"Half a ton, anytime, anywhere"
It's a rare day, I'll tell
you, when a review for a Microsoft Flight Simulator starts with the
following words: "My favourite aircraft is a default one."
As with all Aerosoft download products (a
boxed version is not available at the time of writing), the install set
for BeaverX consists of an executable file, a link to which you are sent
by e-mail following completion of the purchase procedure and which you can
access again through the shop if you need it again. The installer, version
2.10 for this review, is a significant size at 235Mb and extracts to 700Mb
on your hard drive.
While I mention the manual, this would be a good time to cover it and as with most Aerosoft manuals, the BeaverX one is a full colour Adobe Acrobat PDF file. Again, this is a fairly standard format these days and when opened it greets you with the tagline "Half a ton, anytime, anywhere" and a partially exploded view of a wheeled Beaver.
Following the usual few pages of credits, system requirements, how to contact support and brief introductions to the aircraft and small scenery that come with the package, the manual gets technical and delves into how to actually control the aircraft, operate the panel, what gauges are where and what they tell you. It also provides operational settings for the engine, suggestions for use of fuel tanks, expected fuel flow tables, basically everything you would normally want to know about how to fly the aircraft.
In addition to the necessary information for an FS model, the manual covers things such as how to correctly tie a Beaver down for the night, how to correctly tow one and last but not least, has an airline-style "Passenger Safety Card" on the last page.
Mathijs Kok, responsible for the BeaverX documentation between his 101 other jobs on Aerosoft projects, has obviously also had some fun writing it with comments scattered throughout questioning the sense of logic of the original designers and referring to Beavers flying these days as having "only a few million miles on the clock". The manual is clearly laid out, easy to read and contains a lot of useful information.
So. Right. The manual is read, the checklist is printed out (and you'll promptly find you don't need it), so it's time to try and find the aircraft you have installed inside the sim.
With the new way FS lists models, you might find it easier to select "Aerosoft" from the "Publishers" drop-down and tick the "Show all variations" box. However you find them, however, you will have installed eight models, all but two in a variety of liveries each:
Amphibian (5 liveries)
Floats 5 Seats (17 liveries)
Floats 8 Seats (5 liveries)
Floats Fire-fighter (1 livery)
Skis (2 liveries)
Tundra Wheels (2 liveries)
Wheels (12 liveries)
Wheels Crop-duster (1 livery)
You certainly won't be short of different paint schemes and additionally some of the variants have multiple models as well, such as with 2 or 3 bladed props or, in the case of the amphibian, different methods of gear retraction.
The models themselves have been considerably updated for the new version, mainly in the areas of the VC (which without a 2d cockpit have to be fully "clickable") and textures. The textures are well presented with FSX format reflective surfaces and cover a variety of historical and present-day schemes both military and civilian. The Beaver was designed primarily for use in the US and Canada, so the majority of real-world aircraft, and hence liveries in this pack, are North American. There are, however, liveries covering European aircraft along with representations from Ghana, New Zealand and Argentina, as examples.
I have three comments on the texturing, none of which are really complaints. The first is that these models are very clean - far more so than I would expect from hard working aircraft. I mentioned this in conversation to someone that had participated in the beta for BeaverX and he said that it had been raised then as well, but during research, almost all the aircraft that had been found really were that well maintained and polished. I think I'd have preferred a little more wear and tear, a few more oil and dirt streaks, but it really is down to personal preference, I guess. The reflections also appear to have a sparkling effect, which some may not like. My final comment is that some of the parts - the floats on the Kenmore Air aircraft are the ones that spring to mind - really are very, very, shiny indeed. This led to a slightly amusing situation where I was flying around the middle of the Indian Ocean with what appeared to be Alaskan/British Columbian mountains and conifers reflected on the floats! Understandable, perhaps, but it made me smirk.
The aircraft are designed to be fully FSX native, which means glass is visible, a common complaint about models "ported in" from FS9, and the models cast shadows on themselves dynamically.
Lighting? Well, these Beavers are equipped with a full set. The landing light is recessed into the leading edge of the port wing, with a transparent (but again visible) cover over it. Unfortunately, while it lights the ground well (not so bright that it drowns out markings and runway/taxiway lighting), from some angles such as directly head on, I found that the actual landing light itself was not visible. Panning slightly to the sides, to look at the model from 10 or 11 o'clock, it was back again. The strobes, navigation and beacon lights do not suffer from this, which appears to be a problem with the sim itself, as the same thing occurs with other effects files, including on the default aircraft.
Finally about the exterior, as you would expect by now, the aircraft have a full set of control surface, flap, wheel and propeller animations. Doors 1 to 4 are available, referring to pilot's door, passenger/cargo door, starboard doors and a battery access in that order. The spoiler key removes the engine cowling and the skis on equipped models function on the "g" key. I did, however, find a minor issue here when using my CH Yoke. I have done the configuration XML file "tweak" that allows the gear to be extended and retracted using different switches on the yoke. This did not fully work with the BeaverX ski models in that I could extend, but not retract them. When using a single assigned button for extend/retract on my joystick (which is also the default assignment for all controllers in FSX), this was not an issue so it cannot really by called a bug.
