Aircraft add-on for Microsoft FSX
 

"Now I have flown it, spun it, crashed it, bounced it, landed it, poked and prodded it, in no way has the Spitfire package disappointed me. It is simply superb"

I don't know whether the "Haynes Manual" series of books are widely known outside the UK, but given the probability that you haven't heard of them, they're a series of manuals that started out with a complete strip-down and rebuild of popular models of car, allowing the owner to maintain the vehicle themselves rather than pay a garage to do the work for them. They're also renowned for helpful hints such as "tap gently to release" which, when converted to reality, generally means "pound furiously with a lump hammer until the &%$£#@ thing finally lets go"!

So what have they got to do with a Flight Simulator add-on review? Well, about week before this review's subject package was released, I saw one in a bookshop near where I live that caught my eye and I decided to buy it. I've bought these things before, like many blokes, intending to do the simple maintenance on my little car myself. I never do, so predictably my wife's response to my wanting it was an abrupt "Why do you want to spend twenty quid on yet another maintenance manual you'll never use?"

"Because I'm interested!" I replied.

"But you'll never use it!"

"I know, but I'm getting it anyway!"

Fortunately she just shook her head and relented, so my will prevailed. The Haynes Manual in question was for the "Supermarine Spitfire – 1936 Onwards (All Marks) ".

Okay, so the Supermarine Spitfire probably wasn't the best fighter of World War II because there probably never was a single ‘best fighter’. It certainly wasn't the most numerous and it didn't break any overly interesting records, but its status as an aviation icon really isn't debatable.

First flown operationally in 1938 by the Royal Air Force, marks of the Spitfire fought throughout the war on every front and for every Allied country in one form or another. Derivatives were still in service well after the war and, with the Royal Air Force's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight still flying several of the type on the military register, it could be argued that it is still in service now.

Unfortunately, unlike many other aviation classics, the number of airworthy Spitfires on the planet is not actually increasing. For every one restored to flying condition around the world, at least one more is being destroyed or rendered uneconomical or unsafe to return to the air. Nevertheless, the type is still guaranteed to turn heads at an air show and still draws attention from young and old as a static exhibit in a museum. The number of blades on the prop changed, the engine changed, the fuselage changed, the famous elliptical wings were cropped for increased low-level agility, but the Spitfire always seems be instantly recognisable, even by people who claim to have no interest in aviation whatsoever. Someone once equated "looking right" to "flying right" and the Spitfire is a flying, fire-breathing, proof of that saying.

How many people, born in the ever increasing years since the so-called Spitfire Summer of 1940, have stood looking at this aircraft's sleek lines and imagined what it would be like to strap themselves into the cockpit and take it up into the wide blue yonder? Well, with this package, finally we get the chance to experience the virtual version, at least, in its full FSX-native glory.


Video courtesy of Jaggyroad Films

Installation

Real Air’s installers, the same as most commercial packages these days, are downloaded as executable programs, in this case using up 122Mb of your monthly download limit and requiring a little below 770Mb of hard drive space to install if you include the high-resolution textures.

Slightly more unusually, the RealAir one connects you to their website part way through the install so that, rather than just registering the Spitfire package to your computer, it also registers it to your account on the RealAir server. Unfortunately, in the current climate regarding software piracy and sharing, the team feels this step necessary, although it does mean you can only install it on an internet-connected computer and what happens if the server is shut down I’m not entirely sure.

Following a successful installation, a new entry is made to your Start/All Programs list under a single common “RealAir” folder that it shares with any other of their packages you have installed and the configuration application is automatically run.

Although it is essential that you run this application at least once, you don’t actually have to select anything in it. I’ll discuss what the tool does under the Documentation section, next, but one of the tabs provides access to a more detailed set of the textures for the models, which clocks in at another 133Mb download. It does, however, mean that it you are running a marginal FS installation, or are more worried about frames per second than how good the aircraft looks, you aren’t forced to download textures you’ll never use, reducing both your download time and the bandwidth cost to RealAir.

