FS2Crew Majestic Dash 8 Q400 Voice Control
A review by Roger Curtiss
Just Flight released the Q400 model last year and it received great praise from many sources, including this reviewer. The attention to detail, quality of the flight model, performance and functionality has made this a must-have for anyone with a yern for airline turboprop flying. In fact, the airplane is so enjoyable to fly that the experience should be shared.
So perhaps it is not surprising that FS2Crew took it upon them to offer a virtual first officer and lead flight attendant to give this aircraft their own signature treatment. I must admit that while I have known about FS2Crew for some time, I had not previously used their products. But the opportunity to have some capable assistance in the sometimes-high workload Q400 cockpit was a welcome concept.
For any other FS2Crew neophytes such as myself, I will take a moment to explain just what this program does. Those with FS2Crew experience can take a break or just skip the next paragraph.
FS2Crew provides two functions utilizing a first officer (FO). You and the FO can conduct the necessary pre-flight checks and flows and run the checklists for the appropriate phase of flight. In addition the FO is capable of responding to your commands to perform various functions related to the flight such as, turning on/off lights, changing heading, altitude and speed settings for the autopilot, working the flaps and landing gear and various other systems. In fact, you can have the FO perform a landing (but why would you deny yourself the experience?).
Previous offerings from FS2Crew were text-based scripts, requiring menus to select the appropriate checklist for each element of a flight, whereas this version for the Q400 is almost entirely voice-based.
FS2Crew Dash 8 Q400 Voice Control (quite the mouthful-what say we simply call it 2Q for the sake of this review) is obtained from the Just Flight website available only as a 276MB file download that will run on a Vista or newer system. As has been my experience with any products from that source, it installed cleanly on the computer. There was this message during the process:
Installing…There will be a delay while your Direct X files are being updated.
Please be patient…DO NOT CLICK CANCEL!!!
It was good that this was presented, as the delay is indeed a rather extensive one of sufficient duration to make one start to think the process has gone into hibernation. For me, it was 2 to 3 minutes, which when loading a new program can seem like forever.
How quickly one can be up and running depends on a couple of factors such as whether you have used speech recognition software and if you have prior experience with FS2Crew products. In my case, I had not activated speech recognition on the computer I use for running flight sim activities. As a result speech recognition needed to be made operational and a session of reciting text was needed to train the system, which is the standard requirement to configure speech recognition on a Windows system.
Once the recognition system has been trained, it is effortless to match it to 2Q.
Once installed, I had a desktop icon to access the 2Q Configuration Manager. The Configuration Manager provides access to a few features including:
The Online Manual
Enable/Disable Voice Control
Speech Recognition Engine Init Log
Cockpit Voice Recorder Log
Just about every review I write contains early on the mantra “Read the Manual” and so it was no surprise to see this note from Just Flight:
The manual is a must! Do not even try to use the software without reading the manual first. The manual is available via:
i) The FS2Crew MJC Dash 8 Config Manager
ii) The FS2Crew on-line manual: www.support.fs2crew.com
iii) Start-All Programs-FS2Crew2014
iv) A manual will also be placed on your desktop
If you need help, do not suffer in silence! Contact us asap on the Support Forum.
All of this was very good advice especially “The manual is a must!” I doubt that even the most hardened simmer would be able to make this program function without thoroughly reading the manual. In my case, I read the manual, tried using the program, with only moderate success, read the manual again and had much greater success running a flight, and then perused the manual once more for a fuller understanding of the intricacies and nuances. Each time, more of the functions and commands became clearer.
2Q is quite picky in its demands in order to function. Very specific phraseology is required in order to activate the checklist prompts and in responding to each item. Most failures in commencing a checklist, moving on to the next item, or operating aircraft equipment can be traced to improper phrasing of the command/response. This is likely not a program with which you will be fully competent until having used it a few times. However, this is not a criticism, as flight deck discipline and crew resource management rely on proper and effective communication between crewmembers and strict adherence to checklists. It may seem to be a bit cumbersome, but it is the proper and professional way of airline operations.
Perhaps the greatest value and usefulness I found is the fact that the FO can be instructed to fulfill a wide variety of functions in the operation of the airplane. This frees you, the captain, from having to change views or maneuver a mouse to activate specific switches.
A typical flight commences with setting up the aircraft at the departure airport and then opening the 2Q main panel.
Opening that panel activates speech recognition and if everything goes as planned there is little need to use mouse clicks in order to run the flight.
