Friday, November 28, 2008

Around the World with Santa: Day 1

If you have ever looked at a map, you have probably noticed that the North Pole is located in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. Now it would certainly be possible to construct a runway in the winter up at the North Pole. However, the company owning Santa's chartered 747s would probably take a dim view of landing the aircraft at an unregulated airstrip which does not appear on any global navigation charts. (Besides, Flight Simulator X has no mechanism for this, either.) So, in order to comply with the terms of the lease agreement, Santa's elves have agreed to schlep the toys from their workshop at the North Pole using their fleet of flying reindeer to Iqaluit Airport, located in the far northern territory of Nunavut in Canada. This will be as close to the North Pole as the 747 aircraft's owners will allow it to land.

From here, we are going to make a run down to Montreal's Mirabel Airport for the first leg of our journey. Mirabel was originally intended to be a replacement for Montreal's Dorval (now Trudeau) Airport, but it never really quite caught on. Instead, Mirabel mainly sees lots of use by cargo, general aviation, and even some MEDEVAC flights. This makes it quite an ideal destination for staging Santa's toy deliveries to all the good boys and girls living in French Canada.

Here we are at Iqaluit, ready to go. The snow is blowing hard, and the weather is rather cold. Takeoff time is around 10:00 in the morning. Being in the far north of Canada, the sun rises very late and sets very early:

Our flight path will take us roughly due south over the Hudson Strait and into northern Quebec. We will go in and out over a few small portions of western Labrador as well. When we reach Baie Comeau, QC at the St. Lawrence River, we will turn southwest and follow the river the rest of the way to Mirabel.

We are airborne, at last. Here we fly above the snow. You can see the Hudson Strait below us:

Here we are in the great white north over Ungava Bay. We will be crossing back onto land in northern Quebec near Kuujjuaq, a largely Inuit village:

At Baie Comeau, we turn southwest. Here is the wide expanse of the St. Lawrence Seaway ahead of us:

We are getting close now. Montreal Center has directed us for an approach on Mirabel's Runway 24, so we will begin to vector into position:

Here we are on final approach. We expect a few bumps on our way down as we pass back through the snowy clouds:

We touch down in the snow at Mirabel. Gee, snow seems to be a recurring theme in the Canadian winter, eh?

Here we pull into a slip at the cargo terminal next to a UPS bird. There appears to be a problem with the texture on PMDG's Boeing dreamliner livery. I will have to check and see if a fix exists:

Our first leg of the journey is complete. Merry Christmas to all our friends in Quebec and the surrounding areas!

Around the World with Santa: Prologue

If you are like me, you have probably wondered at some point: how does Santa Claus cope with the ever-increasing numbers of children at Christmas? I did some checking around with various unnamed sources, and I have found some very surprising answers. It turns out that Santa has had to modernize his gift distribution network over the years to keep up.

How, you might ask? Well, it turns out that Santa has a global logistical network that puts both and UPS to shame. In fact, I have learned that Santa now has secret distribution centers all over the world! You see, if Santa had to trek back up to the North Pole to reload the sleigh after every trip, he would still be delivering gifts from five years ago this Christmas. So, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, he stocks up all his secret regional sites with goodies ahead of time. Sure, when Christmas Eve rolls around, Santa still continues the tradition of hitching Rudolph and the rest of the reindeer up to the sleigh and delivering gifts to all the good boys and girls. However, rather than wasting valuable time zipping back to the North Pole to reload the sleigh on Christmas Eve, Santa can simply zip over to the nearest secret site to tank up and keep going.

As you might expect, Santa and the elves have to rent some planes to get the goodies out from the workshop out to all the sites ahead of the big day. And let me tell you, Santa doesn't mess around! He charters 747-400 freighters like this one:

The liveries on Santa's planes tend to be similarly nondescript. Santa doesn't like to attract unnecessary attention before the big day, after all.

Now it turns out that different regions of the world have slightly different beliefs when it comes to Santa. For example, in much of Europe, Santa is known variously as Father Christmas, Papa (or Pere) Noel, Sinterklaas, or various other names. Many Europeans believe that Santa's operations are located in Lapland, rather than the North Pole. People connected with Santa's operations have assured us that these are just different franchises of the same operation, and everything is connected.

In a Pretend Flyer exclusive, Santa has agreed to let us tag along on some of his pre-Christmas gift delivery flights this holiday season! We will ride along in the jumpseat of one of Santa's 747s as they stage gifts in various locales ahead of the big day. We will even visit the European operations of the world's largest gift-giving organization along the way. Keep watching this space as we document the daily travels of Santa's flying elves.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

For those of you so inclined, have a great Thanksgiving holiday. We will be doing the usual around here -- spending time with the family, stuffing ourselves full of turkey, watching football, and of course, even a little flight simming.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Simulating the Gimli Glider

Interesting article over at about simulating the Gimli Glider.  The Gimli Glider is a pretty famous mishap in aviation circles, but in case you are unfamiliar with it, Wikipedia has a nice article about it.

