Aircraft expansion pack for Microsoft FSX
 

"Complex? Yes. Rewarding? Definitely. Too complex? No, I don't really think it is, but you do have to know what you are doing."
 

Every now and then, a package comes along which, at first glance, appears to be a really strange choice for a developer to make. It might be a fighter which never reached the heights of fame that others did, it might be a variant of a more common aircraft that has more famous relations or it might be an airliner that looks vaguely familiar, until you realise that you know it not in its civilian paint, but as a military aircraft. An Avro Lancastrian is a good example of that one, as is this - the Boeing B377 Stratocruiser.

The reason you might not know it is that it had a very short service life in its own guise. With deliveries commencing in early 1949 and ending almost exactly a year later in March 1950, there were never that many Stratocruisers around. Indeed their largest operator, the famous Pan American, only ever had 27 of them and, by the late 50s, they were pretty much gone. Or were they? The military C-97 and KC-97 soldiered on well into the 1970s, often going on to serve with other nations such as Spain and Israel, even after the USAF had retired them. Then there are the Guppies - specialised freighter variants with even further enlarged upper decks that were used to carry rocket parts around for NASA and, in later life and following modernisation, they carried the paint of Boeing's arch-rivals Airbus Industries for many years, before being replaced with A300-600ST Belugas.

So why would a developer want spend as much time and effort as they have, developing such an accurate simulation of the less well known civilian version of a military freighter? Well, in this case it seems because the developers are gluttons for punishment when it comes to the tool that gives the Stratocruiser its depth and realism, a package called Accu-Sim.

They could have started off simply, putting Accu-Sim on an existing model. They could have started with a single engine trainer such as a Boeing-Stearman PT-17 or maybe a Texan/Harvard. Nope. They went in at the deep end and did a massive four turbo-supercharged engine airliner with, at the time, absolutely incredible range and endurance. The B377 was the Boeing B747-400 or Airbus A340-2000 of the post war period. Developed from the B-50 follow on to the famous B-29 Superfortress bomber, the B377 offered a flying experience that reminisced back to the 20s and 30s, vastly different to the experience of the long-distance cattle class traveller today, squeezed into the apparently ever-shrinking seats of an ETOPS twin jet.

I'll tell you now, this thing is good. It's really good. You'll have to read on to see why I say that.

Installation

The Wings of Silver Boeing 377 Stratocruiser comes, currently, in three parts if you want Accu-Sim: The base aircraft is 191Mb, Accu-Sim for the B377 is 50Mb and Service Pack 1 - more than just a patch, as I'll discuss later - is a final 136Mb.

The installation routine is straight forward, with no unexpected steps, and results in an installation of the best part of 500Mb of data to your hard drive. The only option available during the installation is a choice between British and American voice sets as part of the Accu-Sim installation and you need to select whether you have SP2 or the Acceleration expansion pack installed, as some functionality included in the Accel pack is used by the add-on (although it isn't essential to use the aircraft).

With the service pack installed, you will have a total of six aircraft selection thumbnails in your sim, covering three different models. Liveries are provided for American Overseas Airways, two British Overseas Airways Corporation, Pan American and Northwest Airlines for the B377, while the B377PG "Pregnant Guppy" has a single livery for Aero Spacelines.

As part of the installation, a single entry is made to your Start menu programs list, containing a link to the A2A forum and a subfolder that links to the manuals and a joystick configuration file that I'll discuss shortly.

Un-installation, if required, can be achieved via the Windows Add/Remove Software functionality and doesn't overwrite Uninstal.exe within the FSX root directory.

Documentation

The first inkling you get of how deep this product is comes when you open the manuals for the first time. You're welcome to try and fly without doing so, you might get away with it if you don't have Accu-Sim or if you've turned it off, but even after reading the manual, I managed to spectacularly fail to take off first go. The A2A B377 is, at first, something of a study sim. Once you've got the knack of it, flying it is fairly easy, but learning some things about it first is very much recommended.

The manuals come in three sections - the first, a not insignificant 124 page PDF file, covers the aircraft itself and its systems. This is the one you need to read, as the B377 is no ordinary aircraft and failing to do so will result in failing to find one critical switch, resulting in your crew shouting at you and, in very short succession, a broken aeroplane. It's a lot easier if you aren't using Accu-Sim, but because I'm reviewing both here, I'll assume that you are.