One helpful click initially is to open the briefing panel where information pertaining to the departure and approach can be entered. These are necessary in order to cue 2Q for events during the flight. A look at the panel gives a pretty good idea of what actions the FO can be expected to perform.
There is also a PA panel that allows playing of various announcements, a welcome, explanations for different causes of delay, cruise, top of descent, etc. Personally, I found these to be of little use as I consider one of the advantages of being seated at the pointy end of the airplane to be that I don’t have to listen to these announcements. And since there are not actually any passengers, I feel no need to play these scripts for my own entertainment.
One early decision the captain must make is whether to utilize the Pre-flight event sequence. Doing so initiates a countdown of sorts to anticipated departure on a 30-minute time scale. If the PF button on the 2Q main panel is pushed while parked at a gate the jetway will connect to the aircraft and the cabin doors will open (this is if you chose Gate in the Briefing Panel) and the FO will do a virtual walk around of the aircraft exterior. This gives you time to conduct a flight deck power up checklist on your own as well as an Originating Flow.
With 24 minutes remaining before departure the lead flight attendant will inquire as to whether boarding may commence. There are specific words needed to confirm this and apparently saying “No” is not an option. Two minutes later the FMS needs to be loaded and two minutes after that starts the FO returns to the cockpit and performs his own originating flow.
15 minutes before departure the departure briefing is performed. 7 minutes before leaving, the gate agent provides the load sheet and at 4 minutes prior, the lead flight attendant makes a cabin announcement (which you only have to listen to if you have the cabin PA speaker on).
With 3 minutes to go the 24 Hour Systems Checklist is requested. This is the first call and response checklist with the FO reading off the items and waiting for your proper response.
If one elects not to go with the Pre-Flight Events option then the preparation for flight initiates with the captain performing the Flight Deck Power Up followed by the 24 Hour System Check. Admittedly, I found it a bit embarrassing to be reading checklist items for which there was no response from the system.
Even some of the checklist items to which a response is necessary are not actually checked by the FO for completion but on a few, such as “Nose Steering Off” if you answer that it is, but the switch is in the wrong position, the FO will respond, “Umm...are you sure?” or say, “Captain, you want to check that again?” These are very polite and diplomatic ways of telling you that you are not following the procedure correctly.
After the 24 Hour System Checklist the flight proceeds with these interactive checklists in sequence:
-Before Takeoff To the Line
-Below the Line
-Flaps Zero, IAS 185, Climb
-Descent To the Line
-Below the Line
-Flaps 15 Before Landing
-Parking To the Line
-Below the Line
There is also a silent checklist performed by the captain for total power down to cold and dark and completely secure the aircraft.
The system is designed so that once a checklist has been completed the main panel indicator will switch to the next phase. That checklist sequence is initiated by calling for the appropriate checklist.
If multiple legs are to be flown the full sequence of checklists need not be performed. Once the Parking checklist is complete 2Q cycles to the Before Start prompt. Flight Deck Power Up and 24 Hour System checks are only done during the first flight of the day or if there is a crew change.
Some very nice features are other spoken commands that can be invoked. A call of “Cockpit to Ground “garners a response from that crew and a request to have external power connected can be given. This is a bit easier than the default method of having to request the GPU via the FMS.
There are also some (what I consider to be) silly dialogues from cockpit to cabin crew such as requesting beverages or a meal or informing the flight attendants of an unusual event. These are features that I do not utilize, however, someone looking for a total immersion experience will be able to satisfy that desire.
Running checklists can sometimes be a bit tedious but, as mentioned earlier, 2Q also facilitates interaction and use of the non-flying pilot (now called the ’Pilot Monitoring’) to assist in throwing switches and turning dials to set autopilot functions of altitude, heading, vertical speed and switching the navigation system from FMS (pink needles) to VOR/ILS (blue needles).
Having an assisting FO is most useful in the busy climb sequence. With a few expressed commands the FO will raise the landing gear, set the climb airspeed, reduce the thrust to climb power and work the lights among other things. The procedure is that during the takeoff roll the FO calls out ‘80 kts’, ‘V1’, ‘Rotate’ (but not V2 for some reason). The FO will call ‘Positive Rate’ and captain commands “Gear Up”. At 400’ AGL the captain can request “Select Heading Select” or “Select Nav” as appropriate that allows him (you) to concentrate on maintaining track and proper airspeed to that point. Once at the acceleration altitude (usually 1000’AGL) which was dialed in on the MDA bug prior to takeoff, that is the cue for the FO to announce, ‘Accelerate’ and sets the stage for the captain to then request the “Flaps Zero, Set IAS 185, Climb Checklist to the Line”.