The Gimli Glider was a 767-200, and the article uses a 767 from the library.  Wonder if the Level-D 767-300 would work?  Might be an interesting experiment sometime.

My Other Birthday Present

Along with the PMDG MD-11, I picked up another flight sim related present for my birthday: the Logitech Freedom 2.4 GHz Cordless Joystick:

I ordered mine from Amazon last week, and it shipped via 20 mule team UPS ground from Pennsylvania. It finally arrived on Monday evening, so I took it for a spin in Wilco's Cessna Citation X last night. Sometimes, I have a need for speed, and Mach 0.92 at FL510 is a lot of fun.

So far, I rather like it. We currently live in a small house in Oregon, and my little nook for the computers is tiny. Minimizing the cables tethering me to my computers is a really good thing right now. It means one less cord around for the kids to trip over.

It has 10 buttons on this one, along with the slider for the throttle and the twist rotation for rudder. My past joysticks have only used 8 buttons, so now I have two new buttons to define. Any suggestions as to what any of you use the remaining two buttons for? At this point, I am thinking about setting one to turn on/off autopilot, and the other to engage the parking brake. But I'm open to suggestions for optimal simming with this thing.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Mini-Review: PMDG MD-11

(The scene: somewhere within the large UPS cargo hub at Louisville International Airport, a pilot grumbles.)

Dammit, we should have been in the air three hours ago! What is taking maintenance so long to fix the friggin' plane? I realize Boeing isn't popping these MD-11 tri-jets out their assembly lines anymore these days, but come on, how hard is it really to get parts for this thing?

(Suddenly, maintenance radios in.)

"Good news, Captain. We have managed to track down the electrical fault. Should have you airborne within a half hour or so."

Thank God. I was beginning to think it might actually be faster to just unload the plane and drive the cargo to Memphis myself. Time to get going with the preflight rituals once again, I suppose...

(A half-hour later.)

Well, it looks like we are all set. Thanks to this delay, it looks like this bird will get a rare chance to see the sun while airborne. Oh well. Better late than never.

Now that the scene is set, let us accompany our severely tardy pilot on a short-but-sweet flight aboard PMDG's new MD-11 add-on, decked out in a very nice UPS livery. We are taking off from UPS's cargo hub at Louisville International Airport (previously known as Standiford Field), bound for Memphis International Airport. Ironically, Memphis just also happens to be a major hub of UPS's chief competitor, FedEx. This route is currently flown by UPS as Flight 1384, which has been known to use MD-11's on the route from time to time.

Here is a view of the plane we will be taking out for a ride today:

Some background: the MD-11 was developed in the late 1980s as an update to McDonnell-Douglas's successful DC-10 series. The DC-10 was developed in the early 1970s as an economical answer to the Boeing 747. It also competed with the somewhat similar Lockheed L-1011 tri-jet. The DC-10 is a wide-body tri-jet capable of both medium and long-haul service. The third engine made the DC-10 suitable for overseas routes in the days preceding ETOPS regulations that made twin-engine overseas flights viable. Unfortunately, several high-profile accidents in the 1970s and 1980s gave the DC-10 and MD-11 a negative public perception of being an unsafe aircraft; however it is worth noting that many cargo airlines (including FedEx) are still flying DC-10s and MD-11s as freighters to this day.

The MD-11 stretched the DC-10 a bit and completely revamped the avionics. Gone were all the old steam gauges of the DC-10 (save for the backup instruments); in their place, six state-of-the-art glass screens relay all important flight data to both pilots. This development was revolutionary at the time the MD-11 was developed in the late 1980s; though now, it is practically standard equipment on every new airliner produced today, including the most popular models from Boeing, Airbus, Embraer, and Bombardier. Honeywell developed the MD-11 avionics for McDonnell-Douglas, which became known as Advanced Common Flightdeck, or ACF. McDonnell-Douglas would go on to incorporate ACF in their MD-95 project (a revamp of the MD-80), which was ultimately produced by Boeing as the Boeing 717 post-merger. Indeed, glimpsing at real-life cockpit photos of the MD-11 and the Boeing 717 reveal that the two are strikingly similar.

Alas, the aforementioned ETOPS regulations have essentially doomed the future of the MD-11. Only 300 MD-11s were ever produced. Medium and long-range twin engine jets such as the Boeing 767 and Airbus A330 have largely filled the niche previously occupied by the DC-10/MD-11 on overseas flights, as elimination of the third engine has meant increased fuel savings. Still, a few airlines continue to fly some MD-11s as passenger airliners, including KLM and Finnair. MD-11s have become very popular as freighters, with both FedEx and UPS operating them for overseas (and even some domestic) cargo routes.

