Aircraft expansion pack for Microsoft FSX
"Animations include individually hinged canopies, don't open these in flight.
I'm not kidding. Well. OK, just do it once to see what happens,
but you probably won't want to do it again."
For a long time after starting this review, I held off from writing this introduction, which is unusual, because it - along with the Installation section - is normally right at the top of the list. For this aircraft, however, it was a little tricky. I mean I love small jet trainers, that's a given as anyone who has read my SkySim Hawk review probably knows. I also have a soft spot for the L-39 itself, following the 2001 package by a then new little company called Captain Sim, which I have wished ever since they would update for the newer sims.
The problem is, neither of those are actually about the Lotus Sim aircraft and I need to talk about that, so where do I begin? Well, it's the first aircraft from another new developer. Worth knowing, but not exciting in and of itself. How about this one then? I don't do multiplayer. Or I didn't. It took three flights for Nick and I to be hammering this one around over Thailand, not only in GameSpy multiplayer, but in shared aircraft no less. When we weren't sharing the cockpit, I was buzzing him as he taxied, so low that he actually admitted to ducking in front of his computer screen. When we were in shared cockpit, we only crashed twice surprisingly, considering the number of levers and switches that were pushed, pulled and twiddled with to see what evil things we could do to each other.
It might still not be obvious from that what this little jet add-on actually achieved, so I'll spell it out in italics. I don't do multiplayer!
For as long as I can remember, I've found multiplayer, whether it be through VATSIM/IVAO, the Zone or a direct connection, to be a pain in the rear to work with and work in. The fact that the Lotus Simulations L-39 not only got me to go through the pain of making it work, but also made me want to do it again, sets it apart straight away from other packages. You might like to read on and see what else this little ageing Eastern Bloc trainer does or doesn't do.
At the time of writing, the Lotus Simulations L-39 is only available as a download package, from simMarket and the FlightSim.com Pilot Shop. After purchase you will be able to download an executable file, slightly larger than 200Mb, so for those on slow connections, they may wish to make use of a downloads manager to ensure they get the file.
The installer itself is comparatively standard, giving you some useful information on the Information page (it actually is worth paying attention to these things, see?) regarding the manual before the license agreement needs agreeing to and the registration information needs entering. Detection of your FSX installation is automatic from the registry, provided your paths are correct and it expands to a little under 460Mb on your hard drive. Finally, you are provided with the option to view the manual before exiting the installer.
Before ending this section, it's worth mentioning the Media and Extras section of the Lotus Sim website, which currently has downloads for the PDF manual, paint kit and a Breitling Jet Team livery pack, covering the 2008 and 2009 liveries, which can be added to your installation. Also on the page is something that many people may well find useful - a link to the YouTube tutorial videos.
Uninstallation of the package can be done through either a link added to your Windows Start/All Programs menu (under Lotus Simulations), by directly running the Uninstaller from your FSX directory or by going through the Windows Control Panel route.
As I mentioned in the previous section, this is one of those aircraft where regardless of how quickly you can start and operate most jets, you might want to actually stop for a while and scan the folder. Although the L-39 is, in most ways, a fairly generic aircraft (it has to be, systems wise, as I'll discuss later), it does have a number of 'gotchas', some of which are just liable to frustrate, some of which are liable to leave you with a "CRASH" message on your screen and a restarted flight.
Because of this, a decent manual for the aircraft is essential and Lotus have far from disappointed with the over 30Mb, 120-page PDF document that can be found within your [FSX]/LotusSim folder after installation.
The manual covers not only the features and operation of the aircraft, as you would expect, but also goes into depth with other useful information such as explaining why, not just stating that, certain FSX settings should be changed. Going back to information directly used to fly the aircraft, it covers the differences between variants, explains where each control in both cockpits is and what it does, then goes into the features that make the aircraft particularly appropriate for multiplayer and shared cockpit flying. One thing that is particularly worth mentioning is that it explains how to set up both an online GameSpy session within FSX and how to actually get into shared cockpit mode, which is something that I would venture most FS users have never tried in any model.
