FSLabs – An Interview with Lefteris Kalamaras

Lefteris is the founder and CEO of Flight Sim Labs in Greece, and they are currently working on the (FSX) world’s best Airbus 320 developed so far. Read about this project and his company in the interview below.

Q: Tell us something about the team members, their skills and involvement.

Flight Sim Labs was founded in 2008 and consists of several developers and artists, each bringing a unique skillset to the team. There are a lot of requirements to allow an aircraft add-on to be produced and delivered successfully to our very demanding market, so our team carries within it a wide range of talent. FSLabs consists of programmers, graphics artists, aerodynamics experts, sound engineers, technical writers. As we’re a small team, some of our members combine more than one skill set, to bring the product together. Above all, though, our team members are simmers. We enjoy nothing more but to ultimately fly our own product, off- and online in the virtual skies, making ourselves the ultimate judges of the product – this is what sets us apart, in my opinion.

Q: How long have you been working on the Airbus already. Is that more or the same as ‘usual’?

The A320-X product has been in development since the Concorde-X went into production in March 2010. This means it’s about two years in the making by now, which is more-or-less normal for a product of its caliber. We hope and expect that the next aircraft (which will share some of the A320 code base but will carry its own unique characteristics) should be out at a faster pace.

Q: We know your lovely wife Margarita did a lot, or all, of the graphics work. We also know that this is only her second aircraft. How did she learn these skills? How much time did she spend working on the Airbus? And what parts/work has she done?

Margarita has been a powerhouse in her work for FSLabs: While still a student at Akto School of Art & design she developed all the 2d bitmaps and artwork for the Concorde-X, putting a lot of effort in retouching all photographic material taken inside the Concorde cockpit and simulators, to produce an outstanding family of Concorde-X panels, with over three thousand unique bitmaps. After the Concorde-X was released, and after graduating with honors in Graphics and 3d Animation, she became responsible for all graphics elements of the upcoming A320-X: 2d bitmaps and 3d models, external and virtual cockpit. While this is more than twice the work compared to the Concorde, she’s handled these new tasks with aplomb, making all this wonderful work seem very easy. I’d be amiss, though, if I didn’t mention that all our developers are just as skilled and of equal importance on the team – without them, none of the graphics that Margarita did would ever show their worth!

Q:  What sets the Airbus apart from your previous aircraft?

This is quite a difficult question to answer, without providing a diatribe of the complexity increase that has gone into the A320-X. What seems like a relatively “easy” aircraft to produce (after all, it has two main displays per pilot and two engine displays, together with a simple push-button overhead and a two-engine pedestal – nowhere near the 400 different dials, buttons, knobs and controls found in the Concorde) is in fact several orders of magnitude more complex, all the more so due to our sometimes borderline masochistic degree of realism that we strive to put in our product.

From the first day on the drawing board, we decided that we’d be simulating this aircraft “the right way” – that is, by following all schematics, wiring and cables that exist in the real aircraft. This meant we had to devise communications protocols to facilitate signal and message transportation between systems and computers, exactly per the manufacturer specification. Our simulated aircraft contains systems now that talk to each other with ARINC429 messaging – and can trigger failures similarly, which are recorded and categorized by the Flight Warning Computers to produce the all-too-familiar ECAM actions the pilot must follow to resolve any problems. The A320-X Navigation Displays receive flight plan contents from the FMGS in ARINC600 format. The FMGS in turn reads all this information from its database using the ARINC424 protocol, just like its real counterpart. All this logic and coding, though, would not be complete without an accurate set of displays and visuals, coming from hundreds of thousands of photographs, as well as aural alerts and audio surrounding recorded in multiple visits in the real aircraft and its Class D simulators. So – in a nutshell – the A320-X is a class of its own compared to other addons, because it’s not some programmers’ idea of how an A320 should work: It’s a representation of the systems, controls and logic that goes into the real aircraft, faithfully reproduced.  In fact, during development, we’ve already found small “bugs” in the logic that we verified exist in the real aircraft as well… and our dilemma now is: Shall we fix them, or leave them there, since that’s what the real aircraft does too? How’s that for a conundrum!

fslabsA320

Q: Can you recommend any suppliers of hardware that will fit your new creation? So far most of the home cockpit suppliers focused on the 737 of course……

There are tens, if not hundreds of hardware manufacturers in the world that sell products that vary in fidelity and accuracy levels. It would be unfair to name particular companies, or favor some more than others. Our corporate goal is to work together with any and all manufacturers who would like to link their products with our A320-X, as long as they provide us with test hardware, so we can ensure accuracy of simulation and provide support directly. We’ve been long frustrated with seeing second-rate efforts out there claiming 100% compatibility, only so that they can nab the unsuspecting customer.

Q: Since he wrote the ‘ultimate guide’ for flying Airbus, do you have Mike Ray as one of your testers or team members?