The second manual is a 33-page PDF covering Accu-Sim itself. The majority of this manual is taken up explaining how a piston engine works, simply because if you are to operate the B377 correctly, you need to know this stuff. What should you open to reduce the cylinder head temperature? There are three sets of flaps on the engineer's panel - only one of them will do what you want it to. Why are you getting less power than you should? Chances are that's down to another set of switches controlling another set of flaps. Where they are and how to adjust them is shown in the main manual, but this one explains why. It also, as the name suggests, tells you what Accu-Sim adds to the aircraft and your experience. Put simply, it puts in the reality - no longer can you hammer around all day on full power, ignoring the gauges and then chopping the throttles to idle, using the flaps as airbrakes to come in and land. Well, you can, but you'll break things on a regular basis if you do.

The third manual covers the changes made in Service Pack 1. This one is actually pretty important to read too, as there have been a number of additional features added with the service pack, including a new 2d window, the oil system and the joystick configuration file I mentioned earlier. The manual is 34 pages long, so won't take that long to read.

The chances are, if you are planning on using this add-on, that you are used to reading manuals anyway, so those best part of 200 pages won't worry you. They're very well written, interesting to read and very professionally presented. You'll probably want to print out the checklists, at least, as the chances are that you will need to refer to them at least a few times before you get everything right in your mind. It also means you can grab them whilst cursing loudly when something goes very wrong at the worst possible moment.

If I have to find a complaint with the documentation on this package, it isn't actually in the documentation per se, but instead inside the aircraft, on the kneeboard checklists.

These tend to be a first port of call for many users when they are trying to do something and, definite plus point, they are indeed present and accounted for in the B377. Unfortunately, a lot of the text consists of a description and history of the aircraft, which is pretty unnecessary in a checklist really and would probably have been better on the "Reference" tab. Not serious, but it does take a heck of a long time to scroll down to the actual checklists!

Overall, the documentation for the aircraft is excellent. The checklists can be printed out - avoiding having to scroll through all that information on the kneeboard before getting to them - and possibly the only thing missing is a fuel planner, although with so many variables, writing one would be an absolute nightmare.

Pre-Flight

This section is only short this time, as outside the simulator itself, the only application is the Joystick Configurator.

This handy little application didn't actually work for me at first because of a problem with my controls configuration, so I'll take this opportunity to talk about A2A's support, and the fact that within 24 hours of posting a "help!" on their forums, I had been e-mailed a file resolving the issue. Even if your question isn't answered by the customers who frequent the place, it is monitored regularly by staff.

Anyway, back to the Configurator application. There are a number of controls within the B377 that are non-standard within the sim and this application simply allows you to assign three of them to controls on a device such as a CH or Saitek throttle quadrant. The three controls - the Turbo lever, Autopilot bank handle and Steering wheel - are assigned by simple selecting the controller device and Axis you wish to use with them. A tickbox allows you to invert the axis if you need it to operate the other way around and finally a preview window allows you to confirm that you have selected the correct axis and that it is working as expected. It's that simple and it took me about ten seconds to allocate a lever to the turbos on my system having never seen the application before.

Exterior

The Stratocruiser is an odd aircraft, it really is. The bulbous double-deck fuselage is very streamlined, all curves, but the larger top deck above what looks like the normal fuselage of the B-50 bomber is particularly strange when first seen. Don't even get me started on the "Pregnant Guppy", because that's even fatter. Hence the name I suppose.

Once you have got past the initial incredulous look, however, it's worth zooming in and taking a good look around this model, particularly after installing SP1, which includes new texture effects for the polished metal that makes up the primary surface of most liveries. All the various flaps, slats and hatches required to operate the engines are present and the doors open to show partial interiors - the entire cabin and un-necessary areas that you could only access with "walk around" software are not modelled and the frame rate drop is minimal as a result, given the amount of detail visible.

Of particular note is the bump mapping effect applied to the aircraft's skin. As I mentioned before, there's a lot of polished metal visible on these models and if you catch the light just right, looking down the wing at the rivets is one of those FSX "wow!" moments that people occasionally go on about.

The textures themselves come in DDS format and comprise nine files per individual livery, two of which have lightmaps, all of which have bump and specular maps related to them. Additionally, the base "texture" folder is used for files common to all models such as the VC, internal detailing and the lights. Yes, being an A2A model, their proprietary modelled lights are used as part of the package so rather than just seeing a blinking dot, you see a cone of light emanating from the source. Not everyone I know likes this effect, but I do like seeing a red beacon that actually rotates atop the tail.