Finally, after extensive checklists and pilot's notes, you get a couple of pages at the end that are pure humour value - a "Development Journal" showing various stages of the design and construction process for the aircraft.
I'll sum this section up in a simple and unequivocal way... There are a lot of developers out there who could do with looking at this manual and comparing it to their own. It may not be the most detailed manual I've seen for an FS add-on, but it is right up there at the top of the best.
There's always a trade off, when developing an FS aircraft, between the level of detail demanded by many users and the effect this level of complexity has on slower computers, when using them as AI and - importantly for this model, when using them online.
In this package, a total of 14 aircraft are presented to you on the Select Aircraft screen covering ten paint schemes and six different models. The models differ mainly in both crew number (solo or dual) and fit-out, but one specific one, wearing the paint of the Vjazma Rus Aero Club formation team, is designed to be particularly efficient for online formation teams to use. This one has wingtip fuel tanks, as do most of the others, but amongst other options are IFR hoods for the front seat pilot, different weapon loads (modelled only, not usable) and under-wing tanks for extra range.
Whichever model you choose, they're based around the same model which is a good balance between modelled parts and texturing to achieve a very highly detailed finish. The textures are native FSX DDS format with both bump and specular mapping and a paint kit is available which has been used to good effect by a large number of re-painters covering a massive variety of private and military schemes with more still appearing regularly on the download sites, even some time after the model's release. Depending on the model you select, certain details such as the HUD are fitted or not, there isn't just one interior modelled here. This also carries through to the VC, which I'll discuss later. Another nice bit of modelling is that as the aircraft slows or accelerates, you can watch the elevators move from the fully up position when stationary to inline with the horizontal stabilisers when at speed.
Other animations include the under-fuselage speed brakes, rods that show the gear and flaps are correctly deployed, access footsteps (on shift-e-3) and individually hinged canopies for the front and rear seats on shift-e and shift-e-2. Don't open these in flight. I'm not kidding. Well. OK, just do it once to see what happens, but you probably won't want to do it again. The pilots' heads also move, scanning around the skies and airfield for other traffic.
Before I leave the description of the exterior, I have to discuss a few things that, although they might not technically be "exterior", fit as well here as anywhere. These things are the extra effects that have been applied to the aircraft to add to the realism of operation. For an aircraft that is, basically, designed to operate in reasonable weather during the daytime, for pilot training, you may well find yourself flying it in the worst conditions your sim can assemble at any given time. Okay, so the scratches on the canopy Perspex show up best in bright sunlight, but you don't see the icing effects, the rain on the canopy (which never did make it into FSX - we had it in FS9!) or the full effect of the landing lights, which themselves are vastly superior to those "fitted" using normal SDK methods. I won't describe these in detail, I'll leave that for you to see in the model, but they're certainly worth noticing as features.
The interior of the model matches the exterior in that it is very well presented, very well textured and modelled. Both front and rear seats are modelled and the aircraft can be flown from either, although it has to be said that visibility from the rear is rather limited by the guy in front of you and equipment. Needless to say, the L-39 is not certificated for solo flight from the rear seat.
The gauges on both panels are primarily older, "steam driven" style, with only the GPS and radio stack on the starboard console breaking into more modern digital displays. That said, there is a major advantage to analogue gauges in FSX, which is that they can be modelled, rather than being flat, texture only gauges. This actually improves the draw rate in the sim, allowing for more accurate setting and less obvious steps as needles move.
Not all of the gauges - as you might have guessed from the fact that there's a Garmin GPS fitted - are exactly accurate to a Cold War period Soviet Bloc military jet. The developer explains that a primary reason for this is that there is no equivalent functionality for the gauges and navigation systems provided within plus the fact that many of the models and paints represented belong to modern, often privately owned, aircraft which have had numerous systems adjustments and upgrades made since their original fit. The 'original fit' gauges that remain are often slightly different in operation compared to their Western equivalents as well, so a look through the manual for things such as the HSI and attitude indicator is probably a good idea if you've never used an Eastern Bloc aircraft before.