Anyone who has flown the Q400 knows that this early climb phase is an extremely busy time with the addition of possible ATC frequency changes to departure control added to the mix. It is a great time to have an extra pair of hands to hit those switches and this is where the FO earns his pay by configuring:
- Flaps 0
- IAS 185
- Condition Levers 900 RPM
- Autofeather Off
- MTOP Switch Off
- Aux Pump Switches Off
- Stdby Hyd Press Off
- PTU Control Off
- Bleed Flow Control Normal
- Taxi Light Off
- Pressurization Panel Check
The FO is equally handy during the approach phase and will lower the landing gear, configure the pump switches, set the condition levers to maximum, switch bleed flow to minimum and even sound a double chime to alert the flight attendants to prepare for landing.
Once the glideslope is commanding aircraft altitude, the FO can be asked to set the missed approach altitude. The FO will call crossing minimums and wait for your response of “Continue”, “Landing”, or “Missed Approach, Check Power, Flaps 15 (or 10)”. Again, this is very useful at a time of high workload.
I have a couple of minor issues with some of the presentations. The FO silently reads the Climb and After Landing checklists and only announces that they have been completed. As well, when given an instruction such as, “Set Heading xxx” or “Set Altitude xxxx”, the FO does not immediately read back the instruction. Instead, he twists the knob and only after the instruction has been dialed in does he announce the action. Thus, it is sometimes not clear that the FO actually heard and understood the instructions until the action has been completed.
You, as captain, can look at the PFD to see if the numbers are changing but that partially defeats the purpose of having him do it for you. It would be appreciated if he would state “Heading xxx” and then when complete say, “Heading set xxx” so one knows the action is being performed and then has been completed. The idea of having the FO do these tasks is to minimize the workload but when he does not immediately acknowledge an instruction I find the need to look at the relevant instrument or switch to ensure that he is following the instructions.
However, such niggling details are vastly overshadowed by the degree to which 2Q provides great value in enriching the flight experience.
It is difficult to convey in a written review to anyone unfamiliar with FS2Crew how cleanly this program works. There are few images to enhance the understanding as this is, by its very name, a voice controlled feature designed to eliminate a lot of looking at the control panels and allow you to concentrate on flying the airplane.
The complexity of the program and its insistence on precise phraseology pretty much guarantees that there will be a learning curve but it does get a bit easier each time and I find myself getting more comfortable with, and relying on the virtual FO to perform more of the workload on every flight.
It also seems pretty clear that anyone already familiar with 2Q Voice Control will quickly adapt to the program since the working philosophy is the same and it is just aircraft-specific phraseology that must be mastered. In order to fully utilize 2Q one is going to need to either print out most of the manual or have it available on a second monitor in order to reference the checklist calls and responses as well as the list of available commands.
Current pricing for 2Q is $41.00, which is more than reasonable considering how sophisticated the product is. There is also a bonus of FS Video Marshaller imbedded in the package which provides a gate marshal who can give signals for wheel chocks in and out, engine starts, a wave off before taxi and, most useful of all, yet another way to request GPU connect or disconnect. I was able to get the GPU buttons to work, but attempting to engage the other signals was unsuccessful for me.
The instructions for this feature are rather basic and offer little assistance to determine the nature of this difficulty. I posted a question to the FS2Crew support forum and received a quick response to verify that Windows Media Player was installed and running. It is and was and the FS2Crew crew was unable to diagnose the problem.
But this was not really an issue for me as I use a different ground-handling program, so the lack of the video marshaller had no impact...and quite frankly I have never been too impressed with this particular add-on anyway.
However, I am quite enthusiastic about 2Q. As opposed to something that serves merely to enhance the visual presentation of flight simulation, FS2Crew provides a much-improved method for interacting with the controls of the airplane. With the increased sophistication of our top-end aircraft, which are representations of multi-crew platforms, having the opportunity to fly them in a true crew setting is a major step toward the realism that is our goal.
What I Liked
- An extremely useful product
- Other than requiring precise phraseology, very easy to use
- Greatly enhances the flight experience
What I Did Not Like
- Lack of immediate response by the FO to some altitude and heading requests
- Not much else
- ...OK, the Video Marshaler snafu