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Living with the 412

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While the 412 represents a lot of successes in Flight Simulator development for helicopters, one sad truth came out of the project that can't be ignored by helicopter flight simulation developers. Microsoft Flight Simulator is, and has been far more capable for helicopters, than it has recieved credit for. If only some of the things we have discovered this year could have been realized earlier, we would be much further ahead than we are.

Microsoft could have helped our community more, by providing better and more complete information regarding how helicopters are configured and controlled by the games core components. However, I feel that the fixed-wing community has had the same challenges, but by virtue of the fact that so many more developers have been toiling away on that side of the fence, that they were able to accumulate more useful information, in a more timely manner.

The basic modeling for the 412 was near complete more than one year ago. Given a different set of circumstances, this helicopter could have ended up just another fun helicopter from Hovercontrol. Not necessarily a bad thing, but definitely not a project that would have pushed any boundaries or limits of the sim.

A combination of events lead to what would become the 2nd half of the 412 story. How a 1 year project, became a 2.5 year project.

Three things happened in relatively short period of time that made it clear that we were not getting everything we could out of the simulator, and that there was much more to learn.

1. Fuel flow and power was proven to be adjustable for helicopters based on the bell 206 model under the right cirumstances (Mike, Jeff?, Team Commorant?, Steve H., Myself? Not sure of the true origin of this find).

2. Multiple Engine support was demonstrated to work for helicopters under the right circumstances. (Mike, Jeff?, Steve Hanley, Myself, More?, we were all digging to find the truth about this, and it took a long time to find, and even longer to perfect).

3. Dodosim clearly demonstrated, that what the simulator lacked in built-in functionality, could be mitigated by clever custom programming. Many of our so called "limitations" were dispelled.

While these topics happened over a period of months, they struck me all about the same time. So it had a profound effect on my expectations for helicopter flight simulation, and especially my desire to make the 412 an accurate simulation, and not just a "fun flyer".

I didn't fully understand what I was getting myself into.

It started by deciding that default gauges would not be good enough. I needed to teach myself the XML scripting language approach to flight simulator's gauge development. At first, my focus was purely on making gauges that looked right, and did the basic functions that one would expect in any aircraft. Attitude Indicator, HSI, Vertical Speed, Altimeter, Airspeed, Etc. Custom functionality was still above my head at this point. But I knew how to do graphics well, and there quite a few examples of XML gauges for these types of components for me to look at, and use as a guide.

Being a programmer for many years, I am comfortable with new languages, and scripting methods. However, knowing how to code, and knowing how to code gauges are different things entirely. You can be the best programmer in the world, and still be utterly frustrated if you don't understand the platform on which you are constructing your subject. I had some knowledge of FS internals, mostly through some previous FSUIPC work, but there was still much to learn.

While I was extremely careful to avoid looking at the Dodosim for examples of how to accomplish things, I definitely let it influence my impressions of what was "possible" and what was not. I'm not sure I would have really pushed my limits to the extent I did, if they had not pushed their limits first. The entire community owes Steve and Mark a debt of grattitude for seeing that project through. It stands as one of the first attempts to do something "real" within our side of the community. As I would come to learn...."REAL" is much harder than it looks.

"Real" looks simple on the outside, but inside, it is a complex matrix of possibilities and conditions that have to managed tightly and efficiently. My desire to do something "real" as well, would lead me to the biggest challenge of the 412 project.

If you want to simulate something, you first have to learn how it works, sometimes to the most minute detail. Even for simple aircraft, this is much more profound than it sounds. This part of the 412 project, would ultimately become one of the most humbling experiences I have had in regards to flight simulation. So many things I thought I knew, I didn't. So many of my assumptions, were wrong. In addition to those basic points, I had chosen a helicopter that is a highly complex system. The 412 is a twin engine helicopter, with many complex systems for flight and power management, and those systems have a wide array of modes and options that can drastically change their behavior depending on pilot choices.

