Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Intercity Virtual Airline


Intercity Virtual Airline
Intercity Virtual is a fictional regional airline based out of the UK.  Intercity utilizes FSX and virtual ACARS software.  The airline was founded in April 2013 by a small group of friends who shared their love of flight simulation.  As for virtual airline they created, Intercity contains routes that travel from the British Isles to Western Europe.  Intercity exhibits a friendly professional atmosphere and currently staffs around 100 pilots.  Newcomers to the airline can discover every detail about Intercity from the main website.   
The airline’s current operational aircraft are the British Aerospace Jetstream J41 and the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400.   Intercity has mentioned the possibility of adding a jet in the future.  The airline currently utilizes a well thought out virtual ACARS system to log each flight.  There is a detailed pilot log created for each flight that can be accessed thru the website.  Intercity pilots are not required to fly online but are encourage to.  As an added bonus, members can receive discounts for FSX related software. 

 Hubs and Routes:
Intercity has four hubs; London City (EGLC), Birmingham (EGBB), Edinburg (EGPH), and Dusseldorf (EDDL).  London City is quite unique given its location and short operating runway.   Perfect for regional aircraft, but not for larger aircraft. There are excellent payware add-ons for each of the four Intercity hubs.  

                UK2000's London City (EGLC)
 link to UK2000 website

Intercity Virtual members can obtain a 20% discount on UK2000 airport scenery.   UK2000 sells extremely detailed airport add-ons for EGBB, EGLC, and EGPH.  They are already well priced even before the 20% discount. So for about $60 US you can have each UK hub of Intercity installed on your computer via a UK2000 add-on.  UK2000 also gives away a free version of these airports should you want to try them out before investing.  Aerosoft sells a payware add-on for Dusseldorf that is a little more expensive, but highly detailed. Link to Aerosoft Dusseldorf for FSX

The Intercity routes contain a plethora of flights back and forth across the English Channel, with-in the British Isles, to Spain, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, France and Poland.   Regional virtual airlines have the added benefit that it is easy to fit a flight in between dinner and bedtime after coming home from a long day at work.  My typical time in the sim so far for an Intercity flight is about 2.5 to 1.5 hours.   That includes 45 minutes to start up the Q400, load passengers and fuel, setup the box, and taxi out to the runway.

The advances in payware FSX aircraft have led to new and interesting regional aircraft for the virtual pilot.  Hopefully more highly functional and sophisticated payware regional planes will be forth coming.  Intercity currently utilizes the Bae JetSream 41 and the Dash 8 Q400.  These aircraft are well represented by the offerings from PMDG and Majestic Software.   The PMDG Bae JS41 is typical of PMDG type aircraft in that it is highly functional, but also very heavy on FPS.  The Majestic Q400 is a game changer.   Much of its software works outside of the confines of FSX.   Therefore, the Q400 can run on less then ideal hardware, with a decent FPS.   My own labtop with a slow 2.2 GHz i3 processor can run the Q400 consistently at 25 fps with REX Overdrive generating weather and textures. 

                  Preparing Q400 for startup and pushback at EHAM

While the JS41’s performance is typical of most turboprop airliners, the Q400 Dash 8 is not. 
The Dash 8 is currently the best regional turbine prop airliner in use.  The Dash 8 flies higher, faster, farther, and with more passengers, than its competitors.  The Dash 8 performs closer to a jet-aircraft without the added fuel cost.  For short 1-3 hour flights the Dash 8 makes sense and has become quite popular.  The Majestic version of the Q400 comes with a glass cockpit, working weather radar and FMS.   As typical with turboprop airliners, there is no auto throttle with the Q400 or the JS41.  Hence the pilot must keep a close eye on airspeed during each phase of flight and control the throttle accordingly.

Intercity ACARS and flight software:
The Intercity ACARS software is used for tracking and submission of a virtual flight.
The pilot starts the ACARS software and then logs into the system. A notice of all recent news and relevant links will pop-up.  The pilot can also access the SOP for their respective aircraft.  The Intercity ACARS software is then used to search for a route.  Once accomplished the pilot clicks on the selected route.  A quick check that the pilot wants to fly a particular flight and logging begins.  For the Q400 logging starts after clicking on the "off block" button located on the ACARS software.  From then on, the ACARS system works in the background recording the flight.   In parallel to this, the pilot starts FSX at the relevant airport thru the FSX “Free Flight” mode.
Intercity Virtual's Live ACARS
Once logging has begun, the pilots aircraft appears on the live ACARS map with detailed information.   Once the pilot lands and is at the gate with engines shut down, the pilot clicks
 “on blocks” on the ACARS software for the Dash.  The pilot can then submit the flight report
with or without added comments.  The flight will then show up in the flight log.