What is presented is very clever indeed, regardless of what hemisphere and era it comes from. The reason I say this is that the aircraft is very much a "systems" package, yet to meet the requirement of being fully usable in shared cockpit, the functionality is actually that of the default aircraft, just used much more effectively. I spent quite some time with Nick, messing about with the controls in both cockpits, switching control backwards and forwards and occasionally doing evil things like turning the engine off on each other. Part of the rear cockpit is designed to do just this - the aircraft is a trainer and a panel available to the instructor can fail many of the gauges in the front, while retaining functionality in the rear.
Views are provided so that switching from one seat to the other is simply a matter of pressing "a" to cycle through from front seat past GPS and radio direct views to the rear seat.
You might have noticed that there's one thing I haven't mentioned in this section of the review and, if so, you'd be right. There is no 2d cockpit provided here at all. Two 2d panels are mapped, the default GPS500 and a "popup" window on slot 11, but the latter is not accessible through either the menu or a key combination so in effect the only option available is the GPS. Even the most die-hard 2d panel user will find it hard to refuse this VC however. All of the gauges are clear and easy to read, all the buttons and switches are identifiable and accessible. It's a good all-round office to work in.
The easiest way to describe flying the L-39 is that it is like befriending a tiger. On the surface it's fuzzy and friendly. Treat it well and it will behave itself perfectly, but if you push the boundaries too far, it will bite and that bite will hurt.
The jet was always intended as an introductory jet trainer for pilots who would then pass onto front line combat aircraft such as the MiG-29 and Su-27. As such, while it might not do Mach 2 or be capable of holding a sustained 8G turn, neither is it slow or unmaneouverable. For Western pilots, as I already discussed in the Interior section, the gauges may lead to a false sense of security, particularly the airspeed indicator, as a speed in kph is considerably slower than the mph, let alone Knots Indicated Airspeed, equivalent. There's a white arc on the ASI between 180 and about 155, but it is not indicating a safe speed for flaps - if you head far into that arc, even with full flap deployed and power on, you will soon be seeing the STALL warning light lit and, if you are at low altitude, you'll probably soon be regretting that. 200kph is only a little over 100KIAS.
The primary reason for this is that the little turbojet that powers the L-39 has a spool time that can only be described as "sedate". It can take agonising seconds to watch the N1 and N2 needles creep upwards as airspeed decays so getting yourself on, or even near to, the so-called "back of the power curve" is a bad place to be. You need to keep power on in this aircraft, or at least know that you need to apply lots of it a considerable time before you'll need it.
You would be wrong, however, if you think this makes the aircraft difficult to fly. provided you keep it in mind that you need power early and lots of it, actually flying the type is very easy indeed. It's actually quite a forgiving little aircraft which will let you loop, roll and scream around to your heart's content... until you run out of fuel. Did I mention that the L-39 is a gas guzzler? No? Well, don't plan any long cross country flights in it, let's put it that way.
The takeoff speed is normally around 180kph, with a single stage of flap deployed, after which the handling notes recommend you lower the nose and remain in ground effect while you retract the gear and flaps and accelerate to 300kph before starting your climb. Once you are out of the sub-200kph danger zone, however, you can begin to manoeuvre and climb, you're just not getting the best performance out of the aircraft.
Once aloft, you can expect a cruise of between 500 and 600kph with the throttle lever at "about 75%" (which actually gives you closer to 90% N1. The manual recommends cruising between 16-18,000 feet (yes, the altimeter is imperial, remember) for best speed and 21-24,000 feet for best range. Not that "best range" means much at 480 gallons of fuel per hour. It may take a while to get up above 20,000 feet however, and you aren't going to get a lot higher than 24,000 at the best of times.
When fuel starts running out and you want to come back down, you'll get another reminder that you're in a fast jet when you realise that forward visibility at low speed really isn't all that great either. You'll want to do a curved approach, using speed brakes to bring yourself down to 300kph, then retracting them and immediately deploying half flap and the landing gear. On final, particularly once you deploy full flap, you'll frequently need in excess of 80% N1 to maintain a glideslope and just a gentle flare is required to land at around 170-180kph. If you do stall during the flare, thankfully the landing gear is pretty robust and easily took almost every knock and hard landing I gave it.