Documentation

The first page of the “Config Panel” application you are presented with at the end of the install includes links to three Adobe .pdf format manual files and the RealAir website, where one of the documents – the 12-page Pilot’s Notes – is available for free download before purchase. This document is the one that introduces the new pilot to the cockpit of the Mk.XIV and includes all the checklists, instructions and hints and tips for flying this aircraft.

The main manual, a 49-page document, is available after install and introduces you to all the variants and a short description of each livery provided in the base package. Additionally, it lists the limitations of the simulated vice real versions of the aircraft and some of the settings that the developers suggest for the Aircraft/Realism settings page inside FSX. Some of these might seem a little unusual at first, such as that the “Gyro” setting should be set to minimum, not maximum, which FS says is the setting for full realism, while others such as turning off crashes and damage and moving the crash tolerance slider to minimum are only essential if you are intending to do belly landings.

The final document provided as part of this package, with the permission of the publishers, is part of the reprinted Air Ministry pilot’s notes for the Spitfire XIV/XIX from 1946. If you’ve never seen these little simple-looking cardboard-covered books, they’re worth keeping an eye out for, as they cover all sorts of, World War II in particular, British aircraft and give a lot of information that’s useful for operating their FS equivalents. I did note that this one has a few lines crossed out, with ink “corrections” alongside them. I know from experience that most real-world operating manuals seem to have this, not just for military aircraft, so it adds a touch of authenticity whether they were done to suit the FS model or date back to the original use of the manual.

Finally for this section, I’ll run quickly through the other tabs of the Config Panel, as I really don’t have anywhere better to discuss them. The third tab, “Downloads”, is the least complex, just giving you a link to the 32-bit uncompressed texture file I mentioned earlier. I’ll get that out the way first, because amongst other things on the second “Options” tab is the radio button to make these work.

Other selections on the settings tab cover whether you want the engine failure functionality to be available (this is done internally by the package, not using the functionality from FSX: Acceleration), the VC glass reflections and the strength of the buffet effect, now provided by FS view functionality rather than the “RealView” system that the developers included to achieve it in FS9.

The documentation is very thorough, very well presented and very useful indeed. It’s all well worth reading through at least once, either before loading for the first time if you are far more patient than most simmers, or after you blew it up / crashed it if you are like the rest of us.

Exterior

Unlike the previous FS9 package from RealAir, which covered only the Mk.XIV Griffon-powered Spitfire, its FSX stablemate provides two completely different variants – the Mk.XIV and Mk.XIV with a contra-rotating prop as before, but additionally now the Merlin powered Mk.IX as well in both clipped and full wing guises. Each variant comes with two cockpit versions too, but I’ll discuss those in the interior section so, from an aircraft selection point of view, you’re looking at six options; Elliptical wing Mk.IX, Clipped wing Mk.IX, Elliptical wing Mk.XIV, Clipped wing Mk.XIV, the contra-prop Mk.XIV prototype and a fictional “Reno Racer” Mk.XIV contra-prop variant. A couple of the Mk.IXs are wearing Mk.VIII paint schemes and at least one of them should actually be listed as a Mk.XVI, but the XVI (you are following all these Roman numerals, aren’t you?!) is actually just a IX with the Merlin engine license-built by Packard in the United States, so it is effectively the same aircraft.

As I said in the intro, the models have been completely rebuilt to FSX standards, including self shadowing and, I am led to believe, interior self shadowing, although as I am still avoiding Vista for as long as possible, I have not been able to test that or DX10 compliance myself.

It’s the little things that make a good model great and this aircraft has them in droves, from the detail level of the texturing, through the flap indicators on the wings, to the opening cockpit side access flap (click on the handle in the cockpit, with the canopy open) and prop blades that move with the pitch lever, the detail shows through and, while the absolute fanatics will always find details to argues about the accuracy of to the real thing, the level to which the model is developed is excellent.

