Migrating My Six-Pack To Air Manager

Air Manager from Sim Innovations is a great product that lets you design custom flight simulator panels for display on PC, Mac, Android, and iPad screens. I’ve used the iPad version for some time to display panels for some of the aircraft in the sim, and it works very well. My complaint has been that the iPad version is limited to the instruments available in their instrument store. There are over 500 of them, and nearly all of them are free to use, but they don’t all match the airplane I’m using or my panel, which is black.

As a result, over the past two weeks I have paid for and have been working with the desktop version of Air Manager. It’s much more powerful that the mobile version, and lets you customize instruments. Doing so means being good with PhotoShop (or good enough), but more important, means knowing your way around basic Lua code and scripts — and that is something I barely understand.

But I have been playing with it, and have come a fair way in modifying some of the free instruments to create my own panels. One is a C172 panel that better matches the instrumentation of the Skyhawk I rent, and which has black instrument backgrounds to better match my sim’s black panel. It looks like this:

That was an easy modification. I just changed the light settings on the backgrounds for the steam gauges so they were grey/black.

A more significant bit of work has been modifying the default Air Manager Avidyne panel so it more closely matches and works like the actual Avidyne Entegra PFD in the Cirrus I’m flying. The actual panel looks like this (not from the airplane I use — I found this image on the Web):

… whereas the default Air Manager panel looks like this:

… and after spending some time with PhotoShop and working with the Lua script, I now have a panel that looks like this:

I’ve moved the left data block down below where it is in the real plane, and added the engine data block on the other side. That scripting was all straightforward. More complicated (at least to figure out, as the code is simple) was the data block for the GPS data. I had to figure out how to have it display the full name of the next waypoint, and found some clever code to convert the time enroute estimate to hours:minutes:seconds. And finally yesterday I was able to create the power percentage at top left. X-Plane has a dataref for total power for the airplane in watts, and another for current power in watts. Some math created the power percentage, and it seems to accurately change with mixture and altitude. Given that all Cirrus power settings are in percentages, this data block was important for the panel to work well for my IFR training. There is more to do, but this is a great start and I hope to keep working on it, and at some point I will upload it to the Air Manager store so others can use it.

In terms of running these panels, I can’t do it on the iPad as the iPad player is limited to instruments in the store. So I pulled out an older Microsoft Surface I have, cleaned it up and updated its Windows, and installed on it Sim Innovations Air Player software. This lets me send any panel I create in Air Manager to the Surface where it can talk to X-Plane. I’ll now be mounting that Surface where the iPad used to be in my panel. I’ll post and update when it’s up and running, but so far the tests look great.

A Switch In Platforms

I made the decision earlier this week to do my IFR training in this SR-20. I had a flight in it last month, and another this week, and while it is more expensive per hour than the other airplanes I’ve been flying I believe it’s the right platform for me long term. As I’ve done more research on Cirrus I’ve been particularly impressed with the focus on safety and the very strong pilot community, embodied by COPA, the association for Cirrus pilots and owners. I’ve joined it, and have already learned a lot about general aviation just from reading its forums. I also very much like the tone of that community: everyone uses their real names, the disagreements are extremely civil, and folks are beyond helpful.

COPA also runs a series of proficiency programs, called CPPP’s, several times a year that include flight and ground schools and can count as FAA Wings training credit. There’s one in Lakeland, FL next weekend and I’ve enrolled in the ground school. I’m really looking forward to it.

Finally, I’ve configured the sim to model an SR-20 using Jason Chandler’s Cirrus package. I find the flight model excellent, and you get both SR-20s and SR-22s in the package. I tried the vFlyte SR-20 but it was difficult to remove cockpit objects so they weren’t visible in my monitors. That vFlyte package would be better for VR use, though. Air Manager for iPad has a basic Avidyne panel (which the SR-20 I’ll be flying uses) that I can run in the sim. It works well, but lacks a lot of the data the real thing presents, so this weekend I’ll be looking into building my own via the Air Manager desktop app. I’ll keep you posted on that experiment.

A Better Set Of Lua Scripts For Rotary Encoders In X-Plane

A few years back I posted a LUA script I had modified for increasing the speed with which a rotary encoder can change something like a heading bug in X-Plane. While you can assign a rotary encoder — either one you place in your sim or maybe one of the dials on a Saitek FIP — to change a heading bug by having it send a keyboard stroke to the simulator, that process moves the bug very very slowly, and this old script speeded that up.

Last week I noticed that the script I used to change my OBS via a rotary encoder was no longer working in FlyWithLua. In trying to find the source of the error I found new posts in this post at the .ORG in which Adamo posted a link to a .ZIP file which has improved scripts for a variety of different bugs you might want to sent via an encoder: Heading, Airspeed, Altitude, VClimb/Descent, OBS, etc. They work GREAT, and are worth downloading if you want this functionality in your sim. The link to the .ZIP file is about half-way down the thread.

A Very Different Reality With X-Plane 11.32 Beta

I wrote a few days back about my struggles with the 11.3 beta series of X-Plane, with the primary issue being repeated crashes and inconsistent device (e.g. FIPs via SPAD.neXt) performance. Since that time I updated the power plan of my PC (which for some reason had reset to a default setting) and updated X-Plane to the 11.32 release candidate, and suddenly, to my great surprise, I am experiencing simulation bliss. Performance is good — 30 to 60 fps using a frame-limiting plugin (not 3jFPS but another one which slips my mind at the moment) — smooth, and more important, no crashes and no wonky device performance. SPAD.neXt is working great, Air Manager is working great, the Flight Illusion stack is working great, and the RealSimGear 430 is working great. It’s blissful. More important, with PilotEdge I have now had two very helpful simulated-IFR training flights to augment my real-world IFR training. I’m happy as can be. I don’t know what did the trick, perhaps it was the release of 11.32, but I’m not asking why. I’m just enjoying the sim.

