F-Sim Space Shuttle for iOS: A Superb Flight Simulator

| In-Depth Review

Sometimes there are apps that are so amazing, so well done, so technically pleasing, that one is in awe. Such is the case for F-Sim’s Space Shuttle landing simulator. The graphics on a retina display are astounding. The technical depth is amazing. If you’ve ever wanted to experience what it’s like to land the Space Shuttle orbiter, this is it.

Background

Just as background, the Space Shuttle orbiter, on final approach, is a glider. No thrusters are active, and the pilot, when the program was active, always had just one chance to safely land the two billion dollar orbiter with glider aerodynamics and a lot of skill. And if he or she wanted to ever fly again, there better not even be a blown tire. Shuttle astronauts had to practice about 1,000 landings in the Shuttle Training Aircraft, and many more in the Space Shuttle Mission Simulator before being allowed to attempt a mission landing.

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275 mph, 200 ft altitude. (KSC)

If you’ve followed the Space Shuttle program, if you have a technical interest in space flight, you will want this app. It’s a mere US$3.99, vastly underpriced, and a work of art and science. There is passion, technical skill, and huge enthusiasm behind this app, and it’s great fun for us.

Addictive in fact. I’ve logged 2h25m of flight time, nearly a hundred landings, and I’m still learning. Once again, I’m late night hooked, and you will be too.

Two Approaches

There are two ways to approach this app. You can dig right in and treat it as a game with the defaults and autopilot set to full. You’ll have a good chance to familiarize yourself with the operation of the app, and maybe even execute some decent landings. The initial fun and great visuals should hook you right away, especially the multi-view replays — which are incredible. However, if you don’t have a technical interest in flight, that mode will quickly become tiresome.

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Replay mode, external view.

The next step for those with a technical interest in the Space Shuttle program, and perhaps some flight experience, from private pilots in Cessnas to commercial and military pilots, is to read the documentation (under Help, top left), familiarize yourself with the nomenclature, and learn about the Heads Up Display (HUD). The more you learn about the HUD and the landing aids on the ground, the better your landings will be. And the more geek fun you’ll have.

If you don’t move to that second level, then this simulator may not be for you. I won’t call it a game because the technical level of sophistication is more like a real flight simulator. Some have playfully asked, “Do you have the right stuff?” Here’s a chance to try your flying skills, not just stick control, but using the HUD effectively.

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Replay mode, external view. Note progress bar at bottom. You can jump around.

That personality trait, loving a technical challenge, learning aeronautics, finesse, patience, and accomplishment is what drives the fun factor. If you don’t have some of that, this app might be dead to you.

Having flown the simulator almost a hundred times, with a few early terminations for the purpose of the review (called “bailouts” in the statistics), I have some ideas about how to approach it. (By the way, only the first few Shuttle flights, flown by the best test pilot pairs, had ejection seats. They were then removed for sunsequent, full crew flights.)

  1. Start with some introductory landings with defaults. Look at the replays.
  2. Then read the docs and watch the demo. The demo flight gives you a feel for a proper flight path.
  3. Then start playing with the settings. You might want to switch to analog instead of tilt controls right away for a more authentic control experience.
  4. So. You can land the orbiter on a calm, sunny day at Edwards AFB with no cross winds and no turbulence? Can you do it at night landing at KSC, cold and rainy, with turbulence turned on?
  5. Ready for a real challenge? Go full manual and select some failure modes to see if you and your crew can even survive the landing.

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Night landing, clear weather, KSC runway 33. Note analog controls in red.

Flying F-Sim Space Shuttle

The splash screen has two important buttons at the top: “New Flight” and “Settings.” In the New Flight section, you’ll select the landing site, the weather, the time of day and possible failure modes. Or, if you’re skilled, you can select random settings. Then press the green botton on the bottom, “Start Flight.”

During the descent, touch the top of the screen to bring up a transparent overlay of view modes and the Pause button. The one on the left is the most appropriate, the cockpit view, but you can also watch the orbiter from different locations — with the HUD still visible.

