might add part of the pleasure of the NGX experience is your added conversational role using the same phrases, along with their corresponding procedures, as do real world flight crews. But if somehow spoken commands and responses aren't to your taste, there's also FS2Crew's button control alternative to enjoy. And you can try both; either version is accessed from FS2Crew's Configuration Manager.
While voice control may be the compelling reason to install FS2Crew, there are alternative 3rd-party implementations that actuate commands such as MCP dial and button settings and so forth. But FS2Crew gives you far more--a built-in set of events that mirror real-world flight crew procedures. This has long been FS2Crew's strength, offered for a variety of default and 3rd-party add-on aircraft, even PMDG's original 737NG for FS9.
Note FS2Crew's main panel (upper left) and configuration screen; both can be relocated or hidden as desired. This setup enables GSX operations in conjunction with FS2Crew flows.
FS2Crew is versatile as well. For many, setting up a 'cold and dark' cockpit for flight is, well, intimidating. Not so when you have FS2Crew's guidance together with the FO's automated tasks at hand. In fact starting from scratch opens up other opportunities for enjoyment--that's where GSX (or the AES alternative) come in.
The add-on can be engaged at appropriate points during the pre-flight flows to service the aircraft, board passengers and cargo, and push back during engine start; even marshalling you to your gate at the flight's conclusion to debark your virtual passengers and cargo before running the 'shutdown' flow. FS2Crew simulates these activities too, but I like to switch to an outside view at these times to observe the amazing amount of animated ground activity GSX offers.
On the other hand, you can initiate FS2Crew flows at any stage desired; for example, at 'before taxi' or even 'takeoff' if you just want to get into the air (though of course you'll still need to set up your CDU, MCP and a few other items--normally a part of earlier-stage flows).
For an aural taste of FS2Crew's flight deck experience, click on the
Flows, commands and checklists
Though you may be accustomed to flying your NGX with relatively simple preparation--set up your flight plan in your plane's FMC, flip both Flight Director switches and the Autothrottle switch on, enter a few values in the Mode Control Panel (MCP), and hit TO/GA--but to fly the NGX correctly and realistically you'll need to think in terms of "flows" for each phase of preparation for flight as well as during the flight itself.
Flows are essentially the step-by-step procedures you and your first officer follow. And that's where FS2Crew shines--it conducts all the first officer's steps in concert with each of the steps you (the Captain) are responsible for. Though you are entering values and setting (far fewer) switches as before, you do so in a prescribed sequence to mimic your virtual airline's "Standard Operating Procedures" (SOPs); and you initiate the corresponding FO flows and call for the appropriate checklist with a few spoken commands. In addition there's a spoken Departure briefing and an Approach briefing with associated briefing panels you set up for selected flight conditions; the Departure briefing can be skipped as desired (this can seem kind-of long-winded after awhile).
Anyway, in a relatively short time you'll not only learn correct procedure; before each flight you also can confirm each flow's results. Make your own visual checks as you respond to your FO's verbal challenges (even those he runs by himself) as he calls out each checklist item. So when you're ready to fly, you can be sure you're ready to fly.
|Captain's flow||Call|| |
As with other flows, these are functions performed independently by the Captain while the FO performs his actions (shown in blue text) once the Before Start procedure begins, typically 7 minutes before gate departure.
Captain performs his activities in sequence; "Call" refers to the Captain's action, either spoken or done manually. The FO's actions occur automatically.
These are the available checklists:
• Preflight checklist
• Before engine start
• Before taxi
• Before takeoff
• After takeoff (FO recites)
• Descent (FO recites)
• Secure aircraft
So where do these flows, commands, checklists and briefings come from? They're built into FS2Crew and are described in the accompanying user manual. By the way, you can access this manual (in pdf format) internally, or opt to consult an online version accessed from FS2Crew's configuration manager. User-created placard-like summary versions (by Julio Cesar and others) are available from the FS2Crew forum at AVSIM Online.
Not only is Julio's eight-page flows and checklist responses chart comprehensive, it lays out FS2Crew's structure and overall flow from beginning to end. It includes available alternate procedures (GPU or APU power; rejected takeoff and go-around [aborted landing]; and cold weather options are examples). Also Julio's companion list of spoken commands is available. I encourage you to download both of these now to get an idea of the FS2Crew's flows, commands and checklist responses (rather than my listing them all here). Once you've looked these over I think you'll be impressed with the professionalism of FS2Crew's 737NGX implementation.
Also I found highly-condensed color-coded reference flows and command lists by Andreas (display name "Andalusi") at Flows and Checklist Page 1 , Flows and Checklist Page 2, Commands Page 1 and Commands Page 2. Another helpful download is Richard Asberg's PMDG 737 NGX & FS2Crew NGX Voice Edition Version 1.1 Normal Procedures, which outlines flows and key commands and shows the overall structure of FS2Crew events. And there's what I found to be an exceptionally helpful 'quick reference' summary of checklist responses, Paco Galindo's single-page list of FS2Crew Normal Checklist responses. I'll keep these on my second monitor for reference until over time they become second nature.
Agreed, all this information and more are available in the product documentation. Nevertheless I've found that although the manual provides the necessary information, the way it's organized isn't so useful for quick reference while running FS2Crew--there are too many places to search to find everything needed and all in real time. These user-contributed summaries solved that problem for me; and according to forum responses I've seen, for many others as well.
The tutorial that comes with FS2Crew's v1.1 is both welcome and adequate; it addresses what some new to FS2Crew find mysterious--"where do I begin and what am I expected to do, and when." It will help you get started, but as the tutorial notes, you'll also need ready access to command phrasing and most checklist responses, either from the manual or by using any of the summary cards mentioned above.