All of the textures have what I would describe as a ‘semi-matte’, or ‘satin’ if you are into home decorating, finish – there is a definite reflection there, although the surfaces are far from gloss covered in all but the racing variants. The finish is apparently not to everyone’s taste, but what it does do is show off superbly the amount of effort that has been put into the bump mapping on these models. The surface skin of a Spitfire, whether it’s a stressed aluminium part or a doped fabric part, is far from smooth and flat. There are depressions around screw holes, depressions between each rib and the bump mapping applied to these textures shows the effect off superbly. You might be able to tell that you are not looking at a photograph from other things, but it won’t be because of the texturing.

The models aren’t perfect. There are tiny little things that if you really look hard enough aren’t quite right and yes, after being pointed at them, I could indeed see them and agree. The thing is that if you are scrutinising the model to that depth to be able to find them, it shows you the overall standard that we are talking about here.

In fact, talk about quibbles, I have one, incredibly minor, problem with this aircraft, really… When you park it and shut it down, the pilot stays sitting there, scanning the skies. Waiting for the next scramble, maybe?

Interior

As I mentioned before, there are two interiors offered, in addition to the differences between the various marks of the aircraft – one a slightly used, wartime period scheme with chipped paint and a reflector gun sight, the other a pristine restored example for the air show circuit, with a modern Bendix-King radio set the same as people may be familiar with from RealAir’s previous FSX releases, an OBI gauge for modern navigation and a modern attitude indicator.

Whichever one you choose, it is fitted with modelled rather than .gau gauges, a technique that was pioneered by RealAir back in FS9 and that is slowly becoming more common in top end VCs. One particular use of the technique recently has been ACES’ own “Acceleration!” add-on aircraft, where in particular the Mustang’s VC, designed by Sibwings, utilised the technique heavily.

Like the rest of the aircraft, the virtual cockpit is superb and although it isn’t identical, it looks very similar indeed to the detail shots of a Mk.IX’s panel in that book I was discussing in the intro. In fact, the only really significant difference I found was that starting the RAS Mk.IX only requires you to hold one button, the starter, while the real aircraft requires you to press two simultaneously. OK, that’s not possible with a mouse, so it’s very definitely a host package limitation, not a developer one.

Pretty much everything that is modelled can be pushed, pulled or played with, although not all of it has a function within the package. Certainly everything you need for flight is clear, plainly labelled and functional, which is useful when the intention is that you need only ever operate the aircraft from the VC. Some of the gauges, such as the compass, are accurately positioned and all but impossible to see without moving your viewpoint. Yes, that is a limitation of the real aircraft too, but in this instance, you do have the option of cycling ‘a’ key views until you find the one that the developers have included to make using the gauge possible.

A partial 2d panel is, however, also provided. Taking a form similar to the “mini-panels” that MS supply with certain models, it provides minimal VFR flying gauges, but allows you much more visibility than you have with the full panel, which is very useful if you are having problems seeing past the nose on landings. A pop-up for the default GPS is also available, to aid in navigation.

The “a” key view selection is used quite heavily, including an optional view which duplicates the 2d cockpit with “snap” views to either side rather than panning and a fixed forward view, so if you don’t like having to move your virtual head, the option is still available, however it doesn’t give the frame rate increase that some people see when using 2d rather than virtual cockpits.

Flying

The Spitfire was widely regarded by most pilots who flew it as quite simply the nicest aircraft they ever spent time in and, within the scope of what’s possible within the simulator, Real Air seem to have caught this feeling perfectly. Provided you stick to the rules, which are laid out in the documentation as discussed earlier, both the marks provided are superb models to fly. While docile and easy to trim for straight and level, they are also as aerobatic as most people will want them to be.