During the landing, you’ll be in radio contact with the ground, and you’ll hear some NASA-speak chatter, including some prompts for you when to turn into final, confirmation that gear is down, etc. Some users have complained about the repetitiveness of this chatter, but I din’t have a problem with it. It would be nice for future updates to throw in some variation here, but as it stands, if you’re highly focused on the job, it kinda fades into a routine. I wouldn’t let that criticism sway you.

After you’ve landed and rolled out (or crashed), you can run a “Replay,” again from all those viewpoints (top right button) or get a Landing analysis (it’ll be severe), or “End Flight” on the top left.

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New Flight options. Also after flight ground track.  Blue arrow is wind vector.

One note here. In this version, if you select “Flight” again you’ll see your ground track on the map, and the options will be dimmed, since the flight isn’t over. You need to select “End flight” before you can change the settings and start a new landing. Until you do select “End flight,” you can go back and look at the replay.

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Just before touchdown. 90 ft altitude. Analog pitch and roll control visible on right.

The cockpit view is very flexible. Right after you start a landing, touch the top of the display and pause. You can do a two finger pinch to expand the view out the cockpit window. You can single finger swipe to pan around the cockpit. None of those controls you’ll see are active, but they’re cool to look at.

Finally, you can do a three finger swipe to change the positioning of your head with respect to the HUD. Users who’ve accidentally invoked that, like me, will see a possibly annoying offset, but it’s easily fixed. The developer has had a lot of users encounter that unintended offset, and the feature may be removed. But now that I know it’s there, I kinda like it.

One thing to note here is that while the physical cockpit controls are not active, the windows are, and if you prefer a different perspective, for example, getting a glimpse out the side window as well during your turns, that can be helpful.

Settings

Settings are in keeping with the iOS philosophy of simple rather than extensive so that the app is easily approachable. Even so, with these settings, there’s plenty of room for challenge. Here is where you’ll change from Tilt to Analog controls, change autopilot settings, and set some other viewing options.

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There are three tabs of settings.

Under “Other,” you can select a song from your iTunes Playlist to accompany your piloting skills, say, “Danger Zone” from Top Gun or Zefram Cochrane’s favorite “Ooby Dooby” by Ray Orbison used in First Contact.

Replays

If the piloting skill is the cake of this app, then the icing is the replays. Here’s where you can watch yourself from various viewpoints. It’s the ultimate, “hey honey, watch this!” video. With the update for the iPad’s Retina display, the video is breathtaking. Just knowing that it was you doing that flying, is amazing fun. So long as it’s not a post-mortem.

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Drogue chute deployed, note reflection in water.

I asked the developer about the possibility of saving the replays as movies to the iPad camera roll, and he said that would be very difficult, but he’s pondering it.

In the external view replays, if you’ve been in the cockpit a lot, you’ll see amazing visuals. Reflections from the water on the ground, wingtip vortices, the gentle deflating of the drogue chute, beautiful floodlights during the night landing, weather, clouds, and terrific terrain views.

Documentation

The “Help” function is amazing, complete, and technical. If you’ve worked for NASA in orbital related matters, some of it will be old hat. For newbies, it’ll be pilot school. There’s that element of challenge again. This app, if you want it to, can absorb your life. You’ll be up late night, the house dark and cold, the lights out, spouse gone to bed, and the iPad will be glowing on your lap. You’ll be reading about the Outer Glide Slope (OGS) and when to do your preflare to manage your energy. Geek heaven.

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There is a detailed explanation of the HUD.

Scoring

You can fly this simulator alone and review your performance in the “Statistics” tab. Or you can get more involved socially with OpenFeint and Game Center leaderboards to compare yourself to others and obtain rankings. The app store page has more on that.

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Depressing stats for a beginner.

Requirements and History

F-Sim Shuttle Simulator requires iOS 3.0 or later, and it runs on any iOS device. The first version was released January 28, 2010. On April 3, 2012, it was updated to version 2.4 to add support for the Retina display, wingtip vortices and new view angles.

The app was developed by Sascha Ledinsky in Vienna, Austria and a small team of contributors.

