Sierra's initial entry into the civilian flight simulator market, Pro Pilot '98, was far from the Microsoft Flight Simulator killer it was touted as. Released in a buggy, unfinished state, the program's problems far outweighed its technical achievements. A series of patches eventually fixed the major flight model problems and got the program into a stable state, but many sim fans were left disappointed by the program's 2D-only graphics and design quirks.
The good news is that Pro Pilot '99 is a dramatic improvement over that first release, building on the features of that initial release and filling many of the holes. Enhancements such as support for 3Dfx graphics cards, better flight models, more complete air traffic control (ATC), and more thorough documentation make Pro Pilot '99 the program that the first version should have been. There's still plenty of room for improvement, though.
Like the original version, Pro Pilot simulates a good cross-section of the general aviation aircraft market: the Cessna 172 Skyhawk and Beechcraft Bonanza V35 singles; the Beechcraft Baron and King Air twins; and the Cessna CitationJet 525 jet. Two models of the Skyhawk are included, the original 172P and the updated 172R. Each plane's instruments and controls are modeled in great detail, significantly better than the panels in Flight Simulator 98. All the switches are there, from fuel tank selection to working landing lights.
Newbie pilots will appreciate the new Pop-Up Operator's Handbook feature, which includes step-by-step checklists for procedures such as starting the aircraft, takeoff, climb, descent, and landing. In addition, there are a number of flight tutorials created in cooperation with the National Association of Flight Instruction (NAFI). If you've never flown a general aviation sim before and you want to learn how to do things properly, or if you're interested in someday getting your pilot's license, Pro Pilot '99's tutorials, its 30 AVI demonstration videos, and its thorough system simulations are an excellent introduction to how to do things properly.
Unfortunately, "properly" is the key word here. As long as you stay within the normal flight regimes of these aircraft, their handling and performance are very close to the real planes. Takeoff, climb, approach, and so on are convincing, and the landing problems of the '98 version have been fixed. However, if your plane ends up in what's referred to in aviation as "unusual attitudes," the flight modeling falls apart. Try to do a loop in a Bonanza, and your plane's nose will freeze once it's perpendicular to the ground. Pushing the plane into a spin isn't handled properly either. While these quirks won't affect pilots who are interested in using the sim to replicate normal, real-world flight plans, many pilots and gamers like to use sims to attempt maneuvers that they wouldn't dare try in real life. Also, the planes' sometimes-docile behavior can lull inexperienced pilots into a false sense of security. It would be far better if the planes could be pushed into unusual attitudes, so future pilots could see the consequences of mishandling and learn to recover from such situations. Here's hoping that future releases of Pro Pilot replace the flight model with one that acts properly in all regimes of flight.
Another incremental improvement is in the graphics department. The jaggy, pixelated graphics of the original release are smoothed out with bilinear filtering, transparency, MIP-mapping, improved haze, and the best clouds we've seen in any flight sim. However, these improvements are only present if your computer is equipped with a 3Dfx Voodoo, Voodoo2, or Banshee graphics card. With any other brand of 3D card, you're stuck with graphics little-improved from the original release, with the lovely cumulous clouds replaced by flying white Legos. The sim supports only 640x480 resolution in both 2D and 3D modes.
Terrain graphics are a mixed bag. The textures are very muddy looking, especially at low altitudes. And many areas seem inappropriately textured - Sedona, Arizona, a desert environment, is rendered in a lush green. While the textures could use improvement, height modeling is very well done. Mountains are where they should be, and they don't look like polygonal pyramids dropped onto a tabletop. If you want to buzz the Grand Canyon, fly around Mt. Rainier, or make the hilly approach into Pittsburgh, you'll be met with appropriate terrain.
In addition to accurately height-mapped terrain for the US, Canada, and Western Europe, Pro Pilot 99 includes over 3,500 airports and all the appropriate navigation aids - VORs, NDBs, and ILS equipment - for the areas modeled. There's also a very well-modeled Global Positioning System display, which is tied to the autopilot. An excellent flight-planning interface lets you create cross-country flights, complete with ATC vectoring. There's some modeling of other air traffic around airports, but for the most part you're alone in the skies. The experience here is closer to Flight Sim 98's dynamic scenery than Flight Unlimited II's crowded airspace. So even landing at Chicago O'Hare, you'll encounter only light traffic - and it's all general aviation craft, with nary a DC-9 in sight.
Overall, Pro Pilot '99 is a dramatic improvement over its predecessor and is definitely worth picking up if you're a non-pilot interested in learning about realistic flight procedures or for pilots looking to practice instrument navigation without the expense of taking up a real plane. If you're interested in pushing the performance limits of your aircraft or flying over photo-realistic scenery, though, you'll want to check out one of the other general aviation offerings.