Going back to the textures, the majority of aircraft textures are 1024x1024 in size, with some at 2048 x 2048 for higher detail, and a paintkit is available for download. This has resulted in a large number of additional liveries already being available, covering various real, fictional and military liveries from around the world.

All of the parts you would expect to move do so, as do a few others that you will discover as you tour the aircraft moving the various switches on the flight deck, such as Ram Air intakes, Intercooler flaps and, oh yes, you know an aircraft is big when it won't fit into most period hangars. Boeing got around this by making the top of the tail fold over on the real aircraft and you can do that here, too.

Looking in through the flight deck windows from outside, you get to see the four crew members, with little animations such as the pilot reaching around for controls while you watch. You can also see when you are messing up, as the model includes smoke effects for the engines which change colour depending on how badly you are treating them. White is probably recoverable, but if you've got black smoke coming out, you need to do something quickly.

The one other thing I'll note before moving on from this section is that there are actually two models included, one with square windows and one with oval. These are assigned to base liveries depending on what the operator ordered in the real world. Other than the windows - and obviously the Guppy - the models are very similar indeed beyond that. They're very nicely done, however, and the aircraft is very photogenic if you are into screenshots.

Interior

The interior of the B377 consists only of the flight deck, although considering how much flight deck there is, this is possibly not that surprising.

The area consists of four "stations", each of which has a VC position assigned to it. The "2d panel", such as it is, consists of a series of report pages which I will cover shortly. The aircraft is designed to be be - and can easily be - flown directly from the VC so no conventional 2d view is provided. The only pop-ups provided are semi-transparent panels designed to make your life easier flying the aircraft, as well, such as radio tuning, engine selection and a "Maintenance Manager" page, that reports on the state of your engines.

Going back to the VC, as large as it is, the workspace that controls this flying monolith is actually quite cramped. It's certainly not dark and dingy, as there are acres of glass around, but it does appear that the pilots have to do some serious mountaineering over consoles to get to their seats, while simultaneously ducking to avoid braining themselves on the overhead. Fortunately, as an FS pilot, you get to start in the seat looking forwards, at which point you will find that you actually have very good visibility over and around the panel.

The main console, in front of the pilots, contains the primary flight instrumentation, all of which is clear and easy to read - very useful when you're trying to set engines accurately. There are no switches on the main console, just the rotary knobs to set barometric pressure, radio altimeter alarms and suchlike, although this changes a little when you start panning your head around. The overhead, starting with light switches, goes back to well behind the pilots' heads, where you will controls for everything you could possibly want to do without the flight engineer's help, as well as a few things you'd rather you didn't have to do even with his help, such as prop feathers and fire extinguishers.

Between the two pilots' seats and, again, stretching well back behind them, is the centre console, which includes throttles, a single pitch lever controlling all props, the autopilot, turbo controls and the switches and dials to control the navigation and communication radios, plus the autopilot. Behind that, aft of the pilot's seats, are levers and switches for engine control comprising mixtures, another set of throttle levers (presumably for the flight engineer to use when the pilots have their hands full), a duplicated combined prop pitch and control and finally the turbo controls. The latter are of particular import here as, provided you have Microsoft's Acceleration add-on package, you have full manual control over the four turbos, including being able to "tweak" each one using potentiometers, as they will all perform slightly differently. Fortunately there is an option on the Accu-Sim reports pages to hand the turbos off to the Flight Engineer, if you don't want to do absolutely everything yourself. I normally turn this on, these days, as the times you need to move the lever around the most are the times when you are busy moving everything else around and trying to keep track of airspeeds, headings, etc. Watching what the system does with the lever is also a very useful method of learning how you should use it yourself to best effect.

The VC and gauge textures are hand drawn, but very good and, as I have already said, very easy to read except in one area. With everything else that is modelled and beautifully textured, it is perhaps a little surprising to see that the circuit breaker panel at the back of the overhead is actually a very simple and stretched overall texture. You don't need to look up there except for engine start, but it does seem a little incongruous compared to its surroundings.

