Aircraft add-on for Microsoft FS9/FSX/3rd Wire Strike Fighter series
 

The glaring warning lights are a little too much of a distraction for the pilot as he screams away from the flak bursts as low as he dares, the Bombardier/Navigator beside him pulling out a flashlight and pounding each of them in turn until the red haze is gone and he is finally able to see the moonlit terrain through the canopy once more. His attack aircraft is hit and bleeding badly. The fire reported by the warning lights isn't really a fire, confirmed by his new wingmen, but he is still leaving a trail behind him - fuel pouring overboard from punctured tanks. That fuel is just as critical. Without it, there's no way he'll reach the carrier. At the speed the fuel gauge is going down, he'll be lucky to reach the coast before the engines stop turning and the crew are forced to eject, over jungle, at night, in enemy territory.

The situation is bad, but nevertheless, help is at hand. Help from people just like himself, flying aircraft that are amazingly similar. The pilot's A-6A is far from alone in the sky - two A-6Cs, the bulbous sensor pods for their role clearly visible beneath their bellies, have formatted up and are escorting him to the shore. A Surface to Air missile battery ahead has been detected by an EA-6A "Electric Intruder", circling offshore, which is guiding a pair of A-6B defence suppression aircraft onto it, neutralising it as a threat to the crippled strike aircraft. Best of all, from the pilot's perspective, a KA-6D "Texaco" air-to-air refuelling aircraft is speeding towards the shoreline. If he can link up with that, if the refuelling gear works, he might just make it. That's still more 'if's than he'd like.

OK, so it's a bit contrived, mixing all those aircraft up like that, but it says something about the sheer number of variants available of a single aircraft type and the wide array of roles they have performed. Fast forward twenty years or so to the early 1990s and you'll find the A-6E, the direct successor of the A and C models, still flying strikes. The EA-6A Electric Intruder is now an EA-6B Prowler with a crew of four rather than two and HARM missiles under the wing that replace the STANDARMs and Shrikes carried by the A-6Bs. All but the EA-6B are gone in the 21st century, retired from active service, and the Prowler will go soon too, replaced by the EF-18G "Growler"

RAZBAM's latest package, however, keeps the legend alive in the skies of Microsoft Flight Simulator 9, Flight Simulator X and Third Wire's Strike Fighters series.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I hereby present to you the Grumman A-6 Intruder.


Installation

The Intruder packs - one for Microsoft Flight Sim 2004/X and one for the Strike Fighters games - are available directly from the online store at www.razbam.org as downloads only, for $30.50 (MSFS) and $16.00 (TW).

The Installers for both versions are fairly standard executable ones, requiring a minimum of user input, creating a single Start menu entry per version for the Uninstaller and also un-installable from the usual Windows Control Panel / Add or Remove Programs list.

Anyone who is familiar with adding new software to Windows will find no surprises here, although unfortunately the most common problem with installers is also very much present, after installing the A-6 pack to FSX, just as a test, I clicked on the uninstall icon for the FSX F2H Banshee:

"This program will uninstall RAZBAM A-6 Intruder from..."

GAARGH! There's a reason I've started testing that one - everyone makes the same mistake and overwrites the same uninstall .exe with their own. I know there's an option to change the name of the uninstaller somewhere in the Installshield tools, because I used it myself back in the days of VB6. If I ever find it again, I think I'll send a reminder e-mail to every developer on the planet that I can think of, because they all do it!

Documentation

This new Intruders pack is the first time Razbam have really created documentation for their aircraft and the end result is a perfectly usable document, providing better loading information to avoid the aircraft being overweight when you try to first depart in them, screenshots (albeit some slightly distorted) of the panels showing where to find the clickable controls and some flying tips including speeds, starting instructions and a guide to flying the pattern for a carrier approach - Ron has posted a better, graphical, description of this directly from the Navy "NATOPS" document for the A-6 on their forum.

The documentation as provided is welcome, especially for a newcomer to the type and although not as "professionally" presented as documents as some other developers provide, it does provide most of the information that you'll need to fly the aircraft. It could possibly be added to by including the graphical description of the carrier pattern - if the US Navy will allow it - and some more information about the differences between the models, for instance the weights section only appears to cover the A-6A, not the EA-6A or A-6E, which also suffer when overweight at takeoff (the EA-6A particularly badly, but I'll come to that later).

Exterior

As I said in the intro, there are five 'flavours' of the Intruder included in this package, each with its own distinct differences from the basic hull and each with a small collection of liveries and loadouts, allowing the user to pick and chose at will what they want to fly. In total, there are 49 individual selections available.

Dealing quickly with each model in turn, the A-6A is the original production all-weather attack aircraft and comes in three liveries (Two USMC, one USN) and four versions (Clean, two different loadouts and a "Mission" version which I'll cover later).

