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Windows updates and maintaining a flight simulation system

After a recent Windows 10 update from Microsoft, many features of my flight simulator (running X-Plane v11.21) stopped working. Specifically, all of my Saitek Flight Instrument Panel (FIP) gauges stopped working, and my Buttkicker stopped as well.

To get the FIP gauges working again, I had to reset their USB power management settings. The Windows update reverts those settings back to their default state. Why does an operating system feel it has the authority to change user-managed settings like this? Turning their power management back to off is a tedious process.

The Buttkicker stopped working because the software that manages the sound signals stopped working and had to be reinstalled. It also changed the assignment of which sound device fed the Buttkicker its sounds. Again, why does Windows do this?

After a bit of tedious settings management and some more trial and error, I got everything working again. The simulator is running normally.

On the X-Plane side, after updating it, I noticed the Cirrus Vision default airplane starts off with its control surfaces defaulted to full-left, making it impossible to fly. Calibrating the yoke and rudder pedals doesn’t fix it. Finally, X-Plane 11.21 gives me a warning that my Reality Expansion Pack Cessna 172 won’t look right. I click the OKAY button and then fly it as normal. I can’t tell what’s different visually.

After going through all this, I’ve since disabled Windows updates. Having a tightly controlled system like this requires only modifying it when necessary, and random changes imposed by OS updates can cause a lot of headaches. I only use this system for flight simulation, and it is well protected behind dual firewalls, so I’m not concerned about security. I don’t even surf the web from that machine.

Video: My Closet Simulator

I created a narrated video tour of my closet flight simulator and posted it on YouTube.

4:33 minutes

Not pictured is my gaming chair and the attached Buttkicker Gamer 2 transducer. See previous posts for details on that.

Using a Buttkicker Gamer 2 in X-Plane 11

To improve the sense of immersion in my home flight simulator, I purchased and installed a Buttkicker Gamer 2 transducer. This is a device that bolts to the base of an office chair and transmits vibrations into the chair based on sounds generated by the flight simulator. It’s like a subwoofer with vibration only, no sound.

Update Dec 17, 2020: I currently use the Buttkicker in X-Plane 11, Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, and DCS World 2.x. All three use the Simshaker software utility referenced below.

Buttkicker Gamer 2
Buttkicker Gamer 2

I purchased the Buttkicker from FullCompass.com, with free shipping, and it left their warehouse the day after I ordered it. Many other vendors I researched were either out of stock or sold them at above MSRP (Amazon, what the hell?) The Gamer 2 edition comes with the transducer, a dedicated power amplifier, and all the cables you need to connect it to your flight simulator.

Installation took about a half hour, and most of that time was spent feeding the wires around and out of the way behind my simulator. After getting it plugged into the sound-out jack on the back of my PC, I fired it up and tested it out. It really startled me the first time it vibrated my seat. Even though I knew it was going to happen, the amount of vibration it can produce was startling. I reduced the sound levels and did some more testing.

Buttkicker amplifier
Buttkicker amplifier

From all I’d read on the forums, I learned that although the Buttkicker can be used directly with X-Plane 11, the experience isn’t as specific as it can be. The solution is a pair of software solutions working in tandem, one free and one payware. Simshaker for Aviators is the free part, and Simshaker Sound Module is the payware part (about $30 USD; it’s from a guy named Andre in Vologograd, Russia, so the exchange rate will vary).

Using these two apps, you can fine-tune the types of simulated events that produce vibrations and the amount of relative vibration for each event. Otherwise, without these apps, it vibrates generically with any low-frequency sound.

My flight simulator is located in a spare bedroom on the second floor of my house. There was some noticeable vibration in the room beneath on the first floor. This was because the Buttkicker was attached to my office chair, which was sitting on its wheels pressed into the carpeted floor directly above. I needed some way to reduce or eliminate the vibrations being transmitted through the floor.

Sorbothane anti-vibration pads, 2 1/4 in. wide by 1/4 in. thick

I ordered some sorbothane anti-vibration isolation pads from Amazon. They are 2.25″ wide and about 1/4″ thick. I opened the package and let them air out overnight in the garage as they have an off-putting smell when you first open them.

The pads are very sticky and I read reports that they can stain carpet, so I cut circles of waxed paper and stuck them to one side of the sorbothane pads. I purchased some square furniture cups from the local hardware store and stuck the pads to the bottom of those. I tried sitting the chair’s wheels into these cups but the sides weren’t high enough to keep the wheels in place, so I removed the wheels from my chair entirely and placed them in the cups. (In the picture, you can’t see the sorbothane pads; they are pressed against the carpet under the brown furniture cups.)

Pads installed under furniture cups

This reduced the amount of vibration being transmitted into the room below by at least half. It was quieter than the noises generated by my forced air furnace.