There have actually been a couple of complaints that the RealAir Spitfires are actually too easy to fly and that it should be more “challenging”, but to be honest, that is the opposite of what I have read in numerous books on the subject and, indeed, from the sheer lack of experience that most wartime pilots had when they were transferred onto the type. Provided you follow a couple of simple rules, most of which apply to any powerful tail dragger, it’s actually pretty forgiving and tolerant. To put this into perspective, I was discussing flying a Mk.IX with a famous display pilot who brought one over from Duxford to the last show I marshalled at Sleap and he was giving us a tour. His description of flying it in the cruise was that you could fly it with two fingers. If you were gripping the stick hard in one hand, you’d over control it and, while the aircraft won’t care, you probably will. This is also described in pretty much any historically accurate book, when they talk about new pilots trying too hard to fly formation and, as a result, bobbing all over the place. You don’t need to fight the Spitfire, just tell it which way to go and it’ll go there.

The primary rule of not crashing a high-power taildragger comes at the moment you start your take-off run and is “don’t just push the throttle to maximum, because you really don’t need it!”

Although, at high takeoff weights or for very short runways, you can use higher settings up to 12lbs/sq in, the normal takeoff power for the Spitfires is actually around the 8lbs of boost mark, considerably less than maximum power. Once the tail is flying, the rest of the aircraft will normally follow between 90 and 100mph, using no flaps and with a moderate amount of rudder required to keep the nose on the straight and narrow. RealAir have correctly captured the fact that the Merlin wants to swing the nose left and the Griffon right, but regardless of which engine is in front of you, if you open the throttle too quickly, even only to 8” boost, you’ll be going sideways very soon after you start moving. The art of flying an aircraft such of this is smoothness. It’s a graceful aircraft, try to fly the same way.

I won’t go through all the numbers here, they’re all in the freely downloadable manual anyway and the model flies to them without problems, so instead I’ll move on to one of the areas that the developers discuss in detail in the full manual – slipping and spinning.

Spinning these Spitfires is not actually that easy. The normal entry technique I was taught for GA aircraft, stalling the aircraft wings level and then crossing the controls with the stick pulled back, just results in a messy spiral dive, so I was forced back to the manual to read Rob Young’s instructions on how to do it properly, which is basically to leave the ailerons central and enter the spin using only the rudder. This seems to work better, but it still needs some control input to stay in the spin. Release everything and it will recover itself – you just have to break the stall and recover, exactly as the pilots’ quotes in the books I’ve read say it should.

Side slipping, on the other hand, really is easy and is a very useful method to lose altitude in a hurry should you do something stupid like blow up the engine (deliberately of course, as a test) at 6000’ over Reno-Stead and want to get down quickly. Simply crossing the stick and pedals in a controlled manner brings a prodigious rate of descent without gaining – in fact, if you are careful, losing – airspeed. It’s a lot easier to sideslip with Track IR than without because looking down the vector you will be following in a slip isn’t too easy with a hat switch, but again, it does work very well and gently bringing the controls back to centre and applying a little power will put you back on a forward path without any drama. If you over control in either slip entry or exit, you have to be careful because you can have quite dramatic speed changes, so be careful not to over speed the gear and flaps.

Landing the Spitfire is the most challenging part of a flight, although thankfully, in the sim, we don’t have to put these things down on bumpy, rutted, sodden grass strips like many RAF pilots did in World War II.

The two main problems are the long nose, which limits forward visibility massively at low speed and the narrow track main gear, which does make ground handling a bit tricky at times. The key at the start of a landing setup is another thing that this aircraft has got named after it – the curved ‘Spitfire approach’, allowing you to keep the airfield in sight the entire time. If you do end up on a long, slow, final, however, the key is to pick an object you can use as a reference, such as a building, hill, even a cloud on less windy days, and use that to keep yourself aligned with the runway as you descend. Another option, although not a recommended one, is to increase power and sideslip slightly down final, allowing you to see down the side of the nose. Whichever option you choose, you will need to round out and touch down gently, because these Spitfires do have a tendency to bounce. If you do bounce, hold a landing attitude and let the aircraft land again – certainly don’t pull back hard – you’ll just break the tail wheel – or slap on power, which will probably result in a crash. Once you are down, a little back pressure will hold the tail down while you slow using the brakes and taxiing is just a matter of taking it slowly. Turn too fast and you’ll be scraping a wingtip along the tarmac. In this package, both the Mk.IX and XIV versions are fitted with steerable tail wheels rather than free castoring – I’m not sure the IX was in the real world, my sources conflict, but it does make life easier in the sim.

