"I've thoroughly enjoyed the time I've spent so far in the Long-EZ and, without the real world practicalities of things like "a suitcase" to deal with, it's a good, fast, little tourer for exploring the FS world."
You could be forgiven, perhaps, if the first thing you thought when you saw the Rutan Long-EZ was that it looked more like it belonged in a science fiction film as a fighter than at your local GA airfield. That's where you'll find one, though. Parked between the ever-present Piper PA-28 or Cessna 172 and the mysterious little red kitplane that no-one can quite identify is a real-world X-Plane, a "pocket rocket" pusher canard monoplane with the vertical stabilisers at the end of the wings and - somewhat disconcertingly - what appears to be the wheel off a shopping trolley under the nose.
The out-of-this-world design, however, becomes a little less unexpected when you read a little about the aircraft's designer, Burt Rutan. Between Burt and his brother Dick, the Rutan name is more than a little well known in aviation circles. Possibly the brothers' most famous collaboration was the non-stop around the world flight in 1986 of the Voyager, developed by Burt and flown by Dick and his partner, Jeana Jeager (no relation to Chuck, I'm told). Burt Rutan, however, is also famous as the developer of SpaceShipOne which won the X-Prize for a privately funded sub-orbital spacecraft and many other weird and wonderful designs. A quick look around the website of Scaled Composites, the company Burt Rutan founded in 1982, shows the Long-EZ to in fact be one of the more conservative aircraft he's ever come up with!
Unfortunately the Long-EZ plans are no longer available and the Rutan Aircraft Factory now only exists to support those who haven't finished building their aircraft yet, but the aircraft that were sold and built are still flying in the real world and now, courtesy of Alphasim, in the FS world too.
The Alphasim Rutan 61 Long-EZ is available as separate downloads for both FS9 and FSX which, this time, means that the two versions are native to their own sims. This review is of the FSX aircraft.
Video courtesy of Firebird Productions & Jaggyroad Films
After purchase through the Alphasim online store, the new Long-EZ user will find themselves downloading, via the usual Alphasim routine of a password protected link, a single 66Mb zipfile containing a small readme file and, in the first break from previous practice for the developer, an industry standard format installation executable.
Operation of the installer should be very familiar to most FS users and, even if you've never seen one before, the routine is fairly self explanatory. Apart from a little light reading, it will consist for most users of pressing "Next" a lot. The next surprise, at the end of the installer, is that it offers you a link to the second break from tradition - a PDF manual for the aircraft, which the installer also tells you where to find the next time you want to.
Following installation, you are presented with a total of 10 different liveries, comprising seven O-235 powered aircraft (two with baggage pods) and three O-320 powered aircraft. Additionally, in your [FSX]/Alphasim/ folder, you'll find the manual mentioned earlier, a link to the Alphasim forums, a .psd paintkit and finally three .wmv videos designed to help you handle your shiny, new, and somewhat different aeroplane.
An entry is added to your Start menu by the installer, giving you a link to the un-installation application. It might have been nice to have links to the manual, videos, etc. here, but one major plus point to Alphasim - the uninstaller is renamed to "uninstal_FSXEZ" rather than overwriting the same "uninstal.exe" that most developers still use. Well done folks!
So what about that manual I've been talking about? Well, contrary to what some people seem to think, these have been included with Alphasim packages before - the T-6 Texan we reviewed a while ago here is a good example. What's different this time is that the 59-page document is an Adobe Portable Document Format (.pdf) one, allowing you to print it out easily if you so desire and refer to it while flying.
The other advantage of this kind of manual over the more-common-in-the-past Alphasim text files is that they are able to give you a graphical guide to the panel instrumentation and views (both internal and external) as well as including graphs and tables showing the operation and limitations of the aircraft. The manual is easy to read and professional, with the checklists together at the end of the manual in case you want to just print that section without the rest of the package information.
