This was an FSX Multiplayer ridge soaring adventure along the escarpment to the west of Murwillumbah in Northern NSW Australia. I flew this event with Harry Osh, the task designer. We both flew jet powered motor-gliders (Model: ASW20 CL-J B21 by Wolfgang Piper et. al.) We used Active Sky Next to provide historical real-world weather and CumulusX! to generate the ridge lift.
(There is a link to the YouTube video of this flight at the end of this post)
This was another entertaining and enjoyable adventure in virtual gliding but my preparation for this multiplayer event was a bit rushed and there were some consequences from which I learned some valuable lessons. Moreover, this ridge soaring event and subsequent post flight testing has uncovered another impediment against Active Sky Next being used to enhance the virtual soaring environment.
Our flight included a 32 Km powered transport stage from Tyagarah airfield at Byron Bay because FSX Multiplayer mode would not allow us to start a session at Murwillumbah airfield due to scenery AFCAD info issues. Hence the choice of jet powered motor gliders for this event. At 2000 feet over the Murwillumbah airfield we switched off the jets and commenced the 122 Km ridge soaring task. It proved to be far more challenging than expected with low cloud moving into the area from the SE and shelves of controlled airspace restricting our climb heights to as little as 2,500 feet over significant areas of our planned course.
After crossing the start line at YMUR at 2,000 feet, the initial cruise to the nearest area of ridge lift and the first waypoint was remarkably easy. At the start of the second leg I was confused about the best way to navigate the multiple ridge lines to get to waypoint two. My glider started calling out warnings about being too low as I struggled to find lift in what was now fickle light winds on the ridge tops. Theses callouts were a complete surprise to me. Call-outs are a feature you would normally expect to find in an airliner but not a glider. I overstayed my welcome on one ridge top where the lift just wasn’t working for me and then I stuffed up the resulting ridge transition, forgetting to retract flaps and flying too slow in massive sink. I arrived far too low at this ridge line to find any useful lift and had no choice other than to turn back towards lower terrain in the direction of the coast. The motor in my glider saved me from a land-out but only after Harry reminded me that my glider had a motor! Now my glider glider started calling out “Don’t sink!” warnings. This was becoming very distracting and annoying (So far I have not been able to find any way to turn this unrealistic feature off on this model glider – I think the call-outs might be related to the jet propulsion control system installed in this aircraft.) Recovery was swift using the jet propulsion system to get back onto this ridge top at 2,000 feet but I was still noticing some anomalies with wind strength fading in places that didn’t make sense.
Lesson 1. Study the maps of the area and do some reconnaissance flights over the task course before any multiplayer event.
Lesson 2. Think twice about using Active Sky Next for ridge soaring tasks (I will have more to say about this in the conclusions at the end of this post.)
Now established on top of the escarpment, things seemed to be getting easier. Then the low clouds moved in from the south east and did their best to put an end to our nice day out. Since this was only a simulated VFR flight, we decided to press on and run the gauntlet of these repeated whiteouts by making good use of the attitude indicator gauges fitted to our gliders.
Coming off the end of the escarpment at waypoint six, my XCSoar software was telling me that I was about 300 feet below a safe final glide to Murwillumbah. Normally this would have been a concern but I knew that there were some potentially useful hills and the possibility of a short diversion to Mount Warning for more ridge lift on the way home. Nevertheless, there was still an added complication to deal with. I had to get under the 2,500 foot floor of the Coolangatta Charlie airspace a considerable distance out from the task finish. To deal with this, I decided that I would divert eastwards along the boundary at high speed losing just enough height to get under that CTA and in so doing put myself closer to the finish at YMUR airfield. In the interim I diverted to Mount Warning for a bit more ridge soaring to top up the height energy in my ship and to wait there for Harry who had been delayed by technical issues with his flight controls while trying to negotiate the low clouds on the escarpment.
From Mount Warning it was a nice fast sled ride to the east to use up some height energy and then a short fast segment to the north for an easy finish. We decided to abandon the long transport stage home to Byron Bay, and chose to land at Murwillumbah instead. Neither of us had prepared properly for this eventuality, so we did not have any airport information on hand and made a mess of the approaches and our radio calls.
Lesson 3. Study the alterative airfields in the task area or have the relevant airfield information on hand in case there is a change of plans.
Then as a final spoiler to this adventure, the simulator technical issues that had been plaguing Harry throughout this event scuppered his final approach to Murwillumbah airfield leading to an unplanned flight into one of the sheds near the threshold of runway 18.
Lesson 4. If you want to avoid embarrassing yourself in multiplayer events, do not select an unfamiliar aircraft, or one that has not been flown for a long time, at the last minute.
In this case this late change was forced upon us because FSX Multiplayer Mode could not accept our chosen departure airfield due to missing airfield information in the scenery files. This meant that we had a long transport stage to fly to get the start of our soaring task and thus jet powered motor-gliders seemed like a good choice.
We plan to fly this event again, maybe in the the Discus X BM models from Aerosoft, this time giving ourselves plenty of time to configure and familiarize ourselves with the chosen aircraft.
I am also looking for alternative real-world historical weather injection options again because I am not convinced that Active Sky Next models wind on ridges and hills properly. Subsequent test flights show that ASN has an intermittent tendency to reduce wind strength drastically on the windward side of ridge slopes and even on the ridge tops. This is unrealistic and prevents CumulusX! from producing ridge lift in places where it would normally be expected. Thus this feature or bug in ASN spoils the virtual ridge soaring experience in FSX. I tried the latest open beta download of ASN but that did not fix this problem. I also tried using the built in updafts/downdrafts features in ASN without using CumulusX! but I was unable to find any useful ridge lift with this configuration and the degraded wind issue was still present.
There seem to be at least two fundamental issues with Active Sky Next that lead me to the belief that ASN may not be suitable for virtual gliding in many circumstances. They can be summarised as follows:
- ASN seems to exhibit intermittent degraded wind strength on windward slopes thus spoiling ridge soaring lift. This probably doesn’t matter much to your average GA simmer or virtual airline pilot. However, virtual gliding enthusiasts are going to be frustrated every time it kills their ridge soaring opportunities so unrealistically.
- ASN randomizes any unreported cloud layers or cloud layers that are reported ambiguously (Harry Osh’s blog shows examples of this.) Moreover, the random choices ASN makes may be inappropriate for a specific soaring event and are difficult, sometimes impossible, to control or make consistent for each player in a multiplayer event. You would think that ASN manual offline mode would take care of this, but it does not. Cloud layers and certain cloud types are critical for CumulusX! to be able to create competitive and consistent soaring environments in multiplayer events. You could argue that the ASN developer(s) had little choice other than to randomise (i.e. guess) weather aspects that are missing or ambiguous in the available data but I would counter that with the example that if Peter Lurkens can randomise thermals in CumulusX! without compromising the multiplayer competition environment, then surely something similar could be done for multiplayer weather environments.
There may be additional issues for multiplayer flights arising from other aspects of weather that are randomly guessed by ASN when data is missing, ambiguous or has to be interpolated. If there is to be a lottery for any aspect of weather, then what we need is for all players to win or lose the lottery in the same way at the same place and at the same date and time. Otherwise, multiplayer events are not a shared experience – apart from the conversation on TeamSpeak.
Link to the video of this flight on my YouTube channel: