A couple months ago, someone on the AVSIM forums asked for a generic Flight Management Computer (FMC) that could be installed in the default jets. There are currently a couple of freeware projects, vasFMC and Scumari, that provide FMC technology for aircraft that don’t come with it built-in, but they are both programs that run outside of Flight Simulator. One thing that’s different about this product, is that it puts the Flight Management System in the cockpit with the rest of the gauges; hence the "integrated" in Integrated Simavionics.
Their first product, called Integrated Simavionics Group 1 (ISG1), is a set of gauges that emulate the GNSXLS Flight Management System (FMS) from Honeywell/King. It consists of a Master Control Unit (MCU), which pulls together the various functions of the system, the FMS proper (where flight plans are entered and various data can be viewed), an Enhanced Attitude Directional Indicator (which adds features to the standard horizon ball), and two different route displays: the Primus 1000 Multi-Function Display (MFD) and the Honeywell EFS50 Enhanced Horizontal Situation Indicator (EHSI). Both display essentially the same information, including TCAS for nearby traffic, but the EHSI can be fitted into smaller cockpits.
These are complex instruments which, in the real world, would cost thousands of dollars. The best introduction to how the system works and what each gauge can do is the developer’s tutorial, which you can view on the Integrated Simavionics website, http://www.isgsim.com.
There are currently two tutorials, both well written and illustrated with screenshots. Rather than repeat what has been well explained elsewhere, I am going to focus in this review on three questions: How easy is it to start using these gauges once you purchase them? What do they contribute to the experience of simulated flight? And what kind of pilot will enjoy them most?
Installation and Documentation
ISG1 is available for purchase through SimMarket.com. Once the purchase has been made and the download finished, installing the product is easy. What’s more or less complicated, depending on what you fly, is installing the gauges for a particular aircraft.
Currently, there are automated installers for the following planes: default Learjet 45, default Boeing 737, default Beechcraft King Air 350, default CRJ-700 (FSX only), Overland MD-11, Project Fokker F100, Ready for Pushback B747-200, Posky CRJ-200, and Eaglesoft Citation X. If the aircraft you want to fly is one of these, you are in luck: the process is relatively smooth. With the Learjet for FS2004, I did need to modify the aircraft.cfg slightly in order to make it work properly, but that problem ought to be fixed in future versions. (If it isn’t, the fix is to give the new ISG1 version a unique title, such as “Learjet 45 (ISG1),” in aircraft.cfg.)
What if your aircraft is not on the list? (A couple of obvious ones aren’t, including the default Boeing 747 and the default Airbus A321, which is new in FSX.) You can still use ISG1, but you will need to add the gauges yourself, or wait until someone (the developer or a fellow user) uploads a panel.
In the course of evaluating this package, I added ISG1 gauges to two payware aircraft, the PMDG Express Beechcraft B1900D and the Flight1 Pilatus PC-12. I also modified three of the existing templates for default aircraft -- Learjet 45 for FS2004, Learjet 45 for FSX, and CRJ-700 -- to make them more usable in the virtual cockpit (VC) where I do most of my flying.
The first panel, for B1900D, was harder to modify than it needed to be. In addition to the main gauges, ISG1 also comes with buttons to activate the gauges in pop-up view. If you fly from the virtual cockpit, these buttons are essential, because most panels aren’t physically large enough to accommodate big, additional gauges. So, when you need to program the FMS, you click on the FMS button and the unit pops-up as a 2D overlay. When you’re done, another click sends it away. It’s a good system, but some of the gauge names, which you need to include in a panel, weren’t correctly documented. That’s been corrected, but it took some trial and error to get everything working. Another thing that would be helpful to have in the documentation is a list of each gauge’s dimensions, in pixels.
Once I got the first aircraft working, the rest were easier. I understood the process better, and for pop-ups I could reuse some of the window definitions. I say it was easier, but it still wasn’t easy. That’s not the gauges’ fault, however. Editing VC panels is just tough. For 2D cockpits, there is a good payware panel editor that lets you see what you’re doing. But for virtual cockpits, it’s still a matter of plugging in numbers, testing in the sim, and trying some more numbers until it works and looks right.
For the default aircraft, it’s even tougher, because there is less space than normal for adding buttons. In the Learjet 45 and CRJ-700, I ended up removing gauges, such as the N-number plate, that are mainly cosmetic and substituted a row of add-on buttons in their place: one to pop-up the FMS, one to pop-up the MCU, one to toggle lateral navigation (LNAV), and one to toggle vertical navigation (VNAV). The other gauges were straightforward substitutions: for the stock ADI (in the B1900D), an enhanced ADI, and for the stock HSI (in the Pilatus PC-12), an enhanced HSI or multi-function display.