Mike Ray is not on our team of advisors, as he never applied to be one J. Instead, we have a very strong team of technical advisors, consisting of active Airbus captains, first officers and mechanics that are instrumental in our effort to produce an accurate and technically superior product. Their continuous support is key to our success and we thank them in advance!

Q: I know that one of the major differences between Airbus and Boeing is their autopilot/FMCS. One of the reasons all of the currently existing FS Airbus models are not ‘simulations’ is that they use the ‘Boeing system’ as implemented in FS. Is yours different?

We do not use any of the internal FS systems – autopilot, flight management or otherwise. In fact, we’ve implemented our own models entirely, with a fully functional FADEC for engine thrust management, an auto-flight system complete with electronic flight control systems that provide flight control law management, automated flight surface control and accurate g-load simulation. Our flight management computer database comes directly from source data modeled per ARINC424 specifications with all leg types modeled in their entirety. In short, if it works in the real A320, it is simulated in the FSLabs A320-X.

Q: Are you looking at Prepar3D and X-Plane too for development? The model will most likely function in P3D, but you’d need a different installer?

As is well-known by now, Prepar3D is a direct descendent of the existing ESP code-base (the commercial version of FSX). As such, compatibility of our A320-X is not an issue. What *is* an issue is the commercial licensing aspect which we’ve assigned our legal department to investigate. As we’re going to be exploring the semi and pro- commercial markets with our product, we’d like to be assured that our customers will not be violating any agreements that fall outside the entertainment sector. We will be announcing more details on this as they develop.

Regarding X-Plane, the situation is somewhat different, as the simulation platform differs greatly from the Microsoft one. We would like to explore our options in that platform as well, but at the moment, we’re focusing our efforts towards the FSX world given the demand ratio still existent in the marketplace.

extModel_preview2

Q: Are you perhaps cooperating with ‘tutorial developers’ or are you making all documentation and tutorials in-house?

Those of your readers who have purchased the Concorde-X will know that we have a very strong team when it comes to documentation and tutorials, with a unique writing style which our customers have come to enjoy – it’s none of that dry, technical reading that most airline manuals have – we realize that, while our aircraft might be complex and difficult in their development, their flying shouldn’t be – so we write with the newcomer in mind as well. For those who are expertly skilled in flying, we have sections that delve deeper into the technicals, so everyone’s very satisfied.

Q: Although this is an interview about your upcoming product, I am also curious about the Concorde X. How did the sales go. Did it meet your expectations?

While it’s Flight Sim Labs’ policy never to divulge specifics about our sales figures, let me simply say we were very enthusiastic with the results as they far exceeded our projections, given the market and the complexity of the product. We are very appreciative towards our customers for their vote of confidence and we wish to extend our gratitude for their selection!

Q: And what did you learn from that project that you could use for the A320 ?

You might want to devote an entire issue of Computer Pilot for that topic! In the interest of brevity, though, I’ll simply say that we have not learned to cut back yet on development! This means that our A320 will be every bit as extensive (or more) in its systems simulation. As the team has grown since the start of the Concorde-X, we’ve learned how to streamline productivity and keep targets feasible, while not sacrificing on product quality! This is a very important lesson the Concorde-X has taught us all!

Q: There is quite a lot of discussion at times over the future of flight simulation, the hobby in general. What is your general feel or impression of the current flightsim market and what are your personal expectations going forward?

While it is true that Microsoft Flight has veered away from the traditional Flight Simulator series as we’ve come to know it in the past 20 years, I don’t share the majority of the simmers’ view point that it’s come to ‘destroy’ the genre. In fact, I believe that there’s a significant role that MSFlight will play in a section of the market that the genre was missing, historically: That of newcomers who faced the complexity of FS with dread and eventually grew cold against it. At the moment, MS Flight is still a newborn trying to find its footsteps in the market, trying to attract the audience and convince that it’s here to stay. I’d say it has a lot of potential, provided that it grows its content enough to generate critical mass. Simultaneously, though, the market requires a more sophisticated platform to expand into. Hopefully, X-Plane and Prepar3d will fill that void – the former will fill the currently obvious gaps of lack of seasons and scenery problems and the latter will expand on the tremendous success of the FS series, hopefully by providing 64-bit versions with none of the memory limitations faced by FSX. As a Microsoft MVP with the Flight Simulator series, I can’t help but be partial towards the genre, but as FSLabs’ managing director, I wish every platform the very best of success!

Q: Anything else you want to tell us about the new creation?

We periodically issue new information and details on our upcoming A320-X product on our web site, www.flightsimlabs.com and in our forums (http://forums.flightsimlabs.com) and Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/flightsimlabs). We’d love to get more feedback on wishes, expectations and likes on what we do – after all, your readers are our customers, so do stop by and visit! Thank you once again!

by François A. ‘Navman’ Dumas