Once I got all that set up and got the software installed, it was time for some test flying in X-Plane 11. I started in Boston and flew to Nantucket in a Cessna 172, then over to Martha’s Vineyard. The Buttkicker conveys a predictable engine vibration, along with other events like flaps going up or down. The most exciting vibration event is when the wheels first touch down while landing.

I still have a lot of experimentation to do, both with the amplifier settings and with the software settings.

So far I would say it was a worthwhile investment for those wishing to increase the level of apparent immersion in their home flight simulator.

X-Plane switch from Airfoil Labs to Reality Expansion Pack Cessna 172

X-Plane comes with a Cessna 172 by default. It’s a competent plane and it is what I have flown since I got X-Plane 11 back in May of 2017. I wanted more realism so I purchased the after-market Cessna 172 by Airfoil Labs.

It was buggy and presented several challenges to flying. I had to learn how to land all over again. There were several graphical issues that prevented me from flying the AFL 172 at all. I got fed up and uninstalled it.

After reading posts from other sim pilots on X-Plane.org’s forum, I discovered another approach. Now, I fly the default Cessna 172 with the SimCoders.com Reality Expansion Pack ($19.99) installed on top of it.

The aircraft experience feels more immersive, because I’m not just flying a virtual plane, I’m managing the entire aircraft from when I approach it on the tarmac to take-off to flight to landing and finally when I park it. I even conduct maintenance on it like I would a real airplane.

The REP has been very stable, too. There was one sound error that occurred, but removing the Cessna 172 from the list of possible AI aircraft fixed the problem.

So far, I’m very impressed with this approach.

Crosswind landings in X-Plane

I’ve spent several hours practicing pattern work, but I’ve always done it with clear weather and no wind. Lately, I’ve attempted to add crosswinds to the mix to simulate more real-world conditions. It hasn’t gone well.

I set up a 6 kt 90 degree crosswind at Aurora Muni (KUAO) and took off in the X-Plane default Cessna 172. Take-off and flying the left-hand pattern went relatively well, but when I came in on final and entered the glideslope, things seemed to get wonky.

My approach was made on runway 35 so the wind should have been directly from my left. The windsock showed this to be true. However, my plane seemed to be drifting to the left. I attempted a forward slip with a little right aileron and a small amount of left rudder, and things went wonky even more.

It was crazy trying to get the plane lined up with the runway, yet the wind was only 6 knots, with no gusts configured. I gunned the engine, raised my flaps, and conducted a go-around.

As I was flying the pattern again, I paid close attention to what the wind seemed to be doing to the aircraft. At pattern altitude of 1,000 feet AGL, it seemed to be getting blown to the west. That’s incorrect — the wind was configured to be blowing from the west. I turned onto the base leg and the groundspeed slowed, again indicating I had a headwind from the east. When I turned onto the final leg, once again I had fits getting a line on the runway.

I’ve heard that X-Plane 11 has notoriously inaccurate ground effect winds and handling. This seems to be the case. When I got my wheels on the ground, I turned my ailerons fully to the left, to the west and the direction the windsock indicated the wind was blowing, and got shot far to the right and onto the grass.

I can’t confirm it, but it very much acted like the wind was blowing the exact opposite direction the windsock was indicating (and the weather configuration specified).

UPDATE 01-29-2018: I have confirmed the wind and windsock are behaving correctly in X-Plane. It’s operator error on my part.

To Fly or Ride

Back in June, 2012 I rode my 2007 Suzuki V-Strom 650 to Colorado and back, a loop trip of 5,000+ miles over 15 riding days, passing through 10 states. [You can read my riding blog here.] Once I began learning to fly in my home flight simulator, it became my goal to simulate that trip as closely as possible in a virtual Cessna 172.

The trip in my flight simulator has been ongoing since late June and is nearly complete. I only have one leg remaining. My plane is currently parked at Grant County Regional Field [KGCD] in John Day, Oregon, with my final destination of Troutdale, Oregon.

Throughout this trip, I have attempted to mimic the actual route I rode on my motorcycle as closely as possible, following primary waypoints at major junctions. I have also landed at the nearest airport to the places where I stopped each day for lunch. This means that each day’s simulated leg entailed at least two take-offs and two landings.

Recently, I experimented with early morning take-offs to see what lighting conditions look like in X-Plane 11. The results are amazing, but I noticed that in cities with custom scenery (Ortho4XP), the lights are nearly non-existent. Only stock scenery has the great lighting effects.

I flew from Red Lodge, Montana up and over Beartooth Pass and across Yellowstone Park to land for my mid-day stop at West Yellowstone. I took a screenshot of my cockpit.

