FOREWORD: I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me
If you ever felt nervous while doing something complicated and somebody was watching you very closely, raise your hand. If you are flying as you read this, put your hand back on the controls! This is the kind of thing you will need to become used to with FSFlyingSchool (FSFS), a useful product that simulates having a Flight Instructor along with you as you fly in FSX, FS2004, or FS2002.
Released as an independent production, this is the kind of third-party add-on that illustrates how flight-sim can be a labour of love as well as an inspiration to create new applications for MSFS. Suitably, while the scale of the project is small, its impact on the user can be great.
DISCLAIMER: For Simulated Flight Only!!!
Before I continue, I feel that some disclaimers are in order. First, since FSFlyingSchool simulates flight instruction, it is intended for Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS) only! It is not intended to be a replacement for a real flight instructor operating any real-world aircraft. Although educational, the primary focus of FSFS is entertainment. Do not use FSFlyingSchool as a substitute for real flight training!
A second disclaimer: FSFlyingSchool requires the ability to control an aircraft with precision. While knowledge of flight operations is crucial, it's also important that the sim-pilot has a good set of flight controls, preferably with a joystick and a rudder control. The better your control set-up is, the better you will perform within FSFS.
And disclaimer number three: for what it does, FSFlyingSchool uses a large amount of processing power. If you are getting low frame rates with your MSFS, then FSFS will have problems. Typically, the instructor call-outs will occur much later than they should, which means that you, the student, aren't getting the feedback that you need to fly correctly. If you have your flight sim running smoothly, then FSFS should work just fine.
In any case, the FSFlyingSchool.com website can give you a free demo version to try out and see for yourself how you like FSFS. The demo is fully featured, except that the geographical area that you may use it in is limited.
INTRODUCTION: Fly Like The Pros With Flight Simulator
I would venture that most sim pilots who fly around the virtual MSFS world typically do not do so using fully realistic flight procedures. Do you perform a full checklist before each flight? For instance, have all of the electrical breakers been set and checked? Are they even modeled in your aircraft? Or do you just skip all of that and use the Autostart function to get your wheels in the air as fast as possible -- after all, it's a Flight Simulator, and not a Sit On The Tarmac Looking At A Checklist Simulator, right?
What do coordinated turns mean to you? Proper application of aileron and rudder is needed to reach an exact standard rate bank angle. Or does it mean that your belt matches your shoes, and that you won't wear checks with stripes?
It's all good, because MSFS is an incredibly open-ended simulator that can accommodate users of every skill level and ambition. Getting up out of the pilot seat during final approach to make some soup and a sandwich is not outside the norms of behaviour for a sim-pilot, or at least for me, anyway.
If you've ever wanted to test your sim-flight skills, though, and see if you have what it takes to fly by the numbers, then FSFlyingSchool is a good place to start. It can also help you refine your flight technique, especially under adverse conditions. Good flight instruction includes training for emergencies, and FSFlyingSchool handles those by generating various equipment failures, including "loose wire" faults which simulate an instrument that fails and then "fixes itself". Perhaps a wire is loose behind the dashboard and loses contact when the aircraft banks one way, and makes contact when the aircraft banks the other. At the end of your flight, you are graded on your performance, and your flight is automatically logged. You have the ability to upload your results to the FSFS and compare your grades with your fellow sim pilots.
FSFlyingSchool works with any aircraft in MSFS, except for gliders, helicopters, and acrobatic aircraft such as stunt planes or fighters. Although FSFS is primarily intended for the default aircraft that come with MSFS, it's quick and easy to create a custom file for other planes including third-party add-ons, and there are many custom files available for download.
Personally, I found the FSFlyingSchool at first to be a little tense! Although a pilot strives for excellence, there are times when being in the air can be dangerous, so that comprehensive training can be the key to survival. Heavy weather, low visibility, equipment failures, and other events can cause catastrophic events that push human endurance and ingenuity to the limit.
Of course, flying in MSFS lowers the risk considerably, since if you run into trouble, you can always dial down the realism, clear the weather, and at the very utmost, reset the flight to avoid a bad situation. FSFlyingSchool has a way of keeping sim-pilots honest about their flying without being intimidating. For someone who is used to blasting through the virtual skies on a whim, this kind of flying offers structure and discipline that is different from the open-ended MSFS Free Flight experience.
