The Complete Guide to Computer Aviation
by Steve Smith
A COTTAGE INDUSTRY
Earlier versions of Flight Simulator proved very extensible. By the end of the five-year reign of Flight Sim 4.0, there was a veritable cottage industry of add-on programs. Flight Simulator is unique in being a more-or-less "open" system; that is, third-party developers (developers one and two being author Artwick and publisher Microsoft) are not only permitted to create and market expansion disks (with most other sims, the original publisher is usually the sole source of add-on programs), they are encouraged to do so. And so say all of us!
One of the first expansion disks was Microsoft's "Aircraft and Scenery Designer," which added several new aircraft to the original four and provided users with the tools to build (or modify) not only their own aircraft but also fully rendered cities, populated airports, and acres of pine-covered forests.
Mallard brought out a disk that supported sound boards and higher graphics resolutions, and added even more new aircraft, then followed that up with "Aircraft and Adventure Factory," which—true to its title—allowed the user to "script" adventures by creating flight plans that resembled military missions: you would be directed to fly from L.A. to Denver, for example, to pick up a shipment of gold for delivery to Fort Knox, then return to LAX. Newshounds could re-create famous disasters (KAL 007, Pan-Am 103, Ricky Nelson's last flight, Mathias Rust's USSR "incursion," and others).
And on the BBSs, hobbyists were using "Aircraft Factory" to design original planes or faithful reproductions of vintage aircraft like B-17 Flying Fortresses, Lockheed Constellations, DeHavilland Beavers, Curtiss Jennys, Beech Staggerwings and Douglas DC-3s, and post them on CompuServe. You could download them, modify their flight characteristics, or alter their appearance (add your own logo, for example) and create whole fleets of aircraft, from a sputtering 30-horsepower Ultralight to a shrieking 300-ton Boeing 747.
This was great fun, and it looked like it would go on forever.
Then came Flight Simulator 5.0,. All the developers of the previous add-on programs have pledged to update their software to make it compatible with Flight Sim 5.0, even though the new versions are technically far more complex. It could take years before the wealth of Flight Sim 4.0, material is available for Flight Sim 5.0. Meanwhile, many serious pilots may want to stick with the old program—first, because the resource requirements have gotten out of hand (the latest release requires a 66-MHz 486 and local bus video to achieve a frame rate that FS 4.0 could display with a 20-MHz 286 and EGA video); and second, because—other than the fancy new look—the new program offers little in the way of new functionality.
All this will change, of course. As developers direct their full attention to FS 5.0, FS 4.0 will slip into obscurity. For the nonce, however, there are some add-ons that will work with either release. One of my favorites is Mallard's "Real Weather Pilot," which by itself is reason enough to buy a modem. With it, you dial a toll-free number and download the current real-world weather for the location of your choice (with FS 5.0 and a sound card, you also get the crackle and boom of thunderstorms). You can alter the local conditions to suit, or download a national weather map, real-world pilot reports, regional forecasts, even marine and coastal information.