Also, for those who have asked about my preference of VR vs. the physical sim cockpit, my thinking is as I had suspected it would be a few months back: while VR feels much more like flying and is a much better experience in terms of sight pictures, the fluidity of being airborne, etc., I have no doubt that I will be using the physical cockpit as my first choice for IFR training at home. Being able to use the GNS 430 (just as in the real-world), manage charts, etc. is, at least so far, a better training experience for me and just more like what I do in the real airplane. I’ll post more about this as my training continues and my thinking evolves, but so far that’s how it’s shaping up.

I Spent Time In A Sim Today – And It Counted

My first time using flight simulation software was sometime in the 1980s on the green screen of an Apple IIe. That interest eventually led to my building the Basement Sim, most construction of which happened three years ago this week. So it seems apropos that today I spent 1.5 hours in a sim and was able to enter it in my logbook as counting against the requirements for my instrument rating.

The short story is that one of the CFI’s at my flight school recently bought a federally-approved sim and has it on the virtual line for student training. We were originally set to spend a couple of hours in a Cirrus SR-20 today (I’m getting checked out on the SR-20), but weather was IFR so we jumped in the sim instead. 1.5 hours later – and a failed attitude indicator, failed vacuum pump, failed airspeed indicator, and a shot of smoke in the cockpit later – we had 1.5 hours of simulated IFR time for the logbook. With this sim I can count 20 hours of sim time against my instrument rating, and I plan to make the most of it. And it should only get better, as today they installed PilotEdge on the sim.

My impression is that the time I’ve spent in my own sim was very helpful in this training. The CFI felt I handled the instrument work better than most people just beginning their instrument training, and I was quite comfortable on the instruments. The big learning today, aside from many technical coaching points the CFI gave me along the way, was the distraction partial panel can cause. The urge to glance at your attitude indicator or directional gyro is quite real, and when you do and it is failed it gives a very incorrect signal to the brain that is likely in opposition to what the other instruments are telling you. I can see why folks might carry some post-it-notes to stick over a failed instrument in real-world flight. But that, too, is something I can simulate in my own rig, and flying around in IMC for a while with a failed attitude indicator is on my list of things to do.

One final impression was how useful it was to have a CFI throw you emergencies and failures. You can set X-Plane to fail systems randomly across a particular time frame, but you do know to some extent that it’s coming. I plan to do this at home, but I also left thinking that it’s probably money well-spent to have a CFI put you in a sim and just throw crazy stuff at you once a month. I can’t believe that would make you worse as a pilot.

(And the best part of today was when he had my flying partial panel with a failed attitude indicator and airspeed indicator when the sim threw me carb ice on its own – but a quick pull of the carb heat fixed that particular problem.)

An Update On 11.3 – And Progress

I spent some time digging into the Windows Event Log and saw that my most recent X-Plane 11.31rc1 crash involved the crash of an obscure (at least to me) video driver. My NVIDIA drivers are current, but in researching the situation I found a post noting power management problems as a possible cause of that specific driver crash. I checked my power management settings and, lo and behold, somewhere along the path of mandatory Windows updates they had been reset from “Bitsum Highest Performance” to “Balanced.” I set them back to highest performance, and the next VR flight was (1) stable, and (2) much better performance. I will hope this resolved the issue. The real test will be setting up the physical sim and it’s many associated devices. I’ll post an update when I do.

Finally Answering Some Questions

I have been quite absent from here lately. The holidays were a time to focus elsewhere, and with the new year my aviation interest was focused entirely upon preparing for my checkride. Since then I have been flying to remain proficient, have started my instrument training, and am busy with work. But today I’m answering questions in the Q&A section, and if you had posted one there, thank you for your patience.

For Me X-Plane 11.3 Is A Mess

This is not a post I wanted to write. X-Plane has been a great experience for me, even with the betas. But now it is a mess, and has been since around RC4 or RC5 of the 11.3 beta. The physical cockpit has been virtually unflyable. For a while things worked well until I touched the throttle, at which point I’d get a total hardware crash – to reset, not to desktop. I tried all the standard steps: pref deletion, cache deletion, removal of all plugins, and even a clean and separate install. No joy. I thought I’d isolated the problem as a customized aircraft file, but even with default aircraft, clean install, no add-ins: crashes. Less predictable, and no longer tied to the throttle, but crashes nonetheless. And there is nothing useful in the logs. (And graphic performance in the physical cockpit, with it’s 3-4 monitor setup, has also not been great in 11.3, with me getting about the same performance in 11.3 with my 1080ti as I used to get in earlier releases with my 980ti – but I’d gladly trade lower settings for a stable system.)

So today, after another crash in the physical cockpit, I thought I’d try VR. I had moved away from my VR setup and back to the physical sim to make practice easier for my real-world instrument rating, but thought I’d run with VR and see how it goes. And it was a different story. Graphic performance was excellent – a solid 45 frames and smooth, even with high settings. And with AviTab and my Navigraph sub I was using charts in the VR cockpit without difficulty as I simulated an IFR flight from KSNA to Carlsbad. And then, about half way to the Oceanside VOR from KSAN, crash. At least this one was to desktop. Again nothing informative in the logs.

I will note that I am now running 11.31rc1, hoping that the beta had squashed some of the prior bugs. But as of now, my sim is not reliably flyable. This is very disappointing, especially after several years of excellent reliability from X-Plane. And reading the forums, I’m not the only one. This is a buggy release, in my view, and I can’t wait until they have moved passed it.

But there is good news: in VR I found that if I looked down just at the instruments the experience was very similar to wearing foggles whe simulating instrument conditions in the real-world. So I have that going for me …