INSTALLATION & OPERATION: Welcome to Flight School
FSFlyingSchool currently comes in two flavours: download and CD-ROM disk. I am reviewing the downloaded version on Windows XP, although FSFS is compatible up to Vista, and will support MSFS as far back as the 2002 version. FSFlyingSchool relies on Peter Dowson's FSUIPC (the free version is just fine), which must be downloaded and installed in Flight Simulator.
Installing FSFlyingSchool is easy: copy protection and activation happens through a unique product key issued via e-mail. FSFS runs while your Flight Simulator session is active. Simply boot up your flight sim and FSFS. Click the "Connect" button, and FSFS will activate within your flight sim.
FSFlyingSchool has several options you can use to customize your journey. The opening screen has a row of icons you can use to adjust your options, plus some helpful tips and links to other pages that give you more information.
The "Pilots" tab allows the user to personalize FSFlyingSchool, as well as to set basic parameters regarding controllers and in-flight failures. The failures can range from something small like a stubborn panel switch, to a total cascade of downed systems that punishes your aircraft to the utmost. You can set your flight instructor to notice failures or to keep quiet; in any case, some instructors are more talkative than others. There are currently five instructors to choose from, and it's possible for users to create their own voice files.
Use the "Flight Plan" tab when you want FSFlyingSchool to follow a flight plan. If you do this, your instructor will grade you on your ability to follow waypoints. The flight plans are based on the Microsoft .PLN format. As well, you can set other flight parameters as you see fit.
The "Aircraft" tab lets the user choose the airplane they want to fly with FSFlyingSchool. Usually, the program will automatically select your aircraft if it is a default MSFS plane, but you can over-ride the choice, make edits to the choice, or even add a custom aircraft file.
From what I can tell, FS9 aircraft have more support than FSX aircraft, at least without downloading any extra files. It's very fast and easy to add your own aircraft, like, for instance, a Maule Orion, if you wanted to. You are allowed to use "heavies", i.e. passenger jets, but aerobatic aircraft like the Extra, gliders, and rotary winged-helicopters are not supported in FSFS.
The "Log Book" tab will take you to the section of FSFS where your flight performances are automatically recorded. The log files can be Traditional, which are abbreviated, or Full, which provide many details of your flights. In addition, there is a "Career Analyzer", which provides a detailed line graph of your evaluation scores over time. You need at least two complete flights to begin charting on the Career Analyzer. Your logs can be uploaded to the FSFS website so that you can see how you compare with your fellow sim aviators.
The "Settings" screen tracks global settings for FSFlyingSchool, and the "Credits" screen shows the names of the entire dedicated FSFS team. In addition, the user will enter a key to validate FSFS on this screen, and there are helpful Internet links as well.
Overall, the operating system of FSFlyingSchool is simple and to the point. Sim pilots with experience using audio-based add-ons like Flight Deck Companion or FS2Crew should be comfortable with this set-up, as FSFS runs in a similar manner. For users who are new to FSFS, a 36-page .PDF manual is installed in the main program folder. The manual is helpful, and describes some of the finer points of installing and operating FSFS. There are a few keyboard commands that can be used to interact with the FSFS instructor, and these are documented in the manual as well. The design of FSFlyingSchool is simple enough for the novice pilot to get quickly into action, while more experienced users should be comfortable with making customizable changes to their files.
One thing I found initially disappointing was that there are no flight tutorials within FSFS. I was hoping to see some “classroom” material that might give me some context to my initial flights. Fortunately, the FSFlyingSchool website provides some good videos that show how to set up the program and get started flying. As well, the FSFS customer service department and forum are both very helpful and very nice.
FLIGHT DYNAMICS: "FSFlyingSchool Connecting..."
Despite the name FSFlyingSchool, there really isn't much schooling involved with this program, at least in the most structured sense. There are no lesson plans to follow, nor is there much in the way of teaching material coming from the instructors. The bulk of the communication with the instructor is from examination, where either the instructor tells you to do something and then evaluates you as you do it, or else you perform standard flight manoeuvres, and the instructor reacts to how you are operating the plane, usually in the negative if you do something wrong.
