Aircraft add-on for Microsoft FS2004 & FSX

 
 

"If you can fly a Harvard you can fly anything...except possibly a C-45"

Get ten pilots together, almost anywhere in the world, and ask them to name one single World War Two era training aircraft.

That's probably the cue for an argument about which was best, for which I apologise in advance, but during the argument, in the West at least, you'll almost definitely hear two names - Stearman (the Boeing-Stearman PT-17 Kaydet series) and DeHavilland Tiger Moth.

The chances are that anywhere in the world you'll hear the names Texan, Harvard, Wirraway, SNJ, C6, Sk14... The list goes on, but they all refer to the same aircraft, a series that started with a single aircraft and type number, The North American NA-16.

The NA-16 actually predates it's manufacturer, being originally designed before the company's change of name to North American gave it the "NA-" designation, but it continued to be built by North American and a whole host of licensees well after the end of World War II and spawned over 250 variations - with probably almost as many names. It is best known, however, as the AT-6 Texan or Harvard.

Initially designed as a basic trainer with a lower powered engine, an open cockpit and fixed wheels, the original designs were soon given retractable undercarriage and a variable pitch prop for use as an advanced trainer instead. The US Navy used tail hook equipped SNJs to introduce new pilots to carrier landings, most air forces used their own marks to teach simple dive bombing and strafing techniques. This, of course, led to them becoming a true warbird and yes, they have have fought in many conflicts, primarily as COIN - Counter-Insurgency - light attack aircraft. They also formalised the "FAC" Forward Air Controller role in Korea and in civilian life have carried mail, sprayed crops, played many other aircraft types for Hollywood's cameras and have been flown around pylons at speeds as ridiculously high as the altitudes have been ridiculously low. With considerably more than 20,000 built in total, there have been enough of them around to try almost everything and in all probability, at some point, they will have tried it!

According to the Alphasim news article announcing the release of this model, it "made a surprise landing" there, but now it is available via their shop for NZ$43 (approximately US$30, GB£15) in five guises, the USN SNJ5 and RAF Harvard II being WW2-era model examples, the RCAF Harvard IV, USAF AT-6F and T-6G, post-war model examples.

 

 

   

 
 
Installation

As with all Alphasim packages, the Texan/Harvard's are delivered after purchase as zip format files, three in this case, containing the FS9 version, FSX version and an optional paintkit, respectively.

The company doesn't use installers in any way and opening the aircraft model zip files reveals a directory structure that to many will be familiar as part of the sim you need to install it to, although the lack of a readme file telling you how to install it may confuse newcomers a little. For anyone who has installed most freeware, however, or who ferrets down into the structure to find the readme.txt file in each aircraft directory, it really is as simple as just extracting the directories to the appropriate sim's root folder.

Each of the zip files weighs in at around 49Mb and extracts to a little under 130Mb on your hard drive. Because of the method of installation, there is no uninstall file, no changes are made to the registry and no additions are made to the Windows Start menu.

 
 

   

 
 
Documentation

Each model in the set comes with a fairly standard "readme.txt" file in its folder (either under /SimObjects/Airplanes in FSX, or /Aircraft in FS9), which contains installation instructions, copyright and legal information and a information about commands to remove the pilots from the aircraft and open/close the second canopy.

Most of the information about how to actually fly the models is contained within the t6_check.htm file, which has the advantage that this means it is accessible inside the sim, through the kneeboard functionality. It is probably best, however, viewed in your preferred web browser at least once, as some of the information is considerably wider than the kneeboard's small screen.

The htm file is a hybrid document, including scanned sections from an original SNJ/Texan operating manual alongside screenshots from inside the sim, additional text covering checklists, specifications or similar and tables that give actual FS figures for performance.

Personally, I would have liked most of this information to have been in a separate manual, with the kneeboard confined to operational information such as checklists and recommended engine settings, but it's actually not a bad operations manual and the information contained within it is both pertinent and useful to the operation of the add-on.
 
 

   

 
 
Exterior

The versions of the Texan/Harvard modelled here, as I said in the introduction, cover a span of WW2 and post WW2 era variants, although all of the liveries provided are post-war. Like many similar aircraft, older variants were passed from pillar to post and flew until they fell to bits, so an early 1940s Harvard at a 1950s (or even early 60s) training school would have been far from an uncommon sight.

None of the models provided are equipped with armament, although some have the "bulge and dip" on the starboard side of the nose and cowling where a single .30/.303" machine gun would have been fitted. Actual Texan/Harvard armament fits varied from zero to four machine guns with zero to three hardpoints for small droppable ordinance and it might have been nice to have some of them included here as well.

The texturing is detailed down to rivets and placards, although the writing cannot be read, and a repaint kit was available from time of release with at least one, usually more, repaints seeming to appear every day since then. According to Alphasim, the models were chosen to give the maximum repaint options but a quick search of their forums reveals many requests for slightly different models (mainly without the MG mount), proving the age old axiom that you'll never please everyone all the time! The management have stated, however, that they have no plans to expand the range in the near future...
 