The 'B' model is a dedicated defence suppression ('Iron Hand' to the Navy, US Air Force pilots would know it as 'Wild Weasel') variant and comes in one livery with two appropriate loadouts.

'C' Intruders were built to catch trucks moving at night along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and as such sport a bulbous pod below the fuselage that holds an ignition sensor and a low-light television system. This rather specialist and rare variant has a single livery, with an armed and a "ferry" loadout.

Going up to the 'D' extension, the role of the aircraft changes totally. No bombs, no missiles, the KA-6D just carries a heck of a lot of fuel and mounts a hose and drogue refuelling rig, which can be extended and retracted using a control in the virtual cockpit. Two liveries are included for the tanker.

The 'E' model included here is the most numerous and is an A-6E/TRAM with the Target Recognition and Attack Multisensor pod mounted underneath the nose, typical of those that flew until the Intruder was retired from USN/USMC serice. The A-6E comes in four liveries and has six loadouts, plus the mission version again.

Finally for this pack, the EA-6A "Electric Intruder" or, as the developers put it "Jammer to its friends", comes in 3 liveries including one for the famous VMAQ-2 'Playboys'.

Whichever variant you look at, the detail is more than adequate for a model of this price bracket, with detailed fans visible down the air intakes, a detailed cockpit visible from outside the canopy and easily identifiable loads and external equipment.

Where modelling each individual part would just blow the compiler out of the water, textures make up the difference as usual with RAZBAM products. Areas such as the inside of the wheel bays and the inside of the wings when folded are textured to show the exposed wiring looms and pipes that tangle their way around the aircraft and those essential red patches to show crews and handlers that bits are open that shouldn't be are all painted.

All models are depicted after the introduction of the wingtip speedbrakes, with the fuselage panels "wired" shut. Unfortunately for the EA-6A Electric Intruder, this means that no speedbrakes at all are modelled for it, as the outer pylons fitted to the jammer caused serious airflow problems and the wing speedbrakes were disabled on that variant.

Possibly the only other comment I would have about the outside of these aircraft is that I wish the boarding ladders were extendable, but that's more from Nick's screenshot department than my shoot, bomb and trap back aboard role!

Interior

No 2d panels are provided for flying these aircraft in FSX (not even a GPS pop-up) and the one provided for FS9, which I have not tested for this is review, is very simplified so fortunately the VCs are more than detailed enough for the job of flying the models. Almost every switch is 3d modelled, although only those used for "civilian" flying are clickable with one exception - the master arm switch moves on certain models, which I'll explain later.

A couple of things to note in the cockpit are the stick, which is far from the least complicated control device ever fitted to an aircraft, and the overhead emergency canopy release lever, which works to open the canopy normally in the sim, the same as the switch on the main panel.

In terms of what is animated, the list includes the light switches, engine control switches, parking brake, flap, tailhook and canopy levers, but not the wing fold lever, as this caused the developer some major headaches according to a post on the RAZBAM forum.

Texture wise, the interior is entirely hand drawn, not photorealistic, but writing that needs to be readable is and even some that doesn't, such as placards on the head rests of the ejector seats, can be worked out what they say much of the time. Tool tips are provided - especially helpful when a control doesn't function exactly as labelled ("backup" engine starter switches, for example).

The panel of all variants but the EA-6A RECAP are dominated by a single gauge on the pilot's side, the "VDI" - a sort of mixed-mode attitude and navigational instrument all rolled into one. Unfortunately, within the constraints of the host sim and the team's knowledge and experience, it hasn't been possible to make the VDI match the full functionality of the navigation and attack system ("DIANE") that drives this display in the real system. Instead of being able to follow the path directly to target, the team's gauge developer - in this instance David Brice from Iris Simulations - has overlaid a nav gauge on top of the "AI" display, so the white target box becomes the focus of attention for the heading bar.

One other nice feature of this package is that functions have had specific sounds recorded for them, rather than just using default ones, for instance you'll hear a digital voice telling you that the autopilot is disconnected and the engine start has a voice prompt as well. One comment about the engine start is that if you neglect to turn the fuel on, you'll hear the message every time it tries to spool up the engine. That's user error, so don't blame the programmers!

There are a couple of bugs in the VC involving overlaid gauges. One is already noted, with a fix, on the forum involving a radar screen. The other is that the control knobs for the HSI keep vanishing behind the main gauge texture. They're still adjustable, so you can still use them, but having a black box over them is a little disconcerting. I've spoken to the developers about this and they are aware of it but do not yet have a fix, as it is a coding issue rather than a simple fix.

