Review by Doug Horton. When it was unclear whether Microsoft would resume development of its Flight Simulator product line, many users hoped that a new flight simulator product might appear on the horizon, and I shared this hope. Though it was comforting to learn that Microsoft had assembled a team and announced the new Microsoft Flight product in 2011, I learned about the same time of Lockheed Martin’s Prepar3D® (pronounced “prepared”) flight simulator software. Many Flight Simulator users have wondered what this product is, and how it compares to Flight Simulator X.
The simple answer is “very similar, yet different.”
A few years after Microsoft Flight Simulator X was released in 2006 and updated in 2007 with SP1 and the Acceleration Pack that includes SP2, Microsoft made the decision in early 2009 to disband the ACES studio and cease their further development of the product. Flight Simulator fans, including this reviewer were highly disappointed. At the time, it appeared that any further evolution of the product would have to be made by add-on developers, though it was well known that the basic structure of FSX would limit evolution in many ways, not to mention possible licensing and trademark issues of any third-party modifications of the product.
When “Microsoft Flight” was announced in 2011, Flight Simulator fans were hopeful, but in early 2012, the flight simulation community was surprised, no, shocked, to learn that Flight was truly a computer game, not an updated version of the Flight Simulator product series. More surprising was learning about some of Flight’s limiting features:
The product was downloadable at no cost, but initially, it provided only very limited scenery (the big island of Hawaii) and a few aircraft. Users needed to accomplish tasks to earn and/or pay to download additional aircraft and scenery. Even after a few additional aircraft and scenery became available, flying was limited to the Hawaiian Islands.
The file structure was completely closed, there was no SDK, and the product was closed to the large community of free and commercial add-on developers that had been fostered by Microsoft and Flight Simulator fans.
There was no backwards compatibility with aircraft, scenery, or any other features of previous versions of Flight Simulator.
It was no surprise to learn only six months after its release that Microsoft discontinued development, marketing, and support of the Flight product, though at time of writing, it appears the product can still be downloaded.
Fortunately, during this period, another product was being developed as an evolution of Microsoft’s commercially licensable ESP™ product, which was a development platform based completely on its sibling FSX. With recognition that Lockheed Martin had been licensed to update and evolve ESP in the form of Prepar3D®, and the subsequent announcement of alternative licensing and pricing categories, Prepar3D might be the “virtual successor” of FSX for some users.
Though many of its users think of Microsoft Flight Simulator as a hobby-oriented program, many users are also student and certificated real pilots. This audience is aware of the large commercial market for hardware and supporting products that work with government agency approved aviation training devices. There are many types of these devices, with different levels of approval for training credit, including separate approvals for different countries.
Many flight training devices that are not approved for credit are still quite valuable and have been proven to help with flight training experiences and progress, in many cases shortening the time required for training in real aircraft. Professional, private, and student pilots can use Prepar3D to rehearse flight plans anywhere in the world and in any kind of weather. Pilots can also use Prepar3D for flight training, to practice aircraft procedures and to safely evaluate the effects of their decisions.
Prepar3D default startup flight, in Mooney Bravo G1000, virtual cockpit view, lined up on Norfolk Naval Air Station (KNGU) runway 10
A significant issue for manufacturers, purchasers, and operators of aviation training devices is that Microsoft Flight Simulator X is licensed only for personal use. To provide a commercial development platform, Microsoft adapted FSX and released their ESP™ product, which was described at the time of its release as “a visual simulation platform that brings immersive experiences to training and learning, decision support, and research and development modeling for government and commercial organizations.”
The difference between FSX and ESP was that ESP could be licensed for commercial use, such as for use with approved aviation training devices. At the point in time when ESP was released, it was FSX by a new name and licensing agreement, minus many of FSX’s features, such as downloadable weather and many of the default aircraft, for which there were separate licensing issues.
Though release and licensing of ESP seemed to solve the licensing issue of FSX for commercial and government use, dissolution of the ACES team at Microsoft removed technical support of ESP as well as FSX. What to do? The answer was provided by Lockheed Martin’s Global Training and Logistics business unit, which supports many government owned and government approved training devices and programs of various types. Thus, Lockheed Martin’s license allowed further development of an ESP-based product, such as adding the new water features, with rights to distribute the product for aviation and related training.
In operating Prepar3D for this review, I found the product to be very closely related to FSX, though there are many changes. The product website, listed these initially provided features:
- Living World (highway traffic, boats/ships on lakes and oceans, livestock, wild animals, etc.)
- Customizable, data driven graphics and models
- Whole Earth WGS-84 model - the reference coordinate system used by the Global Positioning System.
- Accurate topography with regionally and culturally appropriate textures
- Modifiable real-time weather system, continuous time of day, seasons, and a variety of lighting effects (but not downloadable weather – static or dynamic)
- Realistic Air Traffic Control (ATC)
- Expandable library of vehicle models
The list above reads almost the same as the feature list of FSX, but there are a many notable upgrades and updates, including:
- Expanded hardware controls, allowing up to 32 axes and 128 buttons
- Updated 10 million 1 km land class tiles
- Added high-resolution Norfolk, Virginia, U.S. area
- Upgraded user interfaces, for richer user experiences
- Increased screen size of user interfaces, for improved viewing on increasingly larger displays
- Added multichannel support, to provide a wider field of view with multiple displays and memory of multiple monitor settings (discussed in Part 2 of this review)
- Added sensor view capability
- Added global bathymetry, to provide water depths
- Added global dynamic water surface, including seeing through the water surface
- Upgraded panels and gauges system – C++ gauges now support DirectX
- Enhanced SDK documentation and code samples, including Visual Studio Developers Guide and DirectX gauge sample
There is a growing number of aircraft in Prepar3D. In the initial release, these flyable aircraft from FSX were provided:
- Maule Orion: two models in eight liveries
- Mooney Bravo: two models in three liveries, including G1000
- Piper J-3 Cub: in three liveries
- Robinson R22 Beta II: in three liveries
As a new concept for Prepar3D, the following vehicle was added:
- I.W.E.B. Neptune SRM (mini-submersible), in one livery - see Underwater Operations section below.
