The default aircraft in most flight simulation applications typically have limited functionality and lack the fidelity that a serious sim pilot or practicing student pilot is looking for. A number of software companies have stepped up to fill that need and there are many choices available now. After looking at a number of good options I found that A2A Simulations has set the high bar in both GA, and vintage Military aircraft.
At present I am running A2A's 172 Trainer. I have plans to add their 182 Skylane in the near future and possible others. The level of fidelity they create with extensive systems emulation to include wear and tear, damage engine physics, audio fidelity and pre-flight walk through process make A2A my preferred GA Add On Vendor.
In addition to the scenery enhancements noted above I also use Rex Texture Direct and Rex Soft Clouds from Rex Game Studios. While Orbx improves ground textures Rex Texture Direct pics up from their with sky and water among other things. And, while there is some overlap between Active Sky Cloud Art and Rex Soft Clouds by selecting the best features of each you can substantially enhance the realism of cloud formations and behavior. I am still learning and experimenting in this area but the general wisdom is to leverage Rex for textures and Active Sky for control. To do so takes some care in configuration settings and the load order but it yields some great results.
As with default aircraft, the default weather emulation in Prepar3d and FSX is somewhat lacking. I prefer to fly with accurate and realistically rendered real world weather. To meet this requirement I have chosen Active Sky 2016 and Active Sky Cloud Art from HiFi Simulation Technologies.
The combination of Active Sky 2016 and Cloud Art is a great addition to my sim. It gives me full visibility to the real world weather and injects that into Prepar3d. I can also override that and manually control the weather or look up and inject historical weather events. It also provides improved 3D cloud rendering to include volumetric fog and clouds. To get a better description of Active Sky's value be sure to read the information available on their web site. Both 2016 and Cloud Art are are running on my third PC and are connected via Sim Connect
The advent of electronic charts and checklists has made the paperless cockpit a reality. Given the ability in the sim to fly anywhere in the world the volume of paper charts and approach plates would quickly become expensive and unmanageable so tablet based electronic charts are a must have. And, with most chart apps being GPS enabled I needed an easy way to feed GPS data from the sim into my tablet. FSX2Android serves that function in my setup. The server side of the app runs on the flight sim PC and the client runs on the tablet. They talk, of course, via WiFi and it makes the tablet feed the sims position into any app that is GPS enables.
To maximize realism but, balance that with the flexibility to emulate multiple GA aircraft I chose a mix of hardware and software based gauges. For gauges that are standard, regardless of aircraft type, such as Vertical Speed or VORs I am using hardware based gauges. For those that vary based on aircraft type I am using software based gauges displayed on masked LCD displays or rear projection panels. For details on the hardware based gauges you can look at the Flight Illusion Gauges detailed on the Hardware page of the web site.
For the software based gauges I chose Sim InnovationsAir Manager. I found Air Manager to be easy to use and highly flexible. The folks at Sim Innovations are also great to work with and willing to design customize gauges. One of the features I like most about Air Manager is that it senses the loaded aircraft and can automatically swap configurations to match the aircraft.
Air Manager is running on my second PC. The final build out will use Air Manager for the Airspeed Indicator and all engine gauges with other gauges being mechanical.
While the vast majority of the time my system is set to show an accurate "out the window" view as should be seen from the pilots or copilots seat. I do use spot plane or tower views to do my pre-flight checks and to review my performance on take offs, landings and several different maneuvers and procedures. It may be a minor detail but I was always dissatisfied with the disconnect between the appearance of my sim fuselage and that of the aircraft shown on screen. I made a few feeble attempts at a repaint and it only served to prove that I will never be a graphic artist. The solution turned out to be EDRM Repaints. Marius at EDRM does great work and likes even with only seeing my partial fuselage was able to develop a finished paint scheme for the entire aircraft.
You will see a difference in the color of the lower stripe. The error is not in the repaint it actually reflects the correct color. The mistake was made by the Automotive store where I purchased my paint for the fuselage. I didn't notice the error until just before we started to shoot the bottom stripe and with a deadline right around the corner we had no choice but to live with it until a future date when I can have it redone.
