I Found A Way To Love FSX Again

I’ve always been a MS Flight Simulator user, going all the way back to it’s beginnings when SubLogic owned the franchise and it ran on an Apple IIc. I’ve “played” it off and on throughout the years and currently run FSX, the latest version from around 2006. Last month, after what seemed like years in the making, PMDG released their 737NGX in the 800-900 variants, with and without winglets. Other variants will be released later on. They already had a 737 in the stable; however, it was for Flight Simulator 9; the NGX is a ground-up rebuild, with the help of Boeing, and it is one fantastic bird!

I should first point out that I’m NOT a pilot and I haven’t stayed at any Holiday Inn Express’ lately, but I’ve had a lifelong interest in aviation. I was fortunate to feed that interest during my years in the Marine Corps, when I was a plane captain for A-6E’s and F/A-18′s, but these days, I’m firmly on the ground and flying my bike, lol. The 737NGX from PMDG encompasses just about everything the real aircraft has to offer; every switch, knob, and dial is exactly as it is in the real jet and they all do what they’re supposed to do. This is not really a review as I don’t comprehensively cover any particular item, but it’s more my own personal thoughts about this remarkable aircraft; take it for what it is.

My FSX rig and accompanying Mac.

Dell XPS M1710 runs FSX with a MacBook running XP providing EFB and weather support.

The electrical, engine, pressurization, systems, and hydraulic performance is exactly like it is in the real thing (FSX does have limits the NGX pushes against). Those are bold statements and I can’t back them up with my non-flying experience; however, plenty of real pilots who fly the NGX, along with the real ones who helped develop PMDG’s model, say it’s so…that’s good enough for me. I look at it like this…PMDG supplies the real Boeing manuals with the NGX and, for the most part, the manuals apply directly to what you do and can do in the NGX in FSX, so it must be good. Yes, it’s that good…

Flying the NGX

You can’t exactly load up FSX, climb in the NGX, hit a few shortcut keys, and take off…no, you have to take a bit of time to get it configured for flight. If you’re hardcore, you’ll plow through the several thousand pages of included Boeing manuals to get started, but if you’re not, there’s a nice tutorial flight, detailed step-by-step, that you can follow to get off the ground.

Let me pause a moment and mention the sound….the sound is simply incredible with the NGX. PMDG went well above the norm and basically captured every sound the real 737 makes and put it into their NGX. FSX’s architecture limits them in some ways, but the overall impact of the sound environment in the NGX is awesome. For proof, you need only have the speakers (with a decent bass) or headphones turned up when you approach the top of descent; as the engines spool down for the descent, you’ll feel and hear the familiar rumble…it gave me the sense of actually being there. Yep, the sound is that good.

The cockpit is fully operational....and awesome.

Flying the NGX is really not all that different from any other advanced Boeing I’ve flown in FSX. It handles very well in manual flight and it’s automatic flight systems seem to be spot on with how they are described in the Boeing manuals. If you’ve been flying PMDG’s MD-11, as I had been before getting the NGX, forget what you learned in that jet as far as procedures are concerned; the NGX IS different. You’ll know what I mean if you try to takeoff with the NGX in a configuration similar to the MD-11.

One thing of note with the 800WL model, with winglets, is that it is an extremely slippery aircraft! If you expect to barrel up to your approach, deploy the speedbrake, and slow right down to approach speed, you’ll be in for a surprise. The NGX WL requires some energy management planning well ahead of your destination. There are some videos posted in PMDG’s forums, but suffice it to say, don’t be afraid to use the speedbrake and plan your descents carefully. In my experience, I’ve been too hot a few times, but after a few times, I’ve gotten much better at managing my speed in descent and making sure I hit the marks in the proper configuration.

Speaking of the models, the liveries available from PMDG (free, by the way), are spectacular! The detailing is very well done and the vast selection makes it easy to find your favorite airline. Of course, with the available paintkit, user-made liveries are starting to appear as well.

Operations with the NGX

I’ve had a few “errors” here and there, but they generally turn out to be an error on my part, in a weather file, or something in FSX’s own airport data. Perhaps the most common problem I’ve run into has to do with weather. For some reason, the NGX elicits the occasional bug in weather where the outside air temperature remains unnaturally high the higher you climb rather than dropping as it should. The problem is known to crop up with FSInn weather quite a bit and sometimes ASE weather, which I use. The typical scenario is seeing OAT’s of 30+ C at altitudes over 10k feet and gradually increasing the higher you climb. This behavior robs the engines of power; as in real life, hot air makes life difficult for jet engines and heavy loads. The fix is simple; clear and reload the weather.

Quite literally, a shot of the screen w/iPhone, lol. Beautiful plane...

PMDG has given us service-based failures in addition to the usual random or programmed failures that generally accompany any PMDG aircraft. With service-based failures, if a part wears out, it can fail. Yep, that’s right, there’s a “memory” to the system. Each NGX airframe in the hangar keeps track of it’s hours and, using Boeing’s mean time to failure data, can have components fail in a relatively realistic fashion if you don’t take care of things. Enabling service-based failures and not expecting anything to happen on your first flight with a particular airframe does NOT guarantee a trouble-free trip mind you, if you handle the airplane roughly, you may just create a failure on your own. Take a sharp turn on the taxiway too fast and you might knock the nosewheel out of balance. Jerk the flight controls too hard and you may find some critical autoflight components inop. And yes, an initial failure can cascade into other failures in a realistic fashion. It really makes things interesting! On a side note, it seems that the service-based failures and airframe hour tracking can lead to certain airframes developing their own quirks over time. On one particular airframe I’ve flown over 100 hours in, there are the occasional oddball system things that crop up for no real good reason…then they quietly go away (a button push that doesn’t light up the first time, an autopilot that needs coaxing to engage…that sort of thing). I don’t know if PMDG programmed that sort of thing into the NGX, but it sure seems like it.