Overall, the manual is useful and well presented. In fact, the only comment I really have about the supporting material for the this package is to do with the start-up video - it shows the pilot turning on the avionics before starting the engine. That's a big no-no in the real world because even with modern avionics and protection, the power spike from a piston aero engine starting can fry your radios. Engine first, then avionics, please folks? ;)
The design being what it is, the outside of the Long-EZ is far from the most complex model in terms of parts to build in 3D. That doesn't mean to say it is easy - the sheer amounts of curves probably gave the modeller nightmares, but there aren't a million and one bits sticking out all over the place, fifteen different air ducts, wing support struts and a hundred and one airflow alteration devices. The aircraft is designed from the outset to have a sleek, efficient, airframe and it shows in the model which Alphasim have recreated very well.
The textures on the FSX model are in DDS format and have alpha layer reflectivity. Fallback folders are also used for common textures, reducing the overall requirement for hard drive space. One slight oddity is that a "texture.bump" folder referred to in the texture.cfg has not been included. It took me a while to find a post about this on the Alphasim forums, but subtle bump mapping has been applied to the textures included in the other folders and this fallback folder is no longer required. To my eyes, I think the bump mapping included is a little too subtle, but this is a smooth design, not an old battered one, so I can understand it, even if it isn't entirely to my personal taste.
Down marks? Well, a couple of the textures could have been placed slightly better and especially the odd texture bleeds around corners, such as the word "EXPERIMENTAL" on the side of a couple of canopies, which lets the overall quality down a little. I say a little, because overall the modelling and texturing is good and very much up with the par these days.
Regarding animations, the usual array are present - elevators, rudders, retractable nose gear (the main gear is fixed and spatted) and the large spoiler under the pilot's seat. There are also a couple of less usual ones, for instance applying the brakes causes the twin rudders to move outwards, providing additional drag for deceleration, and using the wing fold command (or pressing the switch in the VC) causes the aircraft to "kneel" onto its nosewheel for parking. The camera view in the VC doesn't follow the aircraft's nosewheel down when it kneels, but that's an FSX limitation rather than a modelling one.
One nice touch is that the visible parts of the engine have been modelled, so if you go nosing around the back of the aircraft with a camera, you can see through into the bay, rather than looking at a texture or a black blanked off space.
The next of the departures from what has been considered the norm for Alphasim is the gauges in this package. The cockpit of the Long-EZ is completely 3D modelled, switches, levers, the ignition key and, most importantly, the gauges.
Yes, this is the first Alphasim package to join the increasing numbers of "steam" gauges completely modelled and animated rather than being 2D 'transfers' stuck on top of a texture. What's more, they work very well indeed.
Unfortunately, and definitely not the developers' fault, the Long-EZ they have modelled does not exactly have a conventional panel. what would be the "Basic T" in most aircraft could well have been placed by throwing a dart at a sheet of paper and putting the next gauge where it landed. The closest gauge to the pilot's line of sight, when flying, is the airspeed indicator - possibly the only problem I have with the panel, as I'll discuss in a moment. To the left of that is the largest gauge, the altimeter, with the VSI between that and the glareshield. The next row, if you can call it that, comprises (from left to right) the DI, Attitude Indicator (well down the panel, roughly where the DI would normally be), then a single OMI with glideslope needle above an electronic turn co-ordinator and finally the radio stack, comprising a 3-axis autopilot, single NAV/COMM radio with standby frequencies, a transponder and a single DME (which can actually display a distance to a NAV2 station using its own receiver). The engine gauges are scattered around all over the place and the fuel gauges are in the rear cockpit!
