Helicopter flying in Far North Queensland: real versus virtual

Holidaying recently in Far North Queensland my wife Maureen and I shouted our good friend Joanne her first ever flight in a helicopter. The chopper, operated by SkySafari,  was a little Robinson R44, bright yellow and with seats for four passengers. We flew from the sugar cane town of Mossman right along the Mossman River and up into the Gorge itself. The tropical rainforest is lush and dense, and from the air looks like so many bunches of broccoli. Joanne loved it – in fact we all did!


The day was unusually clear and the cloud that frequently obscures the summit was absent so we were able to get great photos of the rugged granite cliffs. Easing over the ridge we headed out across the patchwork quilt of sugar cane fields, all being actively harvested and burned and filling the air with an acrid, sweet, vinegar-like aroma.

Heading east we then flew low across the ocean towards the beautiful Low Isles, a fishing and snorkelling paradise with nothing more than a weather station, lighthouse and marine research facility run by the University of Queensland.  The area includes about 55 hectares of coral reef as well as a protected lagoon where boats can anchor overnight.

With World Heritage rainforest extending right to the coast and tropical islands close to shore, Far North Queensland is stunningly beautiful and a photographer’s paradise and the chopper’s-eye view is unbeatable.


This was a holiday and I had deliberately left my video cameras at home, but I did take my trusty Pentax kit including my prized Sigma 10-20mm ultra-wide lens. This lens is brilliant for rainforest scenes and also for aerials. We asked Andrew the pilot to remove the doors so we had a truly breathtaking view throughout the flight. I was very torn at not having a video record of the beautiful flight – may have to go back again? – but then I thought, why not recreate the flight in Flight Simulator?


I have been a flight sim fanatic for many, many years and have written many articles for Computer Pilot Magazine, some discussing how to capture videos from the screen. It’s timely to revisit this process because the new 2nd generation Intel processors, coupled with the extra RAM available in 64-bit systems, has truly revolutionised the flightsim experience.


Setting up for flightsim recording


The computer system I set up has a Windows 7 64-bit operating system and 8GB of RAM. The processor is an i7 2600 running at 3.7GHz with an ASUS EAH4850HD graphics card with 1GB DDR3 video RAM. It’s a blisteringly fast system and is utterly brilliant for video editing. It’s also a great platform for Microsoft Flight Simulator X (FSX) and can easily run the software at ULTRA HIGH display settings. I’ve found that I get the best frame rates by selecting UNLIMITED in the FSX display settings. This gives frame rates in excess of 40 fps, occasionally skipping up towards 100 fps. The result is a totally fluid experience which makes the delicate business of virtual helicopter flying a delight.

To record a flight I use a program called Fraps (available at www.fraps.com) which can record at up to 100 frames per second at resolutions of up to 2880×1600 or 3840×1200 pixels. I work at the native resolution of my HD system, namely 1920x 1080 at 25 fps. The resulting video is then imported directly into Sony Vegas Pro 10.0e within a 1920×1080 project.  The Fraps files are very large and finely detailed but playback in Vegas Pro was smooth and locked at 25 fps. I re-flew the flight several times to get cockpit and external views for editing. FSX has an internal recorder for replaying flights but it wasn’t working reliably so I simply took the other option of recording each flight separately.

It is possible to record video directly with your camera from an LCD screen. There is no flickering at all and the quality is good, but Fraps gives the best possible result.


Australian scenery


In Australia we are blessed to have scenery developed by John Venema and his team of geniuses at Orbx Simulation Systems in Melbourne. John recognised years ago that the colour palette, textures and vegetation supplied with Microsoft Flight Simulator simply didn’t reflect the true nature of Australia’s various regions. The result was a freeware project called VOZ – for Virtual Oz – which represented a revolution in how Australian terrain was represented in Flight Sim. Now a commercial product, Full Terrain Xperience, or FTX, covers the whole of Australia in remarkable detail and gives the virtual pilot an uncannily real flying experience. The final trick is to load a high density terrain mesh developed for Orbx by Holger Sandmann. Holgermesh provides 76-metre elevation data for the whole of Australia and results in far better terrain sculpting, making mountains and especially cliff faces and peaks look realistically steep. Ideal for Mossman Gorge!


