Ian Pearson Reviews Aerosoft’s AES

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Ian Pearson downloaded the new airport enhancement package AES from Aerosoft last month and gave it a good look-over. It is a good tool for those simmer who love to dwell on larger airports and Ian was happy with it for what it does. You can read his full review by clicking on Read more….. below.

Aerosoft Airport Enhancement Services

Review by Ian Pearson
February 2007

In the run-up to the release of FSX last year, there seemed to be an expectation that as soon it was released, all further add-ons by commercial developers for its predecessor, FS2004, would end very quickly. Unfortunately, It became evident even more quickly that FSX is not particularly good on the less than optimum PCs owned by many FS users.

While the discussions and comparisons go on about the future, with Vista, DX10 and which tweak can actually make the latest sim run faster on each user’s individual PC, FS2004 is still running quite nicely thankyou and, contrary to expectations, not every developer has dropped it like yesterday’s newspaper after they finished the crossword.

Aerosoft’s AES, or Airport Enhancement Services, is one of the resulting products – a FS9-only add-on that increases the realism and capabilities of its host sim to new levels. It has also apparently surprised its developers a little, surpassing expectations at the time of its release to rise into the top 5 overall selling download products at Aerosoft’s shop within 2 weeks of release. This means that it has joined products that have taken 2 years to get to the same place and has resulted in Aerosoft having to move resources around to support a considerably larger user base than they had anticipated. Not bad for an package that might never have seen the light of day!

Some of what it does, as I will cover shortly, has been done before in various add-ons and different ways, but nowhere before as realistically as this.

So, I guess, I’d better explain what AES actually does.

Features

At its most basic, the package provides features for the very beginning and very end of a commercial aircraft flight. It will work with GA aircraft, but to a lesser extent and will only really be of use at commercial airports. It provides:

– A realistically animated boarding gate/finger that will dock accurately with the door of any aircraft set up to use it.
– A pushback truck that follows a pre-programmed route to a position you can taxi from.
– A “Follow Me” vehicle to guide you from the runway to an assigned stand.
– A Marshaller or Automated Docking System to guide you to park accurately.
– Additional environmental effects such as wet runway effects and “runway centreline” sound effects.

The nice thing about AES is that it works without a lot of unnecessary interraction from the user. As I said before, a lot of this has been done before, such as radio frequency operated docking gates, Follow Me trucks and pushback facilities. They tend, however, to either be part of one specific scenery, requiring you to learn all the different frequencies and methods of operation, quite jerky in animation or, in the case of pushback facilities, they tend to only provide “straight back and turn” maneouvering, usually with nothing actually pushing the aircraft back. This is where AES is better than its predecessors, as all of the animations are smooth and as realistic as FS allows us at the moment.

The limits of user interaction are also improved over past experiences. The interface is all handled via a small number of FS9 standard interface boxes (like you use for seleting ATC messages, for example) and normally only require calling up the window and selecting an option.

To demonstrate what AES does, I’ll take an aircraft the package is set up to work with by default, PMDG’s B737-700, and discuss each aspect in turn.

“Follow Me, Chaps!”

When you land at an AES equipped airport, there’s nothing out of the ordinary to prove it. No ping or announcement to tell you, you just land and taxi off the runway as normal, then contact ground and request taxi. Hopefully ATC will give you a numbered parking spot rather than, as happened to me last night, “…taxi to parking via taxiway…” because all the gates are full, which unfortunately AES can’t help with. Assuming you are given a numbered stand or gate, however, after acknowleding receipt of the instruction, pressing shift-control-w will bring up the AES window and an option to request the Follow Me car.

This didn’t actually work the first few times I tried it and I had to contact support, but it was an easy fix once I had been told what I was looking for and I soon had the window in front of me with one line of text and four options:

Request Followme to Position: XX
F1 – decrement Position
F2 – increment Position
F3 – Request Follow-Me direct now
F4 – Close Window for later request


where “XX” was a gate number that I can’t remember offhand. It wasn’t my assigned gate, anyway – something like A1, when I had been sent to A14 by the default ATC.

Now apart from a slight capitalisation issue which the teacher’s kid in me winces at, that’s as complicated as using AES gets. You use F1 and F2 to select the stand/gate you want to go to and hit F3. A little yellow and black chequered VW van appears a few metres in front of your aircraft and moves forwards, then waits for you to catch up and starts matching your speed directly to the assigned gate.

