Flight1 has an interesting new release on their pages. It’s titled HeliTraffic 2009 and is, as you might have guessed, a traffic program for rotary wing aircraft in Flight Simulator. It works for both FS9 and FSX. You may have been a bit under-whelmed when you first heard of it - another traffic program, but this time for choppers – yawn. Don’t be fooled – this thing is not just a run-of-the-mill traffic program. It does some things that set it apart from all others I know of and you’ll want to have a close look at it. This add-on does not just manage traffic, it truly revolutionizes the behaviour of AI helicopters in FS.
|When the opportunity to review this add-on presented itself, I
quickly raised my hand and volunteered. I’m no rotor-head –
quite the opposite. I don’t routinely fly choppers in FS, but I
am a serious traffic-monger and GA traffic and military in
particular interests me and pleases me. I haunt medium-sized FS
airports and though I enjoy plausible air-carrier traffic, I’m
particularly keen on encounters with believable GA and military
traffic wherever I happen to go. Given that, this title seemed
worth a detailed look.
My first stop was to read the Flight1 information page on HeliTraffic 2009 – it should be yours too. I can’t improve on their description of what HT2009 is all about. It’s well written, accurate and concise. Have a look and hit your Browser back button when you’re done - I’ll be right here waiting when you get back. The product page is at…
Good, wasn’t it? Besides the description and feature list, you
saw that there is a 2-1/2 minute video and a handful of
screenshots. Flight1 also offers a free demo there, which I did
not sample, going right for the real-deal.
I’ll spill the beans at this early point in the review and say categorically that HT2009 does exactly what the product description and feature list say it does. They’re not exaggerating; it’s not hyperbole – it does what is advertised. It’s one of those FS add-ons that come along once in a great while that fixes something Microsoft didn’t get quite right in Flight Simulator. It does it convincingly well and in a way that will add materially to the realism and enjoyment of your simming experience.
I’ve always recognized that the behaviour of AI helicopters in FS9 and FSX is all wrong. If you’ve paid any attention to it, you too realize that they act as if they are fixed-wing aircraft with a slow cruise speed and a painfully slow approach speed. Enroute they mostly fly too high to be a realistic replication of real world traffic; at airports they’re even worse.
Arriving, they do what the rest are doing, but more slowly, rivalling touch-and-goes for their capacity to gridlock airport traffic. They make a decidedly fixed-wing kind of approach, plunk themselves down on the runway and then hover-taxi to a conventional parking spot, studiously ignoring any helipads that may exist at the airport. It’s as if someone forgot to tell them they have radically different capabilities – you’d certainly never know it from watching them. They’re just as bad for departures, dutifully taxiing to join the takeoff queue for the active runway at a steady four feet off the ground and floating rock-steady while awaiting their turn to take off, even right behind a jumbo, even in a stiff wind.
|I’ve always found their behaviour a bit aggravating, but better than no rotary-wing traffic at all, so I leave them be. It seemed that we were stuck with the MS traffic engine and I just assumed that it couldn’t be helped. I was wrong – read on!|
The download and installation process for HeliTraffic2009 was painless. Mine was a review copy with the unlock key e-mailed ahead of time. I downloaded directly from the F1 product page, the same place bona fide purchasers must get it. The operation didn’t differ from other payware downloads I’ve bought from F1.
Flight1’s download and unlock system is quite good. A nice feature in their installer is a capability to test the connection to F1 before proceeding. They have the obligatory dire warning that firewalls might interfere, but instead of leaving you uncomfortably wondering if you should shut off your protection or not, they include a test button. If chosen, it checks if the F1 server can be accessed for unlocking before proceeding further. In my case, it was OK and there was no need to shut down my firewall. That's a nice feature and I appreciated the time, effort and expense F1 spent to include it in their unlock process. Things like that don’t just happen – someone, somewhere must decide it is needed and spend the time and money to make it happen.
After installation there is a shortcut to the manual (257K PDF, 11 pgs, with screenshots) on the desktop. HT2009 is one of those programs that you can probably mostly figure out without reading the manual, but read it anyway. It’s only eleven pages and may help you through understanding the program a little more quickly. The installed program includes a built-in uninstall option.
When you fire up the simulator you’ll find a Flight1 menu pad on the Flight Simulator top-line menu. If you already have certain other F1 products installed (e.g. Instant Scenery) that menu pad may have already been there. In any case, new or not, clicking the Flight1 menu pad reveals a HeliTraffic 2009 menu item. Mousing over that displays a fly-out menu with…
|Using HeliTraffic 2009
I’ll spare you a step by step trip through the details of the various menu selections, though some deserve discussion, which we’ll get to. Most of it is pretty intuitive anyway. If you do no more than click the Enable Traffic item at the top of the menu list, you’ll be off and running. That one is just the on/off toggle for the random traffic generated and controlled by HT2009. FS remembers the setting and if you had it on when you shut down your sim, it will be on when you return.