I loaded up FTX (SP3) from the DVD, downloaded and installed SP4 and selected Orbx Australian trees as well. Then I was keen to see how the scenery in Far North Queensland would look.


The Robinson R44 helicopter


FSX comes with a Robinson R22 chopper – the four-cylinder version of the R44 we used in real life. Fortunately I was able to download a beautifully modelled JustFlight R44 from PC Aviator for just AUD $16.00. This model even has floats like the real one and the rotors, when tied down, move gently in the breeze! I used the included repaint software to paint the little chopper bight canary yellow to match the real one. Being a bit of a detail masochist, I then decided to add the SkySafari logo to the fuselage and also remove the R44 numbers from the fuselage. Finally I wanted to add the correct tail boom number, VH-ZAH to replace the European designation on the JustFlight model.


Repainting FSX aircraft requires you to delve into the dark arts of nVidia textures and transparencies and this makes learning AfterEffects look like Playschool! I eventually figured out, with great help from Martin King on the FTX Forum, how to add and remove tail numbers and logos. It’s complex stuff because ’transparency’ in the world of Direct Show and .dds files actually alters reflectiveness and you need special programs to convert between multi-layered Photoshop .psd files and functional .dds files needed by FSX to paint the aircraft. I used DXTBmp by Martin Wright, AeroSelectX supplied with the JustFlight helicopter, and FS Repaint 2 by Abacus Software.

PICTURE OF DXTBmp interface near here


MANY days later…  I had a working R44 in correct SkySafari livery all ready for the trip. The only component I couldn’t change was the four virtual blokes in the chopper – the software didn’t give me the option of modelling Maureen and Jo as females – although it does allow you to model your own face from a photo so you can be the pilot.


My R44 paint job -over Cairns airport


So with the computer, simulator, scenery and chopper all locked and loaded, I was set to recreate the flight in the photo-realistic world that is today’s desktop flight simulation.


For comparison, I’ve included some stills I took on the flight.

Fig-1_Wide angle Mossman region


Fig-3_Near the summit

OTHER picture series follow folder called 1_BEST SIM STILLS with matching real stills as indicated in captions in folder 2_Real Stills

BEST SIM still fig names are the captions




Far North Queensland is a beautiful place and a photographer’s paradise. The approach to scenery modelling taken by the FTX team is astonishing. Simple tricks like having rows of trees and shrubs along roads, with patchworks of different crops leading the eye to forested foothills all add to the impression of being in the real world. Being able to make a video or take stills from the simulation offer the possibility of having some real fun with your holiday experiences, just as I did here.


It’s possible to take this approach to a professional level, as I did with the simulated wartime flying sequences in the documentary Return to Anjo (available for sale from www.auscamonline.com).


Projects such as these bring together computing, video editing and artistic skills at a level of realism that seriously approaches the real thing. Sure, you don’t get to smell the avgas or feel the turbulence in your home office, but then again, simulated flight is an immersive experience and costs a tiny fraction of buying or renting a helicopter, not to mention the cost of learning to fly and maintain your helicopter pilot’s license.




Special thanks to Andrew, our helicopter pilot from Skysafari Australia (www.skysafari.com.au) for a great flight and for SkySafari for their enthusiastic support for my virtual flight project.

Robinson R44 helicopter modelled by JustFlight from PC Aviator (www.pcaviator.com.au). Grateful thanks to Martin King and others on the FTX Forum for guidance with repainting tips and tricks. Full Terrain Experience (FTX) Australian scenery by Orbx Simulation Systems was used with generous permission of CEO John Venema (http://fullterrain.com/).
by David Smith
Dr David Smith runs multimedia company imaginACTION in Melbourne www.imaginaction.net.au