Any program as complex as a flight simulator always has some amusing quirks. One of those with FSX and Prepar3d is the Aircraft substitution function used when flying online. On more than one occasion prior to installing World of AI I was treated to watching a flying fire truck on final or a float plane shower sparks as it skidded along a taxi way. With the installation of World of AI that is no longer an issue. Not only am I getting much more accurate substitutions but with the wide variety of liveries I have loaded most of my multi-player aircraft are showing with the correct markings.
While Prepar3d has started to make a number of very significant upgrades to the original software, they have not made any efforts to enhance the scenery very much. For VFR having accurate landmarks and geography is very important. Also, keeping in mind the importance of illusion and immersion in simulation I wanted to optimize my scenery. To accomplish this I chose the use the full OrbxFTX Global suite of add ons. FTX Global Base for textures and auto gen, Global Vector for accurate and detailed coastlines, waterways, and other critical VFR landmarks, Open LC North America for land class and texture and, Trees HD to expand the variety of tree types and improve the appearance and accuracy.
I have also loaded several of the Orbx freeware airports and enhancements and as they develop payware airports for the areas a fly most often I will be adding those as well. At present I have KGBH Bar Harbor and KCGX Meigs Field loaded and am looking forward to more as they become available.
After evaluating the options for a core application for my simulator and, with a goal to train, grow and, maintain my proficiency until I can again return to pursuing my Pilot's License I chose Prepar3d by Lockheed Martin. Until recently there really was only one viable flight simulation application, Microsoft Flight Simulator. There were others on the market but none that were comparable. With the shut down of Microsoft's Aces Game Studio and the discontinuation of FSX we had a brief dry spell with little sense of direction. However, in recent years the flight simulation landscape has been evolving and growing. Microsoft sold the rights to it's commercial and consumer flight simulation packages to Lockheed Martin and Dovetail Games which lead to the release of Lockheed Martin Prepar3d and Dovetail GamesFSX Steam edition and eventually Dovetail Games Flight Simulator. We also now have newer versions xPlane that have now come far enough to be viable alternatives. Now add to that high fidelity military simulators like DCS World and many of us may be reevaluating our choices in the coming years.
To optimize the training functionality of the simulator I looked at several Instructor Station applications. I was also looking for an easier way to manage multiple computers and all the apps listed above. I chose FS Flight Control for this. With FS Flight Control I have a scripted startup routine that allows me to boot up the three PCs and step back while all the needed programs are launched. After that a couple more mouse clicks and the sim is in a ready to fly configuration. FS Flight Control gives me single app control of the sim to include aircraft position and configuration, push back, weather, system failures and other features needed to setup and easily repeat training scenarios. It also provides post flight analysis so I can evaluate performance. FS Flight Control is installed on my third PC.
My objective to maximize realism and my focus on training make online flight with live FAA grade ATC a must have. My online community of choice is Boston Virtual ARTCC a member of the VATSIM global online community. The interface to VATSIM that I am using is vPilot by MeteCraft.
vPilot provides the voice interface for the radios and a text interface as well. It also handles the syncing of the other aircraft flying online so that all aircraft interactions are live and real time. I am running vPilot on the 3rd PC, the Instructor Station PC.
The native Windows game controller interface and the control interface in many flight simulation applications is functional but lacking. Pete Dowson developed FSUIPC and Wide Client to not only make up for that deficiency but to take control interface to a new level. The Axis calibration routines are more precise, flexible, and functional than the Windows game controller. The digital input functions are likewise for more flexible and functional. Pete has added several additional integration modules to help enhance and integrate your sim pit build. And, he has also added a custom Prepar3d/FSX LUA library to allow for the development of custom scripting.
If you've already looked at the hardware page you know that my build makes extensive use of Arduino Micro Controllers. Link2FS-Multi is the I/O application that I've chosen to create the communications between Prepar3d and the Arduino cards. It also works with FSX. Link2 FS-Multi reads and writes to a lengthy list of the functions and variables in the flight simulator application that allows you to then interact with those variables with C++ code on the Arduino and develop interactions with the hardware in your simulator.