 The Intercity flight log is accessed thru the main website.  The flight log details each logged flight along with relevant information.  For example, I can easily see which of my flights were late and which were on time.  A link next to each flight will pop open a map of the flight with detailed information such as altitude, speed, and phase of flight.     
A log of my first flight!
Virtual Airline Discounts:
Intercity Virtual has obtained excellent discounts for their pilots.  Members can obtain a generous 30% discount on FS2Crew that adds a virtual co-pilot. No support for Majestic Q400 as of yet though. As mentioned before, members can obtain a 20% discount on UK2000 payware airport add-ons for FSX.   If that is not enough, members can now obtain a 10% discount on Vroute Premium.  Vroute Premium is a highly detailed flight planner.   There is a free version, but the premium version adds SIDS, STARS, Weather, Fuel Planning, and more.  There is also support for VATSIM and flying on-line.  Vroute Premium is well priced even before the 10% discount.    

Joining Intercity
Joining Intercity was quite easy.  I was required to take a quick entrance exam.  Quite a lot of people complain about these types of exams.  To be honest, it was really not a big deal.  The exam contained about 10 questions.  Each of the questions were informative and consisted of questions that most aviation enthusiast may know already.  Intercity does not make any bones about the pilot looking up answers during the test.  The point is for virtual pilots to learn some of the basics they should know to enjoy their virtual airline experience. 

After passing the test, I did not receive an automatic email.  Unfortunately something went wrong in the process.  I emailed Intercity HR and received a quick response from Chris Hulme.  Thru the course of a few email exchanges Chris quickly corrected the problem and I was on my way with a pilot ID.  This was a much better experience then with another virtual airline that never answered any of my emails. 


First flight.

In the future I hope to do a more in-depth description about some of my virtual airline flights.  But this post has already become long and boring : ).   So here is a quite synopsis of my first virtual airline flight ever!

       First take off from EGBB runway 15

There was a learning curve associated with the Majestic Q400.  I found a simplified checklist to be mandatory for flying the Q400.   Once or twice things didn’t go as well as something in the checklist was missed.  The checklist also contains notes I have written onto it per Intercity’s SOP for the Dash 400 such as climbing profiles and RPM settings. It took me a good two weeks of flying the Q400 to become comfortable enough with it to take my first actual Intercity VA flight.
My first flight for Intercity was from Birmingham (EGBB) to Amsterdam Schiphol (EHAM).  It was a night flight using real world time and weather.  This was the main practice flight I had done on numerous occasions.  After 30 minutes my Q400 was gassed up, ready to go, and lined up with EGBB's runway 15.  The Daventry 5D SID was followed off the runway to my allotted route.  After a quick trip over the Channel, the plane was following along the SUGOL 3B transition to EHAM's runway 18R.  The biggest problem I have found with flying into the EHAM is the crosswinds.  They just love to blow you off course as you are on final for runway 18L or 18R.  To make matters worst the visibility that night was only 3 SM with heavy overcast. Thankfully my practice paid off as I carefully followed the ILS down onto EHAM’s runway 1RL.  As usual the Q400's AP APPR mode lost track of the ILS leading me to take control.   After a smooth landing, I was able to relax and celebrate during the long taxi from 18R to the gate.  With a sigh of relief I submitted my first VA flight.    




Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Time to join a virtual airline.

After spending a reasonable amount of money on a new computer for flight simulation, FSX add-ons, and every plane under the Sun, flying around willy nilly is just not going to cut it.   This is finally leading me to consider joining a virtual airline.  There has to be some meaning to this FSX madness.    Entering a route in the FMS, pouring over navigation charts, disseminating Metar data.
What if I could do all that, with the sole purpose of delivering virtual passengers safely to their destination.  