Note that I said “directly” in that last paragraph. A limitation of the Follow Me functionality is that while it does appear to follow taxiways accurately, unfortunately, it can’t follow the path assigned by ATC like the strange purple/pink arrows it replaces and just heads off by the shortest route. It also can’t see AI traffic, so it is your job as pilot to see and avoid other traffic. I had one particularly memorable incident where a departing A340 at Frankfurt went straight through the Follow-Me car while I was holding short of 25R…

This is more of an issue at complex airports like Frankfurt, where ATC tends to send you round three sides of a square and via various convoluted routes to avoid conflicts, but it can on occasion be a little irritating and require some judicious self-maneouvering to resolve the issue. On the whole, though, it’s a very welcome addition to FS and problems such as those I’ve mentioned are far from the norm, which is an expeditious and easy way to find your assigned gate.

Before I leave the Follow-Me car altogether, I must give an honourable mention to the lowly – but very useful, turn indicators. Yes, when approaching a junction on the taxiway, the little VW indicates to say which way you are going next. Nice touch.


“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are now arriving at the gate”

The Follow Me car can, of course, only get you so close to your assigned parking spot before something a little more accurate has to take over to guide you into position and again AES steps up to the plate. Most positions with jetways/fingers/gates/whatever you prefer to call them tend to have some form of automated system these days and these are included in the package. As far as I am able to tell, the system provided is appropriate in type and functionality to the one at the real airport position as well.

In the real world, some of these guidance systems (Safegate2? I’m not as “up” on the names of the systems as I perhaps should be, sorry) display the name of the aircraft type they are set to guide at the top of the display. This is present in the AES systems too, controlled by an entry set when configuring an aircraft using the AESHelp utility, so for instance the display as follows was visible when approaching a gate at LOWW in the PMDG B737-600.

Most remote stands (and some gates) are not equipped with automated systems and so we come to AES’s marshaller. A doughty little chap, he also fulfills the job of Dispatcher and doesn’t seem to mind getting wet, as he doesn’t put a coat on even when being pelted with freezing rain!

The marshaller/dispatcher is a 3d model rather than a 2d “cut out” and is very smoothly animated, although a comment has been made to me that he he could do with bending his knees a little when walking. More importantly, the instructions he gives you, through from both hands in the air to indicate you should follow him to the throat-cut motion for shut down, are easy to follow and position you pretty accurately indeed. I should point out that in the external shot above, the aircraft is positioned where it loaded when I selected the starting position at the airport – not where he parked me.

The gates themselves – where provided – are equally smoothly animated and move out with an appropriate warning horn effect to meet with your aircraft as soon as the brakes are on, engines are off and the Marshaller has secured the aircraft. The gates are actually modified from the original models at each airport scenery AES is activated with, so if the scenery was accurate in type, colour, etc. so is AES’s equivalent.

In terms of functionality, the gates will move through all motions available to them to fit as closely as possible to your aircraft’s hull, including the rubber rain seal on the front door. How closely this is depends on how accurately you position the markers in the setup utility and how carefully you parked. Some gates don’t have a twist facility to mate accurately if you park in the wrong place, which is a problem in the real world too, taking rather more sorting out there than the judicious use of slew and resetting AES that is required in the simulator!

If you change aircraft while at the stand, or need to reposition for any reason that will put AES out of synch with the aircraft position, in version 1.20 used for this review, it is a very simple menu selection re-initialise the add-on. According to the release notes, this procedure is now automatic in version 1.21.

One thing that I did notice is that at Fly Tampa’s Vienna (the only non Aerosoft or Sim-Wings airport available for use so far), each individually numbered gate retains its number with AES. I’ve not noticed this at any other airport I have tried.

The final trick up AES’s sleeve regarding the gates is that if your aircraft has more than one door forward of the wing, and the appropriate parking position has two gates, both will move to the aircraft and dock, as per the second screenshot below.

Hello Captain… We are starting pushback now.”

So ATC has sent you via a winding route (which the Follow Me ignored, but hey) to the deepest, darkest corner of the airport – or at least Gate A10 at Frankfurt – and you’ve successfully parked, unloaded one load of passengers and gained a replacement set. Your next problem is getting out again and, from A10, which is why I mentioned it, this is not an easy task.

Take a look at the screenshot below. Note, specifically, the concrete barrier, the road across the top right of the shot and general lack of space around you. If press shift-p-2 here, you’re going to end up in the middle of that road, having gone through the concrete wall en route. Not good, really.