Overall, the VC is a very workable place to operate the aircraft from. You can change everything you need to, you have a lot to look around at, unfortunately most of it not doing anything, but this is a mid-range package so that's what I'd expect, and functions that would otherwise be hard to use such as the accurately positioned engine start buttons have backups to allow you to actually do what you want to! Seeing out the front for a carrier landing can be a bit of a challenge, so you might want to lift your seat up a little and bang your helmet off the canopy for those. I found that on most carrier approaches, I was offset a little anyway and could see the Meatball of the Acceleration carriers around the side of the sight mounting.

Missions

This is the first pack I know of where there have been special "Mission" versions of aircraft - although I have seen mission developer models for ships and similar in the past - and the basic distinction between the "Mission" and non-Mission Intruders is a new toy to play with in the sim. Thought you needed a Third Wire sim to blow things up in RAZBAM aircraft? Get ready to think again!

The difference I am talking about is the ability to give the aircraft a visual load of ordinance that actually behaves realistically within the sim. Bombs fall from racks and explode on impact with the ground, leaving a crater and smoke stack behind it. There are six missions included with the Intruder pack - two beginner, one intermediate, two advanced and one expert - four of which involve dropping bombs on innocent or less than innocent objects and one of which is a flight checkride. The sixth one involves mid-air refuelling your below-bingo fuel Intruder from a KA-6D "Texaco" tanker and is a serious test of formation flying - you have a six foot square box to keep your jet in!

None of these missions are easy if your idea of easy is flying through the boxes in the default MS "Beginner" level missions, but I'm actually getting quite good at dive bombing, these days. I'll be honest, I've completed none of the missions, but suspect that more of that is my lack of skill than problems with the job I'm supposed to be doing. Oh, and one important thing - the Bombing Qualification flight, because it uses a moving aircraft carrier, will only work if you have the Microsoft "Acceleration!" add-on pack.

One of the problems with releasing visible ordinance from a model is that both of them are counted by the sim as "aircraft" and, as anyone who has tried to fly close formation with an AI aircraft will know, FS's collision detection is rather cumbersome. This has the net result that the moment you released ordinance prior to this, you were presented with an external shot of your aircraft and the words "AIRCRAFT COLLISION". You might remember that I mentioned the Weapons Master Switch as being clickable earlier? Well this is the reason why. On the Mission versions of the aircraft, pressing this switch enables some pretty nifty coding evading this problem. After arming the system, provided your joystick's trigger switch is set to the default brakes or no other function, that becomes your bomb release controller. Pressing it also, just for a fraction of a second, disables aircraft collisions, so you can leave the realism options as high as possible, yet still drop bombs.

Overall, I've tried most of the missions multiple times and have normally had fun trying. I've certainly blown up a refinery umpteen times and only occasionally got frustrated and ended up swearing at the monitor. Even when that happens, I know full well I'll keep going back to them. The ability to drop bombs on targets and actually have an effect inside the sim is a very useful new tool and one I'm sure that will be capitalised on by mission developers who can work out how to use it. Me? I'll just have to keep trying!

Flying

So what about just using the aircraft without any aim other than "just flying"? Well, this isn't a beginner's aircraft, but once you have got used to its foibles and quirks, it's not that hard to fly, either.

The Intruder is a deceptively large and heavy aircraft. Those big spoilerons and all-moving horizontal stabiliser make the aircraft seem light and sprightly when you're flying within the normal flight envelope, but if you drift out of tolerance, especially letting your speed fall too low, or trying to pull too tight a corner for too long, it will bite and bite hard.

From a conventional airstrip, takeoff seems to be easiest at about 150KIAS with a fully laden aircraft. It simply won't lift until that speed region and will stay firmly attached to the ground until it wants to fly, at which point it comes unstuck pretty quickly. After hauling in the beefy landing gear, you have to allow the airspeed to increase a little before you retract the flaps otherwise you will find yourself sinking back towards the ground and on the back edge of the power curve. Above about 170/180KIAS you can normally retract the flaps safely and just climb away.

According to the manual, the best cruise for the Intruder is 420KIAS at 30,000'. My normal "cruise" throttle position seems to park the needle at a little over 410KIAS, so that figure seems perfectly reasonable.

Stalling is easy in this aircraft. Very easy with a bombload and in a turn, so you might want to keep your throttle quite high when doing that and incredibly easy if you don't check the fuel and payload screen before takeoff and do so overloaded. Clean, with 50% fuel, the A-6A stalls at around 125KIAS. Recovery is a conventional drop-the-nose-and-apply-power without any real dramas. With a similar fuel load in approach configuration, this speed is about 110KIAS. Now compare these numbers to the heavier, significantly dirtier, EA-6A model at max takeoff weight... Clean stall is 145KIAS, approach config 125KIAS - not very much different numbers, but even with prompt reaction, you're going downwards at 2000fpm within a couple of seconds of the stall warner sounding. At low level, that's very bad news. Remember what I said about accelerating before cleaning up after takeoff? There's the reason why.