The cockpit of a Cessna 172 during an early morning flight over Beartooth pass, Montana

I landed at Butte, Montana. The following day, I took off from Butte and flew to Grangeville, Idaho. I simulated real-world weather conditions and barely survived the landing. I had a constant cross-wind of 12 knots with gusts up to 21 knots. This shot me diagonally across the runway, coming to a stop on the adjacent taxiway. Suddenly a gust of over 60 knots hit my plane broadside and flipped it into the air and over onto its top. It’s my only crash of the entire trip so far.

Morning take-off in a Cessna 172 from Grangeville, ID

The take-off from Grangeville the next morning was stunning. I left a few minutes before sunrise and the scenery and lighting was very life-like.

From there, I mimicked my bike route to Oxbow, Oregon along the Snake River at Hells Canyon, then over to Baker City where I landed for lunch. The day ended at John Day, Oregon.

This trip has been an excellent learning experience. The airstrips and airports have been diverse. Flying in Colorado was a special challenge because of the high elevation airstrips and numerous 14,000+ mountain passes. Some take-offs required circling like a bird to gain enough altitude to move forward.

Flight logs

Logbook
Printable logbook

Back in 2012 I took a solo motorcycle trip from Oregon to Colorado that spanned 10 different states in 16 days (Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Wyoming (again), Montana, Idaho, and back to Oregon). One of my goals after setting up my flight simulator was to take that same trip virtually in a Cessna 172.

I began that virtual trip a few weeks ago and am currently parked at an airstrip in Durango, Colorado. I have mapped the trip to include takeoffs and landings at the same towns where I had overnight stays on my original motorcycle trip, and I even have landings and takeoffs in towns where I stopped for lunch. I’m trying to mimic the same route as realistically as possible, just in the transportation medium of flight.

One of the aspects of this trip I have implemented is detailed flight logs. I started by making notes in a spiral notebook as I flew, writing down flight date, departure airport, destination airport, and a few minor details along the way such as waypoints and altitude. I refined those notes to include more detail, then decided to use a formal flight log form that I fill out for each flight.

I used a spreadsheet to create a printable form that I put on a clipboard and fill out as I fly. I make notes every time I change course or altitude, with timestamps. About the only thing I don’t write down is my airspeed.

So far the logs have worked great, and I have really enjoyed the detail-oriented aspect of the process. Flying, once you’re at cruising altitude, can be somewhat boring, especially if you use autopilot. Making notes as you fly keeps your brain occupied, and gives you a reason to pay attention to your gauges and the other aspects of the flight, rather than just zoning out and getting bored.

You may download a printable PDF version of the logbook here.

The original Excel spreadsheet is available here [XLSX].

The Delta column is for denoting changes in altitude or bearing. I often use < or > to show changes in course for left or right, respectively, and up or down arrows with X fps or -X fps to show changes in altitude. For Altitude, I write the altitude I was at when I began the delta.

Enclosing the flight simulator cockpit

Over the weekend I completed the next phase of my home flight simulator project. This effort was spent enclosing the cockpit in a shell or box to at least somewhat mimic the inside of an airplane’s cockpit.

I didn’t pursue realism. I wanted versatility, low impact, low cost, and ease of construction. The size of the cockpit enclosure is rather large compared to a real airplane, 59″ wide and 60″ tall. There are no side windows or imitation door handles. What it does, however, is make me feel like I’m inside the simulator, rather than sitting halfway in a room staring at a computer sitting in a closet. It also lets me control the amount of light and even the air flow to a certain extent. Here are pictures of the enclosure so you can see what I mean.

Step 1: Ceiling frame. I built a framework out of 1.5″ x 3/4″ hemlock and L brackets. It holds an AC Infinity USB-powered ventilation fan that will suck air up and out over the top of the simulator. This framework is very lightweight yet plenty sturdy enough to hold everything in place.
Step 2. Mount ceiling panel. I attached corrugated plastic panels to the underside (or inside) of the ceiling frame, and draped two additional panels down the sides. These are held in place by large binder clips, which means they can be easily removed for access. The entire ceiling panel rests on two L brackets mounted to the closet entrance, resting on the crossbeam you see in the ceiling framework. It actually pivots up and down with ease, as the whole panel is well balanced. In the rear, under the closet supports, are two down-facing L brackets with velcro to kept the panel from rotating up.
Side panels. In this photo, you can see the overall size of the enclosure, including detail of the side panels. These are corrugated plastic panels purchased at Home Depot. They are very lightweight and can be cut with a utility knife. The inside dimensions are 59″ wide and 60″ tall. They extend out into the room about 30″.
Far rear. Standing in the room looking into the simulator, you can see how much space there is to either side of the cockpit panel. I have an old speaker stand sitting to the right where I have my mouse to control the simulator’s menus and settings. I will put a small shelf of some kind to the left to hold an iPad, notebook, and a place to put a beverage.
Inside
Inside. From inside the cockpit you can see the ventilation fans I mounted in the ceiling panel. They are controlled by the dangling cord you see on the right; I’ve since tucked that back around the wall where I can reach it but it isn’t in my view. The back of the ceiling panel is pressed against the closet wall about 4″ above the top of my three 32″ monitors.