Apart from the weather issue I mentioned earlier, there are a few other little bugs in this initial release (with all 3 PMDG hotfixes installed) that spring up from time to time. The PMDG 737NGX Avsim forums are full of reported “issues”, but many times, a quick read of the manual would easily solve the problem for the user. The introduction document for the PMDG covers a great deal of performance and quirks information about FSX and NGX. Servicing, or rather the inability to service, the hydraulics appears to be broken for the moment. Instead of using the built-in maintenance facility in NGX, you have to reload the panel state (haven’t even touched on all of the stuff to be found in the CDU menus!). Another “bug” occurs with the fuel temperature; at times, you’ll load up the NGX and find the fuel temperature at or above 40c, which leads to overheating of the electrically-driven hydraulic pumps (they use the fuel for cooling). There’s no way to fix the problem except with a panel reload. Apart from those items, I’ve found nothing else that impedes my ability to fly the NGX although other folks probably have a laundry list of things my non-real-life-flying-eye probably doesn’t see.

Options, Options, and more Options

The NGX does not add a bunch of stuff to the menu bar in FSX, instead, it places everything inside of the CDU (the FMC’s display). Changes made in those options are immediate and do not require reloading of the aircraft! Some of the items deal with performance options like whether or not the FO’s displays are operative or the target refresh rates for power hungry gauges. You can adjust the IRS alignment times, alter your passenger count, payload weights, and fueling within the CDU. A side bonus is that the fuel and weight information is just a right-click away when you’re on the FMC side and figuring out your initial performance weights for the flight.

The other aspect of the options within the CDU are aircraft options and there are pages and pages of them. Within the CDU, you configure exactly how your aircraft is equipped. Things like eyebrow windows, the HUGS system, short field packages, callouts, ETOPS packages, passenger floor layout, to name a few, plus instrument layout options. I’m telling you, it’s packed with stuff. Additionally, there are the different panel states you can load…things like cold & dark, long turnaround and short turnaround, plus you can create your own. The panel/option states can be airframe specific or you can apply a single panel/option package across an entire set of NGX airframes (winglet-equipped or not). All of these options make it easy to configure your NGX to fit just about any real life airline flying the NG. I should add that the options stick…if you set things up a certain way and quit FSX, the next time you load up the NGX, it’ll have your options in place.

All in all, the options that PMDG has provided in the NGX make it one of the comprehensive yet easy-to-work-with aircraft in FSX.

Performance

By all accounts, including my own, my XPS gaming laptop is far behind the times with the performance available from the PC’s of today. I bought it in 2006 and quickly replaced it with a Macbook the next year; however, it does excel at one thing…playing games. There are only two “games” on the XPS, FSX and SSM2007 (a space shuttle simulator). FSX is the 8 million pound gorilla on the system, taking up almost the entire 80gb hard drive. It’s a 32-bit Vista system, equipped with a Core2Duo 2.0 (or 2.2)ghz chip (I just can’t recall at the moment), plus it has 4GB of ram and a 512mb Nvidia Go 7950GTX video card. FSX has always run fairly well on the XPS laptop, although I do have to run with some of the sliders turned down (as does just about every other FSX user out there, lol).

The exterior detailing of the NGX is exquisite!

My FSX also runs with Ground Environment Extreme (GEX), X-Graphics, and Ultimate Traffic 2. Occasionally, I’ll also run Active Sky Evolution (ASE) on the same machine, but lately, I’ve run ASE along with EFB from Aivlasoft via Simconnect on my Macbook running Windows XP on a VM.

With my autogen and scenery settings running at “normal”, texture settings running at a 10m/7m setting, and UT2 running at 70%, I have a smooth FSX environment when flying the NGX. The NGX is a heavy duty aircraft, performance wise, and it can bring your system to its knees, but I found it was no worse than PMDG’s 747 (which I think performs worse than the MD-11). I had a single out of memory error (OOM) when I first tried the NGX, but once I used the BCEDIT trick to expand the available memory to the system/FSX, things have been fantastic and trouble-free. I DO have some chop when approaching big cities, but generally all I need to do is adjust my UT2 traffic settings with the in-sim controls and everything improves. Overall, I’m pleased with the NGX’s performance. That said, I might look at building an FSX-only machine in the future.

My $.02

If you’re an FSX fan and love heavy metal, you’re REALLY missing out if you don’t have the NGX yet. If you’ve read stories in the forum and have gotten scared, don’t be…the NGX is a fantastic airplane and one that you’ll be kicking yourself over if you don’t buy it. It is undoubtedly, the most complex, “real” aircraft available for Flight Simulator X today that’s as close to the real thing as you can get without shelling out millions for a real simulator or the real thing. If there is one piece of advice to share it is this; READ the manual, it contains a wealth of information, especially the introduction document. Service Pack 1, as well as more variants, is in the pipeline and will be hitting us shortly, so the fun will continue with the NGX for a very long time!

If you don’t agree with my assessment, feel free fret over it. The NGX works great for me and performs as expected. :D