‘As real as it gets’ has always been a slogan we have strived to fulfill whenever we take to flying in the virtual skies in our commercial airliners. For the most part, recent add-ons and updates to flight simulator itself has meant that we have come pretty close and when we sit in our virtual cockpits, we always imagine what it would be like to fly the plane for real.
Of course, it is never a one man job and as we get better add-ons that make the aircraft more realistic and as we spend more of our hard earned cash on hardware that makes us feel like we’re flying in reality, there has always been an empty chair in our virtual cockpits that has yearned to be filled.
Single pilot flying has been the reserve of light aircraft and small propeller driven aircraft and jets like the popular Boeing 737 have always been flown with a crew of 2 or more. Yet something so fundamentally simple about flying this type of aircraft is so difficult to simulate, but there is hope in one company called FS2Crew that has filled that empty cockpit seat with a virtual “derriere” designed to make your flying both ‘as real as it gets’ and as easy as possible.
Established in 2004, FS2Crew has followed many major airliner add-ons in releasing an expansion pack to enhance some of flight simulation’s most realistic aircraft. Amongst their catalogue lie expansion packs for the PMDG 747, MD11, J41 and 737; Flight 1 ATR; Level D 767 and the Wilco 737 PIC and A320 series. All of them are designed to emulate real world standard operating procedures (SOPs) and working in a multi crew environment.
The recent 2010 Voice Edition releases add a new element of voice control to the mix. This enhances the product’s realism by allowing you to talk to your virtual first officer.
There are a few steps one must take to prepare for installation. Firstly, you must already own ALL of the PMDG 737NG series for FS2004. This means that you must own both the -600/700 series AND the -800/900 series by PMDG. As well as that, ensure that they are up to date and that all service packs have been installed. At the time of writing, PMDG has 3 service updates available for download free of charge from their website. These include the 737TNG update from v1.2 to v1.3; the 737-800/-900 service update 1 and the 737-800/-900 model update, all of which must be installed prior to installing FS2Crew. If you are unsure of which version you are running, simply check the 737 readme file in your PMDG folder. Alternatively, download the updates and install them anyway. The setup process will notify you if you already have the update installed.
Secondly, you must ensure that your Windows Speech Recognition software language is set to English - US. It is also advisable to run the speech recognition training software which is bundled into the control panel for Windows. I found that this dramatically increased the accuracy of my commands and found myself not having to repeat many words.
Finally, you must own a microphone; be running FS2004; run Windows XP 32bit, Windows Vista or Windows 7 with all the latest service packs installed and finally have an internet connection for the initial setup.
Installation and Documentation
The installation comes in the form of a 185MB download. Those of you with a slower internet connection or who are unable to download the file can take advantage of FS2Crew’s CD Burning service for an additional fee.
The download includes a ‘readme first’ file which is exactly where you should begin.
The installation is straightforward and simple to follow. Once the installation is complete, the program will dump 3 files onto your desktop; the Configuration Manager, the Operations Manual and the readme file. After the install, the program will automatically run the FS2Crew Configuration Manager. It is within this program that you will be able to activate your product using the license code that you should have received by e-mail. You will need an internet connection to do this as it will validate your license and your copy of the software there and then.
I will advise strongly that you read the manual and print a copy to have by your side or have one available to read on a laptop or similar. This manual will be your bible to operating the 737 from now on until you have become accustomed to the procedures, phraseology and triggers that the software uses. Reading through the manual, I found one job that is a must for the software to operate properly and that is to ensure that the PMDG key commands are set as per the FS2Crew key commands listed on page 40 of the manual. This is important as some of the actions your FO will perform require these key commands to be accurate. I found out the hard way when my command for a certain altitude or heading to be set resulted in one of the engines being cut off!
Once this is done, you are all set and your first officer sits waiting for you!
At the time of writing, FS2Crew has released a service pack to update the software to version 1.2. This adds various features and alterations to the software such as a mute button to allow you to talk to online ATC without activating the FS2Crew software.