If you are a rookie pilot and you are expecting the instructor to tell you what to do, then FSFlyingSchool won't help all that much. The Rod Machado interactive lessons that are provided with FSX and FS9 are a better resource for this. Where FSFlyingSchool is strongest is in the evaluation of flight technique, rather than instruction. It's assumed that the sim pilot understands how to operate the aircraft, and that the FSFS instructor is more or less along for a check ride. In fact, a basic drill for student pilots, the touch-and-go circuit, is unlocked only after the student flies a successful flight, proving that he or she knows how to operate the aircraft. Circuits are left-hand turns only, and they are unavailable for passenger jets.
A typical session will have the user start up MSFS and then start up FSFlyingSchool. If you like, you can set the expected parameters for your flight, including loading your MSFS flight plan. Unfortunately, you cannot set things like emergency airports, as all FSFS is interested in is if you can follow your waypoints. Still, if you are used to following the purple line in GPS mode, a little VOR (Very High Frequency Omni directional Radio) navigation won't hurt.
Your instructor will say, "FSFlyingSchool Connecting..." to let you know that FSFS is active. As is typical with these sorts of programs, the interaction with your co-pilot is almost purely through audio cues. FSFS generates some text on the screen in the place normally reserved for ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) reports. There is no human co-pilot figure sitting in the right hand seat, only a disembodied voice. If you have all of the dialogue checkmarks added, then you will hear another voice as well: that of the instructor's child who has tagged along for the ride. The child has only a few lines of dialogue, and they all got used up quickly enough on my maiden flight. It's easy to shut off the child, though, and keep your flight realistically serious.
You will need to perform your starting checklist in FSFlyingSchool, but the instructor is primarily interested that the engine and parking brakes are working, that the flaps extend and retract, and that the flight controls move the elevators, ailerons, and rudder fin. The instructor also likes it when you keep the main doors closed during taxi and flight.
If you are using VOR navigation, the instructor will give you some feedback. For instance, if you correctly tune the VOR to SUE, the instructor will tell you, "Radio One is tuned to Sierra Uniform Echo," which is a nice touch. If you tune your second navigation radio to nothing, the instructor will start coughing, which is a subtle way to confirm whether or not FSFlyingSchool is running properly in the background.
Flight is divided into four phases: taxi, take-off and climb, cruise, and landing. The instructor will offer specific advice and observations depending on the particular phase of flight. It's up to the pilot-in-command to "announce" which phase is being attempted. This is accomplished through simple keyboard shortcuts: CTRL+SHIFT+Z to advance one phase, and CTRL+SHIFT+X to go back one phase. Unfortunately, the keystrokes are hard-coded into FSFlyingSchool, so if you have something else set up for them you may run into input conflicts.
The most recent version of FSFS is designed to understand when the pilot-in-command makes the transition from one phase to the next. If FSFS cannot understand which phase is underway, it will try to ask you what your intentions are. However, events in the cockpit can sometimes move very quickly, and the instructor won't understand which phase the pilot-in-command is attempting.
It worked much better when I turned the "auto-detect the flight phase" feature off, and I used the keystrokes to advance the phases. I suspect that the fault lies in the sensitivity within FSFS as to what the aircraft is doing, plus a certain ham-handedness in my control of the vehicle. For instance, if I let my nose drop a bit during cruise, then FSFS was quick to assume that I wanted to land the aircraft. Again, it's not difficult to adjust the flight phase manually, but perhaps the stronger, more difficult lesson was that I needed to pay more attention to developing some solid flying skills.
On taxi, the instructor will let you know if you are rolling too fast, braking too hard, or turning incorrectly. The instructor has an option that will allow him or her to comment on taxi in windy situations. If it's very windy, and your path to the runway has any turns, the instructor will repeat messages on which way your elevators and ailerons should go to avoid tipping over. While it's probably good advice in real world aviation, my experience has been that it takes a great deal of wind to tip an aircraft on taxi in MSFS. The instructor will tirelessly and ceaselessly repeat messages on taxi in the wind until either you take off or else you turn off the taxi advice on the FSFS Pilot menu.
