What I saw at Oshkosh

What I saw at Oshkosh

Written by Dave Gamble on 8/7/2018 for PC  
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Oshkosh. Funny sounding name, and one that means different things to different people. Most obviously, it’s the name of a town in Wisconsin. Less apparent, it’s a well known line of children's clothing that goes by the moniker Oshkosh B’Gosh. It even has deep meaning to a subset of firemen that drive the Oshkosh brand of fire engine. But to pilots and aircraft aficionados, it means far, far more. It is, and I hope you will pardon the reference, a form of Mecca. While the annual fly-in of the Experimental Aviation Association has an official name invented by a marketing team somewhere (AirVenture), it is universally known in piloting circles by the name of the city that hosts it: Oshkosh.

No pilot ever has stated a desire to go to AirVenture. No airplane buff has ever bought tickets to, or camped at, AirVenture. No, every year they all count the days until the week of “Oshkosh.”

It started small. In fact, it started somewhere other than Oshkosh, WI. It was moved there when it outgrew the capacity of wherever it was before it landed in Oshkosh. And to be honest, it’s pretty close to outgrowing Oshkosh too. That growth is not due to some huge membership growth in the EAA, or at least due to the relatively few EAA members that have actually built and/or bought Experimental airplanes. Make no mistake: AirVenture still brings a very large contingent of folks like me that have built their own airplanes, but it has also grown into a vastly larger gathering of vendors, lookers, corporate sponsors, etc. It has gotten BIG!

It has also gotten very, very crowded.

I abhor crowds.

For that reason, I go to Oshkosh on the Monday and Tuesday of Oshkosh Week. The big crowds start pouring in on Wednesday, and on the weekends it gets so crowded that one can barely access anything - plan your restroom visits well in advance! That coffee you stood in line a half hour to get is going to put you at the end of a twenty minute line to divest yourself of. Seriously, you really need to plan things like that well in advance. The same is true of hotel rooms, restaurants, rental cars, and pretty much anything else.

Even on one of the first two days, it very much pays to get there early. Being an early riser by choice, this is quite easy for me. It was even easier this year because I had motivation. That motivating force was the desire (need!) to get a close-up look at Thrustmaster’s new set of rudder pedals.

Thrustmaster and I go way back. I reviewed their amazing HOTAS Warthog flight stick and throttles ages ago, and through the ensuing years I reviewed everything they sent. I currently have a set of their plastic rudder pedals, which are sadly the weakest point in all of my disparate sim peripherals. It’s not that they are any worse that their competitors, mind you, it’s just that there is only so much engineering and material costs that can go into a sub-$100 price point. They work, but they work in the way that attempting to play iRacing with a keyboard works. You can do it, but you aren’t likely to find it satisfying. In the case of rudder pedals, you don’t care quite as much about how well they work until you get into a study-level sim like the DCS Huey helicopter - that is ALL about having really good rudder pedals. Until the TPR rudder pedals, though, well-performing pedals were hard to come by.

When I first saw pix of the TPR pedals, I was certain that they were the solution to my problem. Innovative design was apparent - they are mounted to a small (well, until you try to fit it under your desk, anyway), beefy tower that provides the type of “hanging” mount that real rudder pedals typically use. And unlike one of the current crop of high(er) end pedals, they have real toe brakes. That in itself is a huge advantage over what little competition is out there. I was instantly intrigued by the TPR pedals, but this is the kind of thing you try before you buy. It’s also the kind of thing that you know through experience is going to cost at least $500. For that kind of nut, you most assuredly try before you buy. But how to do that….

Here’s how you do it. You get up at 6:00 am in order to be through the gates when they open at 7:00. That won’t quite get you in, though, because the exhibit hangars don’t open until 9:00. You need that extra time just to find where on that vast expanse of commerce Thrustmaster has set themselves up. That proved to be very easy - they sponsored an entire hangar! That tells me two things: these guys are serious, and at least some portion of that assumed $500 will get into the hands of the EAA, which I am just fine with. They're good people.

I was in front of the hangar at 8:00, and that turned out to be exactly where/when I needed to be. I immediately struck up a convo with one of the booth folks by asking what the price of these things was going to be. He didn’t know. The reason he didn’t have that info was that he doesn’t work for Thrustmaster. He works for X-Plane. There were also folks there from DCS. They were both there to set up demo systems using Thrustmaster controllers. DCS had the same HOTAS system I have, but with the addition of a custom joystick (the standard stick is from an A-10 Warthog) that modeled the F-18 stick. X-Plane was using the standard A-10 setup. Note to self: find out where DCS got that F-18 stick!

As long as I had an hour to kill, I chatted with Thomson, who works in the marketing department at Laminar Research, builders and purveyors of X-Plane.