Flying With ISG1
Again, for a description of how these gauges are used in a typical flight, I refer you to the excellent tutorials on the product's website. My goal here is to evaluate the experience.
Prior to engine start, you enter your flight plan in the FMS. Don’t like flight plans? You can stop reading, because this add-on is not for you. It’s for IFR pilots who already know their SIDs from their STARs, and either want help with the cockpit workload, or want to approximate more closely how the real birds are flown.
The driving force behind this project is Ernie Alston, whom some of us know as a controller on VATSIM, and others as the author of FSBuild, which was reviewed here several months ago. The consensus, on VATSIM at least, is that FSBuild is the best flight planning software for pilots who want to fly realistic routings. This same level of realism is now evident in Alston’s gauge offerings.
This doesn’t at all mean that you need to have FSBuild in order to use ISG1. Like many VATSIM pilots, I use a free web service called simroutes.com, which compiles the preferred routes for use on the VATSIM network. The database isn’t exhaustive, but its routings are realistic, and I have yet to have one refused by a VATSIM controller.
For example, here is the suggested routing for an IFR flight between Charlotte, North Carolina (KCLT) and Cleveland, Ohio (KCLE): NALEY HVQ TVT KEATN3. In English, “Proceed to the NALEY intersection, then Charleston VOR (HVQ), then Tiverton VOR (TVT), and then execute the KEATN Three arrival procedure, with Tiverton as the transition waypoint.” If you’re using the default flight planner that ships with Flight Simulator, entering one of these routes can be an exercise in frustration. Not all of the real-world waypoints are available in the flight planner and, when they are, finding them on the map can take some time. What the FMS allows you to do is enter the flightplan in pretty much the same format as you would file it with the FAA.
On some of my initial flights, I was confused because the FMS didn’t offer the departure procedure (DP) specified in my routing. Was there a procedure missing from the database? Not really. When I looked at the charts for these missing procedures, I noticed that all of them had one thing in common: they did not specific directions to the transition waypoint, but said to expect radar vectors from the controller on-duty. That’s a sensible solution for an evolving situation, but you can’t program “obey what the controller tells you to do” into a Flight Management System. So, that category of DP isn’t part of the FMS database. You can still fly the routes, but instead of entering the name of a DP, you would enter the name of the DP’s transition waypoint.
If what I said just made no sense at all, don’t worry: you are not going crazy. But you might not be ready for this product. To use it, you already need to have some idea of how the air traffic control system works as a whole. If you have that, or are willing to acquire it, the FMS in this package is very powerful. I didn’t find any routings that it couldn’t accept, and if Alston can keep updating the database (as he has for FSBuild), I would expect that to continue.
It’s also possible to add new waypoints, either by entering latitude and longitude, or by defining a waypoint in terms of distance and direction from a navaid. This second method is especially useful for programming obstacle avoidance procedures (for right after take-off) and instrument approach procedures (when you are getting ready to land).
In my view, this is where the product really shines in its ability to accept and manage real-world routings, both on the ground and in mid-flight (if you need to alter your flight plan). The FMS can also execute holding patterns. Four stars, then, for lateral navigation (LNAV).
In addition, the MFD also displays a runway diagram when you are on the ground, and an approach or pattern diagram when you are in the air, nearing your destination airport. When you are feeling harried (or don’t have all your charts in hand), this can preserve the illusion of competence for whomever might be watching you, whether it be VATSIM controllers or fellow pilots. You just need to tell the MCU which runway you are going to be using; if the landing runway has an ILS, the system will even tune your NAV radio for you and set your OBS for the correct runway heading.
Not all features of the real Honeywell FMS are implemented. Currently, the ATIS button (which would be useful for checking the weather at your destination airport) is inoperative. According to the support forum, there’s an update coming for the FMS fuel planning pages. Although the FMS can handle instrument approach procedures (IAPs), it has only a small database of them. Happily, all of the databases that the FMS uses are expandable, and Alston has expressed a hope that users will share IAPs with each other on the product website.
Another thing that is not fully implemented here, is vertical navigation (VNAV). This is partly a matter of not going all the way: currently, the FMS is not set up for altitude changes during cruise. You can set crossing altitudes for waypoints on the descent path and the system will provide guidance on how to achieve the target altitude. But the system will only accept one crossing altitude at a time. These are things, I believe, that would be possible to implement.
What we probably won’t see are step-climbs and multiple descent profiles. It is possible to customize these gauges for a particular plane, after which the gauges will keep a flight log for each aircraft and a “black box” record of your most recent flight. You can tell the gauges how fast a given aircraft should climb, what its true airspeed should be when it descends, and what angle it should make with the ground on the way down. If you can find the right numbers (and someone has done a good job of this for the default aircraft), then the FMS will be able to handle climbs and descents in a reasonable way.