On board, here is a first glimpse of the virtual cockpit of the PMDG MD-11:

The virtual cockpit is visually appealing, and stunningly detailed. Among other things, pay attention to the three FMS computers on the center pedestal. There is a very neat detail about this coming up.

The 2D panel does not fail to impress, either. Here is the main view from the Captain's chair:

And from the First Officer's seat:

If you own PMDG's 747, you probably recall a row of buttons near the top of the 2D panel to pull up the different systems. PMDG has taken a different approach with the MD-11, which I really like. There are now six clickable areas on the panel which pull up different displays. Four of these appear as "ghosted" rectangular buttons. The remaining two consist of a "ghosted" left arrow for the autoflight controls, and another clickable area in the general vicinity of the compass near the top of the panel. These areas respond differently whenever you right-click versus left-click the area. Here is an example:

Left-clicking the compass brings up a miniature version of the overhead panel, with only the bottom row of buttons (generally covering the lights) visible:

On the other hand, right-clicking the compass brings up the full version of the overhead panel:

Here is a view of the autoflight controls:

The center pedestal:

One interesting thing to note here. The MD-11 is rather unique in that flap position between 11-25 degrees is completely variable. This is known as "dial-a-flap," as seen above. When the main flaps lever is pulled to this detent, the dial-a-flap value on the right is the actual value used. There are recommendations for different dial-a-flap settings depending on the conditions involved. Above 25 degrees, there are hard detents for 28 and 35 degrees, which are generally used for landing.

Here is the radio stack:

Clicking on the area marked "FO" from the Captain's seat will take you to the First Officer's view. Likewise, there is a corresponding button there to take you back to the Captain's view again.

While I am on the subject of the First Officer's view: recall the multiple FMC's mentioned earlier? It turns out that PMDG has modeled all three of these (the third one being on the radio stack) as independent units, just as in real life! This means that the First Officer may be looking at a different screen on the FMC than the Captain, and the simulation keeps track of this accordingly. Many add-ons just use a single FMC for all of them. This is one small detail that I find really neat; just one of many examples of the level of thought and detail that have gone into this product.

And here is a closeup view of the FMC:

The FMC bears a significant resemblance to the FMC used in the Fokker F70/F100 add-on from Digital Aviation. It appears to be something of a forerunner to the FMC used in modern Airbus models. If you have flown Digital Aviation's Fokker or Wilco's Airbus add-ons, the MD-11's FMC will rapidly become very familiar to you.

The FMC itself uses a common navigation database with the PMDG 747, which is also nice. If you subscribe to the Navigraph AIRAC updates, then the PMDG update will now update the FMC in both the 747 and the MD-11. The FMC has full support for terminal procedures, alternate airports, and more.

Oh yes, even the windshield wipers work:

I am not entirely certain if PMDG has modeled a weather radar on the MD-11, or even if the MD-11 actually has a weather radar. It was not mentioned in the tutorial flight. I need to go back and look at the reference documents on the aircraft and see.

PMDG has included extensive documentation about operating the MD-11. For the novice, they have done a fantastic step-by-step tutorial of taking the plane from cold and dark to airborne flight and eventual landing. The tutorial flight simulates an old Swissair route from Heathrow to Zurich. I ran this flight using real-world weather, and found myself landing in a snowstorm in Zurich! The MD-11 landed flawlessly using an ILS approach. The weather was really cool. In my excitement, I forgot to snap a few screenshots, but I wish I had now.

One other nifty tidbit: the PMDG has included a few extra goodies with the MD-11. I won't give them all away, but here is a teaser: a more precise pushback mechanism. This is invoked from a special menu within the FMC, which would not appear on the actual plane. You can specify how far back you want the plane pushed, and the angle of turn. Then sit back and listen to the captain and tug driver banter back and forth during the operation! Fun stuff.

Lastly, here are a couple of shots of the MD-11 in action during our flight to Memphis:

Bottom line: PMDG has come up with another winner. The price may be steep, but the quality and attention to detail match accordingly. If you have to forego your beer money for a month or three, or convince your relatives to give you cash instead of socks for the holidays this year, then the MD-11 is well worth the sacrifice. In a year in which so many great new add-ons have appeared on the scene, the MD-11 is definitely among the best.

Overall rating: *****

Looking Ahead

2008 saw quite a few exciting new releases for Flight Simulator enthusiasts. What can we look forward to seeing in 2009 and beyond? I'm sure there will be many unexpected surprises in store, but here is what we know is currently in the works:
  • Level-D is still toiling away on their version of the 757. Will we see it in 2009? Who knows. If it is anything like their 767, it will be well worth the wait. For what it's worth, Captain Sim also does a very nice (albeit a bit buggy) 757 add-on if you need to fill that void in your fleet.