As I said at the start of the review, the panel and interior of the Beaver is not modelled after one particular era of version of the aircraft and is something of a hodge-podge. The gauges on the panel are primarily fairly modern so, for instance, they have coloured arcs and the radios are the same LED-display Bendix-King sets you'll see in the default aircraft. The Airspeed Indicator, however, is in Miles per Hour, not Knots and the Omni Bearing Indicator for the single VOR (there's a NAV2 radio fitted, but no indicator for it) is an older type and has no glideslope needle. Again, this is covered in the manual, with the line "Perhaps next summer we'll be able to afford a full glide slope instrument." I'd have actually preferred one now, as there have been a couple of times during testing when I could have done with flying an ILS approach into airports.
The panel itself is hand-drawn rather than photorealistic, which in this case is no bad thing as it is reasonably sharp and doesn't leave you peering at a random blur of pixels trying to work out what it originally was. Most of the dials are set back into the panel as well, with only gauges that are surface mounted in the real aircraft, such as the magneto switches and fuel tank selector, not recessed. Alongside the flap lever below the radio stack are the flaps lever and a series of circuit breakers which are, unfortunately, non-functional, as are the knobs for the engine management lever friction locks. The latter, admittedly, would serve little to no purpose in the simulator. In general, if it needs to work, it does. If it doesn't, such as the oil filler cap (inside the aircraft? There's a recipe for slippery floors!) and the aforementioned friction knobs it doesn't. The door handles on some models don't work, while on others they do, which is listed as a limitation in the manual.
While being easy to use most of the time, I did find a few niggles when using the panel to fly. The first was that the switches for the lights and electrical circuits such as the fuel pump and pitot heat are hidden behind the yoke, making them almost impossible to access in flight. The solution I found was to engage the autopilot briefly, move the yoke fully forward or back, select the switches I want, then disengage the autopilot. This is far from ideal however. Another is the fuel tank selector which, apart from hiding behind the yoke again, had an annoying habit of switching to the "off" position when changing tanks. It's actually a sequential switch, selecting front, centre, rear and off in a cycle. Having separate click zones for each position might possibly have been a better solution. A couple of gauge issues, surrounding the attitude indicator reading incorrectly and turn co-ordinator markings not being correct for a rate one turn, are already being worked on by the developers.
Incidentally, there is a nice touch with the attitude indicator in that the "bug" can be adjusted up and down, allowing straight and level flight to be achieved at different speeds and hence pitch attitudes, without having to remember exactly where the horizon is supposed to be in relation to the fixed "wings".
You may remember a while back that I
mentioned about not needing to print out the checklists? Well, the reason
for this is a convenient little list "stuck" to the left-hand side of the
panel which, as an equivalent did in the FS9 Beaver, gives a spoken audio
checklist for each stage of flight. Some people love this, others find it
a gimmick and some have recently taken to replacing the gauge on the panel
with a clock removed in the last update, but it can be a useful reminder
that you can run through to make sure you haven't missed anything from
memory, if nothing else. I used it for the first few flights I did, but am
now considering changing it for the clock... Possibly at the same time I
try and install an OBI with a glideslope needle.
The remainder of the aircraft's interior starts out as a colour appropriate for the model you are flying, with an appropriate number of seats and a single pilot visible from outside. Why am I mentioning him at this point, rather than in the section about the model above? Well, both the pilot's face and the colour of the interior of the aircraft can be changed to something you prefer using a "texture.cfg" file in each aircraft's texture directory. By simply deleting or adding two slashes ("//") on various lines, you can have a choice of nine pilots and eight interior schemes for your aircraft. There is no tool to handle this directly by intent, according to the manual, they want to teach you something about the inner workings of FSX. It is a nice easy introduction to config file editing, admittedly, but I'm not sure how much more than that it teaches you!
The interiors are nice without being over-complicated in that they have touches such as David Clarke headsets above the pilots' doors, but details such as the belts on the rear seats are done using texturing rather than additional modelling, which avoids putting more stress than necessary on the system in an already CPU-heavy simulator.
Because of the lack of a 2d panel, there are no "pop up" gauges to allow you to zoom in on certain parts of the panel or aircraft's interior. Instead of this, Aerosoft have used the new "a" key view cycle functionality to create close-up views of certain gauge packages and the GPS mounted on the dash panel, plus a right-seat view and "wing views" for those that want to be a passenger, rather than the pilot, for a while. No, the pilot doesn't become visible when you leave his seat to sit in the back, so you might want to move back quickly before trying to land!
If you can fly the default Cessna, you can fly these, although you might like to practice taxiing a bit, as seeing past the nose of the taildraggers is realistically hard. One of the reasons Beavers have proved so popular over the years is that they are comparatively easy to fly. They're stable, forgiving and can take a fair amount of mishandling without making you seriously regret it.