I'll finish this section off by discussing the 2d information panels that replace the cockpit if you press shift-a from the VC (or cycle all the way through past the navigator's station). Three panels are normally available, although all of them can be accessed, as I said earlier, as pop-ups. The "default" display is the 2, 3 and 4 pages, which are in sequence the Crew Reports, Controls and payload & Fuel Manager. Pop up 5 brings up the navigator's map, also accessible by clicking on the map on the desk in the VC navigator's desk, popup 6 is the Engine Selector, 7 is the radio stack and 8 is the Maintenance Hangar I discussed earlier.

Of these, the default three are the ones you will want to access most often while flying, presumably hence their inclusion as being open when you switch to that view. The Crew Reports page, in particular, provides a useful "at a glance" guide to engine settings for takeoff, climb and cruise that you may wish to refer to, along with providing a guide to what you need to watch when flying, such as overheating engines and turbos. It also provides endurance information in terms of both distance and time.

The controls page provides a quickly clickable list of most of the major functions of the aircraft such as lights, engine controls and electrics, along with providing controls for operating doors. The two controls on there that I use most often are "Cold Start", which shuts the aircraft down to a controlled state, and "Turbos Auto/Man", which does exactly as it describes, either letting you control the turbos, or handing it off to the virtual Flight Engineer.

Finally, the Payload and Fuel Manager page gives a graphical interface to load and unload passengers, cargo and fuel. It also provides a number of handy presets, "light", "medium" and "heavy" for both payload and fuel, alongside C of G and gross weight reports. Full fuel and full payload, for the record, is way over weight - you can't fly like that.

Although some will not like the loss of a "normal" 2d cockpit, the information pages provided are actually probably more use to most users as they aid you quite a lot in actually operating the aircraft. I'm primarily a VC pilot, although I use a hat to pan, not Track IR or an equivalent system, but with a VC this clear, I have not yet wished I could switch to a 2d view or get a pop-up of a gauge to operate it.
 

Flying

This is the section where the package really comes into its own. Even without Accu-Sim, the B377 is a very, very, nice aircraft to fly. The responsive controls and easy trimming make it feel like a considerably smaller aircraft, although you do have to think ahead of it and plan climbs, descents, etcetera.

With Accu-Sim, however, that is only a tiny fraction of the story. Just moving the yokes, throttles and pitch lever (there is only one) isn't enough. All those switches on the Flight Engineer's panel, plus a few on the overhead and just behind the pilot, have a role to play as well. Just as an example, the first time I tried to fly this thing, I did something wrong. I don't know what it was, unfortunately, because the flight reset after the crash when I tried (and failed) to take off, but it was fairly critical. In hindsight, I think I left the Cowl Flaps fully open, which creates a lot of drag. There's a green arc on them for a reason.

The arcs on gauges become very important when flying with Accu-Sim, as the whole point of the module is to make your actions have consequences. All of a sudden you need to worry about (or at least pay attention to) the temperature of the air entering your carburettor. If it gets too cold, it will freeze. FSX does that too, as part of the default sim, but it doesn't reduce the power your engines produce if Carb Air gets too hot, which Accu-Sim does. Equally, if you run your engines with the needle out the top of the red arc, then FSX Acceleration will eventually blow it up provided you are using an appropriately constructed aircraft. It won't make it rattle, clunk, emit differing colours of smoke or remember that you damaged it and not let you restart it though. Yup. Your errors definitely have consequences here, although thankfully refurbishing a massive broken vintage engine in the sim requires pressing a button. It's almost a pity they don't have a voice that says "That'll be this huge amount of money please sir, thank you." after pressing it.

The downside to this complexity is that although Accu-Sim gives you a virtual crew to report on problems (mine just informed me that oil was getting low on the #3 engine I'm abusing to death before I typed that), they don't do anything about them - you have to do that. When this involves trying to do the jobs of four crew, this can be a bit of a handful, although to be honest, once you've learned to avoid the sillier mistakes, you can avoid almost all of the problems very easily and you only have to switch to the Flight Engineer's station to make changes when transitioning from one phase of flight to another, such as top of climb or start of descent. Following the service pack, as I already mentioned, you also have to keep an eye on oil levels in the engine which is worth a quick nip back there on longer flights. In the time it has taken three engines to burn 5 gallons of oil each, the seriously damaged #3 had used 12.5 gallons. Ow.