Now that's fine, as an Experimental homebuilt aircraft, the Long-EZ is not designed for IFR flight, anyway. I really wouldn't want to try it in this, though; I can see no way of building a repeatable, smooth, instrument scan, for starters. That said, there is only one gauge which, at normal 0.70 and 0.60 zoom levels, is not clear, sharp and very readable - that, as I mentioned before, is the airspeed indicator. Whichever real-world panel the Alphasim model replicates, the builder has chosen a tiny little ASI more, it appears, chosen to fit in the gap left after fitting the other gauges than anything else. Fortunately, the bold white, green, yellow and red arcs are easily visible, but the numbers themselves are fairly indistinct at 0.70 zoom on my 1280x1024, bilinear filtered and 4x anti-aliased 19" TFT screen. To see the ASI clearly, I have to zoom in to 90%, at which point I can't see most of the other gauges clearly on a single screen.
To be honest, once I knew where the various arcs ended at speed wise, I could tell at a glance what speed I was doing anyway, so it's not a big issue. There are actually a few gauges that aren't 100% clear at 60% zoom, my normal VFR flying setting, but tooltips are used throughout and, if you don't mind a little drop in the reality level, almost all of the gauges are equipped with digital readouts that can be accessed by clicking areas on the respecting gauge.
There is no 2d panel present in the Alphasim Long-EZ - well, technically there is, but it's just the very top of the panel with no gauges visible. What there are, however, are pop-ups for the radio stack (default MS, not matching the VC panel) and GPS, which brings me nicely onto the mounting of this unit in the VC.
As you might have gathered, the panel on the Long-EZ is tiny and cramped, which means that there's no way in blazes you're going to get a GPS bolted onto it (except maybe by replacing the entire radio stack with one). To get around this, the model's developers have provided you with a GPSMAP 295 unit hinged to the starboard side of the cockpit, which can be rotated over where the pilot's knee would be by left clicking the hinge and dragging upwards. Clicking the aerial turns the unit on and off, leaving the buttons to work exactly as per the 2D MS default - which is what the base gauge is. If this is a little small, clicking on the case of the 3D model opens and closes the pop up window, while right clicking the hinge and dragging down folds it away again. It's a very neat and well done solution to the problem.
So anyway, enough looking around, how does the ship fly?
Well, the answer is pretty much how she looks. Fast, sleek and not quite entirely as you'd expect if you're used to the standard fare from the Cessna and Piper factories of this world.
The first difference from "the norm" is that the nose swings the other way on takeoff - or the right way if you're more used to older European engines than American. Only a tiny amount of right rudder is required, however and your Long-EZ will lift off the runway with a tiny amount of back pressure at around 85KIAS. Best rate of climb is 90KIAS and at that, you're looking at well in excess of 1500fpm upwards with full power around sea level... not that you'll be around sea level for very long at all! According to the manual, for better distance covered during the climb and cooling, you can also climb at 110KIAS, which is what I normally used, so I saw something other than sky looking forwards. You'll still be going up at around 1500fpm using full power, then.
Talking of full power, one advantage of the huge air scoop underneath the fuselage is that whatever your engine of choice to propel your Long-EZ, you have a nice wide range of power available to you. All the props are fixed, not variable, pitch, so you're looking at engine rpm rather than prop rpm and manifold pressure for engine settings. The green arc, however, tops out at a little under 2900rpm and there are no cowl flaps to worry about. You can even use full power to cruise quite legitimately and should you choose to do so, above most GA traffic, between 6-10,000' (FL060 to FL100 to us Europeans) then you won't half shift doing so. At full power, around 2650rpm at 6000' over the American Midwest, I was clocking 170KIAS or, according to the DME and Paris VOR, 190Kts ground speed. Not bad for a single engine piston with fixed gear.
The only real problem I have flying the Long-EZ is that on my PC (it appears specifically on my PC, as the developers have received no other reports of this) it is absolutely determined, at almost any speed, at almost any power setting, to roll left. That is something of a pain as it means that you are constantly having to hold your stick/yoke 10 degrees right to fly straight and level. It also makes trimming a bit of a nuisance, because holding it to one side and making tiny adjustments to pitch (the canard mounted elevators are realistically very effective) is not easy. I'm an FS helicopter pilot, I'm used to doing silly things like that, but I can see how others might have difficulty. Fortunately the autopilot copes with it very well. The autopilot, however, does not much like FSX's new vertical air movement feature... it'll recover quite quickly from entering a thermal, but those big elevators mean that when you pop out the other side, you go down quite quickly before it bobs back up to recover. Not a problem, that one - just something to be aware of.