So this is the point where AES really shines. Unfortunately it also highlights the same disadvantage as using each individual airport’s gate models rather than a single generic design. Each gate’s pushback sequence is hand coded by the add-on’s developer, Oliver Pabst, which takes a lot of time and effort and is the primary reason why AES is only available for relatively few airports at this time.

Where it is available, however, such as at Aerosoft’s own Mega Airport Frankfurt, the package deals with the problems of walls, roads and adjacent parking locations for you admirably. The following sequence of screenshots shows the pushback from start to finish, maneouvering the aircraft between the obstacles, turning it to point the correct way to taxi out and with a safe distance behind to avoid jetblast.

Most pushback sequences aren’t that complicated, fortunately, but even when they aren’t, after “hooking up” with your nosewheel the pushback will straighten you on the centreline as it starts moving and will leave you within a couple of feet of it as well at the end. All that is required from you is to release the brakes at the stand to open the interface window (or press shift-ctrl-w) and select the options to commence pushback. It does the rest, including giving you the opportunity to start your engines during pushback, which saves time at busy airports.

If, like myself, you are an FSPassengers user, there could be a problem here as FSPax requires you to set parking brakes during engine start. This isn’t a problem with AES as, if you set the parking brakes during pushback, the truck will stop. This allows you to start the engines with the brakes on then, as soon as you release them again, the pushback recommences. Add-ons which detect the parking brake to signal “end of flight” are catered for as well, in that at the end of the pushback when the Marshaller/Dispatcher calls for you to set the parking brake, holding on the toebrakes will achieve the same result. The Marshaller, who has been escorting you throughout pushback, walks to the nosewheel. The truck disconnects and drives away. Finally, the marshaller tells you that you are clear to taxi and to wait for the hand signal, which will come from an appropriate side, depending on where your aircraft is now positioned with relation to where it started.

There are also two different push back trucks available currently. If you are at a German Airports scenery, you get a Lufthansa liveried truck. Anywhere else you get a plain white one. Other than the textures, the two trucks are the same, nice but not over-detailed, model with appropriate and realistic sounding engine noises.

The final thing to note about the pushback is that during it, you will not see the aircraft (or pushback truck) wheels move, because of the way it is actually achieved. Most of the time, you’ll be busy in the flightdeck doing checks and setting up, but if you do find a second to look outside you might find this a little disconcerting, as you might the fact that the Pushback truck occasionally swivels on the spot or moves laterally to get to where it needs to be!


But what if you don’t need a truck?

Of course during that previous section, you might have noticed that the pushback truck is pretty big – it has to be to handle anything from an B735 to an A380. So what would happen if I wanted to use, say, a Beech KingAir? What about if the stand had taxi-through, such as some of those at Ibiza, where an aircraft just turns and taxies straight out under it’s own power?

As you might expect by now, yes, AES handles that as well. Rather than being prepared for pushback, the marshaller just clears you to taxi, walks to safety and gives you the handsignal.

I did actually see another “funny” here, during testing, when the marshaller actually vanished into a parked bus at Sim-Wings Ibiza whilst walking away from me. A minor thing, but quite amusing at the time.

Unfortunately the Follow Me car can’t help with getting back to the runway for departure. You’re on your own for that one so it’s back to the charts or, if you don’t have them, the revenge of the MS purple/pink arrows.

And there’s more…

I mentioned at the start that AES included some environmental effects, in addition to its “active” content. These consist of some runway textures for appropriate weather and a sound effect of the nosewheel hitting the centreline during takeoff.

The textures are exactly that, replacement runway textures. There’s not a lot else to say about them other than that they appear during appropriate conditions so that you don’t, for example, get a snow-covered runway if the ground all around the runway is green, yet the weather is set to heavy snow. The examples below are Frankfurt in an autumnal storm and Vienna in a snowy February.

To my eye, the textures are a little too artificial and repetitive. The repeat is less obvious in the snow than the wet texture, but it is still visible in both which detracts a little, I think.

The centreline sound is that of the nosewheel impacting the runway lights during the takeoff run and is actually fairly realistic compared to others I have heard. It appears to be triggered by the aircraft moving while the nosewheel is on the centreline, which means that on occasion I have heard it slightly out of context, such as when taxiing across a parallel runway on my way to the terminal and when lining up at very low speed while other traffic takes off ahead of me. On the whole, though, it’s not a bad addition to the experience.

AESHelp

Finally in the features of AES, I need to cover AESHelp – the tool which configures the software and any other aircraft add-ons that you want to use with it.