 

   

 
 
Other than differences in panel and with or without the machine gun mount, the actual models themselves are fairly similar, differing only in detail. The detail, however, is accurately reproduced compared to source material I found. Unfortunately again, with an aircraft as widely produced and modified as this, you'll always find a Harvard II without a nose aerial mount or a SNJ-5 without the MG position. Some currently flying Harvards barely look like their original selves at all, after conversion to out-and-out racing aircraft. Fortunately, from my perspective at least, none of those are included here! The modelling of the crew differs between the Texan and the Harvard, appropriately to the operator's style of dress for aircrew.

Animations are smooth and good, covering the control surfaces, front and rear canopies (both slide to the middle of the twin seats), undercarriage and the straight across flaps common to a lot of US types at the time. The tailwheel is linked to the rudder and does not respond to unlock commands, which appears to be in contradiction to the information in my source documents, which give the AT-6 a free-castoring tailwheel. The pilots can be removed in the FS9 (not FSX) model, by using shift-w. There's no tailhook on the SNJ5 provided, much to my dismay. ;-)

In terms of effects, the usual array are provided, although the model does suffer from the FS9-model-ported-into-FSX problem of the landing lights not showing in that version of the sim. Smoke and flame effects are included, giving you a faint smoke trail when flying, a big belch of smoke and a flame when starting and a blue/purple flame from the exhaust when flying at high power settings. To my eyes, the flame effects seem a little "angular" and unrealistic, but overall again, there are no critical problems.

 

 

   

 

   

 
 
Interior

Before I even start this section, this is the point where I have to tell complex systems and button clicking fanatics to not bother reading this. Alphasim offer mid-range payware products for primarily casual pilots and this one is no exception. If you want every switch and widget to be replicated and functional, you'll need to look elsewhere.

For the rest of us, however, the panel is a pretty sharp background photograph which remains sharp when used in the VC, where I did 99% of my flying during tests. The exact gauges present vary according to the exact model you have chosen, with ASIs in both MPH and Knots, for example, amongst the options. Away from the panel, the rest of the VC is textured by hand in fairly bland colours. There is no shading or darkening under the panel and some of the textures get a little "blocky". It is quite usable, however, and all the writing and placards that need to be readable are. The card in the slot on the panel, unfortunately, isn't. I still wonder what it says occasionally when scanning past it.

One nice touch is that the Texans, intended for US pilot training, feature a "baseball bat" stick, while the Harvards, intended for British and Commonwealth/Empire pilot training, accurately have "hoop" style control columns instead.

I have a few niggles with the gauges and switches in the virtual cockpit. None of them are massively serious, although the spelling "CILMB" on the VSI in some models (both VC and 2d, as the two share the same gauges) is quite amusing for a few seconds. The gauges themselves look for the most part like they are based on photographs, with light flare and reflections on the glass. Although they have been sharpened to make them readable where necessary, they are still a little "fuzzy" and indistinct. There's also some duplication of functionality - for example the rotary magneto switch on the panel is joined by twin independent switches on the port side control box. The rotary control also goes directly from "BOTH" to "OFF" if you click the '+' side and from "OFF" to "BOTH" if you click the '-' side, so magneto checks with TrackIR require a very steady hand and head. Or you can do them from the switches on the box instead, of course...
 
 

   

 
 
There are also a few texture placement issues, such as that the radio textures appear to be 'cut off' at the sides. The majority of the interior, however, is clickable, if not always animated. I was able to do everything I needed to without needing to open 2d windows. There are a few controls that are just textures or dummy and have no function, but not many.

The 2d panel, with sub panels opened by a row of default-style Simicons that are also present in the VC, is a pretty similar story. Slightly fuzzy gauges and writing (decidedly fuzzy on parts of the electrical panel) but generally usable.

In the FSX version, the "a" key view selection option is utilised, cycling between front cockpit, back cockpit and 2d panel, with the external fixed camera options showing from the front top of the tail, then cycling through the nose looking back at the canopy and both wingtips.

One issue I did discover is that the turn and slip indicator doesn't seem to work properly, at least in FSX. At a 150-160mph cruise airspeed in a left turn, it requires a roughly 45 degree bank to get the needle to the mark (that's a steep turn!) and the once there, even full rudder to the appropriate side would not centre the ball, which always wanted more and required a lot of stick work to keep a level turn. A right turn could be balanced, but in both directions, you were turning at about 5 degrees a second - about double the rate that the instrument should be showing for a 2-minute turn of 3 degrees/second. In FS9, the ball is a lot better behaved, but the turn rates are still far too high.

In general, the interior has an air of "good freeware" rather than payware about it. Compared to other Alphasim model interiors and those of equivalent price and functionality competitors, though, it is pretty much on a par.
 