An issue you'll likely have is that there are so many places around the flight deck you'll need to see up close as you progress through the flows, and especially as you verify checklist values. Using TrackIR can help, but in order to select panel or control items quickly and to see readouts without their being at slanted angles, I strongly recommend installing EZdok's EZCA camera add-on for FSX. You can assign hat switch buttons and/or click on EZCA's 'studio screen' to view each instrument or radio panel, overhead section, CDU or pedestal view (and switch to outside views) as desired. EZCA was created by Ezdok Software, and published in partnership with Flight One Software. (I use EZCA in conjunction with TrackIR.) Alternatively, FS2Crew offers buttons in its main panel you can program to change camera views for you.
There's even more to this FS2Crew version, most of which will be familiar to previous users of FS2Crew. These include various user-selected announcements from the flight deck and by flight attendants, spoken ground crew interaction for ground power connection and/or pushback and engine start, and even ambient passenger sounds while boarding the aircraft.
So How Well Does It Work?
Just as advertised. I did have a few problems while learning FS2Crew, such as checklists not appearing as expected when I happened somehow to get out of sync with FS2Crew's normal progression. The manual includes a good 'Troubleshooting Q&A' section where common problems can be easily resolved.
In this case, the solution from the manual I needed was here:
"Problem: I spoke "LANDING CHECKLIST", and "Landing Checklist" was displayed in the Green Bar. So I know the Speech Recognition system detected the correct phrase, but nothing happened. The FO never replied.
Solution:1. You were probably in the wrong FS2Crew Mode. The displayed mode in the FS2Crew Main Panel must match the checklist you are attempting to use.
For example, in order for the Landing Checklist to work, the mode in the FS2Crew Main Panel must say 'LANDING'."
After starting over I got that right and things went smoothly from there. Of course your degree of familiarity with the 737NGX itself matters--if you get hung up on something you'll be back to PMDG's manuals and tutorials for help there as well. Remember that you'll be returning to the plane's CDU early on to perform aircraft configuration setup chores (and if you opt to use GSX, to manage passenger and cargo door opening/closing); also keep in mind Brian York's advice on aircraft loading to avoid trouble later.
I found that with a nominal Windows "voice training" session FS2Crew's "understanding" of my voice inputs are thankfully accurate. I sometimes needed to repeat a command or response--at first FS2Crew would interpret 'on' as 'one'. The manual states that with time FS2Crew improves its recognition on its own. FS2Crew requires that voice inputs be in English; there's a choice of American English-, UK- or Eurozone-accented responses. If Windows doesn't handle a users accent so well, further voice training using a list of problematic words should correct the problem.
One of FS2Crew's neat features is that a display bar (selectable on or off using the main panel's DSP button) shows your words as they are recognized; hopefully these will be the same as what you thought you said. If the command you spoke isn't one in FS2Crew's command list the bar will remain blank. It's a great learning tool for the user.
In some ways FS2Crew is quite user friendly while you're learning; for example if the FO's response is wrong given your intended meaning, you can say it again (perhaps first checking for correct syntax). I found it possible to confuse the first officer occasionally by commanding (whether intended or not) an illogical data value--even causing the FO to repeat a response in "run-away" fashion over and over until he "heard" another command he could understand. As a rare but possible example, if he misinterprets SET ALTITUDE ONE TWO THOUSAND as "Set altitude two thousand," saying CANCEL LAST COMMAND will cause that to be disregarded. If you get stuck remembering how to (correctly) respond to a checklist item, you can just say CHECK or NEXT to move on to the next item.
FS2Crew's manual also offers help with specific situations, such as "Using External Air/Power," "Cold Weather Procedures" "Rejected Takeoff Procedures" "ETOPS" operations; and also instructions for using FS2Crew's FS Video Marshaller, and more.
Even with all that you may encounter situations where further advice is needed. That's where the FS2Crew forum hosted by AVSIM Online comes in. Here's one example of a response to a recent user query:
• After starting engine #1 (the left engine), manually connect the left engine generator to the bus and switch the Ground Power Switch on the overhead to ‘off’.
Next, instruct the ground crew to disconnect external air and the GPU. Speak: “YOU CAN DISCONNECT THE EXTERNAL AIR AND GPU NOW”. Be sure to do this AFTER you have connected Engine Generator 1 to the bus or you will lose power.
It's nice to have company in the cockpit! With FS2Crew you can correctly manage PMDG's 737NGX flight deck activities without knowing much about the myriad of overhead panel actions required, as your First Officer handles these and other chores "behind the scenes."
It's a great learning aid; as you gain knowledge and confidence you can handle those on your own later. But why would you want to?
8 GB memory
OCZ 120 GB SSD
GeForce GTX 560
Samsung SA950 27" display
HP 21" 2nd display
Saitek X52 flight stick & throttle
Windows 7 64 bit
Flight Test Time - 14.5 hours
What I Like About FS2Crew for the 737NGX
• Adds a "conversational" dimension to the air transport flying experience.
• Enables real world flight crew procedures to be performed, matching PMDG's fidelity to Boeing's real world 737 NGX aircraft functions and systems.
• Reduces the degree of user knowledge required to accomplish preflight, flight and post-flight procedures realistically.
• Reduces need to allocate flight control functions to hardware devices.
What I Don't Like About FS2Crew for the 737 NGX
• Relatively precise English language phrases are necessary to accomplish tasks as intended--these can be readily learned but may be confusing at first. But then that's true for air crew professionals as well!