Reasonable, but not optimal: for that, the system would need to have more information about the handling of your particular aircraft with various loads and at various altitudes. When you are building the FMS for a specific aircraft, such as the PMDG 747 or the LevelD 767, you can get that information and make very precise calculations based on it, the result of which will be very clean, fuel-efficient climbs and descents. But with a generic set of gauges, one that is designed to be usable with any aircraft that uses the standard autopilot system (my Pilatus panel ran into trouble with this), that is not going to happen. There are simply too many variables.
The bottom line: ISG1 is better at LNAV than VNAV. Some of that is remediable, but most of it is inherent in the design goal: to make a Flight Management System that can be installed almost anywhere. That’s a good goal, and the compromise that Alston has settled on here is a reasonable one.
We should also say that real FMS units are not renowned for their user-friendly interfaces. Sigh! But don’t blame Alston for that, blame the real-world manufacturers. Alston’s version of the Honeywell unit is no more unintuitive to get around in and program than the real box which it simulates.
A great deal of thought has gone into making these new gauges play nicely with the other children in the cockpit. It’s possible to specify that a gauge will be used in the VC, or a pop-up, and the gauge will adjust to use system resources most effectively. There are also special versions of some gauges that include back-lighting.
The manual does warn that some of the gauges (particularly the ones that display information in map form) can bring down framerates when all of the display options are selected; this is why it’s important to specify, in the panel configuration, when a gauge is being used for a pop-up or VC. That being said, I didn’t see any ill effects on my framerates. On a slower rig, the impact might be more noticeable. Although, when I first started testing ISG1, it was on a much slower computer than I have now, and I didn’t have problems then, either.
Who Is This For?
ISG1 sells for 21 euros at SimMarket.com. For someone like myself, who likes to fly on VATSIM and has an interest in flying realistically, it is a logical progression from what I was doing before, which was to set the autopilot for each segment of the route as it came up in-flight.
Before I installed ISG1, I had a general notion of what an FMS could do and why it would be useful, but I didn’t really want to buy and then learn how to fly one of the “system sims” from LevelD or PMDG. I was, and still am, more interested in smaller aircraft. Still, I was curious about that world, and this package allowed me to get some practical experience with it, while still flying the small- to mid-size aircraft that I enjoy.
I like the results, and have no desire to go back. It really is a package, though, for jets and turboprops. I wouldn’t want to install it, for example, in my all-time favorite flying machine, the RealAir Marchetti SF.260. That is a fine aircraft, and it has been my friend (as Gandalf might say) on many an IFR and VFR journey, both online and off. But an FMS would look out of place in the Marchetti’s cockpit, and would reduce the immediacy of flying, which is one of the chief pleasures that nimble and sometimes touchy little bird has to offer.
There is another type of flyer who will be interested in ISG1: pilots who already own one of the LevelD or PMDG add-ons, have learned how to manage a Flight Management System, and have gotten to the point of wanting to fly with it all the time. Not just in the add-ons that include one as part of the package, but in their whole fleet of jet and turboprop aircraft, including the default Boeings and Learjet.
Flyers in this category are not only going to notice the reduced VNAV capability (which can only be fully implemented for a particular model of aircraft), but they are going to very pleased with the LNAV functions, and especially the up-to-date database of DPs and STARs. It won’t manage the throttle for you or calculate V-speeds, but it will show your current weight, and that helps with take-off and landing.
The gauges in this package are carefully chosen and well executed. In combination, they simplify pilot workload and increase the precision of several flight maneuvers, including descent, hold, and approach.
If there is an obstacle to the success of this add-on, it is probably that tinkering with gauges and panels is not everyone’s idea of relaxation. Many, perhaps most, of the people who are going to be interested in a package like ISG1, want something that is more sophisticated than the default jets, but less complicated than LevelD or PMDG.
If someone (the developer or a fellow user) has already made an installer for the aircraft they want to fly, then the desire for something relatively simple but still challenging will have been met. If not, simplicity will have to wait, until they have learned how to edit a panel, or someone else does it for them.
Editing 2D panels is relatively simple, even without special tools. VC panels are more work. However, if these gauges become popular as they deserve to, we should expect to see panels for more and more aircraft which newcomers to our hobby could install with minimal fuss. We have seen this already with the RealityXP series of avionics and GPS. Customers like using the replacement gauges, make new panels with them, and share those panels with other customers.
How these user-contributed panels would be distributed, whether on the Integrated Simavionics website, or in the AVSIM file library, remains to be seen.
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