The accompanying image shows the improved and larger Select Vehicle user interface.
Select Vehicle interface, showing Manufacturer list and thumbnails of multiple selections
Prepar3D also includes several FSX aircraft, as non-flyable (AI) aircraft in the original release version, which fly preprogrammed flight plans, similar to the same feature in FSX:
- Beech Baron 58, in four liveries
- Beech King Air 350, in four liveries
- Bombardier CRJ 700, in four liveries
- Airbus 321, in four liveries
- DeHavilland Beaver DHC2, in three liveries
- DeHavilland Dash 8-100, in three liveries
- Grumman Goose, in seven liveries
- Lear 45, in two liveries
- Piper Cherokee 180, in three liveries
To have a look at the provided AI aircraft, I selected Las Vegas McCarron airport KLAS, and then I slewed to the general aviation and maintenance side of the airport. The AI aircraft are obviously very similar with what we’d see in FSX.
AI aircraft in Prepar3D, at Las Vegas KLAS McCarron airport
Lockheed Martin has continued to pursue licensing of aircraft for operations in Prepar3D, and additional aircraft have been added in update release versions 1.1, 1.2, and 1.4, to be described in subsequent articles in this series.
One of the reasons for a reduced number of default flyable aircraft and other vehicles in Prepar3D is that many commercial and government training organizations develop their own versions of training vehicles, whether for operation in the air, on land, or in water, including underwater!
Prepar3D is fully compatible with default and add-on aircraft and scenery from FSX, and on a case basis, from earlier versions of Flight Simulator. To test compatibility, I tried and successfully added a few FSX aircraft and scenery to Prepar3D:
- I copied the Bombardier CRJ 700 files from (my FSX folder)\SimObjects\Airplanes, to (my Prepar3D folder)\SimObjects\Airplanes, overwriting as necessary, to convert this aircraft from AI only in default Prepar3D, to fully flyable. Though I have not confirmed with all aircraft, this will likely work for all aircraft that are flyable in FSX but initially AI-only in Prepar3D.
Bombardier CRJ 700, copied from FSX to Prepar3D
- I used the Scenery Library Editor in Prepar3D, to add free scenery and parked static aircraft for my home airport, Chicago, Aurora Municipal (KARR), from developer Kevin Burns’ website.
FSX scenery for KARR, by Kevin Burns, added into Prepar3D Scenery Library
- I copied the FS2004 Cessna Skylane 182S from (my FS2004 folder)\Aircraft to (my Prepar3D folder)\SimObjects/Airplanes.
Cessna Skylane 182S, copied from FS2004 to Prepar3D
(in livery of reviewer’s partnership airplane)
- I copied the FSX Cessna Skyhawk 172 from (my FSX folder)\SimObjects\Airplanes to (my Prepar3D folder)\SimObjects\Airplanes
Cessna Skyhawk 172, copied from FSX to Prepar3D
Note that when copying aircraft folders from FSX to Perpar3D, it will be necessary to move gauges if these files are in the \Gauges folder. Some gauges are in the aircraft container folders and are moved with the aircraft.
Many add-on developers have made their products compatible with Prepar3D, often providing dual installers for FSX and Prepar3D. The accompanying image shows the AI aircraft screen image as above, except that FSDreamteam KLAS scenery is installed and enabled for comparison.
AI aircraft in Prepar3D, shown at FSDreamteam’s Las Vegas KLAS McCarron airport
An interesting new capability in Prepar3D is operating vehicles underwater, such as with the furnished Neptune submersible. As a former U.S. Navy submarine officer, who became a flight simulator and private pilot many years later, this is a very interesting feature!
To explore “flying” the furnished Neptune submersible, a saved mission is provided, with customary interface, though there are no mission prompts or dialog. There is control panel in the Neptune, though the mission interface does provide a keystroke guide for controlling the submersible. Think of the provided view as riding in the submersible with your face looking through a view port, with your hands out of sight, operating the vehicle’s controls.
The mission experience begins with the Neptune on the sea floor about 200 feet underwater. Increasing the speed and pitch attitude causes the sub to lift from the bottom, and if you climb toward the surface and head in the correct direction, you can see the bottom of the host ship above. There’s a wrecked ship on the bottom somewhere in the vicinity, though I haven’t found it yet.
This is a fun new way to “fly” and it provides a very different view than is possible in other aviation simulation products. It’s also very different from my experience many years ago as a submarine officer for 10 years, as there were no view ports to allow viewing the ocean around us.
Neptune submersible on ocean bottom at beginning of mission
If you drive the submersible to the surface, you’ll see an interesting view, which sets the water modeling in Prepar3D apart from the water in FSX. It appears that the external view moves up and down, above and below the surface, by simulated wave action, allowing you to alternately see the top of the submersible above the water and the lower parts of the submersible underwater. Interesting!
Neptune submersible viewed from above glass-smooth water, showing both reflection of upper structure and water transparency
Neptune submersible viewed from slightly below water level,with reflection under the water surface
Part 2 of this review will published on AVSIM Online a few days after Part 1 is posted, to include the following sections:
- Operation with Multiple Monitors
- Water System and Settings
- Other Observations
- Planned Graphics and Performance Upgrades