Where once before, preflight setup was a dull and lonely task and one that you just wanted to get out of the way, it has now become a totally different and enjoyable experience. From a cold and dark cockpit, powering up the aircraft and setting up for the flight ahead has never felt more realistic.
First thing to do is setup the FS2Crew config panel. Here you will choose which voice set you want from the choice of US, UK, Australian, French and other crews. You will also setup the volume and rough details about your flight such as V speeds for takeoff, transition altitudes and levels and destination elevation. The latter is important for FS2Crew as any minimums you set below 150ft AGL for your approach acts as a trigger to your first officer that it is a CAT II/III approach.
A typical preflight setup lasts 30 minutes with the countdown timer being readily available for viewing in the config window. This can be fast forwarded if you’re in a hurry to meet that virtual slot time or you are already late and want to avoid a telling off from the chief pilot when you get home! Upon pressing start to set everything off, you’ll hear a ringing bell to confirm that everything is under way and also signals the ground crew that electrical power is about to be established. This also triggers the first officer to switch everything on including the battery. You are now ready to make your first decision as captain by deciding on which electrical source you will like. Choose APU and you must switch the aft left fuel pump on and start the APU; choose ground power and you simply switch the ground power switch to on (providing you have it available).
Then you can concentrate on the FMC setup whilst the first officer performs his panel scans and moves all the switches to the correct positions. Whilst you still have to complete this mundane but important task, every now and then a whirring sound or some alarm bells catch your attention as the first officer moves his seat into position or he tests the fire bells and handles (as in the real world, if he tests the alarm bells without warning you and gives you a fright, be sure to give him a good telling off!) You will also find yourself being interrupted by ground crew checking in on you. A quick “yes” will send them on their way. Just as in the real world, constant interruptions from the ground crew and cabin crew will cause you to lose your train of thought and you will have to pick up on where you left off; if you are used to completing the preflight setup in 10 minutes, think again!
With 15 minutes to go, a check on the FS2Crew status bar shows an asterisk next to the ‘PREFLIGHT’ prompt which signals that the first officer has completed his preflight scan and is awaiting the next action from you. Once you have completed your duties you can call for the ‘preflight checklist’. For the first few times, your FS2Crew manual will be invaluable to you as you will have to remember the correct responses to the checklists. If you ever forget though, your get out of jail free card is a simple “checked” or “next” and your first officer will move on.
As in the real world though, train yourself to respond using the EXACT phraseology and it will not only make you a better pilot, but it will also help the flow of the checklist and avoid having to repeat yourself, thereby enhancing your realism. A nice touch is the fact that whatever you have said is indicated in a green status bar at the top of the screen as seen in the first screenshot.
As you start to get nearer to the departure time, it is time to brief your first officer on the departure as well as making sure that everything is setup for the flight. Your duties as Captain will be to program the FMC, set up the navigation radios and MCP for the departure as well as make a PA to the passengers. One these are done and you feel ready to depart, simply call for the ‘before start procedure’ and your first officer will do the before start scan.
This will include turning the fuel pumps on, hydraulics pressurized, packs off and beacon on. Once this is done you can call for the ‘before start checklist’. Once again, the same format for challenge and response is required with the correct responses being required to advance onto the next item. If you ever forget what the correct response is, say “checked” or “next” and your first officer will move on. Also, if you ever want to restart the checklist simply say “let’s start again” and this will allow you to call for the checklist from the top.
This is useful if you get an interruption from the ground crew and forget which item you are on. It is also easy to forget the purpose of the checklist and that is to physically check that the switch is in the correct position before stating the response. It is easy to simply say the response and forget to check the item causing all sorts of problems later on.
Once you are ready for push back you can call the ground crew to tell them you are ready. A simple command of “cockpit to ground” will suffice. What follows much depends on what you have set up in the config panel. Nowadays, we have an abundance of push back software from the likes of PMDG themselves, Aerosoft’s AES add-on and now the advent of FS2Crew’s push back engine. Whichever one you choose, you will still have to talk to the ground crew via FS2Crew.
If you have selected FS2Crew’s push back services, then you will have to include the reports of “brakes released” and “brakes set” whilst the push back is in progress. If you have selected other push back services, you will have to tell the engineer that you are ready, after which he will inform you that you are cleared for engine start and to let him know when he can disconnect.
