My fascination with the Queen of the Skies has been a life-long one! Be it because it was the plane I took on my first trans-Atlantic flight back in 1980 (CP-Air-747-200), be it because of its distinctive “hump” – to me no other plane comes even close. Yes, it is true that it no longer holds the title of “biggest bird in the sky” (that title was lost to the A-380 a few years back) but the new 747-8 still holds the title for longest plane in the sky. When it comes to style, recognizability and pure “grace” however – it would be much like comparing an eagle to a whale. (Sorry Airbus guys).
The idea of building my own 747-400 Simulator started over 10 years ago. Similarly to most simmers, I started with a single 14 inch monitor, then a 19″, then a 24″, then 2 monitors, then 2 32″ TVs – everything changed however the moment I put my hands on a projector! It became a whole different ball-game, for I could now see the sim’s potential – and with some (or a lot of) work, what it could eventually look like. So it was about 5 years ago when I decided to build my 747 simulator. It is true however that “everything starts from a thought!” Truth be told, 80% of the building process first happens in your mind. Many – many components which I had no idea where to begin from – I envisioned from different perspectives – studied countless pictures and videos, gathered a clue here and a hint there, until it would become clear and feasible in my mind. Basically I could envision it already “built” – then it was a matter of transferring that thought into physical construction. So in all, I would say that the last five years has come down to 4 years of planning, educating myself and drawings, six months of materials gathering and pre-building individual components, and 3 months assemblage.
The biggest compromise I had to make however, was that if I went the “one-plane-dedicated sim” route, I could no longer fly all the other planes I also liked. Like the venerable 767 which is my second most favorite plane, and of course the irreplaceable and ubiquitous 737. It did not take me long to decide however, as there was no doubt in my mind that the pros and benefits of building a dedicated “one-plane” simulator, far outweighed the cons. Many do ask me if I miss flying other planes, or land in smaller airports. Despite of the fact that over the years I had assembled a considerable collection of beautiful other planes, and that I had installed many mid-size airports on which I could land with a 737 at most – the answer is a resounding NO! Why – you may ask? The short answer is “would you rather drive several average family cars, or one Ferrari all of the time?” But seriously speaking – the undeniable truth is that it takes simming to a whole new level.” There is simply no way to compare flying a “desk” basically, even with all of the gadgets attached to it – to a “real” looking – real feeling, real sounding full-size cockpit sim. The ambience alone makes it all worthwhile. And the interesting thing is, that while before I would on average crash-land 2-3 times out of 10, now, I can only crash if I do so intentionally – even in the worst of weather conditions. Be it the visual and audio cues, the solidity – and the proper layout of the controls and all the buttons and switches, I now land smooth as oil – every time. Over time I have added and customized so many things in the sim that it now feels and sounds pretty darn amazing. As for my perspective it is a very slow and gradual process, it is hard for me to see how the sim improves week after week – but judging from the look on my friends faces – when they do come to visit – it must look pretty darn good. From the real engine and cockpit sounds painstakingly collected from real internet videos, then remixed and inserted into the sim, to the real flight attendants announcements in not one but 3 languages (English-French-Italian) to the full size gauges, controls, as well as several real components from the real 747 – bought from airplane recyclers – it all amounts to a pretty nice toy to have in my basement. Did I mention that I also have two REAL 747 seats, for Captain as well as First Officer – including “J” rails? (Thanks to my buddy GaryS). At the moment I only have 1 projector for the out-view, I will soon add a second or a third even (if needed) but even with a single projector the image is a whopping 11 feet wide.