  • PMDG announced long ago that they are redoing their 737 NG series for FSX, to be dubbed NGX. I am really looking forward to this, given the wide adoption of the 737 NG by many airlines, especially in the U.S. Now that the MD-11 has shipped, will they refocus their efforts on the NGX? I sure hope so. PMDG takes their time on releases, but the attention to detail really shows. I would be very happy to see the NGX in 2009, but I'm not holding my breath just yet.

  • Vic from feelThere let slip in one of their forums a few months back that they are doing a rewrite of the ERJ. It will be interesting to see what they do with that. I am actually reasonably satisfied with the old ERJ, and would prefer they rework the CRJ instead. Among other things, it would be nice if the CRJ used the same navigation database as feelThere/Wilco's other products. At any rate, it will be interesting to see what their new take on the ERJ will be.

  • Vic also put out a question as to whether fans would be interested in seeing a new panel for the 737 PIC. I am not sure what to make of this one. Are they simply thinking of redoing the existing 737 "classic" panel? Or are they looking to do their own version of a 737 NG? I sure hope for the latter, but we shall see. Yes, I know there is a 737-800 built into FSX, but it is not terribly realistic.

  • Captain Sim also has several ongoing projects in partial states of completion. I really hope they finish their 727 next year. That would be a fun jet to fly, even if it has largely disappeared from the skies these days. I have already picked up the initial pieces of the 727, although the most interesting piece, the panel and cockpit, and not yet available.

  • Captain Sim also recently gave everybody a sneaky peek at their new B-52. Fun stuff!
I am sure somebody out there will throw us a few unexpected curveballs in the future, too. Plenty of stuff ahead to keep our Flight Simulator addictions going for well into another year!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Back Again

Ugh. Sorry about the unplanned hiatus. Lots of outside things came up with work, life, the universe, everything, you name it. I had thought quite a few times about posting here, then got busy doing something else.

So what's new in the flight sim world since I last posted?
  • feelThere released their MAP! add-on. They are selling this directly; not in conjunction with Wilco as with many of their other products. MAP! looks reminiscent of the LCD data displays feelThere uses in the virtual cabin of their Cessna add-on, with an additional mapping feature. It looks cute, but it's not really at the top of my list of must-have add-ons right now.

  • Wilco announced Tilt Rotor, the latest in their luxury airliners collection. This was the add-on they had the guessing contest about back in the summer. Unfortunately for me, I guessed wrong. At any rate, this looks like a rather interesting, unique bird. I may look into it a few months down the road.

  • Wilco also announced Aviation & Mission for the 737 PIC add-on. This one adds some new missions with challenging real-world situations involving the 737. Step-by-step training for 737 novices is also included as well. This one could be interesting, but I'll wait and see.

  • PMDG released their MD-11 add-on for FSX, with the FS9 version forthcoming. I am extremely excited about this one. In fact, I just picked it up for my birthday last week. I have been having a lot of fun flying this one, and I will do a mini-review soon. Now I know 59.99 (around U.S. $75) is a lot of dough to fork over, but this is definitely top-notch as far as add-ons go. Thank goodness that the exchange rates for the U.S. dollar are a bit more favorable now than they were this summer.

  • feelThere released the v1.6 update for their E-Jets add-on. Seems to be another relatively minor fix. I flew around some more in the E-Jets before I picked up the MD-11. I am beginning to really get the hang of it. Nice plane for simulating regional routes.
Outside of the flight sim world, it looks like fuel prices have taken a nice dive over the last several months. Ordinarily this would be good news for the airlines; however these are far from ordinary times. With the economy in shambles, fewer people will be flying, which means that the airlines will still have a tough go of it.

More service cuts at Austin Bergstrom International Airport (my old home airport) were recently announced:
  • Delta Connection (Comair) ends service to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky on January 5. Not a big surprise, as Delta is in the process of scaling back Cincinnati in a big way. I would not be at all surprised to see Cincinnati eventually downgraded to focus city status in favor of the former Northwest hub in Detroit.

  • Northwest Airlink (Pinnacle Airlines) -- now Delta, I guess -- is ending service to Indianapolis on January 5. No big surprise here. I never really saw much obvious need for this route in the first place. If American couldn't make Austin to Seattle work (two high-tech hubs), then Austin to Indy was a definite head-scratcher.
On the other hand, things are fairly stable at Portland International Airport. JetBlue launched service on E190 jets to Long Beach back in October. Alaska recently announced service to Long Beach as well, beginning February 8. Clearly this is a defensive move by Alaska to defend against JetBlue gaining a foothold at PDX.

OK, I promise not to wait so long before posting next time!