Engine start is also a straightforward procedure and much more in line with reality. No more switching panels from the overhead and thrust lever panels, simply say “start engine 2” and your first officer will activate the start switch. At around 20% N2 move the fuel control switch to idle detent and the spool up will continue until your first officer calls “starter cutout” signifying the end of the engine start and the stabilization of that engine. The procedure is repeated for the other engine.
Once you have cleared the ground crew to disconnect, calling for “flaps 5” is the trigger for the first officer to run through the after start actions. Important things like switching over the generators to the engine generators and switching off the APU are all taken care of, allowing you to check the flight controls. Finish off with the before taxi checklist and you’re ready to go!
On your way out to the runway you’ll be able to hear the quiet murmur of the passenger safety announcement in the background (if you have turned it on in the config panel) and once this is complete, the cabin attendant will report that the cabin is ready. Once again, FS2Crew is there to remind us that flying a large airliner is a multi-crew job and teaches us that not only are there two people flying but the cabin crew play a large part in the importance of flying safely and working well together as a team.
Calling for the before takeoff checklist completes the preflight procedures and you are now ready to take to the skies.
FS2Crew adds the important callouts for a standard 737 takeoff as you would expect and this is useful enough to have as it allows you to concentrate on the actual takeoff itself. Many regard the takeoff as a simple procedure and to an extent it is, but there is actually a lot more behind it than meets the eye. I will attempt to talk through what I was taught to do for a realistic and easy takeoff.
Firstly, you must activate the FS2Crew takeoff mode by calling “cleared” when you are cleared to line up and takeoff. This triggers the FO to switch on the strobes, landing lights and the TCAS to TA/RA. Another call of “takeoff” is required when you commence the takeoff roll.
Initially, set the thrust to approximately 40% N1 to allow the engines to stabilize. Once you are satisfied that they are stable, press the TO/GA switch on the throttles. (On the PMDG 737 there is a hidden click spot on the MCP screw which acts as the TO/GA switch). Check that the correct thrust setting has been achieved and keep your hand on the thrust levers. During the takeoff roll, you should have your ailerons slightly into the wind and apply slight forward pressure on the yoke. As you accelerate to 80 knots slowly reduce the forward pressure and upon the FO call out of “80 knots” check that your ASI is indicating correctly and call “checked”. As you pass 80 knots, you enter the high speed phase of the takeoff roll. Above this speed, we only stop for significant items such as fires or engine failures as the energy required from the brakes to stop the aircraft is high.
Keep straight on the centreline of the runway by using the rudder pedals and keep an eye on the speed. At the “V1” call out, you should move your hand from the thrust levers to the yoke so that you have both hands there. At this stage you should be ready to rotate, so as soon as the “rotate” call is made you can pitch up immediately. Keep ailerons slightly into wind and pull up to around 15 degrees at a rate of 3 degrees per second. Math should show you that if you start to count as you rotate, you should reach 15 degrees as you count to 5.
Adjust the pitch attitude to maintain the white marker on the ASI and upon hearing the “positive rate” call, call for gear up. Continue the climb holding the white marker on the ASI and as you pass 400 feet AGL ask for a roll mode to be engaged such as heading select or LNAV. Remember to fly the departure you have been given. At 1500ft AGL, you should see the thrust rating go to CLB on the upper EICAS and you can now start the acceleration phase. Lower the nose to about 10 degrees or ask your FO to select VNAV or LVL CHG with a set speed of 250kts or whatever speed you require and follow the flight director. At this point you should see the mode change from ‘Initial Climb’ to ‘Clean Up’ on the FS2Crew panel. This is a clue as to what to do next!
As you accelerate through the flap speed markers on the ASI, ask for the flaps to be retracted as per normal until you have a clean aircraft and once that is complete, your first officer has a few duties to complete such as turning the landing gear off and switching the auto brake to off before you can ask for the after takeoff checklist.