Why FS9 and not FSX? Good question – but in a nutshell here is my reasoning. Let me start by saying however that I own a computer store – hence I have the freedom and the expertise to build myself any type of machine I like. Hence my decision had nothing to do with cost or hardware limitations. Back when I started entertaining the idea of building the sim – FSX was yet to be released. Like millions of other simmers, I couldn’t wait for FSX to be released – for logic dictated (back then) that if FS2004 was that much superior to FS2002 – then 4 years later FSX would have had to be fantastic to say the least. But lo and behold, we were all in for a huge disappointment, for as soon as I installed FSX, beside the pretty rivets on the plane’s skin and the wet runway effect and some other minor visual improvements, the sim performed terribly. Out of the box, I could barely get the plane to move on the tarmac were the frame rates so terribly low. And if I wanted to get a half decent 20-25 FPS I had to disable or considerably lower most of the visual eye-candy, which defeated the purpose. It is true that many fellow simmers tried to work around the many-many issues FSX shipped with, with some appreciable results, but all in all – it just didn’t do it for me. And because of the many-many improvements I had already made in FS9 and the many hundreds of dollars spent on add-ons – and because of the super-smooth-flawless performance, in the end it was not worth my while. If you asked me to use computer lingo, FSX is (in my humble opinion) to flight-simming, what Vista was to Operating Systems, and you all know exactly what I am referring to – a bloated, slow, heavy, hopeless platform. But enough talking about FSX – as for me personally – just like Vista, it should have never come out – in the state it did. This is my reasoning – because of the fact that I fly a heavy bird exclusively, I really do not have the time nor the opportunity to look at the ducks in a lake nor the giraffes in the jungle, I mean, the slowest I can fly without stalling is 150Knots – thus I only fly from major hub to major hub, therefore beside the dozens of decent looking airports already included in FS9, over time, I have added over 250 super-detailed custom airports to it. Basically, any airport on the planet that is of any relevance – and some for pure fun – I have it, in custom designed and super detailed glory. Gems From FlyTampa, UK2000, Drzewiecki Design, and Aerosoft, just to name a few. Couple all this with beautiful weather and sky from REX, Terrain from Ultimate Terrain, elevations from Genesis, and many-many more add-ons and effects – and you’ll know why I stayed with FS9. And let’s not forget of course insanely high frame-rates of 100-200 FPS at full detail – if you know what I mean.
When it comes to my rig, it is an I7-2600K water-cooled and running at a beautifully stable 4.3 GHz (3.4 stock.) 16 GB of RAM on an MSI MOBO. 2 Solid State hard drives – one for the OS and the other for the sim, and finally 2 ATI 9770 Video cards, one for the MIP and one for the out-view exclusively. I am aware of the fact that there are a lot of mixed reviews about ATI cards on the various simming sites – and that most simmers seem to favor NVidia cards over ATI, but my choice was made mainly from professional experience. I do not have any affiliation to any of the 2 brands, but I have been in the computer service industry for over 30 years, and time and time again – every time a video card failed in a customer’s computer – 8-9 times out of 10 it was an NVidia card. So much so that when a customer calls with some type of video issue – I ask them if they have a green sticker on their machine – and to their surprise it never fails – it is always an NVidia. Most folks seem to be of the opinion that ATI does not render clouds well – but my clouds look amazing! To be totally fair however, let’s give credit where credit is due. Truth be told – there is a lot more to the story. You can have a thousand dollars video card – of any brand, but if your machine – your OS – and your sim are not tuned properly, you are going to be disappointed regardless of the hardware you have. We prove this point in my store every day, customers come in with a 2 thousand dollars laptop – I7 CPU, 16 Gigs of ram, and all the bells attached – but their machine performs no better than a single core 300 dollars machine. And they cannot believe their eyes the difference a few mouse clicks can make.
Now, going back to the sim, I do not have my head in the sand of course, and I do understand technology, hence I am not going to say that I will never switch sim-platforms. When it come to X-Plane, for me – that sim just doesn’t cut it. Over the years, I have give it a chance not once but 3 times, and each time I was more disappointed than the last, I mean – it is a MAC sim – trying to run on a PC – so for me X-Plane is over-and-out for good. Prepar3d from Lockheed Martin on the other hand looks pretty promising, and to once again use computer lingo, it is to simulation what windows 7 is to OSs – now we are cooking with gas! I am not in any rush however. I have already bought the last 3 versions of P3D – but upon installing it – it simply does not seem to offer much betterment over my existing FS9 – hence, I end up removing it soon after. To be totally fair, the textures I use in FS9 are not stock at all – I use a combination of sets from the web – where some really dedicated folks went through the trouble of modifying high quality textures (meant for P3D and FSX) – to work on FS9, and a large quantity of texture which I have custom made or modified myself in photoshop.
I have a feeling that the hype with P3D will soon expire, as their refusal (in my opinion) to start from scratch and build a modern sim which could take advantage of today’s compting power is pushing simmers in other direction more and more. They instead opted to try and inprove upon the existing FSX platform – fixing and patching things – as they went along. That said, I have been keeping an eys on Aerofly’s FS2 for a few years now, and once they get their act together and offer a wider world to fly to – they may have a winner. However for the time being I am perfectly happy with my trusted FS9. In essence, if mine were a “stock:” FS9, then I am sure P3D and the like would justify switching, but my FS9 is far from stock and it looks pretty darn amazing – hence for the time being I am perfectly happy with my old but smooth as oil and beautiful FS9.