During take-off and cruise flight, what happens in the air is up to you, the pilot-in-command. The instructor will say little, unless you screw up. Again, if you have waypoints, the instructor will tell you when you have arrived, and will read out your next waypoint when you have it dialed in. Unless things are going horribly wrong, the instructor won't say all that much during a flight. Typically, they might start up some minor chit-chat, or else they might ask you questions like, "What airport will you land at in an emergency?"
The landing phase is where the instructor earns his or her paycheque. Getting your aircraft down on the runway in a safe manner is the highest priority. Landings come in two types: VFR (Visual Flight Rules) and IFR (Instrument Flight Rules). With VFR landings, you are responsible for approaching the runway correctly. With IFR landings, you must tune your ILS (Instrument Landing System) to the correct radio frequency for the runway on which you want to land. Then you can follow a narrow radio beam called a "localizer" over the landing threshold, following the guidance needles in your cockpit gauges.
FSFlyingSchool will immediately understand when you are about to attempt a landing using ILS because you must tune your navigation radio. The instructor will watch the ILS and let you know if you are coming in above, below, or to the side of the localizer. As you get closer to the landing threshold, the instructor will give you advice about landing speed and flaps or spoilers. He or she will try to guide you in using simple, easy to understand voice commands. Nearer your touchdown, the instructor will call out the remaining altitude using increments of ten feet.
A VFR landing is slightly different. Because the ILS system uses automated technology to help guide your aircraft onto final approach, all the instructor has to do is watch your cockpit gauges (with the help of Peter Dowson's FSUIPC) to know where your aircraft is. With a VFR landing, the instructor cannot follow what the pilot-in-command is doing. FSFlyingSchool needs help to understand how you plan to land your aircraft.
This is handled through FSFlyingSchool keeping a database of VFR runway approaches. These standardized approaches assume that a certain rate of descent on the runway heading should result in a good landing. All they really are is just the co-ordinates of the best landing threshold, the runway heading, and the best angle of interception for landing. Quite a few VFR runways in the USA are kept in the FSFS database, but there are many around the world that are not. If you try to land at a runway that is not in the database, your instructor won’t be able to guide you to the ground properly, and you will get a failing grade on your landing.
The VFR runway database can easily be edited by the user. If you want to add a runway to your database, you simply add a line of text that describes where the landing threshold is, and what the best runway heading and rate of descent are. I did have problems with ILS runways where the localizer did not match the runway heading in FSX. This causes the instructor to give you bad advice on final approach, and if you make a safe landing, you will get a failing grade for missing the centerline. The solution would be to fly the IFR approach using VFR rules, making sure the runway is in the FSFS VFR database.
Apart from planned flight, there are two other challenges a sim pilot can try in FSFlyingSchool: circuits and airmanship. Circuits allows you to fly in a racetrack pattern around a runway, practicing touch-and-go landings, which is a very important drill for pilots to perform. Airmanship is a quick way to inject some excitement into an otherwise dull flight.
To start a circuit challenge, the sim pilot must first unlock circuits by achieving a flight and landing score of at least 80 out of 100 on a regular test flight. Then, when you want to do circuits, you taxi out to the exact spot and heading you would want to touch down on if you were to do touch-and-go’s. Press CTRL-SHIFT-SPACE BAR, and the instructor will start you on circuits. You will take off on the runway heading, climb 500 feet, and then turn left on the crosswind leg and climb another 500 feet. Your instructor will guide you along the flight track. When the time is right, you will turn left again on base leg, and descend to capture the glide slope. Right-turning tracks are not supported in FSFS, and you won’t be allowed to do circuits in a passenger jet.
The airmanship challenge is a random flight test from the instructor, perhaps something like maintaining a heading while climbing, or else keeping to a descent rate while banking and turning. Some of the challenges are quite easy, while others are more difficult. Press CTRL-SHIFT-C, and your instructor will give you a random challenge. If you are on a long, dull leg between waypoints, an airmanship challenge can liven things up some.