The materials to build the ceiling panel and side panels cost about $125, all purchased at Home Depot. The entire structure can easily be removed without having to remove any screws or other hardware, other than unplug the USB-powered ceiling fan.

After using the enclosure, I will be attaching some lightweight material along the back to block out sunlight, as there is a window directly behind the camera in this photo and it makes the inside of the cockpit a little too bright during mid-day. I’ll attach the material with binder clips for easy removal. The ceiling fan does a good job of ventilating warm air from the PC (lower-right, behind the mouse stand) and keeps the enclosure relatively comfortable. The fans themselves are relatively quiet, but because of how I mounted them they make a slight buzzing sound which actually is similar to what a Cessna 172 sounds like when it flies overhead at 5,000 feet. When I fly I wear headphones and don’t hear the fans or PC, however, so it’s moot. To others in the room, though, it actually sounds like a prop-driven plane buzzing along (quietly).

Next steps include putting a shelf of some kind on the left-hand side of the cockpit chair. I’ve also been teased that I need to put posters of blue skies and clouds on the inside of the side panels. We’ll see.

Forgive me Father, for I have simmed.

I have been very busy lately, but not with what you may expect. As you may know, I have been a motorcyclist for over a decade now, riding both a 2007 Suzuki V-Strom 650 adventure bike, and a 2012 Suzuki GSX-R750 sport bike. I had wanted to ride motorcycles ever since I was a kid, and have enjoyed doing so very much, racking up over 80,000 miles in 10 years of riding.

There is something I’ve wanted to do from an even earlier age.

Fly.

I had the opportunity to take flying lessons when I was in my late teens but opted out because of the expense. Learning to fly is expensive, and flying once you get your license is expensive as well. So despite my passion and desire to fly since I was a very young boy, I have never pursued it.

Recently I heard about X-Plane, the flight simulation software that is arguably the de facto king of realistic simulation for the consumer (and professional) market. I ran a demo version of the software on my Macbook Pro and was blown away by the realism and depth.

Digging more, I found YouTube videos [ like this one ] of home-built cockpits and flight simulation rigs people are building in their own homes. Something clicked, and I realized I could get much closer to the experience of flying but at much lower cost and no risk to life-and-limb.

To get that desired realism, however, I would need a system a bit more involved than just a laptop and second screen. I began to research the kind of computer systems required to obtain the level of realism I needed, all based around X-Plane, and the flight simulation gear such as flight controls and gauges that would enhance the realism.

I purchased books about flying from both a theoretical and practical standpoint. I investigated products and vendors and watched hours of YouTube videos posted by home flight simmers. I produced a budget for what my desired system would cost.

Unwilling to incur debt, I was also unwilling to tap into savings. I had to find the money from another source. Doing some soul searching, I realized it would be better to own one motorcycle and a flight simulator than to own two motorcycles and no flight simulator.

So I sold the Gixxer.

Using the sale money from the motorcycle, I had the financial side of the project covered. Based on my vendor and product research, I had a shopping list ready to go. All I needed to do was start placing orders.

The heart of the flight simulator is the computer. I chose a high-end Windows PC purchased from X-Force PC, based in South Carolina. They partner with Laminar Research, the company that makes X-Plane, to provide LR with the systems used in X-Plane development and testing. This would ensure high compatibility and reliability. After a phone call with Michael Brown, the chief builder and head honcho at X-Force PC, I had a system ordered. I also purchased my Saitek gauges and flight controls. The service I got from X-Force PC in general and Michael specifically was fantastic.

Closet shelf
Monitors, desk, and cockpit panel
Panel, yoke, rudder pedals, and computer
In-flight, showing LED lights around cockpit panel
Full system with gauges

Another key aspect of this system was location. Where would I put it? My home doesn’t have a basement, so I got creative. I emptied the closet of a spare room, mounted an adjustable shelf on the back wall to hold my video screens, and repurposed a small desk. The system is half in the closet, half out (no sociological puns intended). I have plans to build an enclosure around the seating area to mimic the realism of being inside an actual cockpit.

Flying is complex. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of knowledge. Operating the airplane is challenging enough on a perfect day, but when you factor in weather, topography, air traffic control, mechanics, and the myriad bits of information constantly deserving your attention, it quickly becomes an immersive experience that can eat up years of time and dedication.

This is something I won’t outgrow anytime soon.