Stall speeds, tested using an O-320 powered aircraft, is actually quite difficult to reach at around 60KIAS. In order to get there, however, I actually ran out of back stick movement with a gentle descent and had to whack on a load of elevator trim to pull the nose up further. The stall warning banner came on at 59KIAS and the aircraft started to sink rapidly. No wing drop, no nose drop, full control authority was present throughout the stall and recovery consisted of pushing the nose forward. The descent rate, fully stalled, was about 2000fpm. I've never flown a canard/swept wing aircraft in the real world, but I understand from others that the stall characteristics are one of the reasons the design works so well.
The final stages of a flight, the approach and landing, are very much an exercise in power management on this aircraft. What I found worked best was to close the throttle early and slow to 110KIAS to start the descent, as slowing down once you are going down is something of a challenge. As you approach the airport, you can slow to 85KIAS and extend the speed brake - actually, there's a little 'gotcha' here as the placard speeds are all in mph, yet the digital readout for the ASI is in knots. Fortunately the 100mph line is one of the few ones I can easily read at 0.60 zoom. Anyway, idle throttle and trimming for a 1000fpm descent rate gives you around about 75-80KIAS, which is perfectly controllable. You have to be careful not to overuse the elevators on descent, because the nose moves quite quickly, affecting speed significantly, but at least the constant tendency to roll is removed with the throttle closed.
A proper flare is essential in this aircraft, as that shopping trolley castor under the nose really is as weak as it looks - landing on it in the real world is pretty much guaranteed to have you scraping the composite along the tarmac in a very expensive way. You can also expect a bit of a float, unless you have got your airspeed right down on short final, but braking is effective without being stupidly so and you can still stop safely on pretty short runways.
Once you are on the ground, Alphasim have made life a little easier for you than real-world Long-EZ pilots by linking the nosewheel to the rudder pedals for steering. In the real aircraft, the nosewheel is free castoring (see? It really does belong on a shopping trolley!) but for those who prefer realism over ease of handling, a quick aircraft.cfg tweak, described in the manual, breaks the link and allows for some truly tight cornering using differential brake.
As with many teams nowadays, Alphasim have had help during the development of the model from real world owners and operators of the type. Given the slightly unusual handling and flight characteristics of the aircraft, it seems to me - as someone who has never flown a Long-EZ, but has read a fair amount about them - that they have listened to the advice and come up with a pretty realistic flight model. Certainly I like it and I haven't read any real complaints about it on the forums around the internet either.
For the last Alphasim package I reviewed, I started the conclusion with the words that Alphasim have never been at the forefront of FS development. This package, by no means their latest, includes techniques and levels of detail that lift them well above the position they used to occupy within the sim world hierarchy. The modelled gauges, the clean, crisp, internal texturing and attention to detail, especially in such areas as VC texture shadows that are so commonly overlooked, is a major advance over what I am used to seeing from this design and publishing house.
Even with the little niggle that I found when hand-flying of having to hand fly with the stick constantly 10 degrees over to the right, I've thoroughly enjoyed the time I've spent so far in the Long-EZ and, without the real world practicalities of things like "a suitcase" to deal with, it's a good, fast, little tourer for exploring the FS world.
Also, as a demonstration for the type of aircraft they say they are aiming at in the future, the Alphasim Long-EZ is a very good example and, indeed, is a good package all round. As with almost any aircraft in the FS world, it won't be to everyone's tastes looks or complexity wise, but if you're tempted by it already, then it's very much a serious contender. Above all that, it's different and fun. Well worth having in your hangar.
Find out more about the Rutan 61 Long-EZ at the web site.
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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.