But which virtual airline to join, that is the question?   I want some form of realism that is not overly demanding.  In essence my goal is to join a virtual airline that encompassed the following: 

  1. Contains scheduled routes.
  2. Does not require online flying.
  3. Allows me to fly the aircraft I want to fly.
  4. Flies to interesting locations. 
  5. Has an up to date website using the latest tools for virtual airlines.
  6. Appears friendly and responsive with an active forum 
Point number one is scheduled routes.  I do not see the purpose of flying for a VA that does not contain a schedule.   If the requirement is to fly a regional aircraft from KEWR to KIAD departing at 12:30 pm with scheduled arrival at 1:30 pm, the realism bar has just been raised.   Obviously the clock on in FSX can be changed to allow for flying at the appropriate time.   Given my love of using real weather with REX, I hoped to fly as close to the allotted time schedule as possible.  For example the FSX clock is set to the current GMT time.

Some virtual airlines require you to fly online with networks such as Vatsim or IVAO.  This appears to be very limiting.  Flying online can be very complex.   The ability to communicate with ATC is not a simple thing.  You need to know ATC phraseology.
The virtual pilot needs to communicate effectively their intentions while understand the directions of the controller.  This does create a very realistic environment though.

My hope is to eventually work up to this level, but it is not going to happen overnight.   So the ability to start out with a virtual airline that does not require online flying upfront is important.   Personally, I believe that some of the virtual airlines that require online flying want to form their own elite club.  To each his own, as they say.
In the meantime, I have been reading about ATC phraseology and watching many Vatsim related videos.   Some of the youtube videos done by the MusicalAviator are very well done.   There are the videos by Peter Matthess flying on Vatsim with the A2A Cessna 172.  His videos really inspire me to consider eventually flying online.   My current plan is to purchase the VOXATC software which will allow me to learn and practice communicating with ATC offline.   Then, when comfortable, I hope to transition to some online flying.   I even have a VATSIM ID already!
No one wants to fly an airplane they could care less about as mentioned with point 3.   Many of the virtual airlines require the pilot to fly a set number of hours before a promotion to different aircraft types.   For example the venerable Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 can be flown after logging 50 or so hours with regional planes like the CRJ700 or Q400 Dash8.  Some airlines require even longer hours to be logged before becoming a Boeing 777 pilot.  I have no problem with that structure.   To me, this is realistic and makes sense on many levels.  But some virtual airlines simply do not aircraft of any interest to me.

Flying to areas of geographical interest is a big requirement.  This is why I decided to eventually join 2 different virtual airlines.  One for North American and one for Europe.  This way, I am not limited to one specific geographical area.   Nothing sounds more intriguing then flying over the English Channel at 30,000 feet or looking at the mountain ranges of the Pacific Northwest.   Dividing my VA duties between two airlines will help allow for this.   Also, should one of the virtual airlines go belly up (which does happen), I will still have time invested with one of them

 Requirement number 5 details my interest to join a VA with a good website that utilizes the latest in virtual airline software.   Many VAs use the ACARS system that allows visitors to track the path of pilots on a virtual map.  In real world flying ACARS stands for Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System.  ACARS is a digital datalink system for transmission of short, relatively simple messages between aircraft and ground stations via radio or satellite (Wiki Description).   One of the uses of ACARS is to determine and report the different events of a flight, such as “At gate” “At cruise” and recording the various flight management parameters.  The virtual ACARS software provides this service.  Once logged on, the visitor to a VA website can tell, who is flying a plane, the current phase of flight, the speed, altitude, location, and route.  That is pretty amazing!   Many of the virtual airlines I have seen have a live map showing the location of each pilot thanks to virtual ACARS software.

So in essence, I feel that joining a VA will bring realism to the flight sim experience.  
Repetition is a key element here.  Really getting to know one particular type of aircraft as you fly it monthly for a VA sounds like fun.  Many of the high level payware planes are highly complicated just like their real world counterparts.  It takes quite a bit of flights to really be comfortable with them.   Even then there is still something to be learned. Landing or departing from a hub airport, and becoming comfortable with scheduled routes also sound very realistic too.    



And the Unlucky Winner is? 
                                     Intercity Virtual Airline 

Intercity Virtual!!!   This VA encompasses each of the 5 requirements that I had for joining a virtual airline.  Intercity Virtual is a small regional VA that flies the turbo props BAE Jetstream J4100 and the Dash8 Q400 back and forth to many of the cities in Europe.  Intercity contains 4 distinct Hubs.  At this time I have not joined a North American based VA, but hope to in the coming weeks.   Still, joining Intercity has been very exciting, and I will elaborate in a future post!!