You’ll see a message window pop up with a progress bar and text that indicates HeliTraffic 2009 is scanning aircraft models. It will drag a rake through your Aircraft folder looking for copters. Depending upon how richly populated your FS installation is with aircraft it could take a little time. Mine has many dozens of aircraft folders, a good many with multiple liveries and the process takes about 16 seconds. If you leave HT2009 enabled, that process will run when you’re starting FS, appearing over the FS splash screen during the FS load.
Once HT2009 is up and running, you might immediately begin to see helicopter traffic in your immediate vicinity, particularly if there is a helipad defined near your current location. It generates random traffic between any existing helipads within a user-adjustable distance from you (in HT2009 Options) and they just flit back and forth, hither and yon, willy-nilly, as long as there are enough pads to produce some activity. I saw one take off from one pad and land immediately at another a few hundred feet away. That’s not the norm but it happens at times if pads are close together. The random traffic at the default settings don’t fly very high and though there is a dwell period on the pad, they don’t normally sit around too long either – a few minutes is typical.
If no traffic is visible immediately, pull down the menu again
and select Traffic Map. A small, very plain, relocatable,
re-sizeable pop-up appears; just a blank white map with your
location at the centre, a pale red dot for each helicopter and a
small grey H indicating the location of helipads. There are
three buttons, +, - and Close and a distance scale indicator –
Don’t be fooled by the apparent simplicity of the map – there are some hidden things. Mousing over a red dot will reveal some information about that helicopter – type, destination, whether random or scheduled, etc. Similarly, mousing over an “H” helipad indicator will identify it. Right clicking on an airborne helicopter provides some options for holding or re-directing it. Doing the same for a parked copter presents other options. When an unwanted random helicopter landed in a spot I was watching to see a scheduled bird arrive, I was able to right click the intruder on the map and send him elsewhere, clearing the spot immediately. It’s all very simple, intuitive and easy to use, but is also extremely useful.
HeliTraffic will find any helicopters that you have installed
and will use them as random traffic automatically, unless you
tell it otherwise in the Options setup. That’s under the
Top-Line Menu – Flight1 -> HeliTraffic2009 -> Options menu item.
You’ll see a list of available helicopters that were found in
your FS installation with a checkbox for each. The check box
enables or disables that type/livery for use as random traffic.
If seeing Japanese Army Blackhawks at Manchester doesn’t float
your boat, uncheck that one. After making changes, the dialog
box warns you, "The changes will only take effect after you
|Other things available on the Options page are settings for
visibility radius, simulation radius, minimum and maximum
altitudes and a traffic density slider that can be set as high
as 400%. Yikes – too much of a good thing, perhaps!
With the HeliTraffic slider at 100% I judged the level of helicopter traffic to be a little too dense to be realistic, but hey, this software is, after all, about seeing helicopters and you can always set it lower if you wish. It delivers all you could possibly care to see, though that’s somewhat dependent upon how many helipads are nearby.
After installing HT2009 I installed another add-on that put in several AC, including one new helicopter. That copter was automatically picked up by HeliTraffic and it appeared in the mix of random traffic the next time I re-entered the program. It’s very good at picking out rotorcraft from your installation without any help from you.
While HeliTraffic happily makes use of the existing helipads in FS, the capability for adding your own is in HT2009 too, and it’s quick and easy. After making one or two and getting the feel of it, you’ll be able to define one from start to finish in less than a minute. By slewing where you want the new pad to be and selecting Edit Landing Spots, you’ll be able to add them where ever you want. When placing a new pad, the already existing ones, whether from native FS or from HT2009, are shown on the edit screen, making it easy to align them and avoid interferences or overlaps.
|For user-added helipads, the properties include the approach
slope angle, so the steepness of the descent is easily
adjustable. That might be useful if scenery objects or terrain
are in close proximity.
Other user-settable properties include operations per day and parking time settings, both affecting traffic volume for that particular pad independent of the traffic slider setting in HT2009. Close and Save offers the option to use the new helipads you’ve created for the current session only or make them permanent. If saved permanently, they may be edited later, of course.
There’s also a built in utility for creating scheduled point to point HT2009 helicopter flights, including the capability to select the speed, altitude, AC and variant used, waypoints, holds and some other features not usually available in the more conventional traffic utilities. Those flight plans may be saved (to editable XML files) and the specified traffic will automatically appear at the appointed times and places.
|There’s a utility on the HT2009 menu for a frame rate test that’s kind of neat. You begin by selecting the helicopter you want to see from the list and then specifying how many to be placed, up to 99. HT2009 puts that many of them before you in a matrix. They appear on the ground, rotors not turning. Obviously, your graphics card is trying to render all of them and you can quickly see the effect on frame rates in your Shift-Z information line. This is a very quick and easy way to decide which models and liveries might cause problems if used as traffic, or how much traffic is too much for your system. It’s a very nicely done feature.|
The most dramatic and visible improvement brought about by HT2009 and the true meat and potatoes of the app is the flight behaviour of the helicopters placed by it. In particular, the take-offs, landings, approaches and departures are quite realistic. The helicopters behave as they say in the F1 product page copy, using the defined helipads, not the runways and taxiways. They approach the landing pad slowly but steeply. At about six feet they hover, rotate to the orientation of the pad and settle in vertically for the last few feet to a nice touchdown, sometimes with some bouncing.