AESHelp is possibly a slight misnomer for the application, which provides you with the functionality to add new credits, unlock/activate/deactivate airports and configure aircraft to work with the add-on. It doesn’t actually need to be running for AES to be active within the sim, but links to FS9 in order to set up a new aircraft.

Rather than go through each page, the use of which is covered in the manual, all I’ll briefly cover here is setting up an aircraft for use with AES. As with everything to do with the package, AESHelp’s Aircraft Parameters page is pretty self explanatory and intuitive.

To use it, all you have to do is launch AESHelp, then load FS with the aircraft that you want to configure out of the way somewhere at an AES activated airport. Loading the appropriate AESHelp page allows you to set the positions of all the doors and the nosewheel, so the gates and truck “connect” with your aircraft properly. Windowed mode may be helpful here, but I didn’t find it that hard using fullscreen and alt-tab either.

With each door location, you can activate or deactivate it and can set its position in three axes relative to the centrepoint of the aircraft. For the front door, you are offered the additional option of setting its angle relative to the hull.

While you are editing the configuration, all of the points currently available to be positioned are displayed in FS9 as yellow objects, while the one you currently have selected is green. In this way, you are able to see changes immediately and confirm that things are correct very quickly. It took me less than ten minutes to set up the PSS B757 shown above, including playing with the options and generally seeing the effect changes had.

The sharp eyed amongst you might have noticed that you actually get to set up up to four passenger doors and two cargo doors on each model, yet only a maximum of the front two passenger doors are actually used. The intention is, I understand, to add additional features to what has already been released, but they are not yet working to the designer’s satisfaction so are not yet included.

When saved, the application writes a small “IntelliScene.cfg” file in the appropriate aircraft directory which then applies to all aircraft liveries and models within. This could cause a problem, potentially, if a single folder contains, for example, a model with one door forward of the wing and a model with two doors but, for significantly different variants, most developers seem to use different aircraft directories so problem aircraft should be few and far between. I haven’t found any yet.

Anyone who has been around “outside the SDK” FS add-ons for a while will probably recognise the name “IntelliScene” as involving Maurizio Gavioli in its programming. While Oliver Pabst is the more public face of AES, it uses techniques designed by VistaMare/Maurizio and any keypress changes, for example, are done through the VistaMare dropdown menu inside FS.


Documentation

Because of the relative simplicity of interracting with AES, all of the information needed to operate it is contained within a 16-page PDF manual, linked from the All Programs / Aerosoft / AESBasePack tab under your Start menu and also accessable from the Aerosoft drop-down menu inside the sim.

The documentation includes everything you will need to know about the add-on and how to use it. It covers the usual: Installation, uninstallation and production credits, all the interfaces and rather usefully also shows examples of how a properly positioned door should look to get a perfect match with the gate. It’s sufficient for the job and well presented.

One thing I did notice is that although the product has been updated at least twice since release, a few of the screenshots in the manual still show version 1.0 images. The differences are in general very minor and shouldn’t confuse the user at all.


Product/Customer Support.

This is something that Aerosoft have won awards for recently, so it should come as no surprise to hear that support for AES has been very good indeed, although to be honest, looking through the forums, there really haven’t been that many catastrophic problems with the package anyway, which is a good thing in itself!

Aerosoft’s support is done via a web forum, linked from their site and any of their product pages at Simmarket. Most queries that haven’t been able to be handled by other customers or Aerosoft staff during their frequent visits have been answered by Oliver Pabst personally, usually within a few hours of being posted.

The only downside to the forum system for support is that unfortunately they suffer from the blight of spam and fake users the same as any large site does. Like many others, Aerosoft are dealing with this by using a manual authorisation system which means you may have to wait a while after registering for your new account to be authorised before you can post. It’s a pain – more for those doing the authorising than those waiting to post a problem in reality – but something that we have to live with these days. I had actually managed to lock myself out of my account when I tried to post, but within a day and two short e-mails that was resolved. Within six hours of my post being made, Oliver had replied with the information required to fix the problem and I was up and running.

Post review note: A fault was introduced to the system at version 1.21 with the AESHelp application. A new version of AESHelp was available from the forums within 24hrs of the release of v1.21.

But there always has to be a downside, too.

With AES, unfortunately, there are several. Mainly caused by how well it actually does things, which is something of a quandry. I’m sitting here typing this and I have to actually mark something down for all the things that make it as good as it is!

The basic things that may turn potential users away from AES are the price and the low number of locations it works at.

Regarding the number of airports, when AES was released, that meant three: Aerosoft’s Mega Airport Frankfurt, GAP2 Hannover and either GAP Nürnberg or the default MS Nürnberg as this was the demo airport.