Once you have asked for the after takeoff checklist, he will read BOTH the challenges and responses. Remember, you are the pilot flying and as such you are needed to concentrate on flying the aircraft safely. Monitor what the FO is doing but keep your focus on flying the plane. The completion of the after takeoff checklist is the last major step in the flight’s procedures until you reach the other end of the flight.
First Officer Takeoffs
Another neat little feature of the FS2Crew add-on is the ability for you to observe a first officer takeoff. I use the word observe with a bit of caution as in my experience of using this feature, my first officer needed a little coaching in how to takeoff smoothly. Once the FO takeoff button is selected in the config panel, you will be able to carry out your departure procedures as normal until the point where you have lined up the aircraft on the runway.
At this stage, to activate your first officer, instead of saying “takeoff” you must say “you have control”. Like a well taught pilot, he will respond with the words “I have control” and will then advance the thrust levers to the takeoff setting. You are still needed to keep the aircraft straight along the runway by use of your rudder pedals or similar and callouts of “80 knots” “V1” and “rotate” are required by you just like the prompts that you receive when you do the takeoff. At this stage he will rotate the aircraft to follow the flight director. Then you are required to call “positive rate” which will prompt him to ask for the gear up. After this it is just a simple matter of following his commands and fulfilling his needs until the after takeoff checklist is complete at which point you can call “I have control” and relieve him from his duties.
Note that you are required to complete the after takeoff checklist so be prepared to have it ready! My experience of this feature was that once I knew where his faults were, the whole process went a lot smoother. For example, knowing that he cannot track the centerline and sometimes he requires a bit of a nudge in the right direction once airborne will allow you to make the process a bit less stressful for your passengers!
Climb, Cruise and Descent
During the climb, there is little to do except for monitoring the climb and keeping an eye on everything as things move along. There are a few events that you will expect to see with FS2Crew installed that make the climb out more realistic. At transition altitude (which you will have set in the config page) you will hear the first officer make the call to remind you to switch to standard 1013mb or 29.92 inHg. No response is required but I think it adds to the realism if you reply with a simple “checked”. At 10,000ft the first officer will turn the landing lights off and finally, he will call “1000ft to level” as you approach your desired altitude as set in the MCP.
During the cruise, similarly there is little to do but monitor the course of the flight. FS2Crew have added some little bits and pieces to make you more motivated such as the virtual flight attendant who will bring you endless supplies of food and drink! Unfortunately, this is a simulation only!
As you approach the top of descent point, just like a real pilot, you will have to prepare yourself for the approach and landing. Obviously, doing an approach brief will be difficult on your home PC but you should still run through the approach yourself and brief yourself on what you can expect and the relevant numbers for the approach.
As for setting up the aircraft, your jobs are to set the auto brake, setup the minimums (which is the reference that the FS2Crew engine uses for the FO callouts) and enter your approach Vref for the landing. Once you are ready, it is time to initiate the descent checklist. This is a checklist that will be fully completed by the FO and to make sure you’re fully prepared for the approach, he will repeat all of the parameters that you have just set up as a reminder of the vital data.
The performance of the product was excellent. On my dated machine, it did not degrade the performance of the PMDG 737 in any way and despite having the Microsoft voice recognition software in use; it showed no degradation of frames at any stage.
Approach and Landing
As you approach your destination, FS2Crew does a great job of making sure that your life as a virtual captain is as easy as possible. As with the climb out, any changes to your MCP as declared by ATC will be repeated by your FO to ensure that both of you are kept in the loop. Should you wish to test your flying skills by manually flying the approach, then your FO will back you up by setting up the MCP and aircraft just like you want it.
This makes a huge difference to your manual flying experience as no longer do you have to keep shifting your attention from the PFD to the MCP and your hands from the controls to your mouse. You simply tell your FO what to set and he will do it leaving you to check that he has done what you ask and to follow the flight director. This is a much needed enhancement to bring virtual flying in line with real world operations and you will see your flying accuracy improve dramatically.