All of the models, but particularly again the EA-6A, bleed off airspeed very fast in a turn. This is actually an advantage with the Jammer, as it doesn't have speedbrakes, but it does mean that if you start manoeuvring hard to get to a runway or target, you're going to be hearing the insistent "Doop!Doop!Doop!Doop!" of the stall warner a lot and you have to react to it quickly if you want to keep flying. In the Intruder, more than most military aircraft I've flown in FS, you have to stay ahead of the aircraft and keep out of trouble, rather than getting out of it after the fact.

Approaches are a case in point. The Intruder is quite a fat aircraft, creating a lot of drag, which means that power and pitch have to be watched closely on final. Concentrating too much outside the cockpit, for instance on a carrier deck, can quite quickly result in a rapid desent as you lose too much airspeed and it's not easy to recover in time to save the approach. You do have an AoA Indexer to ease your task, but continuous glances at the ASI are essential and, if you see something happening, correct it!

I won't go through the entire carrier approach sequence here - the graphic is on the RAZBAM A-6 forum thread if you want to see it, but there is one notable difference between the A-6 and any other carrier aircraft I've flown - you actually do the approach with the speedbrakes OUT! I've tried both methods, brakes in and out, and both do work, but the NATOPS method with the speedbrakes deployed I found did make speed control a little easier.

The Intruder is great fun to fly, far easier to land than equivalent era aircraft such as the F-4 Phantom II and F-104 Starfighter, certainly, but don't underestimate it. I'm enjoying and challenging myself a lot, but crash far less often than I did in FS9 versions of those other two!

So What About Third Wire?

No, I'm not talking about the cable every naval aviator wants to catch on every approach in this instance, but the Third Wire series of combat flight simulators - Strike Fighters: Project 1, Wings over Europe, Wings over Vietnam and Wings over Israel. A seperate part of the Intruders package, featuring three of the same base models, is available to incorporate into these sims.

One important thing to note for users of Wings over Vietnam (which unfortunately I don't have, all testing was done in Strike Fighters: Project 1) is that the RAZBAM Intruder overwrites the default Intruder in the game. The pack doesn't come with any intrinsic missions, thus avoiding the requirement for any particular title to use them. By replacing the WoV aircraft, however, users can fly it in appropriate missions very quickly. The downside of this overwrite is that the RAZBAM A-6s don't support the decal system the default one does, so you can't change the paint scheme, squadron markings or aircraft number other than to those provided by the package.

As I said before, the Third Wire installation includes three versions of the Intruder - A-6A, A-6B and A-6E. With no jamming capability, there was little point in including the EA-6A, mid-air refuelling is also missing, so no KA-6D and the extra systems of the A-6C are missing as well so it would be no different really than the A-6A, but a bit slower and draggier.

The screenshots for the loading screens in Strike Fighters were clearly taken in FSX, not Strike Fighters, but apart from the lack of "clickability" in the SF cockpit (a sim limitation), the interior and exterior are both identical to the MSFS versions so that's fine by me. In fact I'll probably have to get WoV soon just to fly this thing into "true" combat off a carrier!

The same techniques for bombing in FSX seem to work in SFP1, but in addition to being able to drop several tons of high explosive from the A and E models, the B model finally comes into its own in this package, being able to release AGM-78A STANDARD and AGM-45B Shrike Anti-Radiation Missiles at appropriate targets. OK, so that didn't help me on my defence suppression flights when all the opposition seemed to be optically-sighted AA guns, but I did get a warning blip and a tracking tone once from a ZSU-23-4 Shilka... I missed. He didn't. Ho hum!

Conclusion

When someone says they're 'having a blast' with a package, they normally mean it a little less literally than they do here. Although a couple of products prior to this have used the new functionality from FSX regarding droppable ordinance, this is the first time I, certainly, have seen the actual ordinance loaded onto the aircraft affect the visual model, falling off it and exploding.

Even without the ability to drop ordinance and the extra missions that come with FSX, the package stands alone as very good value in FS9. The entire series of the aircraft is included with the exception of the EA-6B, which RAZBAM will be releasing as a later standalone package for FSX only, and in more than adequate detail for the price. Although RAZBAM were beaten to market by a competing developer with the A-6E, I'd recommend this package to anyone, including those who already own the other one. None of the errors present in that package are present in this one and you get a bunch of other variants to boot.

Now... When do I get paid, so I can get Wings over Vietnam?

Find out more about the Intruders  at the web site or simMarket.   

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

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.

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.

Cody Bergland created Jaggyroad Films and has been a leading force in marketing in the flight simulation community. His works spans across many companies and stand alone products. Cody served 5 years active duty in the USAF as an electronic warfare technician but now dedicates his free time to his hobby of flight simulation and video production.

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