Scenery

Again as with the FS9 version of the RAS Spitfire, this package comes with a small scenery of the wartime RAF West Malling, West of London in England, developed by scenery guru and occasional Screenshot Artist writer Bill Womack.

The scenery, again updated to FSX formats and standards, isn’t that large or complex, but what it lacks in size in makes up for in ambience and looks. The few buildings and the open-ended aircraft shelters that provided ground crews with a degree of protection from the elements while working on aircraft are all superbly reproduced. The textures are detailed and the hard runway – proof that this is a later war version, designed for the Mk.XIV rather than the Mk.IX Spitfire – uses a custom texture rather than the default ones. Unfortunately, there is an issue with the display of the custom runway texture in FSX prior to SP2, so a default runway texture can be selected using the Config Tool to resolve this. Another downside to the custom texturing is that if you use a different texture set than the default, the scenery can clash a little and stand out from the air. Bill has included textures that match the default ones provided by ACES so if, like me for instance, you use an alternative texture set to dispose of for the abysmal brown desert we get in winter, your textures will be green but your West Malling will be light tan. Even then, though, the blending is done superbly, so it’s of minor amusement and a navigation aid, rather than a big issue.

Whichever Spitfire I’m flying, or pretty much any other WW2 fighter for that matter, I almost always seem to find my flights starting at West Malling. One of the reasons for this is that you are not alone in the skies of Southern Britain. Again this isn’t a new feature, as it was incorporated in the previous West Malling for FS9, but an entire Squadron of “DW” coded Spitfire XIVs from 610 Squadron will accompany you, flying circuits and generally around in the local area. Although the AI models aren’t as complex as the flyable models, they are far from the ‘basic outlines’ that most AI comes as either. If nothing else, you’ll note very quickly that each aircraft has a different code letter on the side – the entire squadron is included individually.

Conclusion

Before this review was reallocated to me from a guest reviewer who, it turns out, is not a fan of FSX and as such wasn’t interested in the new pack, it was top of my “must have” list the day it was released. Actually, it was there before release, but until that day, I couldn’t have it anyway!

Now I have it, have flown it, spun it, crashed it, bounced it, landed it, poked and prodded it, in no way has the Spitfire package disappointed me. It is simply superb. Perfect? Possibly not, but then I’ve never seen anything that is. This package is pretty darned close.

I don’t seem to be the only person that likes it this much either. There are threads galore around the forums and comments everywhere in the ‘back channels’ of chat rooms and instant messengers about how much people like the package. Even those who have made comments about points of historical accuracy say that they are really enjoying it and a large number of repaints are already released or in the works. The documentation says that RealAir wanted to capture the “feel” of the aircraft more than anything else and I’d say they have succeeded in that goal.

As usual, I won’t sit here and say that any model is ‘an absolute must have’, simply because not everyone is interested in World War II fighters (there’s no FMC here, after all…) but if you are even the tiniest bit slightly tempted, then I would very seriously recommend this package. Yes, you have to learn its quirks, yes, it will bite if mishandled, yes, you have to hand fly it from brakes off to brakes on, but all of those are part of what puts it right at the top of the list when it comes to FSX add-ons.

Just as a little aside, when Mrs. P read the intro to this review, her response was that she really does expect me to be able to strip down and rebuild a Spitfire now. Anyone got an example I can borrow to practice on? Obviously, after maintenance, I’ll have to test fly it myself rather than risk anyone else’s life and limb!

Find out more about the Spitfire 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 (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.

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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