The following list is current as of today on the product page, giving availability and cost in terms of credits to unlock each airport.

Aerosoft German Airports:

* EDDF – Mega Airport Frankfurt (5 credits)
* EDDH – Hamburg (1 credit)
* EDDL – Dusseldorf (2 credits)
* EDDM – Munich (3 credits)
* EDDT – Berlin Tegel (1 credit)
* EDDC – Dresden (1 credit)
* EDDN – Default FS2004 Nurnberg (0 credits, free!)
* EDDN – Nurnberg (0 credits, free!)
* EDDS – Stuttgart (1 credit)
* EDDV – Hannover (3 credits)
* EDDW – Bremen (1 credit)
* EDLN – Monchengladbach (0 credits, free!)

SimWings:

* GCFV – Fuerteventura (1 credit)
* GCGM – La Gomera (0 credits, free!)
* GCHI – El Hierro (0 credits, free!)
* GCLA – La Palma (0 credits, free!)
* GCLP – Gran Canaria (2 credits)
* GCTS – Tenerife South (2 credits)
* GCXO – Tenerife North (1 credit)
* LEBL – Barcelona (2 credits)
* LEIB – Ibiza (0 credits, free!)
* LEMH – Menorca (0 credits, free!)
* LEPA – Palma de Mallorca (2 credits)

Other:

* LHBP – Budapest (3 credits)
* LOWW – Flytampa Vienna (3 credits)


That’s a little better than the original three and posts on the Aerosoft Support Forums suggest that it will be expanding further in the future – probably into the US with further FlyTampa sceneries.

The real problem – which could be a more serious one – is that because AES is designed to integrate so well with the sceneries it sits on, significant assistance is required from the original developer to make the airport AES compatible. There are also copyright issues involved, because the original developer has to supply 3d models to Aerosoft to be modified and there are issues where developers have done things their own way that prevent them being modified. As I said before – what AES does best is, unfortunately, also its greatest problem.

The issue of cost has been raised a few times when I asked people what they thought of AES and they saw, in the early days, that for €15, they could only unlock two or three airports – you get 10 Credits per €14.95 pack.

Back then, the only one in the list to have (0 credits, free!) written next to it was Nürnberg (obviously you can’t use both versions at once…) – now, however, there are no less than seven airports on that list whch you can unlock for absolutely nothing and if the user already owned all the airports on the list (or all the smaller ones, anyway), no fewer than eight can be unlocked using a single pack (7 x 1 Credit, 1 x 2 or 3 Credit) in addition to this.

While some people will undoubtedly not want to spend more to gain functionality at airports they already happily use, I think that with the cost being relative to the complexity of the airport and so many packages (over 25% at present) being free anyway, Aerosoft have addressed the cost issues pretty successfully.

One other problem that has cropped up has been with some aircraft packages crashing following pushback by AES. What actually happens is that the nosewheel collapses and the PSS757 I used for the setup earlier is one of the aircraft that suffers from this. It’s an easy fix – changing one line in the aircraft.cfg – but it is worth knowing about and might be worth noting in a readme or FAQ somewhere.

Overall Conclusion

AES will not appeal to everyone and does have its limitations. For the most part, though, you couldn’t really ask for a better product to do what it does. The integration with the airports it sits on is excellent. The ease of use and interaction with the user is excellent. Bugs? I think I found one potentially serious one – reverse thrust being selected when I tried to select a parking spot once, which was resolved by cycling through using F1 instead of F2 and is apparently fixed in version 1.21.

As I was proofreading this review prior to sending it for editing, v1.21 was released and the details of the fixes and the updates included can be found on the Aerosoft Forum here.

All I can suggest is that anyone who flies airliners more than very rarely downloads the package and tries it. If it’s not for you then you haven’t lost anything and may have virtually visited Nurnberg for the first time ever!

It’s more likely, however, that when buying FS9 airports in the future, you’ll be sneaking a look at the AES page to check whether it is compatible first. Definately a package to take a serious look at.

PROS CONS
  • Very realistic addition to an airport environment.
  • Well integrated with base packages.
  • Easy to use and configure
  • Limited number of locations.
  • More locations cannot be added by users.
INFORMATION

TEST SYSTEM

  • AMD Athlon X64 3700+
  • 1Gb RAM
  • 256Mb ATI X1650Pro AGP Video Card
  • 19″ LG Flatron TFT Monitor (1280x1024x32)
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