Fortunately, there is an autopilot to help out when you're running around the cockpit doing four jobs at once. the manual recommends turning it on soon after takeoff and turning it off shortly before landing, which seems good advice, although I tend to fly the last bit of the descent and approach manually, out of choice. This is not the standard three-axis Bendix-King-a-like that you'll be used to from the default aircraft however. The autopilot here is two axis, with a lever to control angle of bank and a thumb roller to control pitch. There's also an altitude hold mode, which, unsurprisingly, does exactly what it says on the label. The only real thing that you need to remember about this autopilot is when making large course changes, the chances are that you will overshoot your intended heading and will probably have to turn back. Simply selecting a lower angle of bank as you approach your desired heading eliminates this error, though.

Now of course talking about this level of complexity will put a lot of people off - I know it has already, from forum posts, but it's actually not as difficult as it first sounds. Much of the setup from engine start through to climb can be done before the props are even turning. Once this is done, the next time you need to visit the engineer's panel is at the top of climb (apart from quick glances to ensure that nothing is going wrong) and then again at top of descent.

The setup that I have found works to allow you to start, taxi and take off is as follows: You need the cowl flaps open to the top of their green arcs, Intercooler Flaps set to about 2.5-3", Ram Air on, Oil Cooler Flaps auto. With those set and more throttle than you think you need for idle (anything up to about 50% may be needed, depending on how well your aircraft decides to work) then you should be ready to go. Occasionally, courtesy of Accu-Sim, an engine may need a little more attention or this may need adjusting, for example oil dilution may need to be turned on, but for the most part that setup works well. It is, however, well worth knowing what flaps do what. If you receive a report from the co-pilot that carb air temps are getting high, you don't want to be moving flaps that will cool the cylinder head temperature or vice versa, so a little bit of reading goes a long way.

The only time I ever really had more on my plate than I could sensibly cope with when flying the B377 was a last second go-around from Anchorage when an AI aircraft didn't clear the runway ahead of me in time. I was in a blizzard, flying an ILS approach, so with power low, all the flaps and slats were pretty much closed. Suddenly I needed maximum power, I was well behind on the power curve and needed to open Ram Air, open cowl flaps, open intercooler flaps, get the gear up, get the flaps up and fly the aircraft. That's the only real time I've ever wanted a second pair of hands to fly this thing. Other than that, provided I don't do something stupid (like leave the throttle friction lock on - done that one too), it's actually fairly straight forward once you know what you are doing.

Complex? Yes. Rewarding, definitely. Too complex? No, I don't really think it is, but you do have to know what you are doing.

Conclusion

I said at the start of this review that the A2A Simulations Boeing 377 Stratocruiser with Accu-Sim was good. Hopefully, after wading through all that text, you'll see why I like it so much. Quite apart from pushing the boundaries of what can be done in FS to whole new levels, the package is actually fun and rewarding to fly. I only normally fly one- to two-hour hops in modern airliners, beyond that I get very bored very quickly. Yet this thing has me flying four, five hours at a time quite often. You're not just monitoring a computer, you're actually navigating from VOR or NDB to VOR or NDB. I've never yet got it up above 30,000 feet, which it can do, but then again I've never really tried and have been happy pottering around in the mid FL-200s.

When I first got this, I had a nightmare of a time getting it to behave how I wanted. I constantly seemed to be behind the power curve, I couldn't get it to cruise or, when I did, it needed huge amounts of power more than the book suggested it would to get there. With most aircraft, I'd have said "stuff it" and given up. This one grabbed my attention though and made me stick with it. With the Service Pack installed, I came back to it and, methodically working through the checklist, took it for a flight from Anchorage to Seattle. It got up to FL250, even with a heavy load on board, and it cruised perfectly. Whatever I was doing wrong, either the SP fixed it, or working through the manuals again after taking a break did. This is probably much to the relief of the team members I was bugging the living daylights out of trying to get to the bottom of my issues.

The point, though, is this. Some things in life are worth the effort of sticking with and learning to do. This package won't be for everyone - it doesn't have weapons, nor does it have an FMC and it takes an eternity to fly a route compared to a B737 or B767. The difference is that when you arrive in this, you're arriving in style and all that navigation, all that flying? You did that, not a computer. Fun, wasn't it? :)

For more information on the A2A Boeing 377 or Accu-Sim, visit their product pages at the web site or simMarket.

If you'd like to comment on this review, please use our forum to do so.

All images are Copyright � screenshotartist.co.uk

Ian Pearson is a real world CAA PPL-IMC qualified pilot (unfortunately now lapsed) 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.
 

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