Take-offs are similarly realistic, rising vertically a few feet
and setting off in a steep ascent while rotating to the
departure heading. This evolution even includes a modest and
very credible looking bit of pitch change and bank angle when
translating. It looks pretty darned good. If anything’s wrong,
it’s that the HT traffic is sometimes too precise and stable,
particularly when hovering. There’s no rocking, drifting or
anything like that – it’s as if they are on rails. I watched one
from close range in hover, waiting for a pad to open up and he
was absolutely motionless at about 100 feet for several minutes
until the squatter on his pad started up and moved away. It was
so stable in hover that it was kind of unrealistic, but keep in
mind that you’ve never see AI helicopters behave this
realistically in FS before. I have no inkling of how difficult
that might be to implement and it’s only a small criticism in
the face of a huge improvement.
Start-ups precede lift-off by a good minute and after landing the rotors continue to turn for a minute or two. The rotors spin up and decelerate over a period of about 5 seconds, still a bit too fast, but far better than the instant start and stop of propellers on conventional FS fixed wing traffic.
HeliTraffic 2009 traffic appears to be handled completely separately from other, more common traffic in FS but the two co-exist peacefully and seemingly without problems. Even the add-on stuff from other payware and freeware AI traffic programs which use the built-in FS traffic engine were present and displayed properly.
Not surprisingly, HT2009 traffic did not display in my primary payware traffic program’s map and explorer windows, nor does the conventional traffic display on the HT2009 Traffic Map window. This further suggests that there is a completely separate routine driving the FS2009 choppers. I never detected a conflict or issue between the two, though never managed to see any close traffic interactions either.
No aircraft are included – a handful of AI-quality helicopters would make for a worthwhile enhancement of the package.
No real flight plans are included – the random traffic feature makes this a minor issue, but a way to randomly bulk-generate some permanent traffic which could then be edited would be welcome.
Hovering helicopters would benefit from some random motion – they are just too stable in the hover.
Random traffic sometimes just appears mid-screen rather than coming in from the edges, even after the program has been running for some time. Spontaneous generation of random traffic in-flight might not be much of an issue, but having it happen in the middle of your forward view is less than optimal.
Traffic labels generated by HeliTraffic 2009 (identical to those for conventional traffic) show through panel, window posts, etc; those generated by native FS traffic and other traffic programs do not do so.
There does not appear to be any way to adjust the properties of the red traffic labels attached to the HT2009 traffic.
A small utility to list helipads in FS to a text file or spreadsheet would be helpful.
Traffic map entities, i.e. the red dots for copters and “H” symbols for helipads, seem to be a bit on the pale side – bolder colours might improve the map.
Saved flight plans in a comma-delimited pure text format, vice the current XML files, would provide for a more user-friendly way to manually edit flight plan files.
Traffic map rollover messages near the right edge of the map window are mostly lost off-screen and can’t be read.
The Options exit message box references FSX, even in FS9.
Obviously these are minimal issues and do not seriously detract
from the value or utility of HeliTraffic2009. It’s a great
add-on at a good price with little standing between it and being
Software: Flight1 HeliTraffic 2009 version 1.03, downloaded directly from the F1 product page.
Hardware: Intel Core2 Quad CPU @ 2.40 GHz; 3.24 GB RAM
Operating System: MS Windows XP Professional, Version 2002, SP3
Graphics Card: nVidia GeForce 8800 GTX
Flight Simulator: FS2004 (FS9), version 9.1
As noted near the beginning of the article, this app is every bit as good as they claim it is.
If you’ve overlooked it until now, you should certainly take a closer peek – maybe kick the tires of the free demo. You may well find it to be something you’d like to have. There’s more here than meets the eye. If you appreciate the aviation ambiance that traffic programs add to FS, this one will be a worthy complement to any and all of the more traditional traffic packages.
While not perfect, it takes us in a single step, most of the way from the lame treatment of rotary-wing AI in native FS traffic to real-world level reality. The issues I identified are mainly rather small and not too significant, particularly when considering how far this add-on brings us forward.
At this writing HeliTraffic 2009 (download only) for both FSX and FS9 sells for $24.95 USD; 17.21 GBP; 20.62 Euros. It’s available from that same link near the top of the review. That’s a great price for a world-changing FS add-on that gives this reviewer every impression of being bug-free, frame-rate friendly and very well implemented. I’d have paid for this one in a heartbeat if I’d had any idea what it was capable of. Now you know, so give it some thought.
I award this a Mutley's Hangar score of 9/10