Thomson was going through my own typical experience with X-Plane, which is banging on it to get it to work. To be fair, X-Plane typically works just fine right out of the box, but once you start applying mods (which you pretty much have to do to get decent local-to-you scenery - he was installing an AirVenture-week version of the Oshkosh airport) you often run into dependencies for other supporting mods. Getting all of the dependencies in place can be a bit of a chore.

He did manage to find some time to chat with me in the midst of his struggles, and I tried to make the best of it. I mentioned to him that I have been playing (and sometimes reviewing) X-Plane from version 6. The current version is 11. I also mentioned how much I hate that I have to pay the full price for every new version and how irritating it is that one also has to re-purchase a lot of 3rd party DLC planes as well, but I followed that up by telling him how impressed I was with the way they involved the user community when they were designing and developing their VR mode, which they gave away for free.

With that out of the way, we talked a little bit about their roadmap. Their next big push after VR is going to be to flesh out their currently rudimentary ATC system. ATC has always been an important part of flight sims, but it is apparently a tough thing to build - it has never been done well. I shared with him that I always felt that Microsoft’s ATC was better polished, but I hated how it would often give me new vectors every thirty seconds or so. Sim ATC is so bad that a subscription-based ATC service that uses actual human air traffic controllers has sprung up and is doing quite well. This is presumably something of a limiting factor on how much time and effort Laminar wants to put into simulated ATC - hard-core simmers are using the pay service, and casual users aren’t going to be quite as demanding with sim-based ATC. In theory.

I asked what comes after ATC, and was pleased with the answer: they want to do better auto-gen scenery. The current auto-gen is the reason my local airport looks so incredibly hideous in X-Plane - it’s but one of the tens of thousands of small airports in the world and not likely to ever be custom designed like, say, Las Vegas. He also said that they will be doing some improvements to volumetric scenery like clouds and particulate matter. Sitting here now, I wish I had thought to tell him about a very real thing that happens in real life that never seems to make it into flight sims: bugs hitting the windshield. Actually, dirty canopies and windshields are endemic in flying and are often actually a factor when flying into the sunlight. A grungy windshield when landing into a setting sun is not all that different from instrument flying: you can't see a thing in front of you. I have actually practiced setting up my autopilot to do an approach for me when I run into situations like this.

Beyond that, I asked if they have ever considered developing intelligent crew members. The problem with flying something like a 737 in X-Plane is that you are the only pilot. This is not how it works in the real world. An absolutely HUGE aspect of multi-pilot flying is crew interaction and coordination. They don’t define the two pilots of an airliner as “pilot” and “co-pilot” anymore; they are known as “pilot flying” and “pilot not flying,” the latter of which handles all (or most of) the ancillary functions like working the radios and secondary flight systems like flaps and landing gear. I kind of knew the answer to the question before I asked, so I wasn’t overly surprised when he said that they think 3rd party vendors have that aspect pretty well covered. It took it as a net “maybe,” but that's just wishful thinking.

All of that jabbering got us to 8:45 (close enough to 9:00 to satisfy the door guard) and I was invited to duck under the rope and test out their setup. As mentioned, both DCS and X-Plane were there to provide a decent hands(feet)-on test of the TPR pedals. X-Plane, a company made up of 50% of people with pilots licenses and another 50% who are deeply interested in aviation, knew exactly the scenario that would provide the need for heavy use of the pedals: they set up a Cessna 172 for a landing with a 25 knot direct crosswind. I have made landings like that and I am here to tell you that doing that in a light plane is ALL about rudder control. That, and mastering your white-knuckled fear.

I made the landing (Yay!) but couldn’t keep it on the runway after landing because they hadn’t mapped the toe brakes yet. Not only could I not keep it on the runway, I also couldn’t stop it. That all netted out to a fail, but I am standing by my excuse explanation. As yet another benefit of getting there early, there weren’t all that many witnesses to my apparent ineptitude. See also: Why I don't fly into Oshkosh.

I never did get around to talking to a Thrustmaster employee, but I sure did get a lot of seat(feet) time on those pedals, and I am deeply and unequivocally in love with them. As you can see in the photos, they are very well constructed from robust materials. They are also quite configurable. The angle of the pedals can be adjusted, as can the resistance/spring forces in the yaw axis. The spring-loaded “scissors” on the back side are simply brilliant! There is no doubt that I will eventually have a set of these, but there is a whole lotta doubt as to whether I will be able to buy a set anytime soon. Just after I got home, I found out what the retail price is: $500. While I find it gratifying that my guess price was spot on, this isn’t The Price is Right - guessing the price doesn’t win me one doggone thing. Conversely, it means that it is going to be a long, difficult job to get the requisite spousal approval. See also: getting a pilots license, building an airplane.

The tl;dr bottom line is this: the TPR pedals felt and behaved so much like rudder pedals that I didn’t even notice them.

There is no higher praise for a flight sim peripheral than that.

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About Author

I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.

My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.

While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.

My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.
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