 

   

 
 
Flying

As you'd expect from a trainer, even an advanced one, the T-6 is a relatively docile model to "just fly", trimming easily to maintain straight and level, rolling smoothly into and out of turns and generally behaving itself like a well designed aircraft should. Don't forget, however, that it wasn't only a trainer and although a stable aircraft makes for a good weapons platform, it has to be able to keep itself alive in a scrap, too. The model is more aerobatic than my skills allow for, while remaining well behaved right up to the stall - more on which shortly. During testing, along with far too many climbs to 6000' - again to be explained shortly - I ran gorges, dodged mountains and did a mock attack on Juneau airport (apologies to the departing AI Mooney that got used for target practice on that one...) Throwing the T-6 around, within reason, is perfectly possible.

A great deal is made in the documentation about this model being made to fly to the numbers and from the limited amount of cruise and cross-country flying that you do when writing a review of a model such as this, it does seem to. The table provided in the procedures html file giving speeds and expected fuel burn is taken directly from the sim anyway, so gives you a pretty good guide.

In terms of numbers, flying around you can expect to be cruising at around 160mph at most normal VFR flight levels, climbing and approaching at about 100mph with around 70-80mph on landing. According to the manual, the landing technique is main gear first, nose high in a similar way to the DC-3. If you feel like showing off, however, and risking the wrath of your head of maintenance, this is one of the few FS models I can carry off a perfect 3-pointer in without an embarrassing bounce. It settles nicely onto the runway and full brake can be used to slow, with the stick right back to keep the tail down. Care must be taken at low speeds and with power on, however, such as when manoeuvring in a tight space - you can and probably will end up on your nose if you mix brakes and power, like all taildraggers.
 
 

     

 

   

 
 
Regarding aerobatics, my skill level is very limited indeed as I already noted. I can manage an aileron roll, a barrel roll, a passable loop and inverted flight without making a fool of myself, but that's about it. Therefore I won't claim to comment on the aerobatic capabilities of this model, although the real aircraft is fully aerobatic but subject to a time limit on inverted flight - this limit is mentioned in the Alphasim htm file as 10 seconds. What this flight model does do is spin. Like all spinnable FS models, it is a lot more finickity to get to spin than a real world aircraft (although I tried to spin a real world C152 once that just simply wasn't having it and would only give us a spiral dive... Thanks Lima Romeo!) but this is one of the few models that I can get to spin reasonably reliably, giving it an instant soft-spot in my collection.

Holding a steady level while stalling is almost impossible as the VSI tends to drop before stall even with the stick fully back, but when the stall warning does sound, if you keep the stick right back and plant your right boot firmly forwards, you'll normally get a gentle right turn, followed by a faster snap into the the spin. The left wing tends to drop on a stall by default and I've yet to achieve a left spin, in either FS9 or FSX, but recovery is as most aircraft - centre stick, full rudder against the spin, nose forward to break the stall and pull out gently before applying power. I normally lose about 3000' in the manoeuvre, but luckily that big radial engine and prop gives pretty good climb performance, so you can soon get back up there to try it again!

I don't know who is responsible for the air file in this pack, but it is very enjoyable to fly and has that subjective "it" factor that draws me back to a model time and time again. The Alphasim T-6s are fun to fly, even if you don't intend to go around spinning them at every opportunity, as I have a tendency to since first achieving it. I've also picked them on several occasions since installing them to check out new sceneries, effects or whatever over my more usual choices of helicopters and small bush planes.
 
 

     

 
 
Conclusion

Alphasim products have never been leading edge in terms of design techniques or complexity, but then that's not what every sim pilot wants anyway and if anything, the market for mid-range, easily usable, add-ons is increasing as time goes by, not decreasing. This AT-6 collection is definitely part of that pool of products. If it were freeware, it would be excellent. As payware, it is no worse than average and for the price you can do a lot worse. There are a few niggles and typos, yes, but nothing that will stop the average user throwing their trainer around the sky and having great fun doing so. To be honest, most of the typos (Aphasim in the FSX aircraft selection drop-down!) could be fixed pretty easily in a not very big patch, but a lot of people seem to want new versions as well, so it's possible that the developers might relent soon and release a follow-up pack as well. I certainly hope they do, given the variety and range of real-world examples.

The Alphasim T-6 is designed to be a fun aircraft to fly. In that, it succeeds perfectly well and if you turn up to a virtual warbirds "fly-in" using one of these, you won't embarrass yourself... Chances are you'll be the only person there who landed using a perfect 3-pointer with no bounce, if nothing else!
 
 

   

 

   

 
 

Ian Pearson

Is a real world CAA PPL-IMC qualified pilot who has been hooked on civilian flight simming since Mail Pilot on the Commodore 64 and Thalion Airbus on the Amiga. He joined the MS Flightsim world with FS4 and almost immediately FS5.1CD, which was when his first attempt at designing aircraft went seriously pear shaped and he gave up. He has Beta tested for a number of well-known organisations and teams from FS98 through to the present day, but still hasn't found a way of making his addiction to Flight Simulation pay for itself, so officially works in the railway industry in the real world.
 

 

Images by Nick Churchill

 

www.screenshotartist.co.uk

 
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