As you start to slow down and get dirty, you can also ask for the FO to set the flap speeds to add more realism to the flight. Final checklists for your airborne sector include the approach checklist; which is to be initiated after passing 10000ft or transition level (whichever is the lowest) and the landing checklist that is to be initiated when you are fully configured to land. During the final approach, there are a couple of events that occur. Firstly, passing through 500ft radio you should call “cleared” or “not cleared” depending on whether you’ve received your landing clearance or not. Then as you hear the “minimums” call (either by your FO or the GPWS) call “landing” or “go around”.
Providing all goes well and you manage to grease the 737 onto the virtual tarmac, your FO will help you with the important task of preparing the aircraft for shutdown. As you may have experienced flying on your own in the past, the after landing actions are plentiful and as a flight simmer, this period can get very busy as you have to taxi the aircraft to the stand (avoiding all manner of buildings, aircraft and vehicles as you go) whilst switching between the multiple panels in order to switch everything into its intended position.
In addition, if you are flying into somewhere new, you have to find your way on the correct taxiways and call ATC to get your taxi instructions as well. As you can imagine, this is not how it is done in the real world and the luxury of having another crew member means that you can concentrate on keeping the wheels on the taxiway and navigating the maze of taxiways to your gate. FS2Crew comes into its own here once again by leaving you to control the aircraft. All you have to do is to remember to retract the speed brakes which is the trigger for the FO to do everything. There is no after landing checklist either thereby reducing your workload even further.
A new addition to the v1.2 update is the addition of the “taxi light off” command which is handy as you approach the stand. Once stopped, set the park brake and the FO will command the cabin crew to disarm the slides. He will also switch the busses to the APU generators and that is your clue to turn the fuel control switches to cutoff. Again, where once there was a myriad of jobs to do and things to switch, your FO will now make sure that everything is how it should be on the aircraft leaving you to answer the impending calls from the ground engineer telling you that the chocks are in place and from the cabin crew informing you that the slides are disarmed. Make a PA by announcing “cabin crew, doors may be opened” and the doors will open if you have selected that option in the FS2Crew config panel. This just leaves the shutdown checklist and if you are leaving the aircraft cold and dark, the securing checklist.
Non Normal Procedures
FS2Crew covers you for some non normal procedures that you may find yourself doing. Go arounds and rejected takeoffs are included and along with the voice command, makes your flight a lot more fluid and smoother whatever eventuality you find yourself in.
Firstly, the go around is straightforward. Calling “go around” during any part of the landing process will initiate the procedure. Your FO will give you a “positive rate” call out once a climb has been established and is the trigger for you to call for “gear up”. In reality, the call tends to be “go around, flaps 15” at which point your FO will select flaps 15 and then positive climb but the specific procedures that FS2Crew have modeled in this programme allow you to call for flaps 15 only after the gear is up.
The rejected takeoff in reality is one of the most dangerous procedures that you will ever encounter and the procedure is well practiced and covered in the simulator. Things happen very quickly and because the very nature of the procedure is unexpected, you can easily be caught by surprise.
In FS2Crew, the whole procedure is triggered by you calling out “reject” whilst simultaneously engaging maximum reverse thrust and ensuring that auto brake is doing its job or using manual braking. Your FO will call the speed brakes are not up and other deceleration callouts are as the landing procedure. When the speed brake is retracted by you below 30 knots, the FS2Crew mode will change to ‘after landing’ and your FO will follow the standard after landing panel scan. The FS2Crew manual also states that you should make a PA of “cabin crew and passengers remain seated” for added realism. This is just there for realism and plays no part in the flow of the simulation. It is a testament to FS2Crew’s commitment to realism.Summary / Closing Remarks
Despite the difficulties of simulating a multi crew environment on a home PC, FS2Crew has done a great job of making it seem less lonely up on the flight deck. Simple procedures such as starting the engines have a lot more realistic feel to them as well as the introduction of the passengers and cabin crew into the mix, a bunch of important people often forgotten about whilst flying at home.Combine this with the great voice recognition ability, it makes for a truly unique and exciting product that we hope to see more of as more and more realistic and complex aircraft add-ons are produced and developed for flight simulator.
What I Like About PMDG 737 Voice Commander
What I Don't Like About PMDG 737 Voice Commander
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