On Final

I took dozens of beautiful screen shots, and there are just too many to show in this review. But I’ll show you two more for fun.

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A view out the side can help in turns.

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296 mph and 1200 ft alt., flaring, KSC runway 33, with analog controls.

I give this app my highest recommendation. I’ve spent some time on it because it is right up my alley*, it’s an awesome app, and the technical work in the flight mechanics and graphics rendering are first class. It may be the most technically sophisticated iOS app $4 can buy — but the caveat is that you have to be interested in flying, even if you aren’t a pilot.

Because this app is so visually exciting, so technically deep, so sophisticated, so beautifully done in its realism, effects, and documentation, it earns a 5/5. I wish I’d known about it sooner. Also, had I known how good this app is, before I tried it out, I would have paid significantly more. But then, I understand the “Laffer’s curve” of iOS financials.

Prepare to become obsessed.

_______________________

* When I was in graduate school, I summer interned for NASA, Houston twice. I worked in Bldg 5, the Astronaut building. One assignment had me involved with Shuttle Simulators. Afterwards, I wrote a (crude by today’s standards) Shuttle Landing Simulator for the Apple II, started a company, and sold it.

Product: F-Sim Space Shuttle v 2.4

Company: Ledinsky Software GmbH

List Price: US$3.99

Pros:

A visually intensive, accurate and realistic flight simulator. Replay mode. Extensive settings for cockpit view. Detailed renderings including reflections from the water on the ground, wingtip vortices, the gentle deflating of the drogue chute, beautiful floodlights during the night landing, weather, clouds, and terrific terrain views. Challenging options for advanced pilots.  Multiple control modes.  Extensive, technical documentation.
 

Cons:

None noted.

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Comments

iJack

From the screen-grab Night landing, clear weather, KSC runway 33, above.  You’re at 2200 feet, 300 Kts and what appears to be about a mile from the threshold. I’m guessing that means you’re hot and high, but you can’t go around.

Am I right?  Did you splatter?

John Martellaro

I don’t recall the details for each landing, but I’ve never over run the runway.  I’ve rolled out to the stripes at the end in the daytime, but I think on that one, I landed fine.

That’s why it will be great if the developer can figure out how to save and archive the video replay, at least in one view angle, of each landing to the camera roll. All time great landings preserved!

mysterian

> No thrusters are active
not quite true, the yaw jets are active into final

iJack

> No thrusters are active
not quite true, the yaw jets are active into final

Why would it need “yaw jets,” when it has that damned great rudder? 
And even then, I’m not sure anything creating yaw counts as thrust.

John Martellaro

iJack: I am double checking with some authoritative sources.

John Martellaro

One reader pointed me to this confirmation that the simulator is in the no RCS regime.

“The rudder is activated at Mach 3.5, and the aft RCS yaw jets are deactivated at Mach 1 and approximately 45,000 feet.”
More details may be coming.  For now:

http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/shuttle/reference/shutref/orbiter/rcs/overview.html

iJack

?The rudder is activated at Mach 3.5…

The phrase, “built like a tank” is now totally inadequate.  Kicking a rudder into an airstream (even a thin airstream) at 2,660 mph is mind-boggling.

John Martellaro

My technical contact confirmed with colleagues who worked on the Shuttle program that RCS thrusters are used above Mach 1. Below Mach 1, it’s all aero-surface control for approach and landing.

iJack

Below Mach 1, it?s all aero-surface control for approach and landing.

That sounds better.

mysterian

I spent over 12 years as a shuttle gn&c developer and learned about the yawjets the hard way - through a coding error. The yawjets are active because the rudder is partially blanked because of the alpha and the shuttle’s minimal stability on the yaw axis. If you go back and watch the entry videos you can often see the jets firing - the aft jets are the easiest to see.

John Martellaro

mysterian: Thanks for chiming in with your credentials and clearing that up. Clearly, there are various flight regimes, and the RCS thrusters are still needed for attitude control above Mach 1. This simulator spends most of its time well below that speed on final, so I wouldn’t think any changes are needed.

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