OUTSTANDING ISSUES: Audio Observations
FSFlyingSchool runs smoothly. Under normal operating conditions, I did not notice any major bugs. Usually, if something went wrong, it was because I was doing something I should not have. Occasionally, the instructor would call out the wrong altitude during cruise. For instance, he or she would call out “two thousand feet” when I was climbing past 2,500. Some FSFS forum users have pointed out that if you are running a slower computer, then your instructor might not perform the call-outs in a timely manner.
FSFS is primarily concerned with how you handle your aircraft. If you spend any time with it, you will learn the value of smooth, gentle, coordinated control movements. The instructor will definitely call you out if you attempt any sudden moves, which can make flying through thermals and shifting heavy winds more interesting.
What FSFS will not do is pay any attention to how you operate the aircraft systems. What I mean is that you can run the engines at 110% power for as long as you like, for example, or you can omit using your pitot heat, or you can run at night with all of your lights out, and the instructor will never correct the error of these ways. You won’t get any instruction on how to properly lean your fuel or set your prop pitch, as this goes beyond what FSFS can do. Mostly, FSFlyingSchool is a tool that allows you to find what mistakes you are making in terms of aircraft handling, and hopefully to learn to correct them.
The instructor voices are intended for an English-speaking audience, and seem to concentrate on being correct for American or British flights, as they use only Imperial measurements in their call-outs, i.e. feet and not meters. FSFlyingSchool ships with four instructor voices. The instructors all look for the same in-flight issues, but some instructors are more talkative than others, and will say their lines slightly differently.
For example, Miss Aviatrix (not her real name, I suppose) and Mr. Hughes sound American to me, while Mr. Smith and Mr. Whittle sound British-European. A fifth instructor is available for free download to registered FSFS users: Mr. Mitchell, who sounds to me like he just came off the flight line for the RAF (England’s Royal Air Force). If you like, you can record your own instructor voice track, although I don’t think there’s any way to have FSFS recognize altitude in meters rather than feet for call-outs if you prefer metric.
The sound files are recorded in 8-bit 11 kHz mono PCM audio. By comparison, CD-quality audio is recorded at 44,100 Hz, while a household telephone normally samples audio at around 8,000 Hz. The voices are not recorded at a very high degree of fidelity, and you can hear breathing on the microphone as well as pop and sibilance, something that could be fixed by recording with a pop shield on the mike. The voices do not sound as good as the Mission voices in FSX. On the other hand, the voices seem realistic enough in a cockpit environment, and the actors who provided the voices were extremely clear with their enunciation: there are no mumbled or mispronounced words, and their instructions are easy to hear.
CONCLUSION: Executive Summary
FSFlyingSchool (FSFS) is an add-on that will work for any Microsoft Flight Simulator from 2002 up to FSX. It provides a simulated flight instructor who watches over how you handle your aircraft from taxi to final touchdown, and who can grade your performance. As well, your flight data can be logged and even uploaded onto the Internet so you can see how you compare with other sim pilots.
The “instructor” is a disembodied voice of your choosing within the cockpit of your aircraft. FSFS is capable of using a wide variety of aircraft including large passenger jets as well as single-propeller General Aviation planes. It cannot use acrobatic aircraft, gliders, or helicopters, though. If your favourite aircraft is not supported directly by FSFS, it’s very easy to add it using a simple performance editor included with the program.
The instructor follows the progress of your flight from your initial taxi to after your final touchdown. He or she will talk to you as you fly, letting you know when you are doing something wrong or unsafe, and sometimes offering constructive flight tips. The most interaction comes during the landing phase, which can either be a VFR (Visual Flight Rules) or an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) landing. Afterwards, you are graded on several aspects of your flight performance.
The FSFlyingSchool application runs smoothly and without any major bugs. It does require a reasonably fast computer system, and it works best if you fly using high-quality flight controls like a yoke, throttle, and rudder pedals. The instructor voices are recorded at a low audio resolution, but are acceptably realistic for use in a sim cockpit. All of the instructors speak clearly and their comments are easy to understand. The user is free to modify the instructors in FSFS, including recording their own voices, if they wish.