If I could go back, I probably would have chosen something more simple. At the time, I simply didn't know what I was getting myself into.

Fortunately, I had friends, and friends of friends, through Hovercontrol who could put me in direct voice contact with the type of people that could answer endless lists of questions regarding the 412, and turbine helicopters in general. These individuals (who will get their credit later) had infinite patience for me. Keep in mind, I was often asking them elementary helicopter questions, that I thought I already knew the answers to. I must have sounded like a school-kid to them. They answered my every question, corrected my every misconception, and then some.

The Dark Times.

At about the 75% mark in the project, I started to really doubt if it was all worth it. The project had already evoked some of the worst parts of some people's personalities. In addition, the expectations were so high, it certainly felt that I could never meet them. It was also becoming summer time outside, and many other responsibilities were starting to come into sharp focus. I think some of my closest contacts at Hovercontrol know that I was very close to giving this project up. Giving it to someone else, or otherwise letting it go. It was simply becoming a monster.

To their credit, they convinced me to take a break, and decide about that slowly. Not to be rash, but to consider all of the options. All the while, I continued to apply development effort to it, while I pondered my decision.

At this point, there were still so many rough areas of the helicopter that were not working properly yet, that I really felt I had nothing to lose by letting it go.

But then something happened.

After about 3 weeks of SOLID work on the 412 (about 8-10 hours a day on average). Some of those rough edges finally started to come together. Some of the new ideas were finally working. Some of the impossibilities, were finally starting to become possible.

I was FINALLY starting to feel good about what was happening with this project.

I was FINALLY starting to look at this helicopter, and think that I might enjoy flying it someday!

It was at this point that I finally knew that it was worth the time and effort, and that the final push to finish the first version was worth the effort.

This only happened about 6 weeks ago.

Freeware vs. Payware

Under any other circumstances, I could never produce a helicopter like this for free. It has simply taken too long, has been too difficult, and has cost too much time and money. However, because I wanted to learn so much, and because I have no interest in managing sales right now, releasing it free is my best option.

Let me make it clear. I am not a freeware proponent. In fact, one could argue that I am a payware proponent. I believe the expectation of recieving this type of work for free is ludicrous, and that the flight simulation community in general is living in a dream world of expectations. My biggest frustration, is that I might be contributing to the dreamworld by releasing this helicopter for free.

My opinion is that EVERY developer should benefit in the way that they need from their work. If they need money, let them charge for it (how much they make, or don't make, is not my concern). If they only want respect, let them try to earn it. If they just want to learn, let knowledge be their compensation. Perhaps they want all of the above. They should get their benefit. Or at least try.

So if anybody is thinking this project is supposed to be a statement regarding freeware in the flight simulation community. They are misguided. This project represents no such thing. If I had the time, energy, and infrastructure to charge for this package, I would. However, Hovercontrol keeps my inbox full enough as it is. I think I will stay focused on that. I believe that trying to manage commercial sales of my helicopters would consume my time to the point where Hovercontrol would greatly suffer.

What is the benefit I want from this project right now? I want to learn as much as possible about turbine helicopters, and produce a package that allows flight simmers to engage in highly realistic flight operations, and be proud of the time they are spending learning about helicopters and how they fly. I want them to be proud of the advances made in our community, and consider developing their own ideas. I want my work to help draw more people, professionals and newbies, to hovercontrol so that we can continue to grow and become even more synonymous with "Helicopter Flight Simulation". Some of our community truely love to fly helicopters, I want them to have the tools they need to be able to do this at the highest level possible (whatever that may be). These are the people that make Hovercontrol what it is.

Some of the things I have learned on this project were valid from the beginning of FS2002. So I am regretful that it took so long to uncover some of the facts. I guess there is nothing I can do about that now.

I look foward to the first version being released, taking a break from developing this thing.

Most of all, I look foward to getting a chance to fly it. Like everyone else. Something, that in 2.5 years of development, I have never done.