While the flight models do have a degree of torque steer on takeoff, this is far more easily countered with rudder pressure than that generated by, for example, the default Piper Cub and it didn't take much practice at all before I was able to maintain the centreline during the short take off run. The flaps indicator on the Beaver marks take-off as the second stage, but during my research, I found descriptions of departures using everything between zero flap and full flap put on at last minute. I haven't tried full flap, but judicious use of "Landing" did get me out of a tight spot with an autogen tree right on the threshold of a gravel strip in Alaska.
Cruise speeds and power settings given in the manual seem to work well, with 28"MP and 2000rpm giving speeds just a little shy of the yellow arc at most sensible cruise levels. Getting higher is not a problem, however, with the Beaver's service ceiling of 18,000' and I have completed the "Denali Base Camp Charter" a few times in the ski-equipped Beavers - in fact it is a lot easier in the Beaver than in the default Maule, so if you're having problems with that mission, get this pack to practice for a while!
One thing that you may find, and which is covered in the manual, is that cruise flight results in a gentle left turn, caused again by engine torque. I thought this was my yoke calibration at fault when I first saw it, but the small amount of elevator trim suggested in the manual works to counteract it.
Power off stall speeds were 46kts (52mph) clean and a very nose-high 35Kts (40mph) with full flap, both well below the 60mph red line on the ASI. These are reasonably close to the only "book" figures I could find on a Google search (none of my usual sources give figures!) of 60mph "clean" and 45mph "dirty" for a wheeled aircraft, which agree with those given in the manual for BeaverX. Recovery was straight forward and usually involved very little loss of altitude given quick reactions. The Beaver isn't certified for aerobatics, so I didn't try to spin it. I did do a few 'practice power failures' in various situations and introduced myself the hard way to FSX's version of carburettor icing, though, and can safely say that this model, like a real Beaver, glides like the metaphorical house brick. This tendency is, fortunately, offset by the fact that it remains controllable right down to the stall and needs less space to land in than some helicopters, so beaches of lakes and clearings are far from unusable emergency airstrips. Normal approaches seemed to be best at around 80mph, bleeding off speed in the flare to land at about 65-70mph. At full flap and with the manifold pressure at the bottom of the blue arc, 80mph gives a pretty steep descent angle, allowing the aircraft to get into some very tight spots indeed given some practice.
In terms of ground handling, as I have already mentioned, taxiing the taildraggers is realistically tricky regarding visibility. Provided you keep to a sensible speed, a gentle weave is not difficult, however. You may want to switch to external view to park in a tight spot, though. Just think of it as being in lieu of a marshaller, who would otherwise be necessary.
There were no real surprises with the water-based variants, which taxi on floats very similarly to the default. In fact the only real surprise I had was landing the ski version at Base Camp for the first time - this add-on slides a lot less on snow than the default Maule, which is the only true comparison I can use at the moment. Beaching the amphibious models is easy at low speeds, resulting in a little hop and squeak, followed by almost immediate stabilisation on the wheels.
As with most Aerosoft releases, they have included a small "bonus" with the BeaverX package, in the form of a small scenery covering "Pier 39" at San Francisco, the current or ex- home, they aren't quite sure, of the Kenmore Air Beaver painted by Chris Brisland which is included in the package.
The scenery is only directly accessible via the "Load Flight" dialogue and puts you in the appropriate aircraft, parked next to the pier amidst a large number of yachts and other pleasure craft that occupy the remainder of the harbour. While the inclusion of the scenery is nice and it gives you somewhere to operate from, there are a number of issues with it which Aerosoft hope to address once tools are released by Microsoft that allow them to do so. These include transparencies that aren't quite as transparent as they should be and occasional floating objects. Hopefully, again, these can be addressed at a future date. They don't really subtract from the operation of the package at the moment, though, apart from possibly removing an opportunity for some nice screenshots!
Like I said right at the start, my favourite aircraft in FSX is the default Beaver. It does, however, have some limitations being only a floatplane. The Aerosoft package, far from competing with the default model, compliments it very well, adding a host of new models to allow you to land anywhere from mountain tops to river valleys. As the product tag line says: "Half a Ton, any time, any where".
It's probably inevitable that better things will come along in the future, as people learn to develop to FSX's strengths and, as they have with every previous version, start pushing the boundaries in directions that MS never expected. Certainly the scenery in BeaverX could do with some improvement, but with everything up in the air waiting to see exactly what is in FSX SP1 and what it changes, that's probably best left for a future update once it has all settled down. In the event that, as seems likely, this is still a while away, hopefully a small update will be made to address the gauge issues prior to that.
Right now, however, Aerosoft have released a competent, very usable package at a reasonable price. I know for certain that I'll be using it for the foreseeable future and have no problem at all recommending it to anyone else that might be interested.
Please visit AEROSOFT for more information on this product.
Images by Nick Churchill
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