FSFlyingSchool mostly deals with how you handle an aircraft’s flight controls. Things like manifold pressure, N2 rates, prop pitch and fuel mixture are beyond the scope of FSFS as it stands now. The main lesson that FSFlyingSchool teaches is that a sim pilot should use smooth, gentle, coordinated control movements.
A fast-learning student pilot will quickly understand the importance of planning the landing sequence in advance. Even a few circuits with an FSFS instructor should help you settle into a good rhythm for making acceptable landings. Now that I’ve spent some hours with FSFS, I find that I am working some of the bad sim-flying habits out of my system, and I think I am getting better at aviation simulation in general.
If you are like me, you’ve taken most of the MSFS aircraft inverted under one bridge or another, and you believe that you are ready for more realistic and more disciplined sim aviation, then FSFlyingSchool is worth checking out. You can try before you buy with the FSFS demo download, which means that you can easily see if this interesting program is right for you.
THE LAST WORD:
I think it’s valuable to hear from the developer with regard to their own product. It’s a real pleasure to add what they have to say about their own product into my article, and it’s a part of my job as a reviewer that I really enjoy. The developers at FSFlyingSchool are very enthusiastic about their product:
“FSFlyingSchool is a labour of love and we've always tried to add as much value for money as we can to new customers and to existing owners by adding more content on a frequent basis.
The product was released on Dec 4, 2006 and since that time, we have released 7 new versions, which have introduced, for free, such features as FSX support (in addition to 2004), Career Analyzer (which graphs over 70 areas of performance), Traditional (format) Log Book, two new instructors, more simulated system failures, pre-flight checks, etc.
We like to keep the product fresh and take the opportunity to give the customer a little something more than a bug fix when we release new version. We plan to continue as normal, adding new features from time to time (we've averaged a new EXE every 6 weeks!) to keep the product interesting to existing customers and potential customers alike."
Jeff Preston, one of the FSFlyingSchool developers, was so kind as to describe how he became involved with the FSFS project:
"I grew up in South Wales, always interested in aviation, due mainly to Airfix & Revell kits and the war films of the 50s and 60s. I moved to California where I became interested in programming a little over 25 years ago, writing arcade-style games for the Ataris and Commodores of the era. During this period I developed a keen interest in flight simulation and this in turn led to my flying my own Piper Cherokee, based in Corona, California, and it is this aircraft which appears in the FSFlyingSchool web site banner.
I soon got onto building a decent home cockpit using some CH products and lots of GoFlight goodies. I wanted something that could evaluate my performance in detail, talk to me to give me immediate feedback on how I was doing and finally record the results for future review. I started work on this idea and after having developed it significantly, visited the excellent International Flight Convention at Blackpool in 2005, where the answers of people I spoke with convinced me this was something worth pursuing.
The remaining period was spent designing features for the program, hooking up with a first class team of volunteer testers and coding away with my colleague John Jones who has been a solid partner throughout this project. I feel the resulting program brings a new approach to flying with Flight Simulator and offers the means to make better virtual pilots of many of us - it certainly has for me...!
Some folks like to fly their aircraft like an off-road 4x4 with wings and to be sure, FSFlyingSchool is not for this kind of flying. Our goal is to increase the realism of the simulation by letting the pilot know when he or she is either flying well or not. This can certainly lead to an increase in concentration and stress, but this is nothing new to simmers who try to land difficult aircraft in heavy weather. The pilot will also enjoy the fact that achievements are recorded and can be shared with the simulation hobby worldwide.
FSFlyingSchool also appeals to pilots who want to be kept on their toes by a somewhat unnerving array of random failures, which can pop-up at the worst of times and will certainly challenge the pilot to keep flying the aircraft, while figuring out just what is causing the airplane to behave so badly. Systems, gauges, switches and engines can fail and may well start working again; gear and flaps can be damaged by the pilot.
We also try to give the owners of our product the chance to contribute to the FSFlyingSchool community by creating their own instructors and other data such as custom ambiance sound files which are associated with specific locations."
Once again, thanks to Jeff Preston and the crew at FSFlyingSchool for sending along this information. If you are interested, you may learn more at the FSFS website.
What I Like About FSFlyingSchool
What I Don't Like About FSFlyingSchool
Tell A Friend About this Review!
All Rights Reserved