After landing, you'll quickly discover another one of the L-39's "gotchas" when you try and turn off the runway. The nosewheel is not linked to the rudder pedals or a tiller and is, in fact, free castoring. You'll need to use toe brakes and power to turn on the ground. If you don't have pedals with toe brakes or a twist stick (pressing the brakes and twisting a stick should apply differential brakes) then there is an alternative configuration file provided that removes the self-castoring nosewheel and links it to the rudder.
So what about aerobatics and air racing? Well, the Albatros does both in the real world and you can in the sim, too. There are a couple of aerobatic team liveries available and the precise nature of the flight model makes aeros, even with my appalling skills, a pleasure to do. The bright red "Pipsqueak" version, much beloved by Nick as you'll probably see from its regular appearance in screenshots, represents the fastest L-39 in the world and races regularly at Reno in Nevada. I haven't tried air racing in it (you reckon I'm bad at aerobatics? I only ever finish air races last, by some considerable margin), but the variant really does go pretty quickly compared to its stablemates.
There's one other thing to discuss about this package and that is how to kill yourself. Virtually anyway. You know how the easiest way to do that in most simulator add-ons is to headbutt the ground or another solid object? Well in this one you can do so in pure, clean air. Clear of cloud or anything. I suggested before that you don't open the canopies in flight more than once, well once you are inside, you'll only forget to pressurise the cockpit or turn on oxygen flow once as well. The only thing I didn't like about this was when you're flying it manually, the aircraft is lovely and stable once trimmed. Once you lose consciousness, however, that's it. The aircraft spirals dramatically out of control until you hit the ground with no chance of recovery. This seems a little odd, but it is how the developers have implemented hypoxia. Heck. They implemented hypoxia. You're still a goner, whether the aircraft keeps flying until it runs out of fuel or you dive head first into the Black Sea as I did.
In case the rest of this section doesn't make it clear, I absolutely love the flight model of this aircraft. It makes you think without being frustrating. It flies smoothly and easily, but if you don't pay attention, it reminds you that you're not flying a Cessna 150 in no uncertain terms.
You might have got the idea, by this point in the review, that a great deal of thought and time has gone into making this model. With that in mind, it would seem a great pity to have a fantastic model that flies nicely but sounds totally wrong. The developer obviously agrees with this statement, because a good deal of time and thought has gone into the sounds, too.
The most obvious one of these, initially, is that the package uses the new FSX "sound cones" technology, allowing the whine of the turbine stages to be heard from the front and sides and the jet exhaust roar from the rear. In common with a few recent top-end models, however, the L-39 has additional sound effects depending on what you do wrong as well. Yes, sure, the clunks and clicks of opening canopies, gear, flaps and switches are included, but how many models do you know of that include the sound of a G-suit pump? Another one that has been heard before, but is very well done here, is that if you hear heavy breathing, you forgot something - and it's not that you accidentally dialled in a dodgy frequency on the radio, either. Turn on the oxygen and check the pressurisation switch, or you'll soon be blacking out.
Considering the intent of this package was to make an aircraft with as much detail as possible but retaining maximum framerate for online flying, what has been achieved is remarkable. Particularly so considering this is the developer's first for MS Flight Simulator.
The aircraft's systems won't please the "purists", because in order for it to work in shared cockpit, it is limited to functionality that the base FS engine directly supports. Unless you're a pilot of the real aircraft, with original Soviet-era systems throughout, it seems to me that you're unlikely to notice. Although I'm not a real-world fast jet pilot (or, for that matter, qualified to fly anything with a turbine engine), I do consider myself a fan of systems depth in FS aircraft and what is provided here more than meets my standards.
Whether you're just a general military jets fan, want to race around pylons at next to no altitude or are just a fan of well made Flight Simulator add-ons, this is one you'll probably want to add to and keep in your hangar.
For more information on the L-39C Albatros, visit the product page at the web site or simMarket.
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Ian Pearson is a real world CAA PPL 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.
Nick Churchill has been providing images for marketing purposes of Flight Simulator products for several